K. Tekhelet Colour Interpretations

The Gaonic Tradition; Karaitic Interpretation.

The earliest extant rendering of Tekhelet by an Arabic word is that occurring in a responsum of R. Nahshon Gaon “Rabbi Meir (said) “Tekhelet like the sea and the sea is like the sky and the sky is like the Throne of Glory’: its Arabic name למאסמא 1 2“. This doubtless embodies the oral tradition of the Academies. R. Saadya Gaon renders Tekhelet by “al samanjun (اسمنجون)3. The Karaites, the bitter antagonists of the Talmud and the Geonim, here follow the traditional rendering.4

The Samaritan Tradition.

Among the Samaritans Tekhelet would seem to have been extinct for centuries. They have lost all particular knowledge of the matter but have nevertheless preserved the tradition of the colour.

It would appear that on the extinction of Tekhelet the Samaritan authorities interpreting the significance of the rite as symbolic of the thread of Tekhelet on which was suspended the High Priest’s breast plate devised to replace the Tekhelet in such a way as to retain the symbolism.

I corresponded on the subject with the present High Priest of the Samaritans Jacob ben Aharon of Nablus (Shekhem), Palestine.5

The precise nature of the substitute for Tekhelet is not quite clear to me from the High Priest’s reply.

In compliance with my wish to have some important extracts with reference to Tekhelet from the Samaritan authoritative commentaries on the Pentateuch, the High Priest forwarded me a copy of two such passages from אב חסדה הצורי (Abu Al-Hasan of Tyre אבו אל-חסן הצורי ) and אב סכוה סעד הדנפי respectively. In the extract from אב חסדה Tekhelet is defined as … צבע (אלאזרק) הפתוח אסמג׳ון הוא מראה השמים. In their explanations of the significance of tzitzit and Tekhelet these commentators practically reproduce the Jewish Aggadah and Rashi.

The Tekhelet-colour According to Rashi.

Reference has already been made to Aben Ezra’s definition of Tekhelet as yarok. Rashi the great Franco-Jewish exegete likewise interprets the word as .צבע ירוק6

Does Rashi understand by yarok, green or blue? From his comment תכלת ירוק הוא וקרוב לצבע כרתי שקורץ פור״ש7, and his comment8 on כל מיני צבעונין יפין לחלום חוץ מן תכלת ירוק הוא ומי שפניו ירוקים חולה הוא it appears that he conceived the Tekhelet colour as green playing into bluish. The translation current in the Jewish schools which at least in an instance like this undoubtedly is derived from good old tradition knows only of one rendering of Tekhelet, viz., blue. There can be no doubt that this was also the usual rendering in Rashi’s days. The school translation was not exactly based upon R. Meir’s saying but went back to oral tradition dating from the time the Jews first settled in Germany, France, etc. Rashi’s view of Tekhelet shows that he preferred consulting written sources, to relying upon oral tradition. According to him, as already explained, the position of Yam (sea) in R. Meir’s famous homily indicates that the nearest likeness of the Tekhelet colour is presented by the sea. Rashi would therefore turn to the sea for an illustration of what Tekhelet must have looked like.

He would seem to have derived his idea of the sea colour from the British Channel or from the North Sea which as we know are of a green tint here and there playing into bluish. Hence, so at least it seems to me, he came to regard Tekhelet as essentially a green colour playing into blue.

Rashi is not however consistent throughout. In his commentary9 reproducing a saying found in the Sifre, Rashi states that Tekhelet resembled the dark sky at dusk (sombre blue): “דומה לרקיע המשחיר לעת ערב.”



  1. 2a לונמסמא See Ch. V, p. 156, note ib.
  2. (i.e., sky colour) (لون السماء lawn alsama’ee https://translate.google.com/?sl=en&tl=ar&text=sky%20color&op=translate)
  3. colour of the sky (https://translate.google.com/?sl=ar&tl=en&text=%D8%A7%D8%B3%D9%85%D9%86%D8%AC%D9%88%D9%86&op=translate)
  4. See Jephath the Karaite’s commentary on the Pentateuch, section שלח Cf. above, n. 310; and Elijah ben Aharon the Karaite: “ציצית גן עדן”
  5. בשם ה׳י
    → → שלום
    אנחנו נעשה ציציות מן שנים עשר מין ממיני שנים עשר האבנים אשר על חשן האפוד מתרככת על פתיל תכלת:
    וגלל עשותה מספר שנים ושלשה ציצה.
    אבותינו עשו תכלת היה בימיהם משי כמו השמים והוו יעשו פתיל ממנו ואנחנו נעשה הנמצא ביומינו ככה יכלתן— ביום החמישי בשבוע י״ד לחדש הרביעי והוא תמוז שנת נ״ב וה״ק וג׳ אלף למושב ישראל לארץ כנען:
    יעקב בן אהרן
    הכהן הגדול לעדת השמרן בשכם
    היום יום ב׳ בשבוע כ״ב לחדש אב והוא החמישי שנת נ״ב וה״ק וג׳ אלף לישראל.
    … תשובה על השאלות שאלתה אתם:
    א) צבע התכלת האמת אקרן כמו צבע השמים: לא מדם (החלזון,) ולא מעורנו(?): רק נעשה אתו מן שנים עשר מראה:
    ב) התכלת אין דומה אקרו ולא אנחנו נעשה כה:
    ג) התכלת מצבוע שנים עשר מראה
    ד) התכלת עתקנו מאבותינו עשותה כאשר דברתי לך מלמעלה רק מעתקים אן אבותינו הראשונים עשו אתה מראהו כמראה השמים
    ה) פתיל התכלת הוא אינו מצמר· ולא מפשתים· רק שש משזר (חריר)
    בלשון ערבי —
    יעקב בן אהרן הכהן בשכם
  6.  Cf. Pentateuch Commentary Exod. 25.
  7. Ib. ברכות, ט ע״ב.
  8. Ib. ברכות נ״ז, ע״ב.
  9.  Num. Ch. XV, v.37.