A. Allusions and References to Imitation Purple in Homer, Pliny, and Vitruvius.

Imitations of purple with vegetable dyestuff would seem to have been pretty common already in Homeric times, if the expression “aliporphyra” 1 has been rightly explained as signifying marine in contradistinction to vegetable or imitation purple. Personally I am not quite sure about this. Ctesias speaks of the imitation of purple in India by the means of a dye obtained from certain native plants in terms which give the impression that in his time the vegetable purple (Porphyra sotane)2 was still very rare among the Greeks. Not only in Homeric times but even centuries after, the term “porphyra” used without any qualifying epithet stood for nothing but marine conchylian purple. The LXX in rendering Argaman, which as we know uses marine purple, never employs any other expression than “porphyra.” Aquilas especially would have indicated somehow the marine character of Argaman if ambiguity were possible.

The coining however of a special word aliporphyra for distinguishing marine from botanic purple would presuppose a high degree of possibility of confusion on the point in very early times.

Are we to suppose that “porphyra” originally designated a vegetable or botanic dye being either the names of the plant producing it or owing its appellation to some other reason; that the marine purple was named “porphyra” on account of its resemblance in colour to the latter; and lastly that in Homeric times the marine purple had not yet completely superseded its vegetable predecessor, so that it was necessary to distinguish the former through characterising it as sea purple “aliporphyra”?

What occasion is there, besides, in those particular passages for emphasizing the marine origin of the “porphyra” referred to?

May not “aliporphyra” rather mean sea-like purple, resembling the colour of the Mediterranean sea, dark sapphire blue, Tekhelet, as distinct from the brighter or reddish purple, Argaman?

But whether Homer alludes to “sotane porphyra” or not, Pliny and Vitruvius speak plainly of purple imitations with vegetable dye.3

I cannot recall any references to tests in Greek and Latin authors. In the majority of cases, probably, the test would consist in subjecting the fabric to a thorough washing and rubbing with soap and scalding water.

B. Tests for Tekhelet in the Talmud.

For Tekhelet the Talmud records two testing processes: one due to R. Isaac b. R. Jehuda,(Menahot 43.) the other to R. Avira in whose name it was reported by R. Ada.4 In the first case (I) a sample of the wool in question was allowed to soak overnight in a mixture of alumine, fenugrec juice and urine forty days old5 (or according to a variant reading urine of a forty days old child). If the colour remained unimpaired the Tekhelet was proved genuine. The other test (II) consisted in putting some of the wool into an over fermented dough made of barley flour, and baking the dough. If after the baking operation was over, the sample on being taken out showed a change for the better in the quality of the colour, the wool would be pronounced genuine Tekhelet, if for the worse, it would be rejected.6

The Tekhelet imitations were usually made with indigo which being fast to light and washing could not be easily detected as a fraud.

C. Chemical Aspects of the Tests.

In test (I) we miss an indication of the proportions in which the several constituents are to be mixed. What is the value of these tests from the chemical point of view? Professor A.C. Green, professor of dyeing and tinctorial chemistry at the University of Leeds, informs me in his reply7 to this and other questions:

1) — It would seem clear from the quotations given that the tests prescribed have the object of ascertaining whether the dye is easily ‘reduced’ (hydrogenated). Indigo is more readily hydrogenated and removed from the fibre in the form of its leuco compound than is the brominated indigo (of which the purple probably chiefly consists). In both cases the action doubtless depends on the evolution of hydrogen by the fermenting organic matter.

— It seems likely that the Tekhelet was faster than indigo.

— Indigo like all ‘vat’ dyes is very fast to soap. In pale and medium shades it is not very fast to light, in which respect it is surpassed by the brominated indigos.

— Brominated indigos are all brighter in shade than indigo itself.

— All ‘vat’ dyes are fixed on the fibre by oxidation. In the bath the dye is not present as such but as a soluble leuco or hydro compound. If the oxidation on the fibre is not complete the dye will be easily removed by washing.”

D. Origin of the Tests.

We are told absolutely nothing about the authorship of these tests whether they were invented by the Amorains whose names they bear or whether they really dated from earlier times.

The Tosephta Menahot8 which contains the important halakhah declaring all nonhillazon Tekhelet unfit, mentions nothing about the existence of a criterion for distinguishing false from true Tekhelet, nor is there any allusion to a test of this nature in the Baraita d’tzitzit.

On the other hand the Baraitha d’tzitzit states that Tekhelet picked up at random, though elaborated in the form of tzitzit, is ritually unfit because Tekhelet for tzitzit must be obtained from a dealer of recognised competence and reliability:

המוצא תכלת אעפ״י שהיא שזורה פסולה שאין לוקחין תכלת אלא מן המומחה.

Partially disagreeing with this an halakhah states in the Talmud9 that if the Tekhelet in the above case is in the form of threads, thus indicating its destination for tzitzit, it is fit.

In the Talmud the halakhah is cited in the name of the Amora R. Elazar, a description which would seem to indicate that it was not current as a Tanaitic baraitha. But R. Zera at any rate regarded it as Tanaitic for he said to his son Ahabah, “Go out and communicate to them the baraitha.”

א״ר אלעזר המוצא תכלת בשוק לשונות פסולין חוטין מופקין כשרה R. Zera’s version however shows a certain improvement. Raba, it is true, somewhat angrily exclaimed “Does the mere fact of its being communicated by Ahaba the son of R. Zera hang it round with jewels?” But the great Amora does not thereby convey a suspicion about its Tanaitic origin.

Neither, however, in the form in which it is quoted in the name of R. Elazar, nor in that expressed by R. Zera with a claim to Tanaitic origin, is there a statement giving the reason for the halakhah as is the case in the Baraitha d’tzitzit. שאין לוקחין וכו

From the Talmudic discussion it is clear that the ground is lishmah (לשמה) that it is the rejection in the one case is due to the apprehension that the Tekhelet might be shelo lishmah or not specially dyed and prepared for tzitzit; the acceptance in the other case is based on indications in the Tekhelet in question that it was specially worked for tzitzit.10 But there is no allusion in the Sugya by Erubin 96 to the possibility of the Tekhelet being kala-ilan or imitation Tekhelet.

Does then the Baraitha imply that this must be ascertained by means of testing? It would then follow that a testing process for Tekhelet already existed in Tanaitic times. But the inference is at least dubious. The dictum of the Baraitha d’tzitzit, that Tekhelet must be obtained from a person of recognised trustworthiness and competence, also occurs in the Talmud Menahot 43. Does not this conflict with Erubin 96b? The Tosaphists indeed comment upon the difficulty. Their solution amounts to saying that just because of the law in rejection of Tekhelet obtained from a doubtful source, there is a strong presumption that Tekhelet bearing internal evidence of its having been prepared for tzitzit by its owner, emanates from a reliable source. This might do as far as concerns the Babylonian Talmud, but it fails to reconcile the Palestinian Baraitha d’tzitzit with the former. The latter is outspoken enough.

The Palestinian practice would seem to have been stricter in this respect than that obtaining in Babylonia.

E. The Character of the Tests Are They Obligatory, or Optional?

We are now brought face to face with a difficult question: Were those tests obligatory? Had Tekhelet obtained from a trustworthy and competent source to be submitted to a test before being passed as Kosher (ritually fit)? A baraitha quoted in Menahot 43b states: “There exists no test for Tekhelet, it must not be obtained from any one but a person of acknowledged competence and reliability.”

תכלת אין לה כריקה אינה ניקחת אלא מן המומחה.

Prima facie this conflicts with R. Isaac b. Judah and R. Avira as reported by R. Ada who prescribe tests for Tekhelet. The Talmud notes the contradiction. A modern method of dealing with discordant tests would have steered clear of the difficulty by introducing the factors of time and evolution: In Tannaic times the tests of R. Isaac and R. Ada had not yet been discovered. This method, however, all too freely employed by modern criticism of the Bible, is but rarely resorted to in the Talmud. The Talmud reconciles the discrepancy by explaining the Baraitha as meaning that tests are useless because no test can ascertain whether the stuff is not trial-Tekhelet, or dyed as an essay to see whether the dye had already reached the desired degree of perfection: טעימה. In that case it would of course be unfit on the ground of shelo lishmah, that it is not expressly dyed for the ritual purpose. Tekhelet must therefore be obtained from an authoritative source. But if so, one might reasonably inquire, what is the good of the tests of R. Isaac and R. Ada? If the Tekhelet has been, as it indeed must be, procured from a proper authority who perforce must be believed with regard to lishmah he might as well be trusted right through? There is apparently no escape from the conclusion that the tests are by no means obligatory, their value being only of a negative nature. If applied, uncalled for of course, to Tekhelet, they have the effect of vitiating it, if the results tell against its genuineness.

That this is the opinion of the greatest codifier of the Talmud is, I think, as clear as daylight. “Tekhelet, may not be obtained except from a mumheh (reliable authoritative person), it being feared lest it was dyed shelo lishmah (for other than the ritual purpose). Though obtained from a mumheh, if it is tested and found to be dyed with one of the other blackening dyes which are not durable then it is unfit, etc.”11

An earlier authority, however, Samuel b. Hofni (died 1034), gaon and chief of the Academy at Sora (Babylonia) seems to hold that the tests are meant to be obligatory. “On account of the great difficulties which the preparation of Tekhelet involves it must not be obtained except from a person of acknowledged honesty and truthfulness and even so it had to be tested to make sure that it was not dyed with a dye other than the one indicated (by the Law).”12

Samuel b. Hofni would seem to have thought that the language of the Talmud implies the obligatory character of the tests. But how to escape from the difficulty discussed in the preceding paragraph? Singularly enough the German archaeologist W. Adolf Schmidt, who knew as much Talmud as Samuel b. Hofni knew German, here quite unconsciously to be sure comes to the rescue of the distinguished head of the greatest Judaeo-Babylonian Academy.

The Republic of Letters is no mere figment of the imagination!

Schmidt, on the ground of an allusion found in a certain papyrus, maintains that purple dyeing was not confined to the coastlands. If Schmidt is right then the inland dye-houses owing to the difficulty of preserving the molluscs in fit condition during the course of the transport would probably prefer to procure the dye already extracted. Care would of course be taken to protect the dye against the action of light on the way from the coast to the factory.

It might thus happen that a maker of Tekhelet having his establishment far removed from the coast and procuring his dye from an indifferent source would be under the necessity of testing Tekhelet in order to ascertain its genuineness. The bedikah (test) in that case would be obligatory for the mumheh himself.13

Dr. Dedekind, however, strongly dissents from Schmidt in this instance.14



  1. αλήπορφύρα = “crimson”
  2.  Cf. W. Adolf Schmidt op. cit., p. 100.
  3.  Pliny, 22, 33: 21, 26, 97; 9, 41, 64; 18, 31. Vitruvius 7, 13.
  4.  Menahot 43.
  5.  So Samuel b. Hofni.
  6.  Menahot 43b, 44a; Maimonides’ Code omits alumine in Test I, but the reading of our copies has the support of Samuel b. Hofni (d. 1034), Chief of the Academy at Sora.
  7.  His highly instructive letter is dated July 29th, 1913.
  8.  Menahot, ch. 8.
  9.  Erubin 96b.
  10.  Cf. Rashi, ib.
  11. Maimonides, Hilkhot tzitzit, II 4-5, Cf. Keseph Mishnah, ad locum.
  12.  R. Samuel b. Hofni, Treatise on the tzitzit. unique Arabic Ms., Saint Petersburg Imperial Library, ed. R.I. Herzog, ch. 9.
  13.  An homily in the Sifre שלח calling down divine retribution upon hypocrites pretending to have Tekhelet in their tzitzit while in reality they have kala-ilan shows that this sort of religious as distinct from commercial fraud was widespread already in Tanaitic times. Cf. Chapter V, p. 125 Cf. 61 בבא מציעאb. Cf. also תוספתא בבא קמא and מכילא משפטים
  14.  Dedekind, Beitrag, i, pp. 179-186.