A Brief History on the Rediscovery of Techeiles

(Courtesy, Rabbi David Lapin)

Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a Psil Techeiles on each corner. (Bamidbar 15:38)

Tzitzis, from Rashi and other commentators, is related to the Hebrew word metzitz, or “to peer,” as from Shir HaShirim, “metzitz min hacharakim” – “peering through the latticework.” This comes right after the Chet Hameraglim, where the spies instilled in Klal Yisrael the notion that they’re like grasshoppers, and therefore couldn’t conquer Canaan. Tzitzis with Techeiles should instill Yiras Shomayim, and make one realize that, being connected with Hashem, one is much higher than a grasshopper, able to conquer anything with Hashem’s help. The Techeiles color doesn’t only resemble the sea, sky and Kiseh HaKavod. This special wool covered the holiest objects in the Mishkan, being physical beauty covering spiritual beauty. Earlier in Kedoshim (Vayikra 19-2) it states “Be holy because I Hashem am holy.” Techeiles reminds us to continue to be so.

Techeiles was worn by Jews after the Bayis Sheni, but gradually became lost. In 529 CE, Byzantine Emperor Justinian issued strict edicts outlawing commoners to own and produce “purpura” goods, guaranteeing that if caught, one would get killed. Once a colorfast Kala Ilan indigo method was perfected, the royalty no longer needed Techeiles, and they soon forgot how to make it. In 639 the Arab conquest of Israel, and the destruction of dyehouses, ended the snail source dyeing industry in Israel. The Midrash Tanchuma in 750 laments, “and now we have no Techeiles, only white.”

In the 19th century the following happened which initiated the Techeiles search. In 1832, Venetian pharmacist Bartolomeo Bizio discovered the shellfish Chilazon source of the dye as banded dye-Murex (a.k.a. Hexaplex trunculus). In 1858, zoologist Henri de Lacaze-Duthiers observed  a fisherman on a coast in Spain breaking open a sea-snail’s shell and covering his shirt with its yellowish contents, gradually changing to purple.

Also in 1858, German Rabbi Ludwig Lewysohn proposed in his book, “Talmudic Zoology” that the Chilazon was the cuttlefish, based on his understanding of the Rambam. Not long after, the Radzyner Rebbe, R’ Gershon Henoch Leiner came to the same conclusion based on 10 vague signs from Chazal, and after publishing his findings in his book Sefunei Temunei Chol, visited Naples, Italy to search for the Chilazon among aquatic sea life. It was there that he confirmed his findings, and soon started producing many sets of Radzyn Techeiles.  Many Radzyner and Breslov Chassidim happily wore it to fulfill the Mitzvah. However, it was met with considerable opposition, reaching a point where in Jerusalem, someone’s Tallis Gadol with Radzyner Techeiles was burned!

The common cuttlefish. Creative commons license.

Before World War I, R’ Yitzchok Isaac Halevi Herzog attempted to reconstruct the Radzyn Techeiles. R’ Yehoshua Meir Keitelgisser, a Radzyn Gabbai, mailed him a letter detailing the Techeiles ingredients and recipe, as well as wool samples. R’ Herzog then sent the wool to dye chemists in Germany, France and England. They responded that the solution was Prussian Blue, a cyanide (nitrogen and carbon) salt of iron. The cuttlefish ink acts as a protein source, upon raising the heating temperature enough, gets completely burned off, leaving the nitrogen. However, nitrogen can also be obtained from other organic sources like potassium cyanide, or even ox blood!

Courtesy: I. Ziderman, in The Royal Purple and the Biblical Blue

Beside certain marine snails having unique dyeing capabilities, many Gedolim write that Chilazon means snail. R’ Herzog wrote a doctoral thesis on Hebrew Porphyrology in 1913, selecting two snail candidates. His initial candidate was the Murex trunculus and his latter was Janthina. While he preferred the Murex, it could produce violet and only sometimes blue. His problem was with traditions that a) the Chilazon comes up once in 70 years, and b) its shell resembles the color of the sea! He therefore turned to the Janthina, which has a blueish shell, and fish-like properties where it swims using air bubbles. Also, it produces a blueish dye, but researchers advised him that this dye shortly turns to brown.

Janthina snail washed ashore. Creative commons license.

In 1969, editors of the Talmudic Encyclopedia approached Jerusalem biochemist Dr. Israel Ziderman, to summarize Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog’s doctoral thesis. His interest piqued, in the 1970’s he approached a leading ecologist at Haifa University for live snail specimens. And successfully researched generating bluish violet colors. Dr. Ziderman’s view is that Techeiles is primarily a precious commodity. Therefore, “blue-violet” makes sense as these were colors of royalty. He also maintains hyacinth to be the primary color of Techeiles, similar to the Greek septuagint translation “yakinthos.”

The standard color spectrum shows blue as both a shade of purple and green. Public Domain Image, source: Christopher S. Baird.

Many traditionalists still believed the color was pure blue. In 1980, Professor Otto Elsner performed a Murex dye experiment using sunlight. The UV rays of the light removed the two bromine atoms of dibromoindigo and left indigo, the exact molecule as plant-based Kala Ilan. Shortly after, the process and means to get the snails improved where some, starting with the group that would found Ptil Tekhelet, began wearing Murex Techeiles on their Tzitzis. Ptil Tekhelet in turn now mass-produces Techeiles for one to perform the Mitzvah. It’s taken time for the Jewish world to adapt, but today, over 250,000 pairs of Tzitzis dyed with Murex Techeiles are worn by all kinds of frum Jews today, including many Rabbonim.

Murex Trunculus snails. Photo credit: Stephen Epstein

More recently, Dr. Ziderman proved that the violet shade of monobromo indigo, the main molecule in fresh Techeiles, becomes blue – without removing the bromine atom. He further demonstrated that the above two characteristics of the Chilazon preventing Rabbi Herzog from endorsing Murex as the Techeiles Chilazon, are exhibited by this sea creature.

Techeiles is special in that not only does the color resemble the sea, sky and Kiseh HaKavod, but this wool was used to cover the holiest objects in the Mishkan. It’s an exciting Mitzvah which has returned to Klal Yisrael, and perhaps is a sign that all other Mitzvos that have been taken from us will one day be returned as well.

Special thanks to Dr. Israel Ziderman, Dr. Baruch Sterman, and R’ Yisroel Barkin for taking time out of their schedules to issue corrections and guidance on this piece.

This piece originally appeared on The Jewish Vues issue, dated June 17-23, 2020 in honor of Parshas Shlach.

P.S.: upon further reflection I would have liked to have added that murex purple dying went as late as 1459 until the Siege of Constantinople, as well as that the royalty forbidding blue and purple “purpura products” until the Victorian era of 1558-1603. Due to space constraints though, this wasn’t feasible.

About the Author
Rafi Hecht has over 15 years experience in I.T., and as both a Digital Marketer and Web Programmer. Rafi has a B.S. in Management/Information Systems from the Lander College for Men as well as a M.S. in Information Systems at Stevens Institute of Technology. He also blogs at "My Western Wall" and is a Techeiles enthusiast at Blue Fringes.
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