In the Archaeological Views column “The Great Tekhelet Debate—Blue or Purple?” (BAR, September/October 2013) Baruch and Judy Taubes Sterman of the Jerusalem-based Ptil Tekhelet Foundation suggest that God’s chosen color for the ancient Israelites was a sky-blue derived from murex dye. In a letter to BAS, 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, criticized the Stermans’ analysis. Baruch and Judy Taubes Sterman respond below.
Our colleague, Professor Zvi Koren, analyzed a 2000 year old textile found by Yigal Yadin on Masada and conclusively demonstrated that this blue-purple fragment was in fact dyed with murex snail dye. To claim that this item was ritual tekhelet at all, however, and moreover that all tekhelet had to have been this same shade, well, that’s a horse of a different color.
Koren’s work (much of which we detail in our book), confirms the well-known fact that the ancients were able to produce a blue-purple hue from the murex. The provenance of the Masada fragment, however, is a matter of pure speculation. There is of course no way of telling where this bit of material came from. There is no scientific or archeological evidence, neither from the context nor from the chemical analysis, to suggest that it was used in any ritual capacity or, for that matter that it was even of Jewish rather than Roman origin.
As to Koren’s other points: Although Rashi does write that tekhelet is “yarok,” he also clearly states, as we cited, that it is “the color of the sky as it darkens towards evening.” (In the name of correcting “various inaccuracies” Koren might want to double check his sources. Although not particularly pertinent to the discussion, these are, in fact, Rashi’s own words and NOT, as Koren insists, an attribution to Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan, whom Rashi quotes in an earlier gloss on the same verse but in a different context altogether). However, the predominant opinion within Jewish tradition maintains that Tekhelet is sky-blue: Saadia (living in the 9th century – not long after the disappearance of the Tekhelet industry), interprets the word tekhelet as asma’ngon (which is definitively translated by R’ Kapakh as “the color of the clear sky”), as does the great legal codifier Maimonides. The three modern giants in the field, Rabbis Israel Lipschitz, Gershon Henokh Leiner and Isaac Halevi Herzog, all reject the notion that tekhelet had any violet hue. In Herzog’s conclusive words, Tekhelet is “himmel blau,” or sky-blue. Furthermore, the Talmud itself is clear in its absolute identification of Tekhelet with indigo or woad dyed wool, that is, sky-blue.
Click here to visit the BAS Scholar’s Study: The Great Tekhelet Debate page, including Koren’s letter.
Koren claims that in antiquity tekhelet fermentation vats required anaerobic conditions and would therefore have had to be isolated from air and light, in other words covered with a lid. But if covering the vats was such a crucial part of the process, it is strange that none of the ancient recipes such as those recorded by Pliny or in the Talmud mention that requirement. Additionally, the fermentation could have taken place over the many days required with limited exposure to air–but only a few minutes of sunlight are needed after the fermentation has occurred in order to get the blue color. Koren further implies that there is no way to achieve a sky-blue color from murex dye without modern chemicals. At least two independent researchers have disproved this assertion. In our book we describe the work of John Edmonds, who discovered the bacterial fermentation process in murex dyes and who did indeed produce blue-colored wool using only ingredients and methods available to the ancients. Dr. Roy Hoffman of the Hebrew University did so as well, and meticulously documented the process in his article, “The Identity of Tekhelet: New Findings.”1 The use of modern chemicals to manufacture blue murex dye is largely a matter of expediency; forty-day-old urine, as called for in the ancient recipes, is not the most convenient ingredient nowadays.
Traces of other dye molecules will always be present no matter how long the vat is exposed to light, but when these are on the order of parts per million (though of immense interest to the archaeochemist) they are inconsequential in terms of visual perception.
Lastly, what color is lapis lazuli? Color terminology, as we are well aware, is inevitably somewhat vague and subjective, and the term sky-blue that Koren finds vague is no more vague than his own sea-blue, or midnight-blue. Dictionaries typically define lapis lazuli as a rich or deep sky-blue color, and the word azure, generally defined as sky-blue, derives etymologically from lazuli. Koren, however, chooses to describe it as a “dark blue-purple stone,” the color of “the clear sky at midnight.” But what matters most is not what dictionaries write (or what Prof. Koren says in his lectures), but rather what the ancient Mesopotamians thought. Their terms for blue, lapis lazuli, sky, and takiltu (tekhelet) point to a perceived color equivalency. In their literature, for example, the Middle Heavens, visible from the earth’s surface as our sky, were composed of saggilmud-stone, which is equated with lapis lazuli.2
1 “The Identity of Tekhelet: New Findings.” Bekhol Derakhekha Daehu (BDD) 27, March 2013, pp. 7-28.
2 Wayne Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography, Eisenbrauns 1998, pp. 9-11.