Mois Navon

Terumah: Tekhelet is a color whose time has come

The history of the Jewish people is a chronicle of endeavor –- the endeavor for purpose, the endeavor to perfect the world. So concludes the daily liturgy with what might rightly be called our mission statement: l’taken olam b’malchut shadai –- to perfect the world in the name of God. This endeavor has not been without its difficulties, whereby the pursuit to perfect became simply the struggle to survive. But as Nietzsche wrote, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” It is Jewish purposiveness that has kept us not only alive but at the forefront of the endeavor to make the world a better place.

The goal of perfecting the world is brought to consummation in the form of a Temple –- a dwelling place for God on earth (Pesikta Rabbati 6). Now clearly the notion of a “house” for God is an absurdity, as King Solomon said upon completing the first Temple: “But will God in very truth dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee; how much less this house that I have built” (Kings-I 8:27). The purpose is surely not to “house” God, but rather, as explains Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel (Ex. 25), to provide a vibrant symbol that the infinite God is involved in the finite world.

But there is more to this symbol of divine providence. For while God is involved in the world, He has, at the same time, entrusted to man the task of perfecting the world. Perfection is achieved when man chooses to live according to God’s morality. The Temple, then, is not merely a symbol that God is involved, but a symbol that man has involved God by accepting His moral authority, that man has made a place for God.

Parshat Terumah introduces the Temple as follows:

Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering … gold, and silver, and brass; and tekhelet, and argaman, and tolaat-shani, and fine linen, and goats’ hair; and rams’ skins dyed red, and sealskins, and acacia-wood; oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil, and for the sweet incense; onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the ephod, and for the breastplate. And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. (Exodus 25)

To these specifications the Jews built a movable temple (the Tabernacle, or Mishkan) in the desert, and to these specifications the Jews twice built the Temple in Jerusalem, and to these specifications the Jews are to build the Third Temple in its original location. The road to fulfilling this lofty goal, however, is fraught with obstacles ranging from acquisition of the location to the obtaining of the materials. Historically, with the Jewish people exiled around the globe, attainment of this objective took on the ethereal form of dream and prayer.

'Blue like the sea, the sky and God’s throne of glory' (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Blue like the sea, the sky and God’s throne of glory’ (photo credit: Ptil Tekhlet)

In the 1800s, however, inspired by close to two millennia of dreams and prayers, the Jewish mission statement began to materialize. Well known are the efforts of the early Zionists to return to the Land of Israel, which included, at least for some, the restoration of the Temple (see Drishat Zion). Less known are the efforts to acquire the materials necessary to build the Temple as specified in Exodus 25. Now, while obtaining most of the materials posed little difficulty, this was not true for the three dyestuffs (tekhelet, argaman and tolaat-shani), which come from creatures whose identity had long been lost.

Of the three dyes, tekhelet stood as the most elusive and the most portentous, for tekhelet is not merely one of the colors of the Temple but much more. Rabbi Meir explains in the Talmud that tekhelet is differentiated from all other colors in that tekhelet is blue like the sea, the sky and God’s throne of glory. God’s throne of glory, explains Hatam Sofer (Hullin 89a), is nothing other than the Temple itself. As such, tekhelet is not just an indispensable material of the Temple; it is, as it were, the very color of the Temple.

It was with this sense of significance that Gershon Hanokh Leiner -– the Radzyner Rebbi –- embarked on a holy quest for the “hillazon” — the source of tekhelet. In 1888 his quest brought him to the great aquarium in Naples where he identified a cuttlefish as the long lost hillazon, declaring: “With the help God it has come to my hands to extract, from the blood [of the cuttlefish which is] black as ink, the color tekhelet in a manner which nothing affects the color other than the blood of the hillazon; and the chemical additives are colorless and only work to extract the [blue] color from the blood” (Ptil Tekhelet, p.168). Unfortunately, the chemists of his day had deceived him, for subsequent chemical analysis identified his dye as Prussian blue, the color of which derives from the chemicals, not the cuttlefish.

The quest for tekhelet continued with Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, who in 1913 researched the subject toward his doctoral dissertation. He named a mollusk (Murex trunculus) to be the most likely candidate for the hillazon, yet writes with frustration that the color is at times blue and at times purple. His quandary was resolved in 1985 when professor Otto Elsner of the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design discovered that exposing the dye solution to sunlight consistently produces an unadulterated blue.

Of import is that Murex trunculus blue is not just any blue but a very specific hue of blue. This hue corresponds, with uncanny precision, to an obscure Talmudic passage that explains that only God can distinguish between the blue of tekhelet and that of the ubiquitous vegetable dye known as indigo (Baba Metzia 61b). Amazingly, the blue dye obtained from the plant source is not only visually indistinguishable but molecularly equivalent to the dye obtained from the Murex trunculus –- so indeed, only God can distinguish between them.

This is but one of many criteria that establish the Murex trunculus as the authentic hillazon. With the source of tekhelet found, all the materials of the Temple stand ready, and with the Jewish people returned to their land, all that remains is that we make that place for God. This, however, is dependent not only on the physical aspects of the Temple but, more importantly, on its spiritual underpinnings, as God told King Solomon:

As for this house which thou art building, if thou wilt walk in My statutes, and execute Mine ordinances, and keep all My commandments to walk in them; then will I establish My word with thee, which I spoke unto David thy father; in that I will dwell therein among the children of Israel, and will not forsake My people Israel. (Kings-I 6)

Just as we have endeavored to make that place for God physically, we must endeavor to make that place by walking in His way. Only then will the time come to build the Temple. The Temple is far more than just a building composed of the right materials in the right location -– it also requires the right time.

And as surely as the Temple is much more than a building, tekhelet is much more than a dyestuff. The word tekhelet is rooted in the word takhlit, purpose. As such, tekhelet is the color of purpose. Tekhelet is the color of the Jewish people in their endeavor to perfect the world –- to make a place for God. Indeed, tekhelet is the color of the Temple.

Tekhelet is a color whose time has come.

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at
Related Topics
Related Posts