What Color Was Tekhelet?

Blue tzitzit and murex dye

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2013.—Ed.


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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.


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.



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


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  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

  4. 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.).

  5. 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.

  6. 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.”

  7. 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?

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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:
    For further discussions on the halakhic aspects of the reinstitution of tekhelet through the Murex trunculus see my book:

  12. Jo says

    Can tzitzits be attached to belt loops instead?

  13. ShLYCh says

    ThWDH BShM YHWH(thanks~in-name~YaHuWaH), your insight Tom is the only sound explanation of the TsiTsiYuTh regarding the snail dye dilemma that is sound in ThWRH.

  14. John says

    I honestly believe it sky blue, represents grace the Lord’s clour . The Gospel of grace and truth. Amen. This colour is coming back to the Jewish state of Israel. Grace is the sky blue colour

  15. Irving says

    Jo [comment 14] asked last year whether Tzitzit [Hebrew for “tassels” – not “fringes”!] can “be attached to belt loops instead?”.
    The Biblical commandment itself is quite helpful in addressing this issue. Numbers 15:37-38 states: “make Tzitzit on the corners of their garments … they shall attach to the Tzitzit at each corner a thread of Tekhelet”. Deut. 22:12 adds: “You shall make yourself tassels [Hebrew gedilim] on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself”.
    So a belt is excluded as it is not a four-cornered garment.

  16. elf says

    Thank you for the insightful information about Tzitzit. I never thought about the color blue in this way. I was a little surprised that the color comes from an unclean animal. Personally I don’t think anything that God has created is bad, only misunderstood.

  17. RadarRecon says

    Is a “belt loop” a “belt”? Of course not. The belt loop is an integral part of a garment, while a belt is sometimes considered an “accessory.”

    Are belt loops at the corners of a garment? Not many people are built so that they have square sides to have a square garment (trousers, pants) with belt loops at the corners. In the Western world, few people wear square garments, so belt loops might be considered at the “corners” of garments. Just as the world is not square, it is considered in the Bible to have four corners (Is. 11:12; Rev. 7:1).

  18. Ina says

    Harlow and Harrar’s Textbook of Dendrology (ninth ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

  19. David says

    The first mention of the “Chilazon” (?murex?) is in the first century CE tosefta. So the source is very post biblical. The other point that someone mentioned about the ancients not knowing how to modulate the color by using the sun is not a valid point. At some point someone would have left a bit of dye in the sun and noticed that the color changed. A bigger problem in my opinion is the fact that in the modern renaissance of tekhelet a reducing agent is used in the process. I doubt that this was available in ancient times.

  20. Kathy says

    I don’t think God is going to judge people by what color tassels they wore.
    His laws are to be written on our hearts. To love the Lord our God with all our minds, hearts and souls.
    It is good to use reminders to bring our thoughts constantly back to God. It isn’t meant to be a symbol of superiority over another (holier than thou attitude).
    It doesn’t help you or the world if you can recite all the laws but not live them in your heart.
    Just something to think about!

  21. Pekka says

    Many opinions here. According to my expriences it is good to know details of the Bible and tekhelet (without making it too big issue) because everything declare the glory of God! If that is done in love, then what’s the matter? Knowledge doesn’t hurt nor get anyone puffed-up if the knowledge is kept in it’s legitimate role as the servant of Love. I am a visual person and Biblical symbolism has always been very important part in worship. It was that too in the ancient Israel. Just see all the details in the Tabernacle and everything. They have meaning, teach about God and they matter a lot. Tekhelet too.

    While the article was inspirational and I respect it even if I don’t agree with it, and I repsepct everyone’s views here on the blue in tzitzit, I remind that the source of the true ultramarine blue in art was (and still is) lapis lazuli. The synthetic Frenc Ultramarine is not the same thing the greatests European artist used. What and earth art has to do with tekhelet? I believe even the history of greatest art has a clue. I will come to that later…

    But the original language and context in the Scripture is all in all. Right?

    In Exodus 24 it is said that the pavement under God’s feet is sapphire (“sappir” in Hebrew). Yes, the Hebrew word “sappir” sounds like the modern “sapphire” but I’ve learned that according to the historians what we know as the blue sapphire (gem) today was not known until the Roman era 300 BCE and the ultramarine deep blue lapis lazuli stone (which includes gold-colored pyrite), the “sappir” in the Hebrew Bible, was the “old sapphire”. Which was not a gem (as the modern sapphire) but semi-precious stone and was the source of the first (true) ultramarine blue hue in the whole world.

    I believe the ancient Biblical sappir was not the sapphire of today but lapis lazuli. According to history we have no other option than to believe this if the historians are correct. Additionally in Ezekiel 1:26 it is said that God’s throne is made of the same “sappir” as the sappir-pavement under God’s feet in Exodus 24. Again, in the Biblical context “sappir” is lapis lazuli. Not the modern blue sapphire-gem which was not known until the Roman era. History proves that.

    This same “old sapphire” lapis lazuli was also the second stone in the second row in the high priest’s breastplate (see “sappir” in Exodus 28).

    Lapis lazuli was also used in ancient Egypt very much in the royal and religious context. Why? I believe it was so because the Egyptians knew very well this deep blue stone had connection to the supernatural (YHVH-God). Well, the Egyptians had their perverted perspective of the “Divine”, but even the perversions could have some clues of the Truth I believe. At least I have learned this principle very well in astronomy which is originally Biblical = God / Messiah-centered, not occult / pagan = the devil / self-worship centered.

    Thirdly, the ancients thought that the deep ultramarine blue lapis lazuli reminds of the starry sky (because of the gold-colored pyrite in it as has been said). What a picture here in the Biblical sappir / lapis lazuli of the heavens / starry sky which declare the glory of YHVH-God (Psalm 19)! “The Heavens is my throne…” (Isaiah 66). We have Two Witnesses in the Scripture regarding God’s throne and the pavement under His feet being lapis lazuli, the ancient sappir-sapphire: Exodus 24 and Ez 1. If God’s throne is lapiz lazuli and the ancient Mesopotamians likened lapis lazuli with the (starry) sky, then IMHO the blue tekhelet-thread in tzitzit has to be lapis lazuli (the “primitive” ultramarine) too.

    Again, the true ultramarine in art was made of lapis lazuli stone. The original ultramarine is rare and expensive even today.

    Everything is connected in the Bible in a way or another: God’s throne and the (starry) sky even to the “four corners” of our garments with the ultramarine lapis blue (I believe). If God’s throne is made of the ultramarine lapis lazuli which has gold pyrite in it (together with blue, gold is a symbol of God’s glory too), the ancient Hebrew Sappir, then I don’t see any good reason to follow the rabbis or let any men have dominion on my Faith with the “sky blue” hue (what ever that is?), but use the true ultramarine-blue threads in my tzitzits which reminds me of Him and His Commandments, God’s throne and the pavement under His feet, and even the starry sky, the heavens!

    “Thus saith YHVH (the LORD), The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest?” (Isaiah 66:1)

    What a King we serve in His Sappir! Blessings from Finland.

  22. Sruly says

    Pekka thanks for ur insight
    The ramban the rikanta say clearly that the color is the last om the color spectrum this violet dark blue
    They compare it to what the kings wore and we know that wasn’t light blue
    PEKKA u said u go with the original color
    Im trying to get the untouched original color produced by the murex and i can’t get it only the ruined PUSALA omes from ptil tichelet

  23. Donna says

    The best illustration I saw of this dye process was on an episode of the Naked Archaeologist TV show. The cloth was put in the dye, and, I think, left in the sunlight. In the dye, it was nothing resembling blue. But as it was drawn out of the liquid, in the light, its color changed dramatically through green to blue; it stayed blue when it dried. To a modern, this would seem amazing. To an ancient person, this must have seemed to be divine. The secret of the technique was lost with the original craftsmen. This process was recently rediscovered by someone in Israel searching for this color. Was this the ancient process? We’ll probably never know. But, had it been, I could understand the importance of the resulting blue color, and its connection with holiness.

  24. Maria says

    Many of you are confused as to why YaHuWaH would use unclean creatures such as the “Tekelet Cerulean Mussel” (a shellfish) to make the Blue & Purple dye for the Temple Curtains as well as the Tziytzit (fringes) in Numbers 15:38.

    The confusion stems from the definition of the word “carcass” (spelled carcase in the King James Version) in Leviticus, the 11th chapter.

    There are four different Hebrew words for “carcase” in the Tanakh (Old Testament), but in Leviticus 11, the word “carcase” is #H5038 “nebelah,” which means “that which dies of itself.”

    We are commanded not to touch the carcase (an animal that dies of itself) of a clean or an unclean animal, because that animal could be diseased.

    However, the unclean animal that is killed for the purpose of making shoe leather, camel’s hair clothing, or dye for fabric, is not unclean for these purposes—they are only unclean for eating.

    We are prohibited from touching all animals (clean or unclean) if they die on their own or by another wild animal.

    However, all unclean animals are unclean for eating under all circumstances.

    In Exodus 13:13, YaHuWaH commands us to break the neck of a first-born donkey if he is not redeemed. In order to do this, one would have to touch the dead donkey’s body after he is killed. This is acceptable, because the donkey did not die of itself.

    Also, check out the graphics below for PROPHETIC INSIGHT as to why YaHuWaH has used this unclean creature for the blue & purple dye.

    Also see the blog entitled: Messiah Seen in the Tabernacle Colors: The Tekhelet & the Towla


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