In honor of the 100th Yahrzeit of Rabbi Gershon Chanoch Leiner, the Radziner Rebbe, the Modern Catalyst for the Renewed Interest in the Search for the Identity of the Chilazon
by Rabbi Leibel Reznick
A few years ago, while I was exploring the ruins at the base of the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount, I came upon a fragment of a seashell. The shell was cream colored with many large brownish purple spots. It struck me as odd that a seashell would be found so far from any body of water. What was it doing amidst the debris of ancient Second Temple era pottery fragments and Roman glass that I had uncovered? Could it have anything to do with the legendary sea creature, Chilazon, from whose “blood” the Techelet (blue dye) was produced for the Mitzvah of Tzitzith? Was Techelet produced near this site, within the shadow of the Beit Hamikdash? Or, was this a souvenir that was dropped 2,000 years ago by someone who had visited the sea? My interest in the subject of Techelet and the Chilazon was rekindled.
The Torah (Bamidbar [Numbers] 15:38) says, “They shall make for themselves Tzitzith (fringes) on the corners of their garments for their generations and they shall put in the Tzitzith of the corner a thread of blue (Techelet).”
The Tosefta (Menachot 9:6, found at the end of Mesechta Chullin) states, “The blue dye for the Tzitzith must be produced from a creature called Chilazon.” The “blood” of the Chilazon was added to other ingredients and boiled (Menachot 42b, Rambam Tzitzith 2:2).
The Talmud tells us that Techelet was very expensive, and unscrupulous dealers sold a counterfeit blue dye. Therefore, a chemical test was developed by the Sages to determine whether or not the blue wool was genuine Techelet (see Menachot 43a, Rashi and Rambam).
From the wording of the Tosefta quoted above, it seems that the blue dye had to be made from the Chilazon; probably it was part of the oral tradition given to Moses on Sinai. However, Rabbi Yisroel Lipschutz, author of the Tiferet Yisroel commentary on the Mishnah, writes in his Kupat HaRochlim (found in his introduction to Seder Moed) that there is no specific requirement to use the extract of the Chilazon. Any blue dye that will stand up to the chemical tests outlined in the Talmud may be used. (This matter was debated between the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yitzchok HaLevi Herzog, and Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tuckchinsky. Their discussion can be found in Rabbi Tuckchinsky’s work Ir HaKodesh V’HaMikdosh, vol. V, pp.37-60.)
Why don’t we have Techelet today? Did the species Chilazon become extinct or just very hard to find? Why did it disappear? When was the last time blue dye was used?
The Medrash Rabba and Medrash Tanchumah (end on Parashat Sh’lach) say, “When is there a Mitzvah to use blue strings and white strings? When the blue strings are available. But now that the blue has been hidden, the Mitzvah is performed with white strings.”
Two points are noteworthy: first, Techelet was no longer available during the era of the Medrash and Talmud; secondly, the Medrashim use the word “hidden” to describe the lack of Techelet. The use of the term seems to imply that it was by divine decree that the secret of the blue dye be hidden. The Ari HaKodesh (Pri Etz Chaim, Shar Tzitzith) attributes the disappearance of Techelet as part of the punishment of the destruction of the Second Temple. According to this view we must consider the possibility that even if the Chilazon species were to be rediscovered, it could not be used before the Messianic era.
What do we know about the possible identity of the Chilazon species? The Talmud (Menachot 44a) says that its color was similar to the color of the sea and its body was similar to a fish. Rashi (Sanhedrin 91a) calls the Chilazon a worm-like creature. There is no contradiction between Rashi (worm) and the Talmud (fish). The term “fish” simply means an aquatic creature. “Worm-like” refers to a lack of feet or discernible external organs. By combining these descriptions we find that the Chilazon was a sea animal that had no feet. Obviously, we are not dealing with a species of fish, otherwise Rashi simply would have stayed with the talmudic term “fish.”
The Medrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 7:11) says that the Chilazon has a shell or case (nartik in Hebrew) which grows with the animal. That would mean the Chilazon is a species of aquatic snail. This view is maintained by the Aruch and Rabbi Lipschutz. It is not certain if the Talmud’s description of the “sea-color” refers to the body of the snail, its shell, or perhaps to the extract.
Where is the Chilazon found? There are three diferent opinions: (1) The Talmud Shabbat 26a) states that the Chilazon is found between the Ascents of Tyre and haifa. They come out of the sea onto land only once in seventy years, and, therefore, the dye is very expensive (Menachot 44a). Since these cities are located along the western coast of Eretz Yisrael, this would place the Chilazon’s habitat near the eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea. (2) The Zohar (T’rumah) and the Pirkei D’Rebbe Elazar say the Chilazon lives in the Sea of Kinneret, making it a freshwater snail. (3) Tha Rambam (Tzitzith 2:2) says the Chilazon is found in the Yam HaMelach (Salt Sea, or Dead Sea). Even though no life forms are associated with the Dead Sea, Rabbi Lipschutz asssumes the Rambam to be accurate and taken literally. However, the Talmud quoted above locates the Chilazon habitat near Haifa and Tyre which are in the northwest, whereas the Dead Sea is in the south. Also the Talmud (M’gilah 6b) says that the Chilazon is found in the portion of the tribe of Zebulon, which is on the northern Mediterranean coast of Israel. Rabbi Y. M. Tuckchinsky (Ir HaKodesh V’HaMikdash vol.5, p.48) assumed that when the Rambam mentioned Yam HaMelach, he meant that the Chilazon lives in oceanic waters, which are salty, as opposed to a freshwater lake, such as the Kinneret.
The Talmud in Sanhedrin (91a) states. “Go to the mountains and see that today there is only one Chilazon, and tomorrow, should it rain, the mountains will be filled with Chilazon.” Rashi explains that once in seventy years the Chilazon comes out of the sea onto dry land to lay its eggs. When the rains come, the eggs hatch and the mountain is covered with the small creatures.
Since the Talmud is making reference to the Chilazon as an example of the resurrection of the dead, it would appear that the eggs lay dormant for a while, drying out – dying, so to speak. When the right time comes, the rainfall revitalizes the eggs and they hatch. According to Rashi in Menachot (44a), it seems that the eggs hatched after seventy years. This would be similar to the life cycle of the seventeen-year cicada. There are also species of amphibians that lay eggs which can be revitalized after having been dried out.
One possible solution to the contradiction between the Zohar (freshwater creature) and the Rambam (saltwater creature) is that the animal spends part of its cycle in the lake, crosses the land to breed, and then goes out to sea. This reminds me of the freshwater eel, common to the east coast of the United States, which breeds in the Atlantic Ocean, crosses land, and then inhabits freshwater lakes.
There is another species that is worthy of consideration. The Ezrat Cohanim (vol.II, p.132b), quoting the Ma-amar Tziv’ot Hashem, says that the Chilazon is animal, vegetable and mineral. During part of its life cycle, it moves about like an animal. Seventy years of its life are spent rooted in place. After this interval it uproots itself and is carried to shore by the waves. The Raavad, in his preface to Sefer Y’tzirah, says that it is impossible to correctly classify the Chilazon as either animal or some type of vegetation. Ezras Cohanim also quotes a source that says that the gnarled shape of the Chilazon has a human-like appearance, not unlike the root of the mandrake which is thought to resemble the human body.
This suggests the coelentrates, a family of sea creatures that include the jellyfish, coral, and anemones. Some develop hard shells, i.e., coral; others are like trees with gnarled branches, i.e.,anemones and some coral; and some have the capacity of locomotion, i.e., the medusa. There are species whose life cycle exhibit various stages. In the early stage they are swimmers. Later they entrench their “foot” into the ocean floor and become tree-like. Some coelentrates are blue in color. In fact, the ctenophore coelentrates even emit a greenish-blue light.
In ancient times, the city of Tyre produced dyes from two basic families of snails, the murex and the purpura. In the early 1970’s, an archeological expedition in Tel Keisan, located between Haifa and Tyre, found the remains of a blue [Ed. purple] dye factory. Crushed shells of murex were found.
Crushed murex shells were found in three different sites. Subsequent findings in Tel Shikmona and Tel Dor have yielded evidence of dying works and, again, more murex shells. The particular species of murex that were found at these sites were Trunculariopsis trunculus, and Murex brandaris. (Archeological Evidence of the Purple Dye Industry from Israel, Nira Karmon and Ehud Spanier, pp. 147-158.) (According to the Yad Ramah in Sanhedrin 91a, the term Chilazon includes several different species. See Aruch, Chilazon.)[Ed. This is among the strongest proofs that the blue-purple currently being proffered as the “new” Techelet from Efrat, could not have been the Techelet our ancestors used. The mass proliferation of purple dye works was a major industry in ancient times, whereas the production of Techelet was a one family affair. The miniscule ceremonial requirements for Techelet could not have supported so many dye works. The purple dye industry produced purple, in all its shades. Purple is Argamon. Argamon is not Techelet.]
The Torah mentions three types of colored wool: Techelet, Argamon, Tola-at Shani. Techelet is in the blue or blue-green family. Argamon is described by the Rambam as red (Klei HaMikdash 8), and by Rashi as purple (Sh’mot [Exodus] 25:4). The Raavad says itis different colored strands of wool (probably red and blue) twisted together. Argamon is also made from the secretion of a snail. [Ed. The use of “also” is the author’s opinion, not established fact. Argamon is produced from exactly those shells discovered at the above mentioned dye works, a point conveniently overlooked by the author.] Tola-at Shani is scarlet, red, or crimson (Rabbi Yisroel Lipschutz, Kupat HaRochlim; see Tsoefta Menachot 9:6). It is produced from a particular worm infested seed. Tola-at Shani is possibly kermes dye, obtained from the female insect Coccus ilicis which lives on the Quercus coccifera species of oak tree.
The Talmudic sages restricted the number of basic colors to four: black, red, green, white. Actual “colors” are restricted to two groups, red and green. The “green family” (yarok) would include green, blue and yellow (see Tosafot Succah 31b “HaYarok”). Techelet, which is blue, is a member of the “green family.” Rashi, therefore, identifies Techelet as “Yarok” (Bamidbar 15:38).
Tola-at Shani is a member of the “red family” (Rambam, Peirush HaMishnayot Parah 3:10). Argamon, purple, is a combination of blue and red. Thus Argamon is a combination of the two “color” families.
All the dyes that have been discovered in Israel, that were produced from murex snails, have been subjected to detailed chemical analysis, since colors can change over the course of centuries. The results have shown all the dyes to be purple in color. It seems we have stumbled over the Argamon-snail and not the Chilazon.
A thought occured to me: since Argamon and Techelet were both made from the extract of a snail, could it be possible that both colors were produced from the same snail? [Ed. Absolutely not. There is no mention anywhere, of Argamon coming from the Chilazon used for producing Techelet. Since the sages went to so much trouble to inform us in so many places, that Techelet comes from the Chilazon, and nowhere are we informed that Argamon comes from that same Chilazon, it is ludicrous to offer as fact that the same species produced both dyes. The author’s use of “snail” as the source of Techelet is his opinion and not established fact.] A seventeenth-century expert in the dyeing process, William Cole, described the change in color which the unprocessed extract of the purpura snail undergoes as it is exposed to sunlight. It begins as a light green, then becomes a dark green. Soon a hue of blue can be detected and the substance turns to sea-green. The green hue fades and the color becomes blue. Continued exposure to light results in a red hue, and the substance turns purplish until it becomes a deep purple-red. In the nineteenth century, Drs. Lacaze-Duthiers and Adrian Robert of the Zoological Laboratory of the Sorbonne experimented with various species of murex and purpura and found that they, too, undergo a very similar change in color. (Hebrew Porphyrology, Rabbi I.H. Herzog, pp.28-29.)
This evidence gives a new insight to the oft-quoted expression of Rebbe Meir (Menachot 43b), “Why is Techelet so different from all other dyes? For Techelet is like the sea, and the sea is like the sky, and the sky is like the heavenly throne.”
What color is the heavenly throne? Talmud Yerushalmi (Brachot 1:2), also quoting Rebbe Meir, says that it is like sapphire, dark blue. Is it possible that Rebbe Meir is describing the color change the unprocessed Techelet dye undergoes as it is exposed to light? Since the Chilazon could produce many colors, which one is the color of Techelet? Rambam (Hilchot Tzitzith 2:1) says that Techelet is the color of a clear, noonday sky. However, in his commentary to the Mishnah (Brachot 1:4), he says that Techelet is similar to the gemstone Tarshish. All the Targumim [Translators] (Targum Onkolus, Targum Yonaton, Targum Yerushalmi in Shmot 28:29) say Tarshish is aquamarine. Rashi (BaMidbar 15:41) says that Techelet is the color of the darkening evening sky. That would seem to be a black-blue.
Perhaps we can get a better understanding of the correct color by looking at the counterfeit. The Talmud (Menachot 41b) says that counterfeit Techelet was made from “kala ilan.” This is often identified with the dye called indigo (Nimukei Yosef Baba Metziah 34a). However, indigo was often mixed with other substances containing the dye dibromo-indigo. Depending on the proportions of the added substance, indigo could produce any shade from reddish purple to dark blue,(ibid., p.80.), so our problem remains unresolved.
In modern times, two rabbis of renown dedicated their minds and talents to the search for the Techelet and the Chilazon. The first was the Radziner Rebbe, Rabbi gershon Chanoch. In 1887 he began a year-long journey to various ports along the Mediterranean. He visited aquariums and talked to men of science. He finally thought he found the Chilazon and identified it as the common cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis). This creature has no [outer] shell, [Ed. From here until the end of the article the author discredits Radzin’s findings, a strange way to honor Rabbi Gershon Chanoch on his 100th Yahrzeit], contrary to the opinion of many authorities who preceeded him. Within two years, a Techelet dyeworks was set up and about ten thousand Jews were wearing the Radziner Techelet.
This Techelet met with great opposition. Rabbi Y.Y. Trunk, Rabbi Yitzchok Elchanan Spector and Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin all refused to approve of the Radziner’s findings. The Rebbe wrote three small [Ed. 551 pages is hardly small] books on the subject explaining his hypothesis, his conclusions, and a defence of his position.
Rabbi Mendel Zaks asked his father-in-law, the sainted Chofetz Chaim, “If it were possible to rebuild the Temple, could the High Priest make his belt of Techelet relying on the Radziner Rebbe’s dye?” The Chofetz Chaim answered, “I would not put my head into a fire and endanger myself by performing the holy service relying on his opinion.” (HaTechelet, Menachem Bernstein, p. 189.) [Ed. I personally tied Radziner Techelet on Rav Menachem Bernstein’s Tallith Katan.]
One year later the Radziner Rebbe died and the “Techelet movement died with him. [Ed. This is patently false. Radzin has continued to dye Techelet for 109 years, with a brief interruption during World War II.] It was resurrected in Israel in the early 1950’s by members of the Breslov sect of Hassidim who were always close to the Radziner group.
Among the reasons given by the Gedolim (sages) for rejecting the cuttlefish were: (1) It was not acceptable to use a dye from a non-kosher animal. (It is difficult to imagine any of the mentioned descriptions of the Chilazon as being kosher. I have no knowledge if the coelentrates, which, during part of their life cycle are swimmers, and during another part are tree-like, are kosher. One could speculate that when they assume the tree-like stage they are not considered Shratzim, since thet no longer “swarm,” and are then kosher.) According to the Magen Avraham (586:13), everything used for a Mitzvah must be kosher. (Nodah BiYehudah, vol. II, Aruch Chaim 3, disagrees.) (2) The Talmud describes the Chilazon as a fish, and the cuttlefish more closely resembles an octopus. (3) The cuttlefish dye fades. (4) The cuttlefish is found in Italy, whereas the Talmud says that the Chilazon is found near Haifa. [Ed. Obviously this author never bothered to contact Radzin in preparation for this article. Radzin’s Chilazon are provided by local fisherman from the waters off the coast of Israel. Whereas the shells used for the blue-purple dye of the Efrat group are imported from Spain.] (5) It was inconceivable that such a common sea creature should be unknown to the rabbis of preceding generations.
Even though the Radziner Rebbe has countered all these objections, it became academic, as we shall soon see, when the cuttlefish Techelet was subjected to chemical analysis.
The second scholar to delve intensely into the search for the hidden Chilazon was the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, Rabbi Yitzchok HaLevi Herzog. In 1913 he wrote a thesis for his degree of D. Litt. at the University of London on this very subject. His work was called Hebrew Porphyrology. Porphyrology means the study of purple dye. (I suspect that Rabbi Herzog coined the term.)
As part of his research, Rabbi Herzog had the Radziner cuttlefish Techelet subjected to chemical analysis. The results showed that the blue color of the resultant dye was totally due to the iron filings, “salts” and acids that were added to the extract of the cuttlefish. The cuttlefish itself did not contribute at all to the blue color. (Op. cit., Herzog, pp.114-118.) The iron and “salts” chemically consisted of iron, potassium hydroxide, potassium cyanide, ferrous anion, and ferric anion. When heated and distilled in acid, they form ferric ferrocyanide, a common blue dye known as Prussian blue. (Halachic Aspects of Reviving the Ritual Tekhelet Dye, I.I. Ziderman, p. 209.)
After years of research, Rabbi Herzog concluded that the true identity of the Chilazon was the shelled murex snail called Trunculariopsis trunculus. These are the same murex whose shells were later found in the archeological remains of ancient dye factories in northeast Israel. The dye produced from this shellfish is due totally to the chemical properties of the creature’s secretions, and is not dependant on any additive. The only reason why additives would be necessary is so that the dye would adhere to wool.
Rabbi Herzog also suggested the Janthina species whose shell comes in a variety of violet and blue hues. The Janthinas are all born male, gradually turning into females. They spend most of their life floating on top of the ocean’s surface. They exude a violet liquid which neutralizes any poisonous animal, such as the Portuguese man-of-war, before feeding upon it. The violet liquid is an excellent dye with a great ability to adhere to almost any substance.
Some of the objections to the Radziner Techelet apply to Rabbi Herzog’s Techelet. An additional problem was raised as to the exact color the Tzitzith should be dyed since the Herzog Techelet can produce many colors.
Today there is a wealth of information available on the subject of the Chilazon, Techelet, marine biology and conchology. To quote the late Rabbi Menachem Kasher, “in our times, it is obligatory for those who are able, to investigate and search the waters of Eretz Yisrael for the shelled creature that possesses the characteristics outlined by our Sages and elucidated in the works of the Rabbi of Radzin and Rabbi Herzog. If with the help of Heaven, such a species is discivered, it would be proper for rabbinical authorities to consider the renewing of the Mitzvah” (Torah Shleimah vol. 22, Supplement to Trumah).
In order to re-introduce this Mitzvah, the following matters have to be resolved: (1) Which creature is the Chilazon? (2) What color is Techelet? (3) Is it obligatory to use the secretion of the Chilazon or can another substance be used if it meets the other criteria established by Halachah? (4) If one is in doubt concerning the first three questions, is there any Halachic prohibition against using a substance which is clasified as questioable Techelet. [Ed. While folks are drawing up lists of what needs to be resolved, other folks, by the tens of thousands, are putting Techelet on their Tzitzith. By the time the list makers are ready, they will be the only ones left without Techelet on their Tzitzith.]
To date there is no known sample of [ancient] authentic Techelet. None has been found in any Geniza, nor has any archeological search yielded any. As the Midrash says, it is [was] truly hidden.
Oh yes, the shell I found. It has tentatively been identified as Cyprae fultoni, a member of a family quite common to the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, and the Indian and Pacific Oceans, though the specific specimen that I found is very rare. Shell specimens that are intact sell for several thousand dollars. Nothing is known of their habitat or possible commercial use. Since my shell was only a fragment, its identification was only tentative, and its significance cannot be determined as yet.
Rabbi Leibel Reznick is a magid shiur in the Beit Medrash of Sha’arei Torah of Rockland. He is the author of The Holy Temple Revisited and Woe, Jerusalem.
Excerpted from Jewish Action, a Publication of the Orthodox Union, Winter 5752/1991-92, Volume 52, No. 1, pp.53-57.