C. Ritual Tekhelet and the Restrictions Placed by the Emperors upon the Manufacture and Sale of Purple

The imperial edicts concerning the fabrication of purple, its sale and use would form a most interesting porphyrologic study, the more so as the subject has not yet received adequate treatment. The researches of Amati1 are certainly not to be despised but they should be corrected by the more thorough investigations of W. Adolf Schmidt.

How was the Tekhelet industry affected by the imperial decrees regarding purple in general?2 Caesar and Augustus restricted the use of purple to the governing classes of society. It is doubtful whether the decrees issued by them also included Tekhelet or to give it its Latin name hyacinthus; but even if such were the case, these liberal minded emperors would probably grant exemptions in favour of the proper observance of the rite of tzitzit by their Jewish subjects. The temple in Jerusalem, at all events, would remain entirely immune from the effects of restrictions of that nature. But even for tzitzit it is likely that special privileges were unnecessary: the early imperial edicts would hardly go to the length of prohibiting the appending of purple threads to the corners of one’s garments.

Nero (died 68), evincing greater porphyric zeal than his predecessors, prohibited outright the sale of the Tyrian and of the amethyst purple, restricting the use of both to the emperor alone.3 It is dubious whether Tekhelet was comprised in the term Purpura amethystina, as accepted in Nero’s time.

The considerations advanced in connection with the decrees of Caesar and Augustus apply here as well.

An homily of R. Huna reported in the Midrash Rabbah on Genesis might suggest, on the face of it, that in the days of that Aggadist Tekhelet in the tzitzit was limited to members of the Synhedrion.

R. Huna said “she was touched by divine inspiration. Hotamkha חותמך (thy signet) refers to kingship as it is said, ‘Even if Jekonja,etc…’4 Petilkha פתילך (thy cord, thread) to the Sanhedrin who are distinguished with a petil as it said petil Tekhelet, umatkha ומטך (thy staff) to the messianic king, etc…”

The author of the homily probably was a contemporary of Rabbi or R. Judah the Prince, the compiler of the Mishnah (175-219) in whose time Palestinian Jewry lived in tolerable circumstances. It is highly improbable that the government then forbade the use of Tekhelet in the tzitzit by the general public.

At all events a badge ordered by the Torah for the dress of every Jew would not come to be regarded as the proper insignia of the Synhedrion because by a cruel decree of the oppressor it had become confined to the latter, nor would this sad fact be put into the mouth of Tamar as part of a Sibyl, foretelling the greatness of the tribe of Judah.5 The reference is, I think, to a band or lace of Tekhelet adorning the official robes of the members of the Synhedrion somewhat after the manner of the Roman senators.6

Under the emperor Constantius (337-362) the restrictive measures with regard to the use of purple were very slackly enforced.7 The use of Tekhelet, however, would seem to have been strictly prohibited to the Jews. The prohibition would probably be due to the fact of Tekhelet being connected with the Mosaic ritual. Constantius throughout his reign pursued a policy of relentless Jew-baiting. Of this we have eloquent testimony in the epistle sent by the Palestinian religious authorities to Raba, the virtual head of Babylonian Jewry.

“(a) A pair came from Reket (Tiberias) and the eagle (the Romans) caught them;

(b) and they held in their hand articles made at Luz (Tekhelet).

(c) But by virtue of God’s mercy and their own merits they have escaped safely.

(d) The offspring of Nahshon (first prince of the tribe of Judah) desired to appoint one neṣib (intercalate a month) but the Aramean (the Romans) would not permit it;

(e) nevertheless the lords of the assemblies (the sages, Synhedrion) met together and appointed another neṣib in the month of the death of Aaron.8

The imperial authorities thus interfered with the regulation of the calendar for the proper observance of the festivals. The mere presence of (e), its position in the context, the cryptic expression used for Tekhelet – all point to the existence of an imperial prohibition against Tekhelet. Was this part of a general edict against the observance of the Jewish rites or part of the legislation restricting the use of purple? Against the former supposition it might be urged that Tekhelet being also used for secular purposes, the mere possession of it would not make the owner liable to punishment. Was the decree so thoroughgoing as to forbid the Jews even the secular use of Tekhelet? Or was the Tekhelet found in the possession of “the pair” wrought in the form required by the law for tzitzit?

The persecutions under Constantius drove from Palestine a number of teachers of the Law including R. Samuel b. Judah who gave to Abayi at the latter’s request an account of the process of Tekhelet-dyeing. As Abayi died about 338 while R. Samuel b. Judah’s emigration from the Holy Land took place between 337 and 338 it is not improbable that the conversation of so much importance for the study of Tekhelet occurred very shortly after the latter’s arrival in Babylonia. May not the emigration of R. Samuel b. Judah have had something to do with the imperial prohibitions against Tekhelet with the manufacture of which that Amora was not improbably closely associated?

It is not impossible that apprehensions were entertained at the time in Babylonia that under the stress of continued persecution the art of the fabrication of Tekhelet would vanish and that it was for that reason that Abayi seized the first opportunity to interrogate the newcomer from Palestine on the dyeing process, so that a record might be preserved of it in the Babylonian schools to which now passed the custody of the knowledge of the Torah.

An edict of the year 383 restricted the manufacture and sale of both purpura oxyblatta and purpura hyacinthina solely to the imperial factories. It would be of some interest to learn how Tekhelet fared under the imperial monopoly. The imperial factories, it is true, were not precluded by that edict from selling to the people purple of the most precious sort, the law merely stipulating that no one but the emperor was to dress himself in a costume made wholly of purpura oxyblatta or hyacinthina.

But as Tekhelet for tzitzit had to be dyed lishmah, the Jews could not procure it ready made from gentile factories. Did Jewish dyers of Tekhelet in Palestine enjoy special exemptions? Or were the imperial dye houses in Jewish territory mostly manned by Jews. W. Adolf Schmidt maintains that purpura conchyliata was always exempt from the restrictive measures regarding purpura blatta. Much will depend on the part played by the “drugs” said in the Talmud to have been employed in the fabrication of Tekhelet. If these were tinctorial materials, then Tekhelet, at least as manufactured in the Amoraic age, would fall under the generic appellation of purpura conchyliata and so would not be affected by the purple legislation, if Schmidt’s view is correct. But the point requires deep investigation.



  1.  Amati, Paschal, Marco Elephantutio … de postitutione Purpurarum, Caesenae (1784).
  2.  Suetonius, Vita Caes, p. 43; Dio Cassius, bk. XLIX, p. 161.
  3.  Idem, Vita Neronis, p. 32.
  4.  Jerem. ch. 22.
  5. Kingship was the heritage of the house of David. The presidency of the Synhedrion from about 31 to the final dissolution of the Patriarchate was held by a line of nessim (Chiefs, princes) beginning with Hillel the Elder who traced his genealogy to King David and continuing from father to son till Gamaliel VI.
  6. Under Alexander Scroues (222-235) the Jews enjoyed complete religious liberties. It goes without saying that they had no difficulty with the practice of the Tekhelet rite. Germana, the slave of R. Judah II, the prince (religious head of the Jews (225-229)) is said to have been a dealer in Tekhelet. Yerushalmi, Abodah Zarah, II. 9. This is one of the only two references to Tekhelet extant in the Palestinian Talmud.
  7.  Amati, Ib., ch. LXXXIII.
  8.  Sanhedrin, 12a.