F. References to Tekhelet shel tzitzit in the Post-Gaonic Literature
Alfassi (born at Kala-Ibn-Hammad in the neighborhood of Fez in 1013, died at Cordova, Spain, in 1103) expressly states in his great work: “at the present day we have no Tekhelet.”1
Maimonides in his commentary on the Mishnah (completed in 1168) makes the following statement: “The tzitzit precept comprised two precepts, the first requiring fringes to be appended to the corners of one’s garments… and this is called laban (white), it being either of white wool or of white linen…, the second ordering a thread of Tekhelet wool to be wound round those fringes, which thread is called Tekhelet, as it is said: ‘and let them put upon the fringes of the corner a thread of Tekhelet.’ But we now have no Tekhelet because we do not know how to dye it; for not all woollen that is coloured like Tekhelet actually is Tekhelet (in the strict sense of the word), but only a certain kind which we are unable to fabricate at the present day; our tzitzit therefore consists of lavan (white) only.”2
In a responsum relating to tzitzit Maimonides similarly declares “We have no Tekhelet at the present day.”3
R. Aaron Halevi, one of the greatest Rabbinical authorities in Spain (d. 1300) in his compendium of the Laws, in the section devoted to tzitzit, notes with regret that “already many days have elapsed for Israel without the fortunate man being heard of who had Tekhelet appended to his tallit.”
If the collection of responsa Besamim Rosh (בשמי׳ ראש) ascribed to Asheri (1250-1327) be authentic, then an attempt was made in the last decades of the thirteenth century at the rediscovery of the hillazon and the consequent restoration of Tekhelet in Israel. The work has, however, long been condemned as an eighteenth century forgery.
The fall of Constantinople (May 29, 1453) marks the complete extinction of purple dyeing in the Old World.
R. David ben Zamra born twenty three years after the occurrence of that great event throws out, in a responsum of his, a few remarks in explanation of the disappearance of Tekhelet in general: “it is possible”, he says, “that the species (i.e. the Tekhelet-hillazon) is still to be found, but that it is not known how it can be fished. There is, moreover, no need for it; Tekhelet-like dye being easily obtainable, I mean Isatis (Nil in Arabic): the dyeing with this pigment has reached such perfection that the colour is not removable from the cloth even by means of the most thorough washing.”4
It is worth noting that the remarkable researches carried on by gentile inquirers from William Cole to Lacaze-Duthiers found no echo in Jewish circles.