Let’s clarify this from the get-go: There is no word in Classical Hebrew for the color “purple.” I repeat: There is no word in Classical Hebrew for the color “purple.” In fact, the English word purple itself does not necessarily even refer to what we call “purple” nowadays. That being said, there are three Hebrew words which have come to be associated with “purple” — argaman, segol, and lilach. In this essay we will show how argaman does not mean “purple” and is not, in fact, even a color, and how segol and lilach are Modern Hebrew neologisms that only recently came to mean “purple.”
The word argaman appears 38 times in the Bible. Additionally, the words argavan in Biblical Hebrew (II Chron. 2:6) and argavana in Biblical Aramaic (Dan. 5:7) are alternate forms of argaman, based on the interchangeability of the letters MEM and VAV. Moreover, argavana is also the Aramaic word used by the Targum to translate the Hebrew argaman. But what does the word argaman/argavan mean, and from where does this word come?
The root of argaman seems to be comprised of five letters: ALEPH-REISH-GIMMEL-MEM-NUN. When writing about four — (quadriliteral), or five — (pentaliteral) letter roots in Hebrew, Ibn Ezra asserts that such atypical words are either compound roots comprised of multiple roots fused together, or are loanwords borrowed from a language other than Hebrew. Indeed, scholars like Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899-1983) and Dr. Chaim Tawil see the Hebrew argaman as borrowed from the Akkadian argamannu. The famous American archeologist William Foxwell Albright (1891-1971) argued that the Hebrew word argaman cognates with similar Hittite and Ugaritic words that mean “tribute/offering,” and thus evoke argaman as an expensive dyed cloth that was often paid as tribute.
In detailing the laws of the Temple and its paraphernalia, Maimonides (Laws of Klei HaMikdash 8:13) writes that argaman refers to wool that was dyed red. In his commentary to the Mishna, Maimonides (to Kilayim 9:1) again defines argaman, this time using the Arabic word laca. Bartenuro (there) uses that same word, but also clarifies that argaman was wool dyed red. The word lac is actually also an English word and refers to a “red resin.” It comes up more often in the English terms shellac and lacquer, which refer to red coloring. Maimonides’ approach that argaman refers to something dyed red is echoed by later authorities, including his son Rabbi Avraham Maimuni (to Ex. 25:4), Rabbi Tanchum HaYerushalmi (to Dan. 5:7), and Torat HaMincha (Parshat Tetzaveh).
The Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 3:16, Bamidbar Rabbah 12:4) states that argaman resembles the gold of the kapporet, which was of a reddish hue (Yoma 45a). In fact, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829-1908) in Aruch HaShulchan HaAtid (Klei Hamikdash 28:12) adduces Maimonides’ position from this source.
Radak, in his Sefer HaShorashim, initially writes that argaman refers to crimson red, but then cites Rasag as explaining that tola’at shani refers to crimson red. He therefore concludes that argaman must refer to a different shade of red. Several Midrashic sources assert that argaman resembles fire, which points to the notion that argaman refers to something akin to the color orange (see Sifrei Zuta, Midrash HaGadol and Yalkut Midrashei Teiman to Num. 4:13, and Midrash Agur ch. 14). Several Yemenite sources, including Midrash Chefetz and Meor HaAfeilah (to Ex. 25:4) write that argaman refers to a yellowish-red, while tola’at shani refers to a strong red. So perhaps Radak would agree that argaman wasorange-colored. (After writing that argaman cannot refer to crimson but must be a different shade of red, Radak mentions those who explain argaman as lac.)
Explaining argaman as red does not preclude also explaining argaman as orange, for essentially orange is a shade of red (mixed with yellow). What is clear, though, is that none of these sources see argaman as a mixture of red and blue/green. This omission seems to obviate the notion that argaman refers to what we call “purple.” Moreover, all commentators agree that argaman does not actually denote a color, but rather refers to woolen fabric that was dyed a certain color. So even if argaman refers to purple, it does not refer to the color purple, but to wool that was dyed purple.
Maimonides’ famed interlocutor Rabbi Avraham ben David of Posquieres (1110-1180), also known as Raavad, disagrees with his position. Instead, he asserts that argaman refers to something comprised of two or three colors “woven” (arug) together. As Rabbi Yosef Kurkis (circa. 1540) and Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) clarify, Raavad understood the word argaman as a portmanteau of the triliteral root ALEPH-REISH-GIMMEL (like in arigah, “weaving/tapestry”) and the word min (“species/type”). Thus, he understood argaman as reflecting a sort of panoply of colors, not just one specific color.
The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 12:4) states that the term argaman alludes to the sun, who prepares (oreg, literally “weaves”) different forms of “sustenance” (manna). Alternatively, argaman is a reference to G-d, Who “weaves (oreg) together the world, so that each thing brings out its species (min), and one species will not mix with another.” Similarly, the Zohar in Idra Rabbah (141b) seems to understand that argaman refers to a hue of red that includes other shades as well (see also Zohar Terumah 139a).
Rashi (to Psalms 68:28), basing himself on Machberet Menachem, seems to explain that argaman is derived from the triliteral root REISH-GIMMEL-MEM, which usually means “gathering” or “stoning somebody to death.” As Rashi explains it, that root is, in turn, related to the root REISH-KUF-MEM (possibly via the interchangeability of KUF and GIMMEL), which usually refers to “embroidery.” Although Rashi does not explicitly make this point, the common denominator between all the meanings of REISH-KUF-MEM and REISH-GIMMEL-MEM is that they refer to gathering things together — be they multiple stones to kill a person or multiple threads to produce needlework. This perhaps suggests that Rashi follows Raavad’s understanding of argaman as consisting of multiple shades joined together.
Like Rashi, Ibn Ezra (to Proverbs 26:8) also seems to understand argaman as a derivative of the root REISH-GIMMEL-MEM, but he explains that root as referring to “exalted” things, with argaman thus seemingly referring to an “exalted” sort of dyed fabric.
Ohalei Yehuda sees the word argaman as a portmanteau of oreg (“weaving”) and manah (“respectable portion”) in reference to argaman being considered an important type of clothing in the ancient world. Alternatively, he prefers the understanding that argaman derives from argavan, which is comprised of the roots ALEPH-VAV-REISH (“light”) and GIMMEL-VAV-NUN (“color/appearance”), in allusion to the bright color that argaman denotes. I similarly propose that argavan could be seen as a contraction of ALEPH-REISH-GIMMEL (“weaving”) and GIMMEL-VAV-NUN (“color/appearance”), with the middle letter GIMMEL related to both etymons.
Even though Raavad, Rashi, and the others do not explicitly identify argaman as red, that does still seem to be their understanding. However, they seem to understand that argaman includes multiple shades of red. Indeed, Professor Athalya Brenner-Idan sees argaman as a general term that includes various shades of red that range from pink all the way to violet/dark purple. She supports this position by noting that the Temple Scroll (found within the DSS) uses the expression argaman adom (“red argaman“), implying that the term argaman alone can also include shades that are not typically understood as strictly “red.”
There are some cases in which it is fairly clear that argaman does not refer to purple. For example, Rashi (to Song of Songs 7:6) implies that argaman is a color that is sometimes found in women’s hair. Yet, as Professor Brenner-Idan first pointed out, it is dissatisfactory to understand argaman as referring to purple in that case, because no natural hair is purple-colored. In that particular instance, she supposes that perhaps argaman does not refer to a specific color, but serves as a stand-in for any expensive or rare item. See also Targum Onkelos (to Gen. 49:11) and Rashi (there) who write that argaman resembles the color of wine, which again seemingly precludes argaman as referring to “purple.”
That said, the Septuagint consistently translates argaman into Greek as porphyra, which is the antecedent of the Latin purpura, and, ultimately, the Old English word purpure. The Modern English word purple derives from those earlier words, butdid not always refer exclusively to the red-blue combination with which most English speakers are now familiar. Rather, in several languages the word purple means “red,” and the word for what we call “purple” is actually violet. The same was true in English until relatively recently. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary offers the following alternate definition for the word purple: “Formerly: of any generally red shade; (now) of a deep, rich shade intermediate between crimson and violet.” Thus, when we hear the word argaman translated into purple, this is not necessarily what we call “purple,” but rather a generic type of red.
The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 12:4) states that argaman is the most esteemed of the different fabrics used in the Tabernacle and Temple because it represents the garments used by royalty. In many other Midrashic sources, the word used for royal clothes is purpira. For instance, the Midrash (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 50) writes about Mordecai that just as the king wore pupira, so did Mordecai wear purpira. We also know from various Greco-Roman historians that Tyrian purple was a controlled commodity that was typically only made available to the royal family. However, just because the Greek word we are discussing is a cognate of the Modern English word purple, this does not mean that the actual color of the clothes in question was really what we call “purple.”
In 1894, Yechiel Michel Pines introduced a new word for “purple”: segol. This word seems to be influenced by the English word violet, which was originally the name of a purple-colored flower, and then became the word for the color itself. The Talmud (Brachot 43b, Shabbat 50b) mentions a plant called a siglei, which Rashi (there) explains is a reference to the three-petal “violet” flower.
Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein suggests that the name siglei derives from the Aramaic word sigla (“cluster of grapes”), probably because the formation and color of grapes on a cluster resembles the formation and color of the violet flower. I would further argue that perhaps the Aramaic word sigla itself derives from the Hebrew word eshkol due to the interchangeability of SHIN and SAMECH, as well as KAF and GIMMEL. We find, in fact, that Targum Yerushalmi typically translates the Hebrew word eshkol into the Aramaic sigla. Interestingly, Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1468-1549) in Meturgaman notes that sigla also lends its name to the vowelization symbol segol, which is comprised of three dots in a cluster-shaped formation.
Another Modern Hebrew term for the color “purple” is lilach. Just like segol primarily refers to the violet flower and was later extended to refer to the color of said flower, so too was lilach (literally, “lilac”) a term originally used from the lilac flower that was later extended to the color of said flower. The same is true of the Modern Hebrew words for “lavender” and “mauve,” which are also recognized by the Academy of the Hebrew Language as different words for “purple.”
For more information about the meaning of argaman, see Kuntres Merkavo Argaman by Rabbi Yisrael Rosenberg of Lakewood. Many of the ideas and sources discussed in this essay were inspired by that work.