11th December, 1919

PROFESSOR GREGG WILSON, President of the Society, in the Chair.


By REV. ISAAC HERZOG, M.A., D. Lit., Chief Rabbi of Dublin


Varied as are the meanings of the term purple in modern usage, to the student of antiquity the word denotes a cloth dyed with a colouring matter furnished by certain marine snails. And, the tinting of cloth by means of marine animal pigment is still practised, albeit in a crude, primitive form, by the natives of certain coasts of Central America.

Our principal authorities as to the species of marine snail anciently employed in purple-dyeing are Aristotle and Pliny, but their statements leave much to be desired. Aristotle in the fifth book of his History of Animals (chap. 15), states that it is the genus πορφύρα (Purpura) which furnishes the pigment for the dyeing of purple. In close association with the Purpurae Aristotle also gives some account of a genus called κήρυξ (Keryx) without, however, distinctly referring to its employment in the dyeing of purple. Pliny, on the other hand, speaks of two genera utilized for the manufacture of purple, namely, Purpura and Buccinum. It is assumed by all writers on the subject, at least as far as my research has extended, that the Keryx of Aristotle and the Buccinum of Pliny are identical; but in my work on Tekhelet, still awaiting publication, I have shown that there is very serious ground for questioning the identification.

Modern research on this subject began with the identification by Guillaume Rondelet (d. 1556), Professor at Montpellier, of the Purpura of Pliny with the species now termed Murex brandaris; and the chain of inquiries has been practically continuous down to the present day. To William Cole, an Englishman, belongs the credit of having for the first time after the total extinction of purple-dyeing, rediscovered (1681) the remarkable properties of susceptibility to light, and of colour-progression under its action, possessed by the fluids secreted by certain molluscs. W.R. Wilde, an Irishman, made a substantial contribution towards the solution of our problem by his discovery of huge deposits of shells of Murex trunculus on the shore of ancient Tyre, the home of purple-dyeing. Special mention must also be made of the striking researches of Lacaze-Duthiers. His “Memoirs sur la Pourpre” (1857), narrates his experiments on the secretions of Murex trunculus, M. Brandaris, M. erinaceus, Purpura haemastoma and Purpura lapillus, and sheds a flood of light on the statements contained in Aristotle and Pliny.

The net result of the study of the classical texts, combined with archaeological discoveries and scientific experiments, has been the establishing, beyond a shadow of doubt, that at least the following species were anciently employed in the manufacture of purple: Murex brandaris, M. trunculus, and Purpura haemastoma.

Purple in the Bible and in Talmudic literature is mentioned under two designations, Tekhelet and Argaman. While Argaman is generally explained as red or violet-red purple, there is less consensus among translators with regard to Tekhelet, but the prevailing view is that, contrary to the traditional interpretation, it denotes not a dark pure blue, but rather a dark violet, inclining to blue. In my work on Tekhelet, however, I have shown, I believe conclusively, that if not actually so in the strictly scientific sense, the Tekhelet-colour did not, at all events, appreciably differ from a dark pure blue, the nuance assigned to it by tradition. It is generally assumed that both Tekhelet and Argaman are varieties of purple, or in other words, of stuff dyed with sea-snail pigment. That Argaman was of this nature is attested by the Septuagint, the oldest translation of the Bible. Wherever Argaman occurs in the Bible it is rendered by πορφύρα or one of its derivates; and πορφύρα without a qualifying epithet means, of course, purple dyed with the pigment of sea-snails. Tekhelet is rendered in the Septuagint by ύακινθοζ, a designation which does not necessarily imply that the dye is of molluscan origin. Philo and Josephus, moreover, while expressly mentioning the conchylian origin of the dyestuff used for Argaman, are silent in regard to the source of the pigment producing Tekhelet. Talmudic tradition, however, fills the gap. A Talmudic text, going back in all probability to a time when the Second Temple was still in existence, dispels all doubt on the matter by declaring that Tekhelet used for ritual purposes must be of conchylian origin. The Talmud, moreover, contains a description of the species used for dyeing Tekhelet, and also an account of the actual process of dyeing Tekhelet for the “fringes” (Num. XV).

The exact determination of the species used in ancient Israel for the dyeing of Tekhelet and Argaman, and particularly the former, is a task fraught with almost insuperable difficulties. Various suggestions have been made, but it has fallen to the lot of Dr. Alexander Dedekind, keeper of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Vienna, to press Lacaze-Duthiers’ far-reaching results into the service of Semitic archaeology. He maintains that Lacaze-Duthiers’ researches have once for all furnished the clue to the identification of Tekhelet and Argaman respectively. In the fourth book of his Beitraege zur Purpurkunde (p. 226) he gives the following classification:-

Purpura lapillus → belong to the Tekhelet variety

Murex erinaceus of purple, i.e., violet or blue

Murex trunculus purple.

Murex brandaris belong to the Argaman variety of purple, i.e., 

Purpura haemastoma red or scarlet purple.

He regards Murex trunculus as the Tekhelet species, but also names M. erinaceus as a possible identification, though in view of the minuteness of the dye-secretion in that species its employment for dyeing was unlikely. His omission of Purpura lapillus is probably due to the fact that this species is not found in the Mediterranean.

The identification adopted by Dedekind, be it carefully noted, is based solely on the tradition of the Tekhelet nuance: it does not take into account the description of the Tekhelet species as given in the Talmud, and as reproduced by Maimonides, the greatest authority of Post-Talmudic Judaism. And if we are to choose between the three species known to have been employed in Phoenician purple-dyeing (M. trunculus, M. brandaris, and P. haemastoma) there can be little hesitation so far as Tekhelet is concerned. Murex trunculus is the likeliest of the three; but there is the possibility that Tekhelet was produced from an altogether different species.

The description given in the Talmud of the Tekhelet species runs as follows:-

“(a) Its body (i.e., the colour of its body or shell) is like unto the sea; (b) its shape is like unto a fish; and (c) it comes up once in seventy years, and with its blood Tekhelet is dyed, and therefore it is very dear” (Menahot, 44a). Another ancient text (Baraita a’Tzitzit) offers a variant reading: “What is Hilazon (Hilazon in general means a shell-snail. In this instance it means the particular species furnishing the Tekhelet dye) like unto? Its shape is like unto that of a fish, and its body (i.e., the colour of body or shell) is like unto the sky, and it only comes up once in seven years; therefore it is very dear.”

Which species of marine snail satisfies the description thus recorded in the Talmud and the Baraita a’Tzitzit?

Before we attempt to answer the question it is essential to ascertain the import of the three elements constituting the description in the Talmud.

(a) This presents no difficulty. It refers to a deep blue or deep violet blue resembling the colour of the Mediterranean or of the clear cloudless Palestinian sky in bright sunshine.

(b) The second element offers considerable difficulty. From the sporadic allusions to the nature and characteristics of fishes it is exceedingly difficult to evolve a clear idea of the type “dag” (fish) in the Talmudic conception, though one gains the impression that it does not materially differ from the modern conception of the term fish. Seeing, however, that on the one hand the Gastropoda and Cephaolopoda are probably included in the term “dag” as used by Maimonides, and that the Tekhelet species is described by him as “dag,” we are led to think that the characteristic (b) in the Talmud description does not exclude these classes of marine snails.

(c) The last point in the description also offers certain difficulties. Science knows nothing of a comet-like septuagenarian appearance of any of the denizens of the sea. In reality, however, “once in seventy years” is a hyperbolic expression. It amounts to saying that the species is caught at long intervals of time.

Murex trunculus fails to satisfy characteristics (a) and (c) of the Talmud. A serious difficulty in the way of the identification with Murex trunculus is also offered by the fact that the dye furnished by the latter is of a fugitive nature, while Tekhelet, as we know from the Talmud, was exceedingly fast. This difficulty can partly be met by the consideration that the Tekhelet dye used to be mixed with certain drugs, not specified in the Talmud. They may have served as stiptics for the purpose of endowing the colour with the quality of durability and fastness, but I do not think this very probable.

If for the present all hope is to be abandoned of rediscovering the Tekhelet species among the members of the genera Murex and Purpura, it might not be amiss to look for the same within the confines of the genus Janthina. The two species of this genus that live in the Mediterranean are J. pallida, Harvey and J. prolongata, Blainville. These furnish a blue colouring fluid playing into violet. They live in the high seas, at the surface, and their colour is of a beautiful violet blue, which might easily be confounded with the colour of the sea. Lastly they, like a great many pelagic animals, abound for some years to an enormous extent, whereas in the preceding period they had been rare or even extremely rare.

Mention may also be made of the fact that the dye secretion of Janthina is fairly abundant in quantity: in J. prolongata the secretion, in fact, amounts to an ounce. This tends to corroborate the identification with the Tekhelet species; for while in the classical authors the extreme expensiveness of purple is attributed to the minuteness of the purpurigenic matter in the animal, in the Talmud the preciousness of Tekhelet is ascribed solely to the rare appearance of the species.

Pending further research which, let us hope, will one day be undertaken along the Palestinian and Syrian coasts by specialists from the future Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the suggested identification with Janthina pallida and J. prolongata is, I venture to say, deserving of serious examination.

*  *  *


No other material but wool was admissible for Tekhelet, Argaman, and tolat shani (scarlet) of a sacerdotal and ritual character, and for the Tekhelet of the fringes.

In Greek and Latin authors, πορφύρα, 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 in the Temple its use 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.

The wool was dyed in its raw state, the spinning, weaving, etc., forming subsequent processes. This is apparent from certain stray allusions in the Talmud, and is also corroborated by classical authority in regard to the manufacture of purple. (Compare also Exodus XXXV, 23 with v. 25.) No account of the mode of dyeing has been preserved by Jewish tradition in connection with Argaman. Tekhelet, however, has fared better, though the account given in the Talmud by R. Samuel bar Judah leaves much to be desired. “Abayi” records the Talmud, said to R. Samuel bar Judah, – “Now about this Tekhelet – how do you dye it?” He said to him, “we take the blood of the hilazon (i.e., the dye secretion of the Tekhelet species) and drugs (Sanmanim), 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 (Cf. Pliny, IX, 38). We then throw away that egg-shell and burn that sample of wool.” No particulars are given of the “drugs” employed together with the dye-secretion of the Tekhelet species. Commentators differ. The Tosaphists, the French school of Talmudial exegesis, remark that “it is very strange that extraneous matter should have been mixed with the Tekhelet dye,” “but perhaps,” they add, “it was the combination of the Tekhelet pigment with these drugs that constituted the Tekhelet dye.” Rashi, the foremost commentator of the Talmud, would seem to hold that the drugs in question were simply mordants used for fixing the colour in the fibre, and had nothing to do with the production of the colour itself. An earlier authority, Samuel ben Hofni, principal of the Academy at Sura, Babylonia (d. 1034) would seem to be of a contrary opinion. In a treatise extant as a unique manuscript at the library of Petrograd he asserts:- “the information has been handed down to us that Tekhelet was dyed with blood of an aquine (marine) animal called hilazon mixed with another (substance).” This rather gives the impression that the sanmanim or drugs 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 drugs in question, tends to indicate that the latter stuffs were not essential to the production of the colour.

This is really the opinion of Maimonides, the greatest codifier of Jewish law and ritual. In reproducing the Talmudic account of the dyeing of Tekhelet, he states: “The wool is soaked in chalk and washed until it is clean, and then boiled with ahla and the like, as is the practice of the dyers, in order to prepare the wool for absorbing the colour. The blood of the hilazon is then put into the vat (kettle) together with drugs such as kimonia (cimolia) (Cimolia is a cleaning substance, a reference to which is often made in Pliny (XX, 81, etc.)),  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 the fringes.”


Imitations of purple with vegetable dye-stuff are referred to in Pliny, Vitruvius and other non-Jewish sources. I cannot, however, recall any reference to tests in Greek and Latin authors.

For Tekhelet the Talmud records two testing processes: one due to R. Isaac V.R. Jehudah, the other to R. Avira in whose name it was reported by R. Ada. In the first case a sample of the wool in question was allowed to soak overnight in a mixture of alumine, fenugrec juice and urine forty days old (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 consisted in putting some of the wool into an overfermented 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.

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

In test (1) 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 Green, Professor of Tinctorial Chemistry at the University of Leeds, in reply to this and other questions (Dated July 29, 1913) states:- “It would seem clear from the quotation 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 probably depends on the evolution of the hydrogen by the fermenting organic matter. 2°. It seems likely that Tekhelet was faster than indigo. 3°. 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 brominated indigos. 4°. Brominated indigos are all brighter in shade than indigo itself. 5°. All vat dyes are fixed on the fibre by oxydation. In the bath the dye is not present as such but as a soluble leuco or hydro compound. If the oxydation on the fibre is not complete, the dye will be easily removed by washing.”


Allusions to the secular uses of Tekhelet and Argaman are very few. Neither ever appears in connection with the royal apparel of Jewish Kings in Biblical times. In Canticles the seat of Solomon’s palanquin is spoken of as being made of Argaman. The virtuous woman is depicted as clothing herself in shesh and Argaman. Tekhelet is conspicuous by its absence.

The ritual uses of Tekhelet are two-fold, (I) for sacerdotal and cultural purposes, (II) for the tzitzit or fringes. (See Exodus XXV, etc., etc., and Numbers XV.) Tekhelet appears as occupying a somewhat higher position than Argaman in the ladder of sanctity.

The account of the First Temple in I Kings, 5-7, which of course is very far from complete, omits all mention of textiles. The parallel passages in Chronicles refer to Tekhelet and Argaman, but in very general terms.

Ezekiel’s sketch of the Future Temple contains no allusion to Tekhelet and Argaman.

In the Second Temple Tekhelet and Argaman were, we know, used not only for the High Priest’s garments, in accordance with Pentateuchal prescriptions, but also for the thirteen veils hung at the gates.

The ritual use of Tekhelet for the tzitzit or the fringes survived the Temple by several centuries.

The law of tzitzit (the fringes) occurs twice in the Pentateuch Numbers XV, 37-41, and Deuteronomy XXII, 12.

The symbolic significance of Tekhelet is, I think, quite clear from the text of the Pentateuch itself. The Tekhelet resembling the sky-colour is to remind one of heaven, and so raise his feelings and thoughts to higher planes. This is, in fact, the traditional view of the significance of Tekhelet.

Though the rite of tzitzit is still observed, to some extent, by professedly orthodox Jews, and in a small measure even by reformers, Tekhelet has long ceased to form part of the tzitzit.


Tradition singles out the territory of Zebulun, which, as we know, adjoined Phoenicia, as the centre of purple manufacture in Palestine.

This is significant in view of what we otherwise know of Phoenicia as a principal centre of the purple industry. A Talmudic tradition states in connection with Jeremiah, LII, 16 that Nebuzradan left some of the poorest people of the land to engage in the fishing of the purple-snails on the coast extending from the ladder of Tyre to Haifa. This would point to that stretch of territory as the home of Jewish purple-manufacture in ancient Palestine. The Hittite City Luz (Judges 1, 26) is referred to in the Talmud as pre-eminent in the manufacture of Tekhelet. The reference may well be to a city in the vicinity of the Syrian coast belonging to the great Hittite Empire in Northern Syria.

In view of the tradition crediting Phoenicia with the invention of purple-dyeing, and of the high esteem in which Tyrian purple was universally held in antiquity, (Cf. for instance, Strabo, XVI, 11) it is rather startling to find Ezekiel (XXVII, 7) referring to the Isles (or coast lands) of Elisha as furnishing Tyre with Tekhelet and Argaman. This sounds like bringing coals to Newcastle. Where are those isles or coast lands of Elisha?

I am inclined to agree with Professor Sayce (Hasting’s Dictionary of the Bible, s.v. Elisha) that Elisha adjoined the Mediterranean coast land. It may very well have been a Phoenician settlement, which would seem to have excelled about the time of Ezekiel, in the manufacture of purple. It would thus appear that the universally renowned Tyrian pre-eminence in purple production is subsequent to Ezekiel (died about 571 B.C.).

A classical source (Geog. Gr. Minores, II 5-13, 29) names Sarepta, Caesarea, Neapolis and Lydda as cities supplying purple, thus indicating that the industry covered an area comprising the coasts of Syro-Phoenicia, Galileo, Samaria and Judaea. Migdal-Sabaja in the neighbourhood of Lydda (Lud) would seem to have contained an important purple market.

The question in how far the manufacture of Tekhelet in particular may have been affected by the imperial edicts issued from time to time concerning the fabrication of purple, its sale and use, is discussed at considerable length in my work on Tekhelet. For centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple extra-Palestinian Jewry was wont to procure Tekhelet for the “fringes” from the Jewish dye-houses in the Holy Land. There is a record of the importation of ritual Tekhelet into Babylonia about 506 C.E. It may safely be asserted that at the time of the completion of the Babylonian Talmud (C.E. 570) Tekhelet still continued in practice for the tzitzit or fringes. On the other hand in the Sheltot D’Rabbi-Ahai, a ritual work composed in Palestine about 760 C.E. all mention of Tekhelet is omitted. The disappearance of Tekhelet from the Jewish ritual thus falls between the final redaction of the Talmud (C.E. 570) and the composition of the Sheltot (C.E. 760).

The Arab conquest of Palestine about the year 638 entailed the total destruction of the purple dye-houses administered by the imperial officials (See Amati. De Restitution Purposes).  The final extinction of Tekhelet would also seem to have been one of the effects of the Arab conquest.

The great Jewish traveller, Benjamin of Tudela (c. 1160), makes mention of the dyeing of red-purple on the Tyrian Coast. It would thus appear that the industry revived some time after the Arab occupation. The interval must have been a fairly long one, seeing that the Jews who in Benjamin’s time played an important part in the industrial life of Tyre (See Benjamin of Tudela’s Itinerary, ed. Asher, pp. 29-30) had made no attempt to resuscitate the dyeing of Tekhelet for ritual purposes; the chain of tradition must have been too long broken.

The art of purple-dyeing in general, which, dating from hoary antiquity – the mention of Tekhelet and Argaman in the Cuneiform texts occurs already about 1600 B.C. – passed through a long and checkered career, finally becoming extinct, at least in the Old World, on the fall of Constantinople, May 29th, 1453.

It is worthy of note that the remarkable researches carried out by Gentile inquirers from William Cole to Lacaze-Duthiers found no echo in Jewish circles.

It was not until 1887, some 28 years after Lacaze-Duthiers’ famous experiments that an attempt was made by a certain Rabbi, Gershon Enoch Leiner, of Radzin, Poland, to restore ritual Tekhelet in Israel.

He carried out investigations along the Adriatic coast, and eventually arrived at the conclusion that the Tekhelet species was identical with Sepia officinalis. In 1888 he established a factory for ritual Tekhelet in Radzin, dying a few years afterwards. The dye-house founded by him was still in existence about the time of the outbreak of the Great War. The Tekhelet of Radzin has failed to obtain general acceptance, and its use is confined to a small circle of a few thousand families, consisting of admirers of the late Rabbi Leiner and of his son and successor.

That his identification of the Tekhelet species is entirely erroneous is conclusively shown in my work on Tekhelet.

At the conclusion of the lecture the sincere thanks of the audience was conveyed to Dr. Herzog by the Chairman.