The Tzitzit: A colorful history

Guest posted by Brian Zimmerman

Last Sunday I attended my first Greater Chicago Jewish Festival. What a thrill to be immersed in such a vibrant Jewish atmosphere. From the sounds of Jewish folk-singer Peter Himmelman to the smell of fresh falafel, everything about that day was saturated with Jewish pride and heritage. But there was one sensory experience that stood out most. It was everywhere at the Jewish Festival. In fact, it can be seen almost anywhere Jews congregate. It's a mark of pride for Jews around the world, and in many ways, it has come to represent the Jewish people. I'm talking, of course, about the color blue.

The prevalence of the color blue in Jewish history got me thinking about color in general. In looking for answers I turned to Victoria Finlay's exciting book Color: A Natural History of the Palette for answers. Finlay's book is an exquisitely researched collection of essays on the history of color. With each chapter focusing on a different hue, Finlay recounts the often surprising and always entertaining stories of how our modern color palette came to be. Interestingly, a good portion of Finlay's book deals with Jewish history, and one of the most shining examples of how Judaism and color intersect is the story of the Jewish prayer shawl, or tzitzit. As fascinating as this story is, it's also a long and winding one. So bear with me here, and prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

It all starts with the Torah. In the book of Numbers, God tells Moses and the early Israelites to "make fringes in the borders of their garments and put upon the fringe of each corner a thread of blue." As Finlay points out, the reason for the blue thread is complicated. Maimonides said its purpose is to remind us that blue is "similar to the sea, and that the sea is similar to the sky, and that sky is similar to God's holy throne." Kabbalists claimed that blue is a mystical color. To their reasoning, its presence on the tzitzit represented the spiritual wonders of the universe. Whatever the reason, the Talmud, the book of Jewish laws, went further, specifying that the dye used to turn the fringes blue had to come from a special source. That blue dye was called the Techelet.

The Torah's description of the Techelet is vague. All we know about it now is that it closely resembles midnight blue, and that the original source of the dye came from a sea creature with a shell, which the Torah refers to as the hilazon. Originally, only Jewish artisans were trusted with dying the fringes of tzitzit blue with the hilazon, since many Jews were suspicious that non-Jews would use a counterfeit shade of indigo derived from plants. For centuries these Jewish dyers worked without interruption, but that all changed during the Muslim Conquests in 623 CE, when Arab invaders ransacked Jewish towns in North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. Many Jews were displaced, and the formula for making the special blue dye was lost.

For the next 1,300 years, Jews didn't wear blue in their tzitzit. Since no one could trace the origin of the blue dye back to the original hilazon, rabbinic authorities forbade Jews from using any other dyes in their tzitzit fringes. Consequently, the source of the Techelet became one of the most perplexing riddles in Judaism. Then, in 1856, an amateur chemist named William Henry Perkin made an accidental discovery that would change everything.

Perkin never meant to kickstart the search for the Techelet. Working in a makeshift lab on top of his East London home, the 15-year-old chemist was originally intent on finding a way to extract quinine (the anti-inflammatory additive in tonic water) from coal tar (a liquid byproduct of coal). But when he mistakenly mixed his extraction with alcohol, he found that the solution turned a vibrant shade of purple. The color he described was brighter and richer than any color he'd ever seen. With the help of his colleagues at the Royal College of Chemistry, Perkin realized that he had accidentally invented the first artificial dye.

As it happened, Perkin's invention inspired countless scientists to begin color experimentations of their own. A lot of those scientists were Jewish, and many were searching for the Techelet. In 1880, a rabbi from Poland named Gershon Hanoch Leiner came to the conclusion that the hilazon was a certain species of squid. He even succeeded in making a deep blue pigment from squid ink by adding iron filings to the mixture. His color very closely resembled the Techelet, and the mystery appeared to be solved. Using Leiner's findings, Jews the world over immediately went back to wearing blue fringes in their tzitzit. But the practice didn't last long.

Twenty years later, a Jewish chemistry student at London University began experimenting with Leiner's squid-based dye. What he found was that he could recreate the same deep blue pigment in his laboratory - without the squid. This proved that Leiner's special blue dye came primarily from the iron fillings. Since the squid was unnecessary, it could safely be ruled out as the hilazon. The search for the Techelet was far from over. (By the way, the Jewish chemist who made that discovery was Isaac Herzog, who later went on to become the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. His son, Chaim, would become the country's sixth president.)  

For the next seven decades, Jewish scientists tried and failed to produce the specific shade of blue described in the Torah. They used various species of shellfish to extract the special blue dye, but nothing worked. Then, in the 1980s, they found a clue: the murex trunculus, a medium-sized sea snail native to the Mediterranean Sea. The murex trunculus produced a special mucus that, when exposed to air, would turn a deep blueish hue. The only problem was that when the murex mucus was left in the lab for a few hours, it would change into a dark shade of purple. It was a close match, but it wasn't the techelet. (Amazingly, the shade of purple produced by the murex turned out to be the long-lost source of "Tyrian purple," which the ancient Phoenicians used to make robes for Greek and European rulers.)

Later, an Israeli chemist named Otto Elsner made an accidental discovery of his own. Working with the murex trunculus in the bright Israeli sun, he discovered that if the murex glands were exposed to sunlight, then the dye they produced was a rich, midnight blue - just like the color described as the Techelet. Elsner's discovery fundamentally changed the search for the hillazot, and is now considered the most likely candidate for the Techelet.

So, what lesson can we learn from this long and colorful history? According to Victoria Finlay, it's this: "Perkins discovery of modern dyes that day in 1856 had - years later - resulted in rediscoveries of how to make two of the oldest, and most revered, colors in the world. As with so many stories in [our] historical paint box, it turns out the old secrets were not lost after all. They were just waiting for someone else to discover them again."

Life's too bright to stop appreciating the colors. What will you rediscover today?

Reflections from your editor, Cindy Sher, on people living their Jewish lives each day. ... Read More

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