B. Marine Shell-Snail Origin of Tekhelet and Argaman; the Greek Versions, Philo and Josephus Collated with the Talmud and the Tosephta

The molluscan origin of the Argaman dye, apart from the rendering of Argaman by Porphyra is also expressly stated by Philo1 and Josephus2, both contemporaries of the Second Temple. These authors, in giving an hermeneutic interpretation of the Tabernacle, explain Porphyra (= Argaman) as symbolizing water, because its dye is derived from a shell-snail living in the sea. Of Iakinthos (= Tekhelet), they say that it represents the air. being black or dark. Their silence with regard to the shell-snail origin of Iakinthos proves absolutely nothing.

In their scheme of symbolistic interpretation there is really no occasion for an express mention of the conchylian origin of the Tekhelet dyestuff. It would, moreover, have broken the point of their Midrash, for since Tekhelet is also derived from the sea, the intelligent reader might be prompted to ask, what need is there for Argaman to symbolise water? Could not Iakinthos signify at the same time both air and water?

In the Babylonian Talmud3 the sea-snail origin of the Tekhelet dye is expressly stated. Some account is given of the dyeing of that fabric with the blood of the hillazon in the time of the great Amora Abaye. A description is also given of the Tekhelet hillazon: tests are prescribed for detecting fraudulent imitations with a certain vegetable dyestuff (kala-ilan). Though the Talmudic passages in question deal mainly with Tekhelet used for the ritual fringes on the garments4 or tzitzit, there is not, I think, the flimsiest ground for drawing a distinction between this and the sacerdotal and cultural Tekhelet (תכלת של מקדש תכלת של בגדי כהונה). I cannot think of any plausible reason for a distinction of this kind. In the Sifre5 a gezerah shavah (גזירה שוה) is in fact instituted with reference to quite another point between Tekhelet in Numbers XV, 37, and Tekhelet in Exodus XXV, 4 in connection with the Tabernacle. The reader who has the elementary knowledge of the Talmud knows that, according to most authorities, in a case like this the two members of the gezerah shavah have absolutely the same signification (אין גזירה שוה למחצה). In the course of a discussion in the Talmud (ib.) relating to Tekhelet S (Tekhelet S throughout this chapter will stand for Tekhelet of the tzitzit; Tekhelet T for Tekhelet of the Temple (sacerdotal and cultural Tekhelet) ). a baraitha is adduced referring expressly to Tekhelet T, thus showing the identity of the two. Similarly in Yevamot 4b an halakhah based upon the interpretation of a verse relating to Tekhelet T is readily applied to Tekhelet S.

A statement in an extra-Talmudic6 baraitha expressly declares: “Tekhelet is dyed with no other pigment but that obtained from the hillazon,” (אין צובעין תכלת אלא בחלזון; Baraitha d’tzitzit). Though standing in a tractate dealing especially with tzitzit it is practically meant to have universal application. But perhaps it might be objected that the baraitha dating presumably from a time posterior to the destruction of the Temple has in view only Tekhelet S. The Tosephta Menahot Ch. X, however, contains a baraitha expressly referring to Tekhelet T: “Tekhelet is not ritually fit, unless it is from the dyestuff of the hillazon; if it is not from the hillazon it is not fit.” (תכלת אין כשירה אלא מן החלזון שלא מן החלזון פסולה) . This baraitha in all probability goes back to Temple times, as indeed a greater part of Mishnaioth and baraithoth relating to the Temple and the sacrificial cult.7

It is interesting to note that while the Judaeo-Hellenic sources (Philo, Josephus and the LXX) attest the sea-snail origin of the Argaman dyestuff and are silent with regard to Tekhelet, the traditional sources on the other hand furnish evidence to that effect as far as concerns Tekhelet, and say nothing with regard to Argaman. Even the Tosephta Menahot, so explicit on Tekhelet under this aspect, says not a word about Argaman. This is the more remarkable seeing that next to the above halakah relating to Tekhelet there appears in the Tosephta an halakah laying down a certain restriction with regard to the provenance of tola’ath shani or scarlet, the regular pendant of Tekhelet and Argaman in the Pentateuch. Disagreement between the LXX, Philo and Josephus on the one hand and the Tosephta on the other is not to be thought of. My explanation is simply this: There was no necessity for formulating a law in rejection of nonconchylian dyestuffs for Argaman, simply because the word Argaman itself denoted nothing but purple dye or purple stuff, being the equivalent of the Greek or the Latin Purpura: Argaman also designated the species of sea-snail productive of the dye which, when applied to clothing stuff gave to the latter the name of Argaman. To have said that stuff dyed with vegetable pigment is not Argaman, however close its colour to the latter might be, would have been like saying, for instance, that counterfeit gold might not do when Law required gold (zahab).

Even if we had no distinct testimony that Tekhelet was of conchylian origin, we might be led to infer this from the never varying order in which the two words Tekhelet and Argaman occur in the Bible, and in the Assyrian inscriptions. Tekhelet always precedes Argaman just as zahab (harsu) (gold) ever precedes keseph (kaspu) (silver). “Gold and silver … and Tekhelet and Argaman,” etc., in the Pentateuch; “gold, silver … takiltu, Argamannu,”etc., in the cuneiform texts. This phenomenon makes it evident that Tekhelet was the more precious stuff. Now we know that in antiquity purple was infinitely more expensive than fabrics dyed with vegetable pigment. Since, therefore, Argaman was purple it follows of necessity that Tekhelet was also of the same origin but the most highly prized of its kind.8

As already remarked, the Tosephta Menahot X in all goes back to Temple times, and what it says of Tekhelet must therefore be true for Iakinthos of the Septuagint and of Philo and Josephus. It is otherwise also clear that תכלת was of sea-snail origin for if the Greek word denoted a fabric dyed with some vegetable dyestuff then Aquilas, who, in his translation closely adhered to Tanaitic tradition, would have replaced Iakinthos of the LXX by some other term, or, if even did not exist, would have simply transcribed the Hebrew.

The Lex Valentinava9 includes hyancinthina in the category of Purpura blatta orpure genuine sea-snail purple. Though the document is far removed from Aquilas, from Philo and Josephus, and still more from the LXX, its evidence could not have been summarily dismissed, even if there had been no express statements in Talmudic tradition.



  1.  Philo, de Vita Mosis … Prag (1838).
  2.  Josephus, Antiquitatum ludaicorum, III, 8.; De Bello Judaico, VI, 6.
  3.  Menahot, 43-44.
  4.  Numbers, ch. XV, v.37.
  5.  Sifre, Numbers, XV, 37.
  6.  The non-Talmudic reader should consult, for an explanation of this and similar terms, some introduction to the Talmud or articles.s.v. Talmud in the standard Encyclopaedias.
  7.  This is also true in the case of, indeed, a very great proportion of the Mishnah as a whole. There is neither occasion nor room in the present work for developing the point. I would, however, avail myself of this opportunity to point out an inaccuracy in the Jewish Encyclopaedia. In the article “Talmud” it asserts that already the first Mishnah proves that some Mishnaioth date from Temple times, for the Mishnah states: “When begins the time for the reading of Shema in the evening. When the priests go in for eating their terumah.” This is a mistake hardly worthy of the writer: terumah is independent of the existence of the Temple, and continued to be eaten by descendants of the Aaronic stock after the destruction of the Temple as much as before, so long as Levitical purity was maintained. Cf. eg., Pesahim 72b. See משנה למלך רמב״ם פרק ג, מהלכות אכל

    The Midrash Tanhuma Section Terumah, 5, Lublin (1896) might be misinterpreted as implying that Argaman was not of shell-snail origin.

    וזאת התרומה אשר תקחו מאתם אמר להם הקב״ה אין אתם מביאין משלכם אלא מביזת הים שנתתי לכם שנאמר כנפי יונה נחפה וכסף ותכלת וארגמן תכלת שצובעין אותו דבר זכר לאות שכבר התקינו ארות העולם. תולעת שנאמר אל תראי תולעת יעקב וכר.

  8.  דם occurs here only in association with תכלת. The passage is indeed a crux, the commentators not knowing how to deal with it.אותו (masculine) cannot of course go with תכלת: read אותן (plur.) referring to both תכלת and ארגמן which are dyed with דם חלזון זכר לאות refers to the miracle of דם in Egypt (Exodus VII, 19). Read next תולעת שנאמר לא תראי תולעת יעקב מה תולעה אין כחה אלא בפה כך ישראל שכבר התקינו אבות עולם

    וישאו בני ישראל תפשו אומנת אבותיהם אברהם וכר

    Compare Tanhuma בשלח p. 9.

  9.  Lex Valentina. c. 3, 4, 20, 20.