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October 13, 2015 | 30th Tishrei 5776

Blue and white

Galilee Diary #230
April 24, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

Pesach is peak vacation season for Israelis: the weather is likely to be perfect, the kids are out of school for an extended period, and there are festivals and special events “for the whole family” everywhere. The ancient tradition of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at this time is certainly one of the motivating factors that brings so many thousands to visit the city during Pesach – but this pilgrimage urge brings many of us to all sorts of less sacred spaces, from the sands of Sinai (i.e., many Israelis return to Egypt for Pesach!) to the mountains of the Negev to the coastal dunes and to the forests of the Galilee. This year we spent a few days at a kibbutz hotel (Nahsholim) on the beach south of Haifa, and a day in Jerusalem.

On the bluffs jutting out between sandy stretches of the kibbutz beach, the ancient seaport of Dor has been unearthed, and it is interesting and fun to climb among the weathered walls, rock-cut structures, pools and breakwaters. The kibbutz maintains a small but fascinating museum on marine archaeology, displaying finds from the site, including a whole section on the Murex sea snail whose shells are plentiful along the coast there. The lowly Murex provides still another example of the multiple strands of connection between Judaism and Eretz Yisrael – in this case, the coastal waters off of Eretz Yisrael.

The Lord said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue [techelet] to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them…

--Numbers 15:37-39

According to the Talmud, techelet, the blue referred to in this passage, was made from the chilazon, described as a marine snail. However, after the destruction of the Temple, the knowledge of how to produce the dye from this animal was lost (“techelet has been hidden…” [Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 17:5]), and it became customary to leave the fringes white, but to decorate the tallit itself with colored stripes, as a kind of reminder of the original practice of dyed fringes.

Archaeologists have found evidence of a well-developed ancient industry of producing dye from Murex along the Mediterranean coast. Apparently, only a minute amount is present in each snail, and it decomposes almost immediately after the animal is killed. Therefore, large numbers were collected alive and kept in baskets in the water so they could all be processed at once. The dye extracted from Murex is actually purple, and was well-known and highly valued by the Romans as “Tyrian purple” (named for Tyre, on the Lebanese coast). However, when exposed to sunlight, the dye breaks down and turns blue, actually creating a compound identical to the vegetable dye indigo. While there was one 19th century Hasidic rabbi and chemist who identified the source of techelet as a species of squid, most archaeologists and halachic scholars accept the Murex theory.

There is now an institution in Jerusalem dedicated to putting the techelet back into the tallit fringes; their argument is simply that since it is now possible to re-create the original dye, why not keep the original commandment? Interestingly, unlike other practices (like sacrifices) that were discontinued with the destruction of the Temple and that remain forbidden until messianic times, it seems that techelet was simply lost, not forbidden. Hence, while restoring the color may feel sort of messianic, in fact it is just another example of a mitzvah that our return to the land (and our knowledge of archaeology and organic chemistry) enables us to fulfill.

According to a Zionist tradition, in an early discussion of designs for the Zionist flag, David Wolffsohn pointed to his tallit with its two blue stripes as the obvious solution…

Bible, halacha, land, and state – all bound together with threads of blue.

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