I. Further Study of R. Meir’s Homily in its Various Recensions; Maimonides’ Definition of Tekhelet

Seeing that what R. Meir’s saying really aims at is the establishing of a similarity between the Tekhelet-colour and that of the Throne of Glory which is “like the sapphire stone” what need was there, we may well inquire, for bringing in the “sky” (רקיע) and the sea (ים)? Why not say directly “Tekhelet is like unto the sapphire stone and the sapphire stone is like unto the Throne of Glory”? Was not the resemblance between Tekhelet and the sapphire close enough? Emphanius states: “The sapphire presents the appearance of the blackish blatta purple.” Porphyras tes melaines to eidos. Is the porphyra melaine not to be identified with Tekhelet or Iakinthos?

Perhaps the introduction of intermediary links is due to the consideration that owing to the comparative rarity of the sapphire, the explanation if based on the similarity of that gem alone might fail to carry conviction into the minds of many. But this hardly accounts for the presence of both (the sky) and (the sea). Why did not R. Meir simply say “Tekhelet is like the sky and the sky is like the sapphire and the sapphire is like the Throne of Glory?” Because the sky-colour is not always deep blue?

(f) actually omits “the sea” but in view of the fact that it appears in a very late collection (c. middle of the 8th century) it may be doubted whether that recension is to be preferred to those recorded in the Talmud and in the Sifre. Was the Tekhelet colour really more like the colour of the sea than that of the serene Palestinian sky? Rashi (Sotah 17a) appears to have thought so:1

איצטריכו כל הני משום דתכלת לא דמי לרקיע כל כך אלא דומה לדומה

On Menahot 43b. he is apparently less critical, introducing an homiletic element into his interpretation.

דומה לים שנעשו בו נסים לישראל … וכתיב ספיר. ובכסא הכבוד

כתיב ספיר אלמא רקיע כבמחזה כסא ותכלת לים וים לרקיע

In explaining, however, the reference to “the sea” as intended to be reminiscent of the miracles God wrought for Israel on the Red sea, Rashi hints at the same time that Tekhelet was more like the sea than the sky.2 On penetrating his meaning this is seen not to be doubleness of motive: the explanation of the presence of yam (the sea) as due to the scientific exactness on the part of the author (R. Meir), really impairs the force of the theory; for if the resemblance of Tekhelet to the sky = colour of the Throne of Glory is the reason of its having been chosen for the tzitzit, then since Tekhelet is rather more like the sea, another colour, one more nearly reproducing the sky colour should have been prescribed by the Torah for that purpose. It is this objection which Rashi very probably wishes to anticipate by the hint that Tekhelet has the additional recommendation of being reminiscent of the miracles performed on the sea.

Whether this is what R. Meir actually meant is at least dubious. R. Meir’s associates would often acknowledge their inability to penetrate the depth of his mind.3 We should not be more ambitious than they. Rashi’s explanation of ים as reminiscent of קריעת ים סוף is derived from an anonymous homily in the Sifre.

“Why is it called Tekhelet? … Aliter: because the Egyptians were annihilated in the sea.”4 This presupposes the likeness of Tekhelet to the colour of the sea. It is not impossible that originally there existed two distinct sayings of Rabbi Meir:

(a) תכלה דומה לים  “Tekhelet is like unto the sea,” as in the Sifre

(b) תכלת דומה לרקיע ורקיע דומה וכו׳ “Tekhelet is like unto the sky and the sky is like unto, etc.” Afterwards the two sayings may have melted into one producing “Tekhelet is like unto the sea, etc.”

(f) however, in view of its late setting, can hardly be adduced in support of this hypothesis: the omission of yam in that recension may be due to a desire for conciseness on the part of the compiler.

Again, it is possible that R. Meir who was great both as a popular preacher and as an academic teacher would in his popular discourses explain Tekhelet as reminiscent of the miracles of the sea reserving the exposition of his theory connecting Tekhelet with the Throne of Glory for his esoteric lectures to the few elect. Posterity may have combined the two into one.

Maimonides omits yam in his definition of Tekhelet:

והתכלת האמורה בתורה בכל מקום היא הצמר הצבוע כפתוך שבכחול

וזוהי דמות הרקיע הנראית לעין השמש בטהרו של רקיע

It is noteworthy that in his definition of Tekhelet as the deep blue of the clear sky in bright sunshine, Maimonides takes care to avoid the use of the vague verb damah (דמה) “to be like.” Cf…. כפתוך שבכחול וזו היא דמות וכו׳ (Cf. Arabic (الكحلة, الكدل (אלכחל “כוחל (

On the other hand, in describing the hillazon he says of its colour שדומה עינו לעין תכלת “it resembles that of Tekhelet.”

Is Maimonides’ definition derived from some old traditional sources such as for instance the now lost ירושלמי קדשים? Had it been based upon R. Meir’s homily alone, one may argue, it would have been less direct and precise. Maimonides’ definition perhaps excludes all but pure (deep) blue. It is however possible that Maimonides was simply guided by the current traditional rendering of Tekhelet  by اسمانجون אסמאנגון  sky-colour לונאסמא. 5

The presence of asabim עשבים in (d) and (e)6 calls for explanation. If we take asabim in the ordinary sense of common grass it forms a serious difficulty. Rashi’s explanation of yam is inapplicable here; for it would follow according to (d) that the colour of asabim is more like that of the sky than is the colour of the sea, and according to (e) that Tekhelet is more like the colour of asabim than of yam.

Now even assuming that blue and green are here incorrectly classed as variations of one colour we cannot admit that the deep blue of the Mediterranean was regarded as less similar to sky-colour than the colour of common grass, or which amounts to the same that the colour of the Mediterranean was looked upon as having greater resemblance to common grass than to the sky. That Tekhelet was grass-green, which would result from (e) is just as, if not more, inadmissible.

Frantz Delitzsch7 sets down the mention of asabim simply to a confusion of blue with green. This however does not explain the purpose served by the introduction of asabim.

It is in fact somewhat unjust to load R. Meir and his fellow Tanaites with colour blindness. The decision of certain ritualistic questions required a particularly fine colour sense. It is true that ירוק (yarok)8 covers both green and blue, but this is rather a case of classification than of confusion. For practical purposes the Talmudists divided colour into four classes:

(1) – shahor, black, שחור

(2) – adom, red, אדום

(3) –  yarok, green, yellow and blue, ירוק

(4) – lavan, white לבן

Very deep blue shades would in strict halakhah be referred rather to black.9 Paler or brighter blue shades would be classed under yarok.

It is not impossible that the chain of similitudes leading to the comparison of Tekhelet with the Throne of Glory is not meant as a colour scale at all: the purport may be to trace the similitude of the Throne of Glory throughout the universe. Tekhelet is like the sea and the sea is like grass (yarok) which may be regarded as constituting the coloration of the earth; the earth and the sea therefore present colours congeneric with Tekhelet; similarly the sky which resembles the Throne of Glory is congeneric in colour with the sea and the earth: hence the whole of nature reminds man of the divine presence. The same explanation holds for (e) only that there the earth begins the series.

Lastly it is, I think, not improbable that we really have here a series of colour gradations, but that asabim is used in a limited sense, standing for blue plants or flowers, the species being too well known to need particularisation. The reference may be to the hyacinth or to some other deep blue plant.10 On this hypothesis (e) would have a greater claim to correctness than (d). Though asabim generally denotes common grass, it is also used for flowers of various colours. In reality it covers all plants not fit for human consumption. 11

Very often asabim occurs in association with the weeding of grain.12 Now we know that blue flowers such as the blue-bottle for instance are largely represented among grain weeds. It is possible that in Palestine this was the case to a very great extent. The omission of asabim in (a) (b) and (c) might be due to a desire to obviate misconception. Similarly the position of asabim in (d) may have been occasioned by a desire to avoid being misunderstood as defining Tekhelet as green “the sea is like asabim” would not be so easily misinterpreted.

Neither Bochart nor Braun make mention of the occurrence of asabim in variant recensions of R. Meir’s saying. Both authors, however, refer to Aben Ezra’s assertion on the authority of the Talmudic sages (Rashi 25:4) that Tekhelet is yarok. ואנו נסמוך על רז”ל שהוא ירוק

It is, however, doubtful whether Aben Ezra means green or blue. If the former, his authorities must have been the recensions (e) and (g) “‘Tekhelet is like asabim.”

Dr. Dedekind is of the opinion that Aben Ezra and his authorities in describing Tekhelet as yarok (green according to Bochart and Braun) must have had in mind the green stage in the development of the purpurigenic matter.13 Dr. Dedekind14 refers to a specimen of green purple presented to him by the late Lacaze-Duthiers which owes its tint to the arresting of the photographic development at the green stage. Aben Ezra, Dr. Dedekind thinks, may have come across green purple. I very much doubt the correctness of this view. Aben Ezra was well informed; he must have known that Tekhelet was not the only variety of purple.

If he happened to see purple of a green tint would he on that account jump to the conclusion that Tekhelet must have been green? It might, however, be rejoined that Aben Ezra knowing that Argaman was red15 and holding that there were only two varieties of purple, Tekhelet and Argaman, would have no choice but to identify Tekhelet with green and purple, if the latter variety was pointed out to him as genuine purple. But Aben Ezra really refers to Talmudic or Midrashic authority and not to his personal experience. Dr. Dedekind in a private communication to me with reference to my treatment of asabim draws attention to his explanation of Aben Ezra’s yarok. Tekhelet domeh l’asabim “”Tekhelet is like grass” can, however, hardly be so interpreted: the green stage of development is as much a characteristic of Argaman as of Tekhelet. Again it was certainly to the final tone not to any of the transitory stages that the name Tekhelet was given. A theory devised for explaining the significance of Tekhelet would have had little meaning if it were only applicable to a passing stage of the dyeing and one, moreover, which is common to all purple varieties. How would Dr. Dedekind explain asabim domim l’yam, etc. ועשבים דומים לים “and grass is like the sea.”?



  1. Sotah 17a; Cf. Hullin 47b.
  2. ״ותכלת לים וים לרקיע״
  3. עירובין י״ג, ע״ב
  4. te-kelet from Kalah: to become annihilated, extinct, etc.; See Hagigah, 13899 אין דורשין במעשי המרכבה and, cf. Megillah 25a; אין מפסירין במרכבה ד יהודה מתיר חנא קמא ד״ ד יהודה ד מאיר
  5. See;אסמאנגון; Cf. Arabic; אלכחל ,אלכחלה.
  6.  (g) may be left out.
  7. Delitsch, Frantz, Iris, Farbenstudien und Blumenstücke, Leizpig ( 1888), p. 15.
  8. See: שער אפרים.ז0 ;יורה דעה, ס׳ ל״ח ib.
  9. See:ככק ולא וכר, חולין מ״ג
  10. Cf. Sifri:עשבים … ירוקים … שחורים … אדומים וכר; כ׳ האזינו
  11. See: ירושלמי, שביעית Pietrekon ed., p. 18b.
  12. זרעים Passim.
  13. See Aben Ezra, ch. I, passim & commentary on the Pentateuch.
  14. See: Dedekind, Beitrag, v.IV, p. 363, etc.; also: Archives de Zoologie, exp. et gen., Paris (1848).
  15. Aben Ezra; Commentary on Exodus Ch. 25.