“Speak to the Children of Israel and bid them make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and put upon the fringe of each corner a thread of blue.” [i]
Pious Jews, to this day, wrap themselves in special religious garments, called tallitim (singular: tallit), for daily prayer. Yet for fifty-odd generations, their intricately knotted fringes have been pure white, without a trace of blue. This is because the Biblical purple-blue dyeing methods, had become lost over time.
From generation to generation, however, scholars studying the Talmud, a compendium of Jewish knowledge compiled while these dye-methods were still in use, have discovered that these blue threads were produced by the “blood” of a snail.
The Talmud [ii] also cryptically notes that this creature is “similar to the sea, similar to a fish, yields a steadfast shade similar to the sea,” and using a Talmudic metaphor denoting rarity and worth, “ appears once every 70 years.” Pliny the Elder, who lived at the height of purple-blue popularity, notes, in his Natural History, that though the snail’s “blood” emits an offensive odor, “on every garment it sheds a luster. ”
Archeologists have traced the origins of this dyeing industry to ancient Crete and Egypt. It evidently reached Phoenicia. which became the purple-blue dye center of the world.
In ancient times, people usually wore dull-colored raw wool garments. So adorning them with even a single strand of blue, the product of a staggering number of snails, commanded attention. Anyone donning garments completely swathed in purple-blue, like the High Priest of Jerusalem, commanded great respect as well. No wonder the Romans, who ruled this part of the world from 63 BC through 330 AD, reserved these costly dyes for robes of royalty, for leaders “born to the purple.” The Mediterranean dyeing industry eventually went underground. By the Arab Conquest of Israel in 638 AD, it had disappeared entirely.
In recent years, however, the lost secrets of purple-blue dye production have come to light. Marine biologists, combining ancient knowledge with modern techniques, discovered that the Murex trunculus sea-snail alone contains a gland which produces these dye-enzymes. Archeologists, consistent with these findings, have discovered great mounds of broken murex shells, ringed with purple-blue dyes. strewn around Mediterranean Roman Period dye-pits,
Although the chemistry of these dyes do match those produced by modern-day murex, two key Talmudic descriptions still defied description. Modern murex dye yields a shade decidedly more purple than sea-blue– and is hardly “similar to the sea.”
“Similar to the sea” soon became clear. Murex is rough, whorled, and brownish-white when held in hand. In its natural state, however, coated with sea-slime, it is nearly indistinguishable from its home, the seabed .
The second purple-or-blue puzzle was solved by chance. When Prof. Otto Elsner of Tel Aviv’s Shenkar College of Fibers inadvertently left an enzyme-infused cloth in direct sunlight, to his delight, it turned bright blue. Murex dye, he discovered, is light-sensitive.
Today Ptil Tekhelet, a modest workshop outside Jerusalem, recreates the ancient purple-blue dyeing craft anew. There, pious Jews, like their forefathers, hand-spin soft merino wool into thread, then twist it into tight multi-ply strands. As of old, they also consecrate each step with the traditional prayer, “ thus I fulfill the commandment of the fringes. ”
The original murex-dye method required ground limestone and a variety of acids used over a period of ten days. Using modern chemicals and techniques, Ptil Tekhelet produces identical results within hours.
Their woolen threads, when first removed from the yellowish dye, are yellowish. On exposure to air, however, they immediately change color. These rainbow strands deepen as they dry, ranging from purple to palest blue.
After they are incorporated into fringes, bits of blue among the white, they are hand-knotted and attached to prayer shawl corners according to a variety of complex religious and numerological traditions. As it is written, in the Beginning, God divided the waters from the waters, forming the sea, forming the sky. The sky changes with the passing hours, and the sea–now purple, now blue– reflects the changing skies. And the blue tallit fringes resemble the sea, which resembles the sky, which resembles Infinity of the Creator.
[i] Numbers 15:38-39
[ii] Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 44a