10 – THE RITUAL USES OF Tekhelet

A. Allusions to the Secular Uses of the Tekhelet.

Allusions to the secular uses of Tekhelet are very few. Neither Tekhelet nor Argaman ever appears in connection with the royal apparel of Jewish kings in Biblical times.

David when dancing before the Ark at the head of a most solemn procession is girded with “a linen ephod.”1 We are told nothing about the nature of the mantle he wore on the occasion. The Chronicler, however, informs us that David was clothed with a robe of fine linen like “the Levites that carried the Ark,” the distinguishing mark of the king being the linen ephod which was “upon him”.2

It is significant that the Chronicler who, according to the critical school of modern Biblical exegesis, is actuated by the desire to paint the Jewish kings in the dazzling colours of the Assyrian and Persian world conquerors, assigns no purple whether tekhelel or Argaman to the uniform worn by the ideal king of Israel in the performance of that most important national function. Possibly an observation on the absence of purple underlies the homily on this verse in the Midrash Raba.3

In Canticles the seat of Solomon’s palanquin is spoken of as being made of Argaman

.מרכבו ארגמן

The mention of Tekhelet and Argaman among the objects of tribute sent by Hezekiya to Sennacherib has hardly much to do with the point under consideration. The “virtuous woman” is depicted as clothing herself in shesh and Argaman; Tekhelet is conspicuous by its absence.

In the Talmud, reference is made to garments made wholly of Tekhelet.4

B. The Sacerdotal and the Cultural Tekhelet.

The ritual use of Tekhelet was two-fold (I) for sacerdotal and cultural purposes (II) for the tzitzit.5

Tekhelet appears as occupying a somewhat higher position than Argaman in the ladder of sanctity. Thus the me’il (coat) of the High Priest was made wholly of Tekhelet. Similarly the sis on which was engraved the tetragrammaton was attached to the misnephet by means of a thread of Tekhelet (פתיל תכלת). And so was the hoshen (חשן). Numbers 4 also supplies one hint in the same direction, Tekhelet being ordered there for the covering of the furniture and utensils of the Inner Sanctuary, Argaman for those of the Outer Sanctuary.

The Pentateuchal passages have reference only to the Tabernacle. The account of the First Temple in I Kings 5-7 which, of course, is far from complete, omits all mention of textiles. The parallel passages in Chronicles refer to Tekhelet and Argaman but in very general terms.

Ezekiel’s sketch of the future contains no allusion to Tekhelet or Argaman even in connection with the priestly garments. In the Second Temple Tekhelet and Argaman were employed for the High Priests garments in accordance with the Pentateuchal prescriptions and also for the thirteen veils hung at the gates.6 There is, however, a division of opinion with regard to the girdle worn by the ordinary priests.7 According to Rabbi,8 it also contained a texture of Tekhelet and Argaman, while R. Eliezer ben R. Simeon holds that it consisted wholly of linen.9

Maimonides, in accordance with a well-known rule laid down by the Talmud with regard to the decision of disputes between Rabbi and contemporary authorities, adopts the former opinion as law.10 That this was actually the practice in the Second Temple we know from Josephus. There is no indication of the grounds for the opinion of either Rabbi or of his opponent, but it is not impossible that Rabbi, in his capacity of a Jew who was proficient in the Greek language, based his opinion on the evidence of Josephus.

It is not, I think, improbable, that the wrappers used by the Levites for their musical instruments were also made of Tekhelet cloth.

“R. Joshuah said: This is like the saying: “When he (scilicet, the ram) is alive, he gives forth only one sound, but after his death he produces seven sounds.” How are these produced? His two horns serve for a drum, his bowels for harps. Some say, also his wool for Tekhelet.”11

How could Tekhelet be made use of for musical instruments?

The explanations given by the commentators do not seem to me satisfactory. Now the Tosephta,12 speaks of the naps of the Levites, doubtless meaning pieces of cloth used for wrapping up the musical instruments.13 It would seem that these were made of Tekhelet cloth. Tekhelet thus came to be associated, very loosely of course, with instrumental music.

I have found no evidence of the use of Tekhelet or Argaman in connection with divine service outside the Temple, as for instance for the mantles of the scrolls of the Law, for the covers spread on the desk on which was placed the Torah during the public reading in the Synagogue, or for the curtains of the Holy Ark.

In Menahot 35a it is said that a disciple of R. Akiba had the straps of the tefillin14 made of Tekhelet and that Hyrcanus the son of R. Eliezer had them made of Argaman.

C. The Tekhelet in the Tzitzit.

And the Lord said unto Moses, as followeth, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say to them that they shall make themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they shall put upon the fringe of the corner a thread of Tekhelet. And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them, and that ye seek not after (the inclination of) your own heart and (the delight of) your eyes, in pursuit of which ye have been led astray. In order that ye may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God. I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God, I am the Lord, your God.15

By modern criticism the passage is assigned to the source known as H or the Holiness Code, the date of whose compilation is placed between c. 595-570 B.C.E. The corresponding verse in Deuteronomy:16 “Thou shalt make thyself fringes upon the four corners of thy vesture wherewith thou coverest thyself,” from the fact that it appears in a code earlier than H, according to the critical view, and from its comparative simplicity, is naturally regarded by higher critical exegesis as embodying the law of tzitzit in its older, or original, form.

In the tomb of Rekhma-ra, prefect of Thebes, has been found a representation depicting Asiatic and Aethiopian tributaries, the garments of some of whom are fringed with blue threads at the corners, the colour being dark indigo blue.17 This discovery does not, it is true, stand alone, but it is of special importance as showing the pre-Mosaic18 existence of tzitzit in some form. The determination of the colour of Tekhelet is treated in another chapter, but I would remark here that whatever the precise shade may have been, deep indigo blue might very well do as a pictorial representation of Tekhelet by a pre-Mosaic Egyptian artist with whom absolute exactness in the reproduction of the colour of the object depicted would not probably count for an essential. It is thus difficult to deny that there is some relation between the blue fringes represented on the Rekhma-ra monument and the thread of Tekhelet ordered for the fringes in Numbers XV,37. Two facts, however, are to be carefully noted in this connection:

(a) – The fringes on the Rekhma-ra monument consist entirely of blue;

(b) – Deuteronomy XXII, 12 omits all mention of Tekhelet.

Upon the critical view, Deuteronomy XXII, 12, representing the original form of the Law, should have indicated somehow the colour of the fringes.

The reason for tzitzit is given in the Pentateuch itself: “That ye may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord, etc.” but it is left unexplained how the mere sight of the tzitzit acts as a reminder of the divine commandments. The noble end is apparently attained simply by the fact that the tzitzit forms the distinctive badge of the Israelites’ dress, keeping him in constant remembrance of his being God’s elect, a privilege which entails the observance of a great many precepts designed to guard him against “following his heart and his eyes” and to keep him “holy unto his God.” But what reason is there for the choice of precisely this emblem?

It is, I think, highly probable that the Aggadic explanation of Tekhelet as significant of the sky “which is like unto the throne of Glory” substantially underlies the Pentateuchal text. The meaning, however, of the “fringes” as distinct from the “thread of Tekhelet” hardly admits of so ready an interpretation.

The exact form of the tzitzit, the number of threads, etc., according to the traditional interpretation, is a subject which hardly falls within the scope of this work. The reader unacquainted with Hebrew may refer to Kitto’s Cyclopedia, s.v. Fringes.

Though the rite of tzitzit is still observed to a considerable extent by professedly Orthodox Jews,19 and in a smaller measure even by reformers, Tekhelet has long ceased to form part of the tzitzit.



  1.  II Samuel, ch. 6, v.14.
  2.  I Chron. ch. 15, v.27.
  3.  Num. Sect. 4. The remark of Pseudo-Rashi on I. Chron. Ch. 15, v.27, is worth noting in this connection. Cf. also Z.W. Einhorn’s commentary on the passage referred to in the test: Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar Rabbah. 4. Wilna, edition 1887.
  4.  Menahot 39a, 41b.
  5.  I-Exod. Ch. 25, v.4; ch. 26, vs. 1-4-31-36; ch. 27, v. 16; ch. 28, vs.6-8-15-31-33-37; Ch. 25, vs.6-23-24-35; Ch. 26, vs.8-11-35-37; ch. 38, v.23; ch. 39, vs. 1-2-4-8-21-22-24-29-31; Num. ch. 46, vs.7-9-l1-12. II-Num. ch. 25, v.37.
  6.  Jonah, v.54.
  7.  Cf. Exod., ch. 28, v.36 with v.40.
  8.  R. Jehudah the Prince.
  9.  Jonah, v.12.
  10.  Maimonides, Hilkhot Kolei Hamikdash, ch. VIII, v.l, and compare Keseph Mishnah, ib.
  11.  Kinim. ch. 3, Mishnah 8.
  12.  Kelim, Baba Mesia, ch. 5, v.7.
  13.  Cf. Note by R. Elijah of Wilna, in the Talmud, Wilna, ed. 1884.
  14.  Deut. Ch. 6, v.8; Exod. Ch. 13, v.9.
  15.  Num. ch. 15, vs.37-41.
  16.  Deut. ch. 22, v.l2.
  17.  Rekhma-ra lived under Tothmes III (18th dynasty).
  18.  Rekhma-ra lived under Tothmes III (18th dynasty).
  19.  See: Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. “Fringes.״