Word of the Day / Tekhelet

Where others see shades of blue, Israelis see two different colors.

A Newcastle University study last year found that speakers of Japanese, which has different words for dark blue and light blue, made a sharper distinction between those colors than did English speakers, a finding that supports previous research showing that people are more likely to rate two colors to be more similar if they belong to the same linguistic category.

This should come as little surprise to Hebrew-English bilinguals, who know that whereas the English language implicitly advocates the view that light and dark blue, like pale green and forest green, are varying shades of the same color, Hebrew has kahol, the generic word for "blue," as well as a distinct and frequently used word for "light blue," tekhelet. Unlike in English, light blue is not really seen as a subcategory of blue but as a color all its own. Even a toddler would likely correct you if you were to misidentify a light-blue object as kahol.

The word tekhelet has a long history, starting with the Bible. Numbers 15:38-40 speaks of the commandment of tzitzit, the ritual fringes traditionally worn by Orthodox Jewish men: "Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of tekhelet that ye may remember and do all my commandments."

Why is this thread supposed to function as a reminder, like the old string-around-the finger trick? One possible reason is that it is reminiscent of the priestly garments made out of tekhelet, as well as purple and scarlet, in accordance with the instructions laid out in Exodus 39. Another is that the color of the fringe is meant to remind us of the Ten Commandments, which the Sages say were inscribed on sapphire.

The main reason that ritual fringes generally don't include a string of tekhelet today is that the dye is said to have come from a specific kind of snail whose identity has been lost and that we are no longer able to reproduce the exact color of biblical tekhelet, though there are modern-day "tekheletists" who say the snail has been rediscovered.

But the snail snafu hasn't stopped the Hebrew language from absorbing the word, which also comes up in more recent Jewish history. The official government announcement from 1948 describing the colors and dimensions of the flag of the new state, says, "The background – white, on which will be two lines of dark tekhelet". That description serves to highlight the distinctness of tekhelet as a hue all its own, given that in English one would be pretty unlikely to describe any color as "dark light blue." On the other hand, it may well be the darkness of the flag's tekhelet that has made Israelis refer to their country's colors as kahol velavan, "blue and white," rather than tekhelet and white. Maybe it would all be clearer in Japanese.