What Color Was Tekhelet?

Blue tzitzit and murex dye

Do the blue tzitzit strings of this traditional Jewish prayer shawl reflect the shade of blue in the Bible, called tekhelet in Hebrew? Evidence suggests the tekhelet that colored ancient blue tzitzit was sky-blue and derived from murex dye.

In the Bible, a shade of blue called tekhelet was God’s chosen color for the ancient Israelites. Tekhelet drapes adorned Solomon’s Temple, and tekhelet robes were worn by Israel’s high priests. According to Baruch and Judy Taubes Sterman in “The Great Tekhelet Debate—Blue or Purple?” in the September/October 2013 issue of BAR, even ordinary Israelites “were commanded to tie one string of tekhelet to the corner fringes (Hebrew, tzitzit) of their garments as a constant reminder of their special relationship with God” (Numbers 15:38–39). The tradition of blue tzitzit still exists today.

But what was the actual color of ancient tekhelet and blue tzitzit? Was it a shade of blue or was it closer to purple? Blue tzitzit and tekhelet-colored fabrics were widely worn and traded throughout the ancient Mediterranean, but by the Roman period, only the emperor could wear tekhelet. By the seventh century C.E., with the Islamic conquest of the Levant, the tekhelet’s source and method of manufacture were lost.

A century ago, Isaac Herzog, who would later become Israel’s first chief rabbi, researched tekhelet for his dissertation. He concluded that blue in the Bible was a bright sky-blue derived from the secretions of a sea snail, Murex trunculus.* This species was known to produce a murex dye the color of dark purple. Decades after Herzog’s death, chemist Otto Elsner proved that murex dye could in fact produce a sky-blue color by exposing the snail secretions to ultraviolet rays during the dyeing process. Sky-blue tzitzit, then, could be made with murex dye.
 


 
In the BAS DVD God’s Images in the Prophetic Books, Professor Julia M. O’Brien presents several engaging lectures about the many images of God found explicitly and implicitly in the prophetic books of the Old Testament, exploring them in their ancient Near Eastern context. Learn More.
 

 
Despite Elsner’s discovery, the debate around the color of tekhelet continued. Dissenters argued that the ancient dyers, who created dyes in covered vats, likely didn’t know how to adjust the dye colors using the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Eleventh-century Biblical exegete Rashi described tekhelet as a deep blue or dark violet. A violet swatch of wool discovered during excavations at the first-century Herodian fortress of Masada was proven to have been colored by murex dye.

However, important evidence persuasively suggest that Biblical tekhelet was in fact sky-blue. Assyriologist Wayne Horowitz explains that the Sumerian word uqnu, the word for the gem lapis lazuli, was used for the color blue and its shades. The term was applied to the sky and to blue wool (uqnatu). When the foreign word takiltu, Hebrew tekhelet, was adopted into Akkadian, the same cuneiform signs as uqnatu were used. To the ancient Mesopotamians, therefore, the color of lapis lazuli and the sky were equivalent to the color of tekhelet.

So what was the color of Biblical tekhelet? The Jerusalem-based Ptil Tekhelet Foundation believes it was sky-blue derived from the murex dye. For over 25 years, this foundation has produced hundreds of thousands of blue tzitzit strings colored with murex dye. The blue tzitzit on Jewish prayer shawls remind worshipers of the sea, the sky and God’s holy throne.
 


 
In a letter to BAR, Professor Zvi C. Koren, director of the Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artifacts at the Shenker College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan, Israel, criticizes the Stermans’ analysis, to which the Stermans have replied. Visit the BAS Scholar’s Study: The Great Tekhelet Debate page today.
 

 
BAS Library Members: read the full article on ancient tekhelet by Baruch and Judy Taubes Sterman in Archaeological Views, “The Great Tekhelet Debate—Blue or Purple?” as it appears in the September/October 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

 


 

Notes

* See Ari Greenspan, “The Search for Biblical Blue,” Bible Review, February 2003.

Posted in Ancient Cultures.

Tagged with , , .

Add Your Comments

17 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. CD says

    Ultraviolent? Perhaps that should be ultraviolet?

  2. Robin says

    Thank you–the correction has been made.

  3. CD says

    Next paragraph too.

  4. Kathryn says

    Lapis Lazuli is not sky-blue but closer the color that used to be called Prussian blue, so dark it’s almost purple.

  5. john says

    you have to look at the total range of color words in the languages involved. Latin, for example, has a very poor color vocabulary, and one term describes several that we distinguish. Was this also true in Sumerian and Hebrew, etc?

  6. Helmuth says

    Laspis Lazuli is very close to our day Ultramarine Blue. The deepest shade is also called Fra Angelico blue. Best samples come from Afghanistan. Nothing even close to Prussian blue….which is still called Prussian blue today.

  7. Itai says

    A small correction: the tchelet tradition does NOT still exist in Judaism. The tradition died out in the 7th century together with the colors production. The tradition has been revived fairly recently, base on scientific investigation. There are 3 theories that have gained support, R. Herzog’s being the least popular (in fact I’m not sure if anyone goes by that theory at all). Most of the Jewish world does not wear tchelet, because there isn’t a tradition that could be relied upon, only “theories”. That is also because it is forbbiden to die the tzitzit in a die that isn’t the real tchelet, even if it looks the same (that could be compared to using fake diamonds, gold etc.).

  8. Chaim says

    Correction: I know that it has become popular to ascribe to Chief Rabbi Herzog the view that he identified tchelet with the dye of the Murex trunculus. If one reads his dissertation as well as his series of articles in the Journal Ha-Hed, (1932 & 1935) one will find that this is totally false. His theory was to identify it with the dye extracted from a different molusk –Janthina.

  9. David says

    From what I can see, there is only this one word to describe “blue” in the Bible. Everyone admits that no one knows what the word specifically means. The question I have is, why is everyone convinced that t’kheiletth refers to a source and not a color? Also, what in the world is “sky blue”? The sky can produce virtually every color imaginable, and the blues can vary significantly…except for the color of lapis lazuli. I’ve never seen the sky that deeply brilliant. Based on this article, my conclusion is…no one has a foggy idea what is what. I think it is actually pretty likely that the word just means BLUE…no particular shade and no particular source, especially since YHWH didn’t see fit to leave those specifics in our record.

    The tsiytsitth I wear have three shades of blue. YHWH having given a command to wear t’kheiletth in our tassels, I think YHWH will look more favorably on those who can say “I wasn’t exactly sure what You expected, so I did the best I could,” as opposed to those with just white tassels who say “I wasn’t exactly sure what You expected, so I did nothing at all.”

  10. Emmet says

    Awesome answer David! That is Truth. Even blue dye changes shade over time. Shapphires come in every shade and the are still shapphires. The sky is blue light in the day Dark blue at dusk. The point is How the blue was tried and tested. The snails crushed by 3 million at the crossing of the Red Sea. The Torah given to Moshe was said to Sapphire why because the stone/Law under intense fire produces sapphire. His word tried and True. The Tekhelet is to be tied with the number of the letters of his name. It must be blue. Since the rest of the fringe represent his word the Blue represents his name being tested and true. Ever heard of the term True Blue?

  11. Herschel says

    David’s insightful comment on what YHWH would look upon more favorably in the matter of tassels reminds me of Jesus’s parable of the servants to whom a master entrusted his riches. The one who was afraid to risk the master’s money was denounced.

  12. Tom says

    I have trouble believing that an unclean animal was (and apparently still is) used to obtain a dye for manufacturing one of Yahweh’s Commandments (tsitsith).
    Leviticus Chapter 11 clearly outlines what creatures are clean and which are unclean. Snails are among the unclean. One could have a pet snail while it is still alive, but the unclean creatures’ carcasses are not to be touched, they are abhorrent and detestable. As I understand it, the snails are crushed (killed), producing carcasses in the process of squeezing out a drop of blue dye to be collected. Isn’t this dye (part of the guts?) essentially part of the carcass?
    Lev. 11:10 “But whatever is in the seas and in the rivers, that do not have fins and scales among all the teeming life of the water, and among all the living creatures that are in the water, they are detestable things to you,
    11 and they shall be abhorrent to you; you may not eat of their flesh, and their carcasses you shall detest.
    12 ‘Whatever in the water does not have fins and scales is abhorrent to you.
    35 ‘Everything, moreover, on which part of their carcass may fall becomes unclean; an oven or a stove shall be smashed; they are unclean and shall continue as unclean to you.”
    Using and wearing part of a snails carcass is almost as bad as making a Bible cover out of pig skin, and saying that it doesn’t matter (Bible covers that are Berkshire Leather are described by Ingram Publishing as “High-quality pigskin…”, the same as well for their “Genuine Leather” Bible covers, they are made from the swine’s skin).
    I am reminded of the abominable act of Antiochus IV Epiphanes slaughtering a pig on the Altar in the Temple at Jerusalem, thereby defiling the whole place! Detestable!
    Please convince me that I am wrong about the dye. Meanwhile, I will continue to wear tsitsiths that are made with regular blue dyed strings purchased from the local stores.

  13. Kurt says

    In this regard, consider another of Jehovah’s laws to ancient Israel. Many today might find a law about putting fringes and blue threads on their garments hard to understand. (Read Numbers 15:37-39.) Do you see the relevance, though? Obeying such a law helped God’s people to keep themselves distinct and separate from the pagan nations around them. That was vital if they were to gain and maintain Jehovah’s approval. (Lev. 18:24, 25) However, that law also reveals a dangerous internal influence that might lead us away from our destination of everlasting life. How so?
    Note what Jehovah gave his people as a reason behind this law: “You must not go about following your hearts and your eyes, which you are following in immoral intercourse.” Jehovah has profound insight into human nature. He well knows how easily our heart, or inner self, is seduced by what we take in through our eyes. The Bible thus warns us: “The heart is more treacherous than anything else and is desperate. Who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9) Do you see, then, just how fitting was Jehovah’s warning to the Israelites? He well knew that they would be inclined to look at the pagan peoples around them and be seduced by what they saw. They might be tempted to look like those unbelievers and then to think, feel, and act like them.—Prov. 13:20.
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/2011523#h=12:383-13:745
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/2003523#h=19:0-19:605
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200001224#h=23:0-23:379

  14. Mois says

    To Tom (post #14),
    Your point about employing kosher substances for ritual uses is a very important one. I invite you to read my in-depth analysis of this issue, which shows unambiguously that kosher substances are required only for things with God’s name in them (Torah, Tefillin, Mezuza) – see:
    http://www.divreinavon.com/pdf/Mutar_Beficha.pdf
    For further discussions on the halakhic aspects of the reinstitution of tekhelet through the Murex trunculus see my book:
    https://www.createspace.com/4597533

  15. Jo says

    Can tzitzits be attached to belt loops instead?


Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.


Enter Your Log In Credentials

Change Password

×