Color, Faith and Fiber

My mother is an incredibly talented artist.  For many years now, she has used her talents for the sake of chiddur mitzvah – beautifying the mitzvah – of tallit.  She painted her first tallit for the occasion of my Bat Mitzvah.  It was purple flowers on white silk, a simple, but lovely design.  Over the years, she has made many more tallitot in addition to the chuppahs for the weddings of all three of her daughters and the ketubahs as well.  I personally own 25 unique and beautiful tallitot and many more are in the hands of friends, colleagues, and congregants.

In recent months, my mother decided to make a tallit for the new cantor in her congregation.  He asked her whether she would make a p’til t’cheilet.  In Numbers 15:38-39 we read: “The Eternal One spoke to Moses saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, and bid them that they make fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a thread of blue;  And it shall be to you for a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Eternal One, and do them…”

Have you ever seen a tallit with a string of blue in the tzitzit?  They are rarely seen here in the United States.  The process for producing the correct dye has been lost to the generations.  In ancient times, purple and blue dyes were hard to come by and extremely valuable.  The dyes became the colors of royalty.  The Romans ruled that only royalty could wear garments colored with these pigments and that the colors themselves could only be made in imperial dye houses.  The Jewish industry for creating the proper dyes for tallitot was driven underground and eventually lost.

In recent years, archeological and chemical research has yielded an answer to the question of how to produce the dyes and there are several groups in Israel that are making them.  We cannot be entirely sure, however that these are indeed the correct colors.  In addition the pre-dyed strings are exorbitantly expensive ($70 for a set of strings).  The expense is justified considering the labor involved in properly preparing the dyes and also considering that t’cheilet is supposed to be rare and valuable.

My mother’s cantor said that he did not need “real” techelet.  He asked her to color the string with regular blue dye.  Is this blue sufficient?  It will certainly cause others to ask the question and learn about the commandment to wear t’cheilet.  It will help the cantor himself to be inspired by the blue color and its association with sky and water, with holiness and majesty.  But it is not “true” t’cheilet.

According to, true techeilet comes from Murex trunculus, a type of snail.  Although it produces a purplish dye, instead of blue, leading many to believe that this was not the correct animal, the dye, when exposed to uv rays (as found abundantly in the mediteranean sun) develops into a beautiful sky blue.  There is a decent amount of archeological and chemical evidence to suggest that this may indeed be the true source for techeilet.  According to the Talmud and the website,  “The dye’s color was “similar to the sky and sea,” it was steadfast, extracted from the snail while still alive, and was indistinguishable from a dye of vegetable origin, called kala ilan (indigo). “ Indistinguishable?  If you can’t tell the difference, wouldn’t it be better to use the dye from the vegetable source?

Blue was important.  It was the color of royalty because it was beautiful and rare, because it was the color of an infinite sky and the vast sea.  Blue obtained from rare snails was even more precious.  The Talmud tells us that the snails could only be found every 70 years, that the dye needed to be extracted from live snails, that it was rare and valuable.  So, if we dye our tzitzit with ordinary blue dye, we get the color, but nothing else, not the value, not the intention, not the miracle of the dye itself.  This was a dye that appeared clear until it soaked into the wool and was exposed to the sunlight.  It’s transformation into blue was itself almost magical, and certainly inspiring to all who witnessed it.

If we buy this techeilet, however, we are not witness to its creation.  We spend the money, but end up with string that looks to us, just blue.  It has a sense of wonder because of its source, but we cannot really know whether it was made from snails or from chemical dyes.  We wouldn’t know the difference.  What about using the vegetable dye that is molecularly identical?  Would that be close enough?

Is it the letter of the law, or merely its color?


4 thoughts on “Color, Faith and Fiber

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  1. Tzitzi – what a beautiful concept; to wear a constant reminder of one’s obligations and to be aware of the ‘boundries in life’ the four corners of the earth, as well,as the infinite – the limitless sky and sea.

    I think the greatest discovery is Einstein’s experience of the ‘revelation’ of the theory of relativity and special relativity – the dynamic relationship of space, time, mass and energy.

    We now understand the relationship between wavelength and color. We now understand how color is perceived. We understand that the color and perception of the sky and sea change based on Einstein’s theories.

    If we as modern Jews are to derive meaning from ancient texts, I believe we must extract the principles and kernels of truth and devinity – so.. may your wisdom and insight be as deep as the sea and as far reaching as the furthest galaxie – regardless of how it is derived!

  2. I gratified to read that people are delving into the mitzvah of tekhelet but I am compelled to correct a number of erroneous statements made above:

    1) The source that requires the hillazon to the seeming exclusion of all others is not the Talmud but the Tosefta, which states, “If one made tekhelet from the hillzon it is kosher, if not, it is not kosher”.

    2) The Talmud does indeed discuss the need to use the hillzaon but it does not make the exclusive statement that is found in the Tosefta. What the Talmud does say is that the vegetable source (kela ilan – otherwise known as Idigoferra tintoria) is strictly forbidden. This because, while it provides the same color, is simply a forgery; and, as I argue in my article “Hillazon Davka”, tekhelet is to symbolize authentic life, authentic spirituality, and to use a cheap forgery would undermine this lofty goal.

    3) Maimonides makes no such claim that non-conchillean dye could be used for tekhelet; and I certainly made no such statement in his name. The opinion that such dye could be used belongs to the author of the “Tifferet Yisrael” commentary on the Mishna: R. Yisrael Lipschitz, and so I have written in various places.

    Regarding whether we should just use white strings because that is what we have been using for 1300 years: by the same logic the state of Israel should never have been formed since the Jews were living without a state for 2000 years! Certainly it is incumbent upon us to rectify any and all things lacking in our world. Regarding tekhelet, the Torah states clearly that there is tremendous value to using a strand the color of the heavens : in order that we remember to do all the mitzvot.

  3. wow! Such an amazing art painting using silk tallitot, nice thinking its very personalized and usually your design reflect your personality right?..,I want to try it someday..wonderful job.

  4. [originally posted June 13, 2010] I looked at the t’ website, and read the essay there by Rabbi Navon. Rabbi Navon frames the issue in terms of “authenticity” (“amitiut”). This is not exactly the way Cantor Neff framed it, but it is closely related.

    Cantor Neff raises the question but leaves the answer to the reader. Rabbi Navon offers his answer.

    My view:

    The t’ web site says that we have have been making white or indigo-dyed tzitzit for 1300 years because we lost the knowledge of how to make true t’cheilet. I’ll take that for the moment as a fact without consulting other sources.

    I think that anything that we have been doing for 1300 years has become the authentic way of doing it, even if it was not so at the beginning, and was only a substitute at first. 1300 years is a long time!

    There are a lot things we do that deviate from what the Torah says and from what we therefore assume was done in Biblical times. Some of these deviations are very old, and originate in the Talmud, in which case no one questions the deviation (although these are never called deviations). In the case of t’cheilet, Rabbi Navon cites Talmudic authority for the necessary origin of t’cheilet from the snail, so in this case it is not the Talmud that is going to point us in another direction. We will have to get our alternative direction from somewhere else.

    To me it is that 1300 years of actual practice that points us in another direction, and it is a better direction. It takes a huge number of snails to make just a little bit of tcheilet. Let us continue to leave those snails in the sea. Indigo, or no color at all, have sufficed us for a long time. Let them continue to do so.

    The question of the snails and the indigo — or just plain white — makes me think of something else.

    One can take the question of Jewish law and authenticity to extremes. And the extreme case is worth thinking about for the way it throws the questions of principle into sharp relief. I consider that one of the great lucky breaks that the Jewish people has gotten in modern times is to find that the Temple Mount is already built on, with the presence of the two mosques, El Aksa and the Dome of the Rock. We should thank God (literally and figuratively) that the Moslems have possession of the Temple Mount in a form that we cannot, for all practical purposes, disturb. We know that we are commanded by the Torah to perform animal sacrifices, and that the Talmud expounds on the details. But how many of us really want to do this? Very, very few, I daresay, even among the Orthodox. Not none at all, but very few.

    Now consider a thought experiment. Suppose the two mosques were not there, and instead was an empty grassy field. If the Temple Mount were thus available for our religious use, a very small number among us would want to rebuild the Temple and perform animal sacrifices. A much larger number would not *want* to do it, but would feel religiously compelled to do it. Most of us would neither want to do it nor feel compelled to do it. But we would certainly have a very bitter, divisive and surreal argument within the world Jewish community, and not one that the rest of the world would understand, to say the least.

    Almost 2000 years of post-Temple Judaism makes the latter, and not animal sacrifices, the authentic Judaism. We wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, resume animal sacrifice even if we could — which, as previously noted, we — thankfully — can’t.

    So: Let it be indigo.

    One final point. I noted with interest that according to Rabbi Navon, the Rambam (Maimonides) deviated from the the general opinion of most authorities that it has to be the snail or it ain’t real t’cheilet. Maimonides, Rabbi Navon relates, said that as long as the color is correct and the dye is colorfast, then it doesn’t matter whether it comes from the snail or from indigo. According to Maimonides, the snail is one way, and probably the original way, to get the dye, but not the only acceptable way.

    It was also Maimonides who stated his frank opinion that animal sacrifice was an early developmental stage for the Jewish people and for Judaism, and that both were in his times mature enough no longer to need it. Of course, he never says that those mitzvot are no longer in effect. Probably he took it for granted that it would never be possible to resume animal sacrifices. But in any case, in Maimonides we see a theme of emphasis on ends rather than means.

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