The Ancient Phoenicians. The two words almost synonymous. I mean, we’re talking about a civilization thriving while our ancestors were in diapers. Also, known as the ‘Purple People,’ due to their cultivation and manufacturing of dyes of blue and purple. This is the beginning of the story.
The tribe of Zevulun’s portion of Israel was in what was previously known as Phoenicia. They complained of their lack of natural resources compared to their brothers, and HaShm told them,”I will make your brothers need you, through the chilazon” -Megilah 6a
And, that was true. In the ancient world, the chilazon, a sea creature and exclusive producer of techelet was worth its weight in gold. This made the dye industry quite lucrative, and due to this it wasn’t long before it was under imperial control.
From 100 BCE-300 CE heavy restrictions were put in place by the Romans until Nero decreed that only the emperor had the right to blue robes. Baruch HaShm, being the stiff-necked people we are, we continued with our practice of techelet, but not for much longer.
The last positive mention we see in our writings of techelet is 550 CE, it’s recorded we took it with us to Babylon, in the days of Rav Ahai. Less than 200 years, later techelet was lost and the process forgotten, with the Arab conquest of 638 CE.
“And now we have only white, for the techelet has been lost”
Midrash Rabah 17:5, circa 750 CE
That’s almost 1300 years without our techelet. What we tell you next is, mamash, no less than a modern day miracle, in our humble opinion. Let’s look at a quick timeline.
- 1500-1600s early research in mollusk based dyes begins
- 1857 Henri de Lacaze-Duthiers identified 3 dye producing snails found in the Mediterranean Sea.
- 1888, The Radzyner Rebbe, Rabbi Gershon Hanoch Leiner, believed he found the techelet in the ink of the cuttlefish. Additionally, he wrote books convincing others he had, as well. The Radzyner Rebbe’s problem was that heat and additives were needed to produce the color of techelet, however any organic material exposed to the same process, produced the same color.
Now, hold on to your seats because this is about to get good. The first Rabbi of the state of Israel, Rav Itzchak ‘ha Levi’ Herzog, who’s accomplishments run very long, attended the prestigious institutions, The Sorbonne and University of London. In 1913, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the topic of techelet. He believed every shred of evidence pointed to the Murex Trunculus, except for one problem. The biggest problem, actually. The dye of the Murex was not pure techelet. The color was wrong.
In 1980, Professor Otto Elsner of Shenkar College of Fibers and Professor Ehud Spanier of University of Haifa were doing research regarding dyeing practices of the ancient world, found that on cloudy days, the dye of the Murex Trunculus, was dark, more purple, but while left exposed for lengthy periods in direct sunlight, the dye of the Murex was pure techelet. This being the final piece of the puzzle. However, don’t take our word for it. The current archaeological evidence is staggering. In 1985, Rav Eliyahu Tavger was the first to successfully complete the process of dyeing techelet in accordance in our tradition, and continued to turn his work into producing an organization to make and further the use of techelet in our days.
Techelet is mentioned 49 times in the TeNaCh. It’s not just our tzitzit that need the techelet, it is also used in the garments of the Kohanim and Beit haMikdash. May we merit to see them both, speedily in our days.
‘The revelation of the chilazon is a sign that the redemption is shining near’
-Divrei Menachem 25