A. Fibres Eligible for Ritual Tekhelet.

No other material but wool was admissible for Tekhelet, whether Tekhelet shel mikdash (sacerdotal and cultural) or Tekhelet shel tzitzit (see Excursus). תכלת עמרא הוא declares the Talmud:1Tekhelet is woollen.” The same applies to Argaman and tola’at shani (scarlet) as far as these stuffs were employed in the Sanctuary.

In Greek and Latin authors, Porphyra, Purpura and their derivatives stand for woollen or silken stuff dyed with purple pigment. Silk purple was probably not unknown in Phoenicia and Palestine, but its use in the temple was excluded by tradition. There can be but little doubt that purple dyeing in its early stages was confined to wool. Silk purple being a later extension of the industry naturally failed to gain admission into the Sanctuary, or the ritual (tzitzit).

Luther’s rendering of Tekhelet by “Gelbe Seide” is doubly wrong.

It would be interesting to trace the source of Luther’s error. He may have been misled by Aben Ezra on Esther 1,6. Aben Ezra, however, never meant his remark והיא משי to be universally applicable.2

Abrabanel’s argument, needless to say, is devoid of the slightest force. As minister of the finances to Ferdinand, Abrabanel would often see purple. It would seem that the purple fabrics used at the Spanish court consisted exclusively of silk. It was probably that circumstance which caused Abrabanel to write on the Torah in this instance like a chancellor of the Exchequer.

One wonders how Abrabanel could so completely lose sight of several sugyot in the Talmud3 and of the Mishnah.4

B. The Stage at Which the Dyeing Took Place.


“The ancient purple wool fabrics had not been dyed in yarns or even in fabric, but raw. It was only from the dyeing factory that the purple wool passed into the spinning mill and from there into the weaving mill. “Die antiken purpurnen Wollstoffe waren nicht im Garne oder gar im Gewebe, sondern roh gefärbt worden. Erst aus der Färberei ging die Purpurwolle in die Spinnerei über und von dort in die Weberei.”5


Tekhelet seems to have formed no exception to the rule. The Mishnah6 in enumerating the thirty-nine principal labours which are forbidden on Sabbath takes as an illustration of some of these the processes connected with the making of woollen cloth: in the series which begins with the shearing of the wool, dyeing precedes spinning and weaving. The order in this, as well as in the other series is, as the Gemara states, in strict accordance with fact. I should add that the series are based upon the operations carried out in connection with the construction of the Tabernacle and have therefore in view the manufacture of Tekhelet, etc…

Moed Katan 19a speaks of the spinning of ” Tekhelet for tzitzit“:

וטווה על יריבו תכלת לציציתו בין במדן בין בפלך.

Though Tekhelet sometimes stands in the Talmud for tzitzit as a whole, yet the exprèssion “Tekhelet for tzitzit” hardly leaves a doubt that Tekhelet in the strict sense is meant here. Eruvin 96b points in the same direction.

Nowhere, however, is there an express statement declaring the order to be an essential requirement, though indeed Pentateuchal authority might be adduced as pointing in that direction.

“And every man, with whom was found Tekhelet and Argaman, … brought there.”7 “And all the women that were wise hearted spun with their hands, and they brought that which they had spun of the Tekhelet, and of the Argaman, etc.. .”8 V.23 speaks of dyed raw wool, while v.25 refers to the spinning of the coloured materials.

From Josephus we further learn that the wool for the use of the Tabernacle was in some cases dyed when still attached to the skin. But it is hard to discover what authority he may have had for the additional information he thus incidentally affords us.9

A passage in the Midrash Tanhuma might be mistaken as affording evidence of the prevalence of a practice in certain Palestinian purple factories of having the wool dyed before its being shorn off the skin, but the text is palpably corrupt and on being duly corrected the passage indicates nothing of the kind.10

C. Process of Dyeing as Recorded in the Talmud.

A recipe in the proper sense for the dyeing of lekhelet is not to be found anywhere, at least so far as I am aware of. The account given by R. Samuel b. Judah leaves very much to be desired. “Abayi said to R. Samuel b. Judah, ‘That Tekhelet how do ye dye it?’ He said to him. ‘We take (lit. bring) hillazon blood and drugs (sammanin) put them into a kettle, boil the mixture, and then take out something of the liquid in an egg-shell, and test the sample with a bit of (soft) wool.11 We throw away that egg-shell and burn the trial sample of wool.'” The following inferences are to be drawn from this account:

Wool dyed as a trial sample is unfit (i.e., for ritual Tekhelet): 2) Tekhelet must be dyed “lishmah ” (for its own sake); the testing of the dye renders it unfit (i.e., for ritual Tekhelet, etc.. .).12

Are we to infer from the conciseness of R. Samuel’s answer that Abayi had only asked for information in so far as concerning the halakhic aspect of the dyeing process? No particulars are given about the “drugs” employed together with the blood derived from the hillazon. This is very unfortunate. Commentators differ. “It is very strange that extraneous matter should have been mixed with the Tekhelet dye, but perhaps it was the combination of the hillazon pigment with these drugs that constituted the Tekhelet dye.”13

Rashi’s note is of extreme importance: “ve’sammanim. “It is the practice of dyers to imbue cloth with serif שרף which is called “beitze.” Rashi refers to the treatment of cloth with alum-mordant in order to fix the colour to the fibre. (German: ‘AlaunBeitze’). The commentator’s object is evidently to meet by anticipation the difficulty referred to in the Tosaphot. The sammanim, Rashi holds, are simply mordants and have nothing to do with the production of the colour. Maimonides, it would appear, is of the opinion that the drugs (sammanim) only served to cleanse the dye from impurities: “How is Tekhelet dyed? The wool is soaked in chalk and washed until it is clean, and then boiled with ‘ahala ‘ and the like, as is the practice of dyers, in order to prepare the wool for absorbing the colour. The blood of the hillazon is then put into the vat (kettle) together with drugs such as kimonia (cimolia), as is usual in dyeing; the liquid having been raised to a boiling heat; the wool is immersed therein, remaining in that condition until it has the colour of the sky and this is the Tekhelet used for tzitzit (Tekhelet shel tzitzit).14

Cimolia is a cleansing substance, reference to which occurs several times in Pliny.15

Samuel b. Hofni leaves us somewhat in the dark as to his view on the question. “The information has come down to us that it (Tekhelet) was dyed with the blood of an aquine (marine) animal called hillazon mixed with another (substance).”16

This rather gives the impression that the sammanim formed an essential part of the dye, assisting in the production of the requisite colour.

Appearances, in the Talmud, I feel, point in the opposite direction. The absence of all specification of the sammanim in question, tends to indicate that the latter stuffs were not essential to the production of the colour. But if R. Samuel b. Judah, Abbayi’s informant, was under the impression that the latter was only interested in the halakhic aspect of the dyeing process; then R. Samuel’s silence on the nature and specification of the sammanim would not warrant the inference which seems to underlie Samuel ben Hofni’s statement. It is hard to arrive at a definite conclusion.



  1. Yevamot 4b.
  2. Compare: Abrabanel’s commentary on Exodus 25.
    ״עוד אמר תכלת וארגמן ותולעת שני. והרלב״ג כתב שהיה כל זה צמר במראות והצבעים ההם. ואין זה נכון כי הצמר קרא אותו הכתוב ע1ים אבל התכלת והארגמן ותולעת השני הם כולם משי וכו,.״
  3. See Excursus to this chapter. A curious document ascribed to a Roman consul makes mention of “silk Tekhelet” worn by the Levites in the procession which took place annually seven days before the Day of Atonement.
  4. Kil’aim ch. 9: See שבט יהודה by Judah ibn Virgo and סדר דורות Warsaw (1897), p. 167.
  5. Schmidt, A., ibid., p. 153.
  6. Cf. שבת, פרק כלל גדול, משנה ב׳.
  7. Exodus ch. 35, v.23.
  8. Idem, v.25.
  9. It has no support in the Masoretic Text, nor is it sustained by the LXX.
  10. ד הושעיא הגדול שונה אם רוב אנשי העיר מלאכתו דרך מותר לו לישא את כפיו כשם שיש בדרום עירות צבעות ארגמן ומבין ידיהם צבועות וכו׳
    Tanhuma section נשא Lublin (1896). Correct: ״,עירות צובעות ארגמן״ “towns engaging in the dyeing of Argaman.”
  11.  Cf. Pliny, IX, 38: “vellus elutriatum mergitus in experimentum et dones spin satis fiat uritem liquor.”
  12.  Menahot 42b.
  13.  Tosaphot, ib.
  14. Maimonides, Hilkhot tzitzit, II, 2. With reference to this preparation of the wool alluded to by Maimonides. compare Pliny, (ib., 9, 3) “elutriatum velus, “and Plato (Critias, 11).
  15. Pliny, ib., XX, 81, etc.
  16. See my article in J.Q.R. July 1914.