Understanding the Criteria for the Chilazon
Mendel E. Singer, Ph.D.
This article originally appeared in the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School
sponsored journal, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society,
Vol. 40, Sukkot 2001. Reprinted with permission.
BIO: Assistant Professor, School of Medicine, Case Western Reserve
University, Cleveland, Ohio.
The Torah commands us to wear a thread of blue, techeilet, in each corner
of our tzitzit. While tzitzit serve as a visual reminder to do the
mitzvot, the blue thread reminds us of Hashem: "Techeilet resembles
[the color of] the sea, and the sea the sky, and the sky the throne of
glory". The Gemara informs us that the techeilet dye comes from a
bodily fluid (lit: blood) of the chilazon. At some point it became
forgotten which species is the chilazon. Exactly when techeilet ceased
to exist is unknown. Though some have suggested this happened sometime
between 500-700 C.E., there is evidence that techeilet continued to
be dyed in some places for another several hundred years.
In the 1880's, Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner, the Radzyner Rebbe zt"l,
set out to identify the chilazon species. Although widely known for his
talmudic expertise (e.g. Sefer Sedrei Taharot), he had studied biology,
chemistry and engineering, and practiced medicine as well. Guided by
the simanim (signs) provided by the Talmud and the Rishonim, he traveled
across Europe, studying at the famed aquarium of Naples. He decided that
the long lost chilazon is sepia officinalis (the common cuttlefish),
believed by some to be the opinion of Rambam. He wrote three books
on techeilet, comprising nearly 500 pages. In the words of one of his
present day dissenters, "These books still stand as the definitive works
on the subject, and form the halachic foundation of any discussion of
the topic". Even today Radzyn produces techeilet from the cuttlefish.
Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Herzog z"l, a brilliant talmudist, Jewish historian
and the Chief Rabbi of Eretz Israel from 1936-1959, was fluent in
numerous languages and techeilet was the subject of much of his doctoral
dissertation. Rabbi Herzog rejected the Radzyner Rebbe's position, and
concluded that the chilazon was a member of the Janthina species.
However, the dye produced by the Janthina turned brown, and was not
permanent. It appears that Rabbi Herzog did not pursue this matter
further, and no techeilet was ever produced from the Janthina.
In recent years there has been a movement in favor of the murex trunculus
snail as the chilazon. Fueled by the work of Dr. Irving Ziderman, an
academic scientist at the Israel Fiber Institute, followers of this
theory formed an organization, Petil Tekhelet Foundation. Based largely
on archeological and scientific evidence, they have been active in
publishing, lecturing and electronic dissemination. Their work has,
for the most part, gone without critical appraisal. This article will
attempt to elucidate the criteria for identification of the chilazon,
clarify what is required to meet these criteria, and then evaluate
the theory that murex trunculus was the chilazon. The criteria will be
presented in 4 categories. The first section will discuss the primary
criteria, based on statements brought by the Gemara for the purpose of
describing the chilazon. This is followed by an analysis of the Gemara's
chemical tests for techeilet. Secondary criteria will deal with those
characteristics of the chilazon which can be deduced from statements
made for other purposes. Lastly, there is a section for other evidence
which might be brought to lend further credence to, or discredit a claim.
The strongest criteria for identifying the chilazon comes from the Gemara
Menachot, where the subject of techeilet is discussed extensively.
There, the Talmud cites several sources in order to describe the
chilazon. These statements are of the utmost importance because they were
cited for the sole purpose of describing the chilazon. Chazal, knowing
which species was the chilazon, chose these statements to describe it. As
such, in order for a candidate species to satisfy these criteria, it is
not sufficient to meet these criteria in a minimalist sense. It must be
reasonable that Chazal would have chosen these statements to describe
it. In evaluating whether a particular species is the chilazon, a strong
case must be made for all of the primary criteria. The primary criteria
for the chilazon come from the following statements: "Chilazon zehu gufo
domeh l'yam, ubriato domeh l'dag, v'oleh echad l'shiv'im shanah u'bdamo
tzov'in techeilet, l'fichach damav yekarim". This establishes four
primary criteria for the chilazon:
1. the color of its body is like the sea
2. its form is like a fish
3. it comes up once in 70 years, its "blood" is used for techeilet,
4. it is expensive.
As Rabbi Herzog points out, the first requirement uses the lashon gufo,
meaning body or flesh. It does not refer to the shell, which is
usually rendered nartik or klipah. The lashon here, gufo domeh l'yam,
is similar to the statement just a few lines earlier in the Gemara,
techeilet domeh l'yam, where it is understood that the color of techeilet
is similar to the color of the sea. There the comparison is extended
to the sky and the sapphire, indicating that techeilet is blue. If,
just a few lines apart, dealing with the same subject, we find the same
expression, domeh l'yam, it is reasonable to conclude that the meaning
is the same in both cases. If techeilet and the body of the chilazon are
both domeh l'yam, then the color of techeilet and the color of the body
of the chilazon must be similar, i.e. both blue. This is supported by the
lashon of the braita of tzitzit, which states "gufo domeh l'rekiah".
The body of the murex does not resemble the sea. The Petil group argues
that the shell of the murex trunculus is sometimes covered with a sea
fouling. The color of these organisms will vary from place to place,
but is sometimes blue or green. This argument fails on three counts.
First, the requirement is for the body, not the shell. Second, the color
of the sea fouling is only sometimes blue. Since it is usually not blue,
the Gemara certainly would not choose to describe it as blue. Third, it is
implausible that Chazal would choose to identify the murex trunculus by
giving a description of the sea fouling, which is neither a part of the
creature nor distinctive, since it covers everything else in the area,
as well. Some have tried to argue that the Hebrew word yam can also
mean seabed. However, only the shell is colored like the seabed, not
the body. Considering that yam almost always means sea, and is used as
such in regards to the color of techeilet in many places, it is hard to
believe it could be used to mean seabed here. In fact, the requirement
that the color of the body of the chilazon be like the yam is just a
few lines after the Gemara's statement that techeilet is the color of
the yam, which everyone, including the murex supporters, agrees means sea.
As for criterion 2, the statement in the Gemara is "briato domeh l'dag".
Briato means "its form", as explained by Rashi and Rabbeinu Gershom.
Murex trunculus in no way resembles a fish. Supporters of the murex
trunculus theory suggest briato could mean "its creation", since murex
spawn like fish. Aside from relying on an interpretation of briato that
is contrary to the classical mefarshim, there is another difficulty.
Since most mollusks spawn, it is unlikely that Chazal would have chosen
this characteristic to distinguish the chilazon from other species.
Regarding criterion 3, the requirement of once in 70 years, the
Radzyner Rebbe says this means that there are times when the chilazon is
abundant. Likewise, Rabbi Herzog, citing also the braita of tzitzit
that says the chilazon comes up every 7 years, is of the opinion that
there should be some cycle, though not necessarily 7 or 70 years.
Murex trunculus has no known cycle or times of unusual abundance.
Petil followers have tried to argue that the Hebrew sheva shanim in
the braita could also mean seven-fold, and Pliny the Elder mentions
an optimal seven-month cycle for harvesting murex snails. This not
only ignores the Gemara's expression of 70 years, but also assumes that
seven-fold means seven one-month periods. They do not suggest a reason
why the base unit should be one month. Clearly the intention of the
Gemara and the braita is that it is unusual for there to be an abundance,
and every seven months is hardly unusual or noteworthy.
Purple dye from all species of murex, including trunculus, was exceedingly
expensive. This was because each snail possessed so little dye that it
took about 8,000 snails to make one gram of dye! In criterion 4, Rashi
explains that the techeilet dye was expensive because of the chilazon's
rare appearance, and not because of the minute dye quantity. This
follows from the language of the Gemara where the statement that the
dye is expensive is introduced with the word lefichach, "therefore",
and the preceding statement was about the once in 70 year appearance
of the chilazon. Rabbi Herzog indicates that this requirement implies
that the quantity of dye in the chilazon was not very small, which is
inconsistent with murex trunculus.
In ancient times, there were unscrupulous individuals who would substitute
an imitation techeilet dye known as k'la ilan, for the real techeilet.
K'la ilan is widely understood to be indigo, traditionally derived from
a plant. Indigo was the predominant source of blue dye in ancient
times, and was both readily available and relatively inexpensive. This
counterfeit techeilet was virtually identical to the color of the real
techeilet. Accordingly, the Rabbis proposed chemical tests that could
distinguish between the chemical that made up the authentic techeilet and
the chemical that made up the counterfeit techeilet. These tests are
based on subjecting the dyed wool to a fermentation process and ruling
it k'la ilan if the color worsens. Fermentation processes were used in
the traditional method of dyeing indigo, and causes the blue indigo to
change to a yellow solution.  Chazal used this knowledge to design
tests that indigo would fail. The chemical test proposed by Rav Yitzchak
the son of Rav Yehudah describes a fermentation vat typical of what
was used in ancient dyeing of indigo. The main ingredient was fermented
urine, mei raglayim. Though the Gemara's lashon of "ben arba'im yom"
could mean the mei raglayim had to be 40 days old (thereby sufficiently
fermented), or it could mean the mei raglayim had to be from someone 40
days old, as Rashi notes, the mei raglayim must be fermented.
Mei raglayim of babies under 6 weeks old consists mostly of water,
making it a poor choice for fermentation. Thus, the Gemara's use of
"ben arba'im yom" could reasonably be understood either way. Regardless,
it is clear that the Gemara's chemical tests were based on the chemical
properties of indigo and were designed so that indigo would fail the test.
The Petil group uses mucus from the murex trunculus snail, and through a
process creates indigo, chemically identical to plant indigo. In other
words, Petil is saying that real techeilet and imitation techeilet are
the same chemical, just made from different sources. This position is
untenable. Obviously, if the Gemara gives chemical tests to distinguish
techeilet from k'la ilan, they cannot be the same chemical! Dr. Allen
Kropf, a retired professor of pigment chemistry familiar with the
Petil dyeing process, writes in a personal communication, "There should
absolutely be no chemical difference between plant and snail indigo.
Thus, any chemical test that posits a difference, is not valid, in my
opinion". Therefore, the Gemara's chemical tests cannot possibly be
testing plant indigo vs. snail indigo. This leaves two possibilities:
plant indigo is not k'la ilan or snail indigo is not techeilet. Given the
wide acceptance of indigo as k'la ilan, and the corroboration afforded
by the Gemara's tests which are clearly based on detecting indigo, the
only conclusion would seem to be that techeilet is not snail indigo.
Nonetheless, Dr. Roald Hoffman, a Nobel-prize winning chemist does reach
a different conclusion. Recognizing the impossibility of distinguishing
plant indigo from snail indigo, he clings to the conclusion that
murex indigo is techeilet. He writes of the Gemara's chemical tests,
"These tests don't work, because the chemical is the same". Since
the Gemara's tests were clearly based on sound scientific knowledge and
the tests were actually used ("Rav Yitzchak the son of Rav Yehudah used
to test it thus..."), it would seem rather presumptuous to doubt the
veracity of the Gemara's tests. It is the scientist's conclusion that
murex indigo is techeilet that needs to be re-examined. Even Dr. Irving
Ziderman himself, the chemist whose work led to the creation of the Petil
group, acknowledges that murex indigo is guaranteed to fail the Gemara's
chemical tests and therefore rejects the theory of murex indigo as genuine
techeilet. Petil writings have suggested that the chemical tests
might be designed to detect impurities that might be found in plant
indigo, but are not found in snail indigo. This logic demonstrates
a lack of understanding of the nature of the chemical tests. It is
clear from the above discussion that the Gemara's tests are based on
the chemical nature of indigo, and not any remaining impurities. Thus,
the murex-indigo used by Petil for techeilet will fail the Gemara's
tests, rendering it invalid. However, a distinction must be made between
evaluating whether a species is the chilazon and assessing whether a
particular dye is techeilet. Even though murex indigo cannot be genuine
techeilet, this does not by itself preclude the possibility that murex
trunculus is the chilazon. There may be an as of yet undiscovered,
alternative process that creates a different blue dye (i.e. not indigo)
from the murex trunculus. Therefore, it is still necessary to evaluate
whether murex trunculus meets the criteria for the chilazon.
An interesting side-note: the process used by Petil to make indigo
from murex trunculus would also work for the other species famous for
their use in ancient purple dyeing, murex brandaris and purpura (thais)
haemastoma. Indeed, none of the arguments presented in Petil writings
appear to uniquely identify murex trunculus.
There are other sources from which additional information about the
chilazon can be deduced. These criteria can lend valuable support to a
theory postulating a particular species as the chilazon. However, care
should be taken in determining the weight placed on these criteria.
These criteria were not brought for the purpose of identifying the
chilazon, as was the case with the primary criteria discussed above.
As such, it may be that a particular statement should not be understood
literally or exactly. Unlike the primary criteria, meeting secondary
criteria should only involve a plausible explanation, and does not have
to bring out the uniqueness of the chilazon, and may be difficult to
understand without already being familiar with the species. There is also
the complication that it is not always clear when the Gemara's use of the
word chilazon is speaking specifically of the chilazon shel techeilet.
In some of these cases the classical mefarshim clarify this, in other
cases it remains ambiguous.
Shell grows with it: The Midrash says about the chilazon, "its shell
(nartiko) grows with it".  This would rule out hermit crabs, for
example, since they do not grow shells but rather move into shells
they find. This would also rule out species like the lobster that
when outgrowing their shell, discard it and grow another. Elsewhere,
the Midrash Rabbah says "when it grows, its malvush grows with it".
Malvush, garment, would appear to be some form of growth on the exterior
of the chilazon. The term malvush, garment, seems to imply that it is
not merely attached, but covers the body of the chilazon, or surrounds
it. Murex trunculus has a shell of its own, but doesn't seem to have
anything else that could be termed a malvush. It may be that the Midrash
is using malvush as a synonym for shell. This would make sense in the
context of the Midrash, which discusses the issue of whether the Jews in
the desert outgrew their clothes. The chilazon is brought as an example
to suggest that the clothes grew with the wearer. Referring to the
shell as malvush, garment, would be consistent with the context. Based
on this understanding of malvush, murex trunculus would appear to meet
Hard shell: The Gemara discusses the case of someone who extracts the
dye from the chilazon on Shabbat. The verb used by the Gemara in
describing the action of the person extracting the dye is potzea. Potzea
is usually understood to mean to crush or crack open. This would
imply that the chilazon has a hard shell, though this could be an
external or an internal shell. Rashi says that the person squeezes
(docheik) the chilazon in his hand to get out the blood (dye secretion).
From Rashi's comment we can only infer that squeezing the chilazon can
make the dye come out. Rashi's use of the word "squeeze" is difficult to
understand since it seems to imply a soft substance, not a hard shell.
This difficulty in understanding Rashi might be resolved if the chilazon,
while being held in the hand, has a shell on one side, and flesh on the
other. Thus, the person squeezes the fleshy side of the chilazon, and in
the process may crack open, or crush, the hard shell on the other side.
Murex trunculus has a hard, external shell that is cracked in order
to get the dye out. The shell almost completely encloses the body.
This would be consistent with the usual understanding of potzea, but
not with Rashi's docheik.
Dye is better while chilazon is alive: We learn in the Gemara that people
try not to kill the chilazon when extracting the dye because the dye is
better if extracted while the chilazon is alive. From this Gemara we
learn that there is a significant difference in the dye when extracted
while the chilazon is alive and when it is extracted just moments after
its death. Petil followers argue that the murex secretion (mucus) loses
its dyeing power a few hours after the snail's death. This doesn't help
since the Gemara is speaking not of a few hours, but mere moments after
death. Another problem is Pliny's statement that the murex discharges
its dye upon death. If so, the reason not to kill the murex when
removing the gland containing the dye is because otherwise the precious
few drops of dye will be lost!
Hidden in the sand: The Gemara in Megilah states that the verse in Devarim
33:19, "sefunei temunei chol" ("hidden treasures of the sand"), refers
to the chilazon shel techeilet. It is not clear how restrictive this
criterion is. It might only mean that the chilazon is considered to be a
creature of the sand and that it is hidden. In this case, it would seem
to be sufficient to be hidden by its own shell, and that it would not
be necessary to bury itself in the sand. On the other hand, it might
mean that it is hidden because it is buried in the sand. This is the
understanding of the Radzyner Rebbe, citing the Sefer HaKaneh (Hilchot
Tzitzit) as stating that the chilazon buries itself in sand with its
head sticking out. The murex trunculus lives on the sand, and simply
by virtue of hiding its body in its shell could be considered hidden.
There are times when it buries itself in the seabed, which might satisfy
the general requirement of burying itself in the sand. Given that this
is a secondary criterion, murex trunculus would seem to reasonably meet
this criterion, though not in the manner described by the Sefer HaKaneh.
Color of the blood: Rambam states that the "blood" of the chilazon shel
techeilet is black like ink". Rashi states that the appearance
of the "blood" of the chilazon shel techeilet is like the color of
techeilet. The Radzyner Rebbe reconciles the apparent contradiction
between Rashi and Rambam by explaining that when Rashi says maris damo,
"appearance of its blood", he is referring to the "blood" after it is
prepared for dyeing, while Rambam refers to the original color of the
"blood". Supporters of the murex theory follow the lead of Rabbi
Herzog who, unable to find a source to support Rambam's statement,
speculated that Rambam was basing this on an erroneous statement of
Aristotle, and dismissed this statement of Rambam. However, it is not
clear that the Petil group's techeilet meets the description of Rashi,
either. The murex secretion is essentially clear. Left in the sun it turns
purple-blue. When it is placed in a chemical solution it turns yellow. It
is then exposed to ultraviolet radiation, after which the wool threads
are dipped in the solution. The wool turns blue when it is removed from
the solution and exposed to the air. Thus, the murex trunculus dye is
never blue as a liquid, only turning blue after it is already on the
garment. This might be reconciled by saying that when Rashi refers to the
appearance of the blood of the chilazon, he means the dye as it appears
on the tzitzit after the dyeing is completed. As a secondary criterion,
this would seem to be an acceptable explanation of Rashi, although there
is still the problem of dismissing the Rambam on a matter of science.
Treatment for hemorrhoids: The Gemara also tells us that the
chilazon was used to treat hemorrhoids. Rabbi Herzog states that
modern pharmaceutics knows nothing of the use of a mollusk to treat
hemorrhoids. Rabbi Herzog's comments are a bit puzzling. Given that
this treatment was from the times of the Gemara, it would be likely
that mention of this would be found now only in non-traditional
medical sources, what might be deemed today to be "alternative
medicine". Additionally, the Radzyner Rebbe had already written that
cuttlefish ink has been used as a treatment for hemorrhoids since ancient
times. Indeed, it is still sold today for this purpose. As for
murex trunculus, in ancient times it was considered to be bad for the
Tentacles bent like hooks: The Mishnah describes a chain hanging on
the wall, with something called a chilazon attached to the head of the
chain. The mefarshim say it was called this because it was shaped
like the chilazon shel techeilet, and Tiferes Yisroel explicitly
states that this was an iron hook attached at the end which was used to
hang the chain on a wall. The Radzyner Rebbe understands this to mean
the chilazon has long tentacles that are bent like hooks. No part
of a murex snail would fit this description.
Snake-like extensions: The Gemara speaks of red flesh-like warts,
forming a snake-like shape in the eye. This disease is called both
snake and chilazon. The Radzyner Rebbe states that the chilazon must have
snake-like limbs or extensions, and have red warts. This description
does not fit murex trunculus.
Aside from establishing criteria to identify the chilazon, it may
be possible to find evidence to corroborate an opinion regarding the
identity of the chilazon. The following paragraphs discuss this type of
evidence in the context of the murex trunculus theory.
Archeological evidence: There can be little doubt that murex trunculus
was used in ancient dyeing. It has long been accepted that murex
trunculus was used for dyeing purple in ancient times. There is
significant archeological evidence to support this. However, all of the
evidence suggests it was used for purple dyeing. There is absolutely no
evidence to suggest that murex trunculus was used to dye blue. In fact,
as Dr. Ziderman himself points out, it would be absurd to think that
non-Jews would use murex to make indigo blue when they could make the
same thing easier and cheaper using plants, as was done all over the
world. One might argue that murex-indigo was used to make techeilet,
while the identical but inexpensive plant indigo was used for all other
blue dyeing. However, piles of murex trunculus shells have been found
at many ancient dyeing sites, not just in the vicinity of the Jews.
Certainly at those other sites they would only have used murex trunculus
for purple. The notion that murex trunculus was used for making indigo is
both illogical and groundless. Let us examine the archeological evidence.
Mounds of murex trunculus shells (as well as two related species, murex
brandaris and purpura haemastoma) have been found at ancient dye sites
in many locations. These shells were cracked in the exact spot to get
the dye. This is solid proof that murex trunculus was used in ancient
dyeing, but does not imply it was used for dyeing blue. A 13th century
B.C.E. potsherd from Sarepta has a stripe of dye that is believed to be
from the murex trunculus - it is a purple stripe, with no detectable blue
(indigo) content. A vat from a dig at Tel Shikmona has purple murex
dye on it, not blue as previously described in a brochure from the Petil
Tekhelet Foundation (from the picture it is obviously purple, but the
text erroneously said blue). Pliny speaks in great depth about dyeing
with murex; different shades of purple, red and violet, but not blue.
Petil followers point out that at one site the shells of murex brandaris
and purpura haemastoma were together, but the murex trunculus shells were
in a different area. They leap to the conclusion that murex trunculus
must have been used for dyeing blue. They are ignoring Pliny (among
others), who states that the famed Tyrian purple shade was produced
by double-dyeing with murex brandaris and purpura haemastoma.
Thus, it was logical that those two species were found together, and
apart from murex trunculus. How does that suggest murex trunculus
was used for dyeing blue? In fact, it is hard to see how chemical
analysis of archeological finds could ever support the idea that murex
trunculus was used for dyeing blue. If the chemical is purely indigo,
the natural assumption would be that the source was plant indigo, which
was used around the world. If indigo was found with traces of purple,
it might be suggestive of murex trunculus dye. Murex trunculus dye is
naturally a mix of purple and blue, and has to be irradiated to induce
a photochemical reaction from which blue dye results. If this process
were not completed, the dye would be mostly blue with traces of purple.
However, murex trunculus produces dyes with varying mixtures of indigo
and purple (brominated indigo). Some batches of dye may turn out to be
almost all indigo, and other batches might turn out to be all purple.
Thus, even when the intention is to use the natural purple-blue of murex
trunculus, a particular batch could turn out to be almost pure indigo.
Also, mixing of dyes was common. A mix of blue and purple might be
the product of murex trunculus, or it might be the mixture of plant
indigo with purple dye from other murex species. Not only is there no
archeological support for the notion that murex trunculus was used to dye
blue, it may be that it is not even possible for archeological evidence
to accomplish this through chemical analysis alone!
It has been suggested that the image of a murex shell on a Bar Kochba
coin is "apparently irrefutable evidence" that murex trunculus was the
source of techeilet. Why else would a non-kosher species appear
unless it was used for a mitzvah? Murex dyeing was a major industry,
with some regions employing half their population in murex fishing.
Moreover, the murex was a status symbol, associated with wealth and
royalty. Bar Kochba was not original: murex images showed up on coins
from many places, both before and after Bar Kochba's time. It would
appear that Bar Kochba used the murex image either for the same reason
as others did (i.e. status symbol, commercial importance), or, perhaps,
to give his government the appearance of more legitimacy by following
the lead of other governments that printed coins with murex images.
Linguistic Proofs: Petil followers offer some linguistic arguments in
attempting to support their position. The word chilazon is a general term
for snail, not only in modern Hebrew but in some other languages as well.
Aside from not pointing specifically to murex trunculus, it is not clear
which species chilazon referred to at the time of the Gemara. It may have
been a general term for mollusk. Did it only include gastropods, or could
it have included cephalopods such as octopus and squid? This is unclear.
Petil writings also mention the Septuagint's Greek translation of
techeilet as porphyros (word used for purple or murex). Rabbi Herzog
raises this issue and dismisses it rather handily. He points out
that everywhere else (including that same chapter) the Septuagint
uses iakinthos for techeilet and porphyra for argaman, and shows how
the Hebrew text they must have been given could not have matched our
Masoretic tradition, and that the translation was probably given for
argaman, not techeilet.
Some have suggested that Raavya (Berachot 9b Siman 25) equates techeilet
with porphyrin, the Greek word for murex, though they do not supply a
full explanation of this statement by Raavya and do not mention that in
both Greek and Latin the word for murex and the word for purple are the
same. Let us examine the passage in question. Raavya quotes a Yerushalmi
(a part that is no longer extant) explaining the time for reciting the
morning shema: "[from the time when one can distinguish] between techeilet
and karti, between porphyrin and parufinen, which is a coat that is called
in Latin purpura". A logical explanation of this missing Yerushalmi is
that the second comparison bein porphyrin bein parufinen is a color
distinction that would be as hard to tell apart in the dark as blue
(techeilet) and green (karti). Porphyrin is from the Greek word meaning
purple. Parufinen, from the Raavya's description, appears to be from the
Greek parufaino, meaning "a robe with a hem or border of purple",
which is consistent with the hagahot where this color is equated with
argaman. Thus, bein porphyrin bein parufinen might mean to distinguish
between the purple border of a robe and the rest of the garment.
Petil suggests that this Yerushalmi is equating murex with techeilet.
Obviously they cannot mean that techeilet is the murex, but rather the
source of techeilet is the murex. However, this logic would render the
Yerushalmi as "between techeilet and karti, between a murex snail and a
purple coat". Aside from sounding bizarre, it is difficult to see how a
purple coat could be the source of karti. Karti is usually understood
to be green, like a leek. There is a minority view that karti is
not green, but a different color close to techeilet. However, even
if you rely on this view, which is based on a citation from Aruch which
is no longer extant, to explain a Yerushalmi that is no longer extant,
the wording still doesn't work. Additionally, this would require equating
karti with argaman, which does not fit with any opinion. There does not
appear to be a way to interpret Raavya's statement as equating murex
Proof by Omission: There is a simple logic that argues against murex
trunculus as chilazon. At the times of the Gemara, purple dyeing with
murex snails was pervasive throughout the region. This may explain
why the Gemara does not mention the source of the argaman (red-purple)
dye - everyone knew! Murex snails were famous: Murex dye sold for more
than its weight in gold, its shell appeared on many governments' coins,
royal edicts were issued to monopolize use of the dye, and Pliny wrote
about the murex dyeing process. There was even a well-known term for
the murex that was the same in Greek and Latin (porphyra, purpura).
If this species was the source of techeilet, why didn't the Gemara tell
us this? Why didn't the Gemara say that the chilazon was from the family
of purple-giving snails? Wouldn't this have been simpler and clearer
than the signs provided by the Gemara? It is implausible that the
Gemara would choose to ignore a well known classification term, opting
instead to describe the chilazon through a set of characteristics from
which someone might be able to determine the correct species.
The identity of the chilazon was lost for many centuries. Without a
tradition as to the correct species, and without a sample of ancient
techeilet, it might not be possible to identify the chilazon with
certainty. However, there are minimum requirements that can be
expected to be met in order to seriously entertain the possibility of a
particular species being the chilazon. Chazal, knowing the identity of
the chilazon, chose several distinguishing characteristics to describe it.
For a species to be considered as the chilazon, these criteria would have
to be clearly met in such a way that it would have been reasonable for
Chazal to have chosen these statements to describe this species. The
Gemara also provides chemical tests to distinguish between genuine
techeilet and k'la ilan, imitation techeilet. Any techeilet that would
clearly fail this test could be rejected with certainty. It would also
be reasonable to expect the species under consideration to fit most of
the characteristics of the chilazon that can be deduced from sources
outside of the sugya of techeilet.
Murex trunculus does not meet any of the primary criteria.
Arguments brought in favor of the murex trunculus depend
on new interpretations of the Gemara that contradict the
classical mefarshim and even the precise language of the Gemara.
Even with these explanations, it could not be reasonably stated
that Chazal would have chosen these statements to describe the
The techeilet dye produced by the Petil Tekhelet Foundation must
fail the chemical tests provided by the Gemara since it is the
exact same chemical as k'la ilan. Additionally, the Gemara's
tests were designed to make indigo fail the test, and Petil's
techeilet is indigo. Thus, murex-derived indigo as techeilet is
an utterly untenable position. This is acknowledged even by the
chemist whose work led to the Petil group's formation.
Murex trunculus meets few of the secondary criteria, and
archeological evidence provides no support whatsoever for the
proposition that murex trunculus was used in the ancient dyeing
of blue in general, let alone techeilet in particular.
Since murex snails were famous for their purple dyeing and there
was a well-known term for murex, it would seem rather odd that the
Gemara chose not to use this term, instead providing descriptive
statements that have failed to provide a consensus opinion for
In summary, the case for murex trunculus as the chilazon has little
merit. Indeed, the evidence against murex trunculus as the chilazon
1 Bamidbar 15:38.
2 Menachot 43b.
3 Hebrew: dam. The chilazon has two "bloods", one that is the life
blood, and another that is stored in its own sac. This other "blood"
is the source of the techeilet dye (Rabbeinu Tam, Tosafot, Shabbat 75a)
4 Menachot 44a, Masechtot Ketanot Masechet Tzitzit Ch. 1 Halacha 10,
Tosefta Menachot 9:16.
5 Rabbi Isaac Herzog, "Hebrew Porphyrology", in Ehud Spanier, ed., The
Royal Purple and the Biblical Blue: Argaman and Tekhelet (Jerusalem,
1987), p.112. Baruch Sterman, "The Science of Tekhelet", in Rabbi Alfred
Cohen, ed., Tekhelet: The Renaissance of a Mitzvah (New York, 1996), p.70.
6 The Radzyner Rebbe bases this on the fact that gaonim did not write
about halachot that were no longer applicable, and two of the gaonim
wrote about the laws of tzitzit based on techeilet (Rav Natronei
Gaon, Rav Shmuel bar Chofni). He also notes that Rambam explained in a
responsum the practical application of the laws of techeilet, implying
they were wearing techeilet in Luniel. (Rabbi Gershon Leiner, Sefunei
Temunei Chol. Published in Sifrei HaTecheilet Radzyn (Bnei Brak, 1999),
pp. 5-6. A nearly complete English translation of this sefer can be
found at http://www.begedivri.com/techelet/Sefunei.htm)
7 Chapter on Rabbi Gershon Leiner in Frenkel, Rabbi Isser, Yechidei
Segulah (Tel Aviv, 1967).
8 Ludwig Lewysohn, Zoologie des Talmuds. (Frankfurt, 1858), pp. 283-285.
9 Sterman ibid. p. 73.
10 Herzog ibid.
11 The Petil Tekhelet Foundation maintains an excellent online library on
their web site, http://www.techeilet.co.il . This library was the source
for many of the pro-murex arguments cited here. Their great efforts at
publicizing the neglected mitzvah of techeilet is inspiring.
12 Menachot 41-44.
13 Menachot 44a.
14 Herzog ibid., p. 70.
15 Although Rashi states that techeilet is green (Shemot 25:4), it should
be pointed out that there were few color designations in the Gemara,
and that green represented a color classification that includes blue
(Herzog ibid. p.92). Indeed, elsewhere Rashi states the color of techeilet
resembles the darkened sky at dusk (Bamidbar 15:41).
16 Masechtot Ketanot Masechet Tzitzit Ch. 1 Halacha 10
17 Sterman ibid. p.69.
18 Sterman ibid. p.69.
19 Rashi, Shita Mikubetzet and Rabbeinu Gershom, Menachot 44a; Herzog
20 Leiner ibid. p.4.
21 Herzog ibid. pp. 69,73.
22 R.J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology Vol 4, 2nd edition (Leiden,
23 P. Friedlander, "Uber den Farbstoff des antiken Purpurs
aus murex brandaris", Berichte der Deutschen Chemischen
24 Rashi on Menachot 44a.
25 Herzog ibid. p. 70.
26 Aruch on k'la ilan; Nimukei Yosef Baba Metzia 34a; Herzog ibid,
pp.94-96, Responsa Ridbaz v2, 685.
27 Menachot 42b-43a.
28 Herzog ibid. p.102.
29 Indigo, to be able to penetrate wool, must first be converted (oxygen
removed) into its chemically reduced form, known as "indigo white"
(which is really more of a yellow, or yellow-green). After wool is dipped
into "indigo white", it is removed from the solution and turns blue upon
exposure to the oxygen in the air. The chemical reduction of indigo into
"indigo white" was done by immersion into a fermentation vat. The first
of the two tests in the Gemara describes such a fermentation vat, which
should reduce the indigo, thereby fading the blue color and failing the
test. Descriptions of fermentation vats can be found in: Edmund Knecht,
Christopher Rawson, and Richard Loewenthal, A Manual of Dyeing, Eighth
edition, (London, 1925), and J.N. Liles, The Art and Craft of Natural
Dyeing, (Knoxville, 1990).
30 The ingredients of the test, fermented urine, juice of the fenugreek
plant and alum, seem puzzling at first glance. It would not appear to be
a convenient test if it involves waiting many days for the mei raglayim
to ferment. However, knowing that this is merely describing a typical
fermentation vat used for dyeing indigo the matter becomes clear.
Techeilet dyeing was probably done at or near the dye houses. Anyone
wishing to test techeilet could merely walk over to where indigo was
being dyed and put it in a fermentation vat and check it in the morning.
The second test uses a hard, leavened dough that has fermented as much
as possible (Rabbeinu Gershom, Menachot 43a).
31 Rashi on Menachot 44a.
32 Rambam, Hilchot Tzitzit, Ch. 2, Halacha 5; Tosafot on Menachot 43a;
Tosafot on Nidah 63a.
33 The Petil writings and web site boast (bold print) of how their
techeilet is chemically equivalent to indigo.
34 Hoffman, Roald. "Blue as the Sea". American Scientist, 78 (July/August
35 Menachot 42b.
36 I.I. Ziderman, "On the Identification of the Jewish Tekhelet Dye",
Gloria Manis [Antwerp] 24(4): 77-80.
37 P.E. McGovern, "Ehud Spanier: The Royal Purple and the Biblical Blue
(Argaman and Tekhelet): The Study of Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Herzog on the
Dye Industries in Ancient Israel and Recent Scientific Contributions",
Isis 81:308 (September 1990):563.
38 Midrash Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:11.
39 Midrash Devarim Rabbah 7:11.
40 Shabbat 75a.
41 Leiner, ibid. p.27. Herzog ibid. p.57.
42 Shabbat 75a and Rashi ad loc.
43 Aristotle, Historia Animalium, Book V, Ch. 15; Pliny the Elder,
Naturalis Historia, Book 9, Ch. 60.
44 Megilah 6a and Rashi ad loc. See also Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 13:16.
45 Leiner, ibid. p.29.
46 Rambam, Hilchot Tzitzit, Ch.2, Halacha 2.
47 Chulin 89a, Rashi.
48 Leiner ibid. pp. 28-9.
49 Herzog ibid. p.77.
50 Avodah Zarah 28b.
51 Herzog ibid. p.59.
52 Rabbi Gershon Leiner, Ein HaTecheilet in Sifrei Techeilet Radzyn,
pp.292-3. That this was known in the times of the Gemara can be confirmed
in three 1st century texts: Pliny the Elder, ibid.Book 32:1; Celsus,
De Medicina, Book 2:29; Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, Book 2:23.
53 Sepia, cuttlefish ink, is sold in tablet form as a treatment
for hemorrhoids. One such store is Vitamin USA of Findlay, OH
54 Celsus ibid. Book 2:30.
55 Keilim, ch. 12, Mishnah 1.
56 Idem, Rav Ovadiah MiBartenura, Meleches Shlomo.
57 Leiner, Sefunei Temunei Chol p.27.
58 Bechorot 38a-b.
59 Leiner ibid. p.27.
60 P.E. McGovern, and R.H. Michel, "Royal Purple Dye: Tracing Chemical
Origins of the Industry"., Analytic Chemistry 57(1985):1514A-1522A.
61 Ziderman ibid.
62 McGovern ibid.
63 Pliny ibid. Book 9, ch. 62.
64 Rabbi Norman Lamm, "New Discoveries and the Halakhah on Tekhelet"
in Rabbi Alfred Cohen, ed.,Tekhelet: The Renaissance of a Mitzvah (New
York, 1996), p.23.
65 Franco Brunello, The Art of Dyeing in the History of Mankind,
translated by Bernard Hickey (Venice, 1973), pp. 91-92.
66 Found on Corinthian and Tyrian coins (Brunello, ibid., p.92;
Sterman ibid., p.64). Also found on a coin from Taras (Taranto), minted
hundreds of years before Bar Kochba (Brunello ibid. p.105) - see coin
67 Herzog ibid. p.78.
68 Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon of Classical Greek,
69 See, for example, Targum Onkelos Bamidbar 11:5, Sukkah Ch. 3 Mishnah 6.
70 Rabbeinu Yonah on Berachot 9b.
71 Herzog ibid. p.60.
72 The archeologist Yigael Yadin believed he found techeilet from the
Bar Kochba era (circa 135). The unspun, purple wool that he found was
subjected to chemical analysis and found to be made of indigo and kermes,
a common red dye made from an insect. This combination was a common,
inexpensive substitute for the expensive murex purple. It is puzzling
why Dr. Yadin thought this was techeilet. The wool was just beginning
to be spun. It was not attached to a garment. No white threads were
intermingled. Despite Dr. Yadin's imaginative drawings of how this wool
was actually partially completed tzitzit, any connection between this
wool and tzitzit is pure speculation. See Yigael Yadin, Bar-Kochba: The
rediscovery of the legendary hero of the Second Jewish Revolt against
Rome.(New York, 1971).