J. Identification of the Tekhelet-hillazon according to the Talmud; Correspondence between the Present Writer and Dr. L. Germain of the Department of Malacology, Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle (Paris)

It is, as already explained, very difficult to determine the exact value of (b); but whatever genera or orders of marine forms of life may be meant to be excluded, it is not unlikely that, to say the least, the exclusion does not comprise all the species belonging to the Gasteropoda and the Cephalopoda. In making our search among these classes of Mollusca we are limited by the consideration that the species sought must be a Mediterranean one. This somewhat narrows the area of research and so, to some extent lightens our task. The first species to occur to the mind is of course Murex trunculus which, if we had no traditional description of the Tekhelet-hillazon, we should not have hesitated for a moment to suggest as the most probable identification. But Murex trunculus fails, in the first place, to satisfy characteristic (a). The shell of M. trunculus is brownish white; the colour of the animal is dirty whitish speckled with brown and yellow; the operculum is reddish brown.1

It does not satisfy (c) either, even after the indication has been stripped of its hyperbolic clothing. That it satisfies (b) is also not entirely free from doubt.

The shell of a certain variety of Murex brandaris is of a blue colour not unlike the colour of the Mediterranean sea.2 Murex brandaris, however, gives rather red purple, or Argaman.

The colour of the shell, by the way, is hardly what (a) requires. גופו “gupho” means the colour of the animal rather than that of the shell.

In most mollusca the colour of the body is rather whitish or yellowish.

The Purpura patula very nearly satisfies (a) and enjoys the additional distinction of belonging to a genus one species of which, at least, is known to have been anciently used for purple-dyeing.

It is also said to be rarely met with.


“The animal (i.e., Purpura patula) differs from the previous ones in that its color is darker and pulls on purple ..

This coquillȧge is quite rare; we see it on the rocks of Cape Manuel… When the operculum of this animal is pressed a little after it has entered its shell, it renders a fairly large amount of liquor that is initially greenish and becomes dark purple as it dries out. It is known that this property is common to most species of this genus.”


“L’animal (i.e., Purpura patula) diffères des précédents en ce que sa couleur est plus foncée et tire sur le violet ..

Ce coquillȧge est assez rare; on le voit sur les rochers du cap Manuel… Lorsqu’on presse un peu l’opercule de cet animal après qu’il est rentré dans sa coquille, il rend une assez grande quantité de liqueur qui est d’abord verdâtre et qui devient pourpre foncé en se dessechant. On sait que cette propriété est commune à la plupart des espèces de ce genre.”3


May not (c) mean that the species usually very sparsely represented is at some rare occasions found in greater abundance?

Another point to be noticed is that there is nothing in the Talmud indicating the minuteness of the purpurigenic liquor secreted by the Tekhelet species. It is to the paucity of the dye-secretion in the purple snails that the expensiveness of purple is attributed in ancient authors.4 In the Talmud on the other hand, the preciousness of Tekhelet is ascribed solely to the rare “appearance” of the animal. This would seem to imply that the colouring matter in the Tekhelet species was not so very small. In Purpura patula this is indeed the case. (Cf. above “une assez grande quantité de liqueur (a fairly large amount of liquor).“) Does the colour of the final development of its pigment also go to support the suggestion of P. patula as the hillazon-shel-Tekhelet?

An almost fatal objection against Purpura patula is offered by the fact that the species is a non-Mediterranean one. But may not P. patula though no longer known to live in the Mediterranean have lived in that sea along the Syrian coast until some 13 centuries ago or so? May not the final disappearance of the species from that region have been the real cause of the extinction of Tekhelet? This is extremely improbable if not utterly impossible.

A passage in the Sifre almost seems to indicate that the hillazon finally disappeared altogether, the fact being ascribed to the desire on the part of the Almighty to reserve the precious species for the use of the righteous in the Messianic age. “R. Jose said, Once in walking from Kezib to Tyre I met a certain old man. I greeted him and asked him ‘What are you gaining your living from?’ He said to me: ‘From the hillazon.’ I said to him: ‘Is it often found?’ He said to me: ‘By Heaven, there is a certain place in the sea where it (scilicet: the hillazon) is cast on mountains and lizards strike it and it dies and melts (or rots) away on the spot.’ I thereupon said to him: ‘By Heaven it is a souvenir which has been stored away for the righteous in the World to Come.'”

A variant reading which I prefer has: “it is shown (by this fact) that it (the hillazon) has been stored away for the righteous in the future time” (the Messianic age). That the passage refers to the Tekhelethillazon is clear from the context.

When the old man says that he makes his living from the hillazon without any limiting epithet he has only the Tekhelethillazon in view; for the Argamanhillazon had little interest for Jews in R. Jose’s time. Imagination pictures the righteous (צדיקים) in the Messianic age clad wholly in Tekhelet, the colour recalling the sky and the Throne of Glory. Compare Baba Batra 74a דעתירה דשריא תכילתא לאריקי לעלמא ראתי.

Does the expression “it is hidden” or “has been hidden” imply that the hillazon-shel-Tekhelet was not to be had in R. Jose’s days? But R. Jose lived centuries before the disappearance of Tekhelet shel Tzitzit! The passage perhaps admits of a satisfactory explanation. The rareness of the appearance of the hillazon would be generally ascribed to the fact that the species rarely visited the Palestinian waters. On being told by the “old man” that the hillazon was often cast ashore upon a certain out-of-the-way island, R. Jose inferred that the rareness in question was a special dispensation of providence. In the Messianic age the hillazon would appear in abundance in order to enable the just to clothe themselves wholly in Tekhelet.

If for the present all hope is to be abandoned of rediscovering the hillazon-shel-Tekhelet in some species of the genera Murex and Purpura we could do worse than suggest the Janthina as a not improbable identification. The identification readily occurred to me on beginning the study of the subject. I was glad to find afterwards that I had been anticipated by Gesenius. On further investigation I came across5 certain objections against the identification with Helix janthina in particular. In order that I might be able to walk on firmer ground I forwarded a copy of notes prepared by me on the identification of the Tekhelethillazon to Professor Joubin, Professor of Malacology at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle. The learned professor handed over my manuscript to Dr. L. Germain, Dr. des Sciences, preparateur at the Museum. The following is the text of Dr. Germain’s reply with reference to the identification of the species employed according to the Talmud for the dyeing of Tekhelet:



The only molluscs in the Mediterranean that can provide a blue dye are the Janthines. These animals are few in number in species. The type is Lamarck’s Janthina communis… which is linne’s Helix janthina. But this species does not live in the Mediterranean. The Janthines that inhabit this sea belong mainly to the following two species: Janthina pallida de Harvey207 and Janthina prolongata de Blainville.208

As you have seen from the texts quoted by you (p. 6 of your manuscript), these animals abundantly provide a bright and brilliant purplish blue coloring liquor.

The peculiarities attributed to the hillazon by the Talmudic tradition are, I believe, at least largely due to the modus vivendi of the Janthines. These animals are pelagic that is to say that they inhabit almost continuously the high seas on the surface and that, in any case, they never live fixed to the shore like the Purples, the Murex, etc … They stand on the surface of the waters, despite their light shell but nevertheless of an appreciable weight thanks to a float where they stick their eggs. Their coloration is a beautiful purplish blue, which can be easily confused with the color of the sea.

Finally, you will immediately see the importance of this last remark as a large number of pelagic animals, Janthines for some years are extraordinarily abundant, while in previous years they were rare or even very rare. When they are very abundant, the blows of the sea, even if not very violent, throw them back in large quantities on the shore where they are very easily collected, if still alive. It is undoubtedly to this peculiarity, which must not have escaped the inhabitants, that we must attribute the septuagenarian periodicity of the appearance of the hillazon of which the Talmud speaks. But this periodicity is not in regular reality: the truth is that, starting from a year when the Janthines are very abundant, we see for several years (3, 4 or 5 years, sometimes even more) these animals become much rarer, to be again extraordinarily common during a new season and so on.

I forgot to tell you that the 2 Janthines mentioned above living on the coast of Syria, including J. prolongata Blainville which provides the most abundant dye, The objections drawn from the authors cited by you (pp. 6 and 7 of your work) against this identification of the hillazon do not stand up to scrutiny since they are based on the Linnaeus Helix janthina, which is Lamarck’s Janthina communis, a species that does not live in the Mediterranean.”


Les seuls Mollusques de la Mediterranée qui puissent fournir une teinture bleue sont les Janthines. Ces animaux sont peu nombreux en espèces. Le type est le Janthina communis de Lamarck6 qui est l’Helix janthina de Linne.7 Mais cette espèce ne vit pas dans la Mediterrannée. Les Janthines qui habitent cette mer appartiennent surtout aux deux espèces suivantes: Janthina pallida de Harvey8 et Janthina prolongata de Blainville.9

Ainsi que vous l’avez vu par les textes cités par vous (p. 6 de votre manuscrit) ces animaux fournissent abondamment une liqueur colorante bleue violacée vive et brillante.

Les particularités attribuées au hillazon par la tradition Talmudique tiennent, je le crois, du moins, en grande partie au modus vivendi des Janthines. Ces animaux sont pélagiques c’est-à-dire qu’ils habitent presque continuellement la haute mer à la surface et que, dans tous les cas, ils ne vivent jamais fixés au rivage comme les Pourpres, les Murex, etc… Ils se tiennent à la surface des eaux, malgre leur coquille légère mais cependant d’un poids appréciable grace à un flotteur où ils collent leurs oeufs. Leur coloration est d’un beau bleu violacé, qui se confond assez facilement avec la couleur de la mer.

Enfin et vous verrez de suite l’importance de cette dernière remarque comme un grand nombre d’animaux pélagiques, les Janthines sont certaines années extraordinairement abondantes, alors que les années précédentes elles étaient rares ou même très rares. Quand elles sont très abondantes, les coups de mers, même peu violents, les rejettent en grande quantité sur le rivage où elles sont très facilement recueillies, même encore vivantes. C’est sans doute à cette particularité qui n’avait pas dû échapper aux habitants qu’il faut attribuer la périodicité septuagénaire de l’apparence du hillazon dont parle le Talmud. Mais cette périodicité n’est pas en réalite régulière: la vérité est que, en partant d’une année où les Janthines sont très abondantes, on voit pendant plusieurs années (3,4 ou 5 ans, parfois même davantage) ces animaux devenir beaucoup plus rares, pour être à nouveau extraordinairement communs pendant une nouvelle saison et ainsi de suite.

J’oubliais de vous dire que les 2 Janthines citées précédemment vivant sur les côtes de Syrie, notamment J. prolongata Blainville qui fournit le plus abondamment la teinture. Les objections tirées des auteurs cités par vous (p. 6 et 7 de votre travail) contre cette identification du hillazon ne résistent pas à l’examen puisqu’elles sont basées sur l’Helix janthina Linné, qui est la Janthina communis de Lamarck, espèce qui ne vit pas dans la Méditeranée.”


In the manuscript referred to by Dr. Germain I based the claims of Janthina upon four grounds.

  1. it satisfies (a);
  2. it gives a violet-blue dye;
  3. it is rare in the Mediterranean;
  4. its dye-secretion is fairly abundant in quantity. In Janthina prolongata the secretion in fact amounts to an ounce.

Dr. Germain’s initial assertion: “Les seuls Mollusques de la Méditerranée qui puissent fournir une teinture bleue sont les Janthines (The only molluscs in the Mediterranean that can provide a blue dye are the Janthines)” makes the case for Janthina exceedingly strong. Thus according to Dr. Germain even if we had not the traditional description of the Tekhelethillazon we should have had no other choice but Janthina. The element of blue in the pigment of Murex trunculus does not, it would seem, appear to my learned correspondent sufficiently pronounced to establish the claim of the species to the identification in question. Here, of course, comes in the question of the determination of the Tekhelet-colour. The subject will be treated later, but I may say here that Dr. Germain’s conception of the Tekhelet-nuance is in harmony with the trend of Jewish tradition. The pure-bluish will be very nearly satisfied. As Dr. Germain describes the dye as “teinture bleue (blue dye)” at the outset of his instructive reply, his later definition of the colour as “bleu violacé (purplish blue)” need not trouble much the pure-blue theory. The colour according to him would seem to be distinguishable from blue only with a certain amount of difficulty. It can also easily be turned into a pure blue. 


“By ammonia oxolate it gives a precipitate … of a dark blue color and by silver nitrate a very pleasant blue ash color.”  “Par l’oxolate d’ammoniaque elle donne un précipité … d’un bleu foncé et par le nitrate d’argent une couleur de cendre bleue très agréable.”10


(c) is admirably explained by Dr. Germain. We should read with Baraitha d’Tzitzit seven instead of seventy. As the interval varies between 3 to 5 or 6 years, “seven” roundly describes it.

No evidence has hitherto been found of the employment of the Janthina in ancient dyeing, but too great stress need not be laid upon the point. In view of the rarity of the occasions on which the species could be secured, no serious objection should be drawn from the absence of remains of Janthina shells on the sites of former dyeing establishments on the Phoenician coasts. Of the species known to have been used by the Phoenicians in purple-dyeing, the one which furnishes a dye answering at least to some extent to the tradition of the Tekhelet nuance is none other than the Murex trunculus. Did the Jews then, employ for the dyeing of Tekhelet a species of mollusc different from the one used by the Phoenicians for the manufacture of their Tekhelet? Granting that such was the case what explanation could we offer for this deviation? Was the Jewish Tekhelet different in nuance from that of the Phoenicians?

But the rendering of Tekhelet by Iakinthos in the LXX, in Philo, in Josephus, etc…. certainly disproves any such assumption. This Hellenic designation of the fabric most certainly was not confined to Tekhelet of Jewish provenance. Or was the difference between the Jewish and the Phoenician practice due to a change on the part of the latter? Tekhelet dyeing on the earliest times had been confined to the Janthina pigment; while the Phoenicians at a certain point of time abandoned the Janthina in favour of the Murex trunculus, the Jews continued to adhere exclusively to the former. For ritual Tekhelet the Law required cloth dyed with the Janthina pigment because the dyeing with it was believed to go back to Mosaic times, while the Tekhelet from Murex trunculus was looked upon as post-Mosaic. The hypothesis is, I think, hardly tenable. In the Talmud mention is made only of kala-ilan, a certain colour produced from a vegetable stuff, as an inadmissible substitute for ritual Tekhelet. Again, the tests prescribed for ascertaining the genuine character of a given sample of Tekhelet would have little meaning on that hypothesis. How could it be ascertained by means of the tests that the Tekhelet, though not kala-ilan, was dyed with the pigment of the hillazon-shel-Tekhelet, and not with that of Murex trunculus? Here, however, there is a loophole of escape for the hypothesis in question, should the dye of the Janthina prove to be faster than that of Murex trunculus; for then the tests might well distinguish Tekhelet dyed with Janthina from that dyed with M. trunculus. It may also be worth remarking that as the pigment of Murex trunculus is not fast to washing while the Tekhelet-dye, according to the Talmud, appears to possess greater fastness than indigo which is fast to washing, it follows that the Tekhelet secretion is faster than that of Murex trunculus. As, however, we do not know the exact nature of the drugs with which the hillazon secretion was mixed in the manufacture of Tekhelet, we cannot confidently assert that the Tekhelet pigment, whatever it may be, is faster than that of Murex trunculus.

An alternative hypothesis suggests itself: under the stress of the imperial legislation ever narrowing the use of purple, and monopolising its manufacture for the government, the production of Tekhelet with Murex trunculus became increasingly difficult and even dangerous for the Jewish dyers. Under these circumstances the Jews adopted Janthina, a species not envisaged by the imperial legislation, as a substitute for Murex trunculus.

This suggestion, too, cannot stand anything like a close examination. If such were the case the Talmud would have recorded descriptions of both M. trunculus and Janthina, or it would have indicated somehow that Tekhelet might be produced from another species than the one described. Besides, there is no trace whatever of a break in the hillazon tradition, nor is it at all likely that such a change would take place at so late a period as that which is required by the exigencies of the hypothesis.

The only alternative left is the supposition that all Tekhelet (Iakinthos) whether Jewish or Phoenician was dyed with the pigment of a species not used in purple dyeing in the stricter sense: This species, according to indications supplied by Jewish tradition may perhaps be the Janthina (i.e., Janthina prolongate Blainville and Janthina pallida Harwey. Cf. Dr. Germain).

Some explanation should be given of Dr. Germain’s statement: 


“The objections drawn from the authors cited by you (pp. 6 and 7 of your work) against this identification of the hillazon do not stand up to scrutiny since they are based on the Helix Janthina Linnaeus which is lamarck’s Janthina communis, a species that does not live in the Mediterranean.” “Les objections tirées des auteurs cités par vous (p. 6 et 7 de votre travail) contre cette identification du hillazon ne résistent pas à l’examen puisqu’elles sont basées sur l’Hélix Janthina Linné qui est la Janthina communis de Lamarck, espèce qui ne vit pas dans la Méditerranée.” 


In the manuscript to which Dr. Germain refers, I said: “Lewysohn11 raises two objections against the identification of the hillazon-shel-Tekhelet with the Helix Janthina:


“About the extraction of the juice, Sabbath 75a reported that the snails were squeezed out of the juice, noting that the juice of a vividly crushed snail is clearer and more valuable. – From this goes here that the talm. snail not the Helix Janthina… because on the one hand you only get the purple of this snail when you put it on glowing coals and on the other hand the juice of this animal, as long as it lives, is green or white; only when it dies does it get a beautiful purple-like color “Uber die Gewinnung des Saftes wird Sabbat 75a berichtet dass man den Schnecken den Saft ausquetschte, wobei bemerkt wird, dass der Saft einer lebendig zerquetschten Schnecke klarer und werthvoller ist. – Hieraus geht hier dass das talm. חלזון (hilazon) nicht die Helix Janthina… sein kann, denn einerseits gewinnt man den Purpur dieser Schnecke erst, wenn man sie auf glühende Kohlen legt andreseits ist der Saft diese Tieres, so lange es lebt, grün oder weiss; erst wenn es stirbt bekommt es eine schöne Purpur ähnliche Farbe.'”


The passage referred to by Lewysohn really requires elucidation.

…ת״ר הצד חלזון וכו׳ וליחייב נמי משום נתילת נשמה נשמה

כל כמה ראית ביה נשמה טפי ניחש ציה כי היכי דליצל צבעיה

“… the longer the hillazon retains its life, the better pleased is he who tries to extract its dye for then its pigment will produce a brighter hue.”12 The readings vary between דליצל “in order that it be bright” (or splendid), and דליצלח … “that it be successful.”

Dr. L. Germain to whom I forwarded a translation of the above Talmudic statement says in his reply with reference to this point:


Pliny and Aristotle are absolutely right; living Purples and Murex give a much higher coloring lique than that provided by dead animals. “ “Pline et Aristote ont parfaitement raison; les Pourpres et Murex vivants donnent une liquer colorante bien supérieure à celle fournie par les animaux morts.”

This of course applied to the Talmud as well. The matter, however, is not quite clear to me. Aristotle, who is blindly followed by Pliny, informs us that “those who collect the flower (i.e, dye-secretion) of the hillazon endeavour to bruise them while they are alive, for if they should die before they are bruised they cast out the flower together with their life.”13 Aristotle, it is thus seen, does not really say that the quality of the dye varies according to whether the dye was extracted before or after the animal’s death.

The Talmud, on the other hand, states a fact of which apparently no mention is made by Aristotle.

Does the Janthina satisfy Sabbath 75a? Or does the passage in question refer only to the Argaman-species? The first question I must leave for the present unanswered. With regard to the second, I should say that prime facie (based on the first impression) one would be inclined to say that the text has in view both species, but it is really difficult to decide the point.

With regard to the fastness of the dye of Janthina, Dr. Germain states in one of his replies to me: 


“We do not know anything at present about the inalterability of the colouring liquor of Janthina. However, it is extremely likely that its dye has the same properties as that derived from Murex and Buccina.” “Nous ne savons rien, actuellement, d’absolument precis en ce qui concerne l’inaltérabilité de la liqueur colorante de la Janthina. Il est cependant extrêmement probable que se colorant possède les mêmes propriétés que celui tiré des Murex et des Buccina.”





  1. Pali, Testacea utriusque Sicilidae (1795), PI. XLIX, fig. 7.
  2. Martini, Friedrich, Neues Systematisches Conchyliencabinet, Nürnberg ( 1769-1829), v.III, Table 115, fig. 1064.
  3. Adamson, Michel, Histoire Naturelle du Senegal, Coquillages, Paris (1757), p. 106.
  4. Pliny, ibid.. Bk. IX, ch. 46: “liquoris hic minimi…”
  5. Lewysohn, ibid.
  6.  Lamarck, Jean Baptiste, Histoire Naturelle des Animaux sans vertèbres, Paris (1822), v.VI, part II, p. 206.
  7. Linné, Carl von. Systema Naturae. 13th ed. Wien (1767-70), p. 1246.
  8.  Thompson, Ann. Natur. History( 1846), II, fig. 6.
  9. Dictionn. hist, natur( 1822), XXIV, p. 156.
  10. Lesson, René, “Voyage autour du Monde,יי ZoologieU, Paris (1826), p. 367 “Janthina prolongata.”
  11. Lewysohn, ibid., p. 281, Par. 365.
  12. Shabbat 75a.
  13. Aristotle, Historia Animalium, Bk. V, ch. 15.