Baruch and Judy Taubes Sterman Respond

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.

<< Back to Scholar's Study: The Great Tekhelet Debate

This tekhelet strings next to a stone of Lapis Lazuli, from, courtesy of Baruch and Judy Taubes Sterman.

Our colleague, Professor Zvi Koren, analyzed a 2,000-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
The tekhelet strings which our organization, The Ptil Tekhelet Foundation, produces maintain this lazuli-sky-blue color association as can be seen in the picture above. We will continue to manufacture what we are confident is authentic tekhelet; strings that are “True Blue.”



1 Roy Hoffman, “The Identity of Tekhelet: New Findings,” Bekhol Derakhekha Daehu (BDD) 27 (March 2013), pp. 7–28.
2 Wayne Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1998), pp. 9–11.

7 Responses

  1. Elie says:

    ישראל, שלום. אז אם לא היה להם אפשרות לייצר צבע כחול כמו אינדגו, אז איך זה הולך עם החז”ל שהיה אותו צבע? כלומר אתם אומרים שהחלזון חייב להיות משהו אחר מהמיורעקס סנייל, או שהוא המין הנכון, רק שפתיל תכלת לא מייצרים באופן הנכון ובאמת אמור להיות יותר סגול? א”כ צריך ליישב את הקושיא מצבע אינדגו. תודה

  2. ישראל לב says:

    אני לא מאמין עד כמה אנשים יכולים לרמות את עצמם, פרופסור צ. קורן הוא אדם מאד ישר, ובסה”כ הוא מסביר במאמרים שלו שגם אם פליניאוס לא תיאר במפורש צביעת יורה של חיזור-חמצון, זה היה אפשרי עם חומרים פרימטיביים שהיו ביימים ההם, אבל וכאן מגיע פרופ’ קורן לנקודת האמת -שכל הקדמונים צבעו בבורות אטומים או בכלי חרס אטומים שהיו חייבים להיות מכוסים כדי שהיורה לא תקבל חמצן, החמצן מונע מהיורה לעבור תהליך חיזור, ולא צריך שזה יהיה כתוב בשום מקום.
    אם היורה לא היתה מכוסה אז מוכרח שהם לא צבעו צבעי יורה אלא צביעה של צריבה, ואז לעולם הצבע לא יעבור תהליך דיברומינציה, ולעולם הצבע לא יהפוך לצבע כחול.
    והיות והצביעה היא מאד איטית בחומרים הפרימיטיביים לא שייך בשום פנים שהצבע יחשף לשמש בכמות מספיקה לתהליך דיברומינציה.
    חייבים לחשוף את היורה לשמש לפחות שעה וחצי בצביעה מודרנית כשהיורה עדין מחוזרת, אבל בחומרים פרימיטיבים צריך חשיפה לשמש כמה ימים כשהיורה עדין מחוזרת דבר שלא היה אפשרי.
    וכל מי שקורא קצת את המאמרים שלהם רואה שהם מנסים לשנות את המציאות, וגם ד”ר רוי הופמן מציין שהצבע שהצליח לייצר הוא רק כחול סגול

  3. Ann says:

    Re, the covering of the pot not in the ancient instructions. Well, the ancient cooking instructions rarely state what to them was obvious either. If all knew to cover something it would not be listed. Most ancient instructions were written by persons who knew what they were doing for their own reference. Would this not also be a likely reason for not mentioning to cover a dye pot during fermentation? Just asking.

  4. Rose says:

    The breastplate with it’s blue, purple, and scarlet, was designed by Moses for Aaron in Exodus 28 and is an exact description of the Egyptian breast pieces in use at that time. Made of Gold with lattice (translated as ‘chains’). We have 12 rows of stones arranged in 4 rows that repeat 3 times. All the Egyptian breast pieces have 12 rows of stones because (according to Herodotus) Egypt was divided among 12 kingdoms. This breast piece still today considered the Icon of the ancient world.

    Herodotus, Book 2, 147
    “Being set free after the reign of the priest of Hephaistos, the Egyptians, since they could not live any time without a king, set up over them twelve kings, having divided all Egypt into twelve parts.”

    As for the names carved in diamonds and emeralds (yea sure). Jewell stones in ancient Israel? Where? How about diamonds in Egypt? Nope, they prefered stones that could be worked. However there are many lists of kings carved in stones (as the Hebrew text actually says) and here’s one in a 3×4 matrix from Karnak (18th dynasty).

    Considering that everything which happened during the life of Moses parallels with the 18th Dynasty of Egypt, this is just another arrow in the quiver of Moses not being an individual but instead representing the entire 18th dynasty of Egypt. Aaron and Akhenaton both broke away from the back to worship the solar cow. Petra was a rock from which came water in the 18th dynasty, The Hyksos began their Exodus under Ahmosis at the start of the 18th dynasty, as well as the breast piece.

    Both breast pieces were contemporary with each other and both were only 200 miles apart. It’s obvious that any breast piece worthy of being recorded in scripture wasn’t the cheesy breast piece we see in the typical depictions of Moses. It’s a lame misinterpretation, or God hired amateur craftsmen.

    Obviously the ‘blue, purple and scarlet shown in the stones here are clearly the colors; Cyan, Purple and Red. ‘Blue’ in the Bible is light blue or Cyan.

    Icon of the world

    You’re kidding right?

  5. Tom Robbins 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.

  6. sruly says:

    kala ilon was the main ingredient used but that doesnt mean it was the only one!

  7. Moshe says:

    The Talmud equates tekhelet with “kla ilan”. The Aruch (11th century dictionary of Talmudic terms written by R. Nosson of Rome) identifies “kla ilan” as indigo. Thus,tekhelet is the same color as indigo. Indigo is the color of regular bkue jeans (before they fade).

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