Blue Is the Warmest Color? Not for the Jews

Reflections from a conference devoted to the Biblical tekhelet.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Blue may be the warmest color, to paraphrase the title of the new cinematic sensation on lesbian love by Tunisian-French director Abdellatif Kechiche.

For Jews, though, blue is the most elusive and even contentious color.

Need proof? Spend a day at a conference devoted to this primary color. To be fair, it wasn’t all shades of blue, but specifically the Biblical blue color known as tekhelet that was the topic of conversation at this particular gathering. And even calling it blue, rather than purple, may have already offended some of the hardliners.

But if there was one thing that the hundreds of participants attending this week’s nine-hour conference could agree on, it was that there is no agreement on anything: not on the source of tekhelet, not on the modern-day relevance of the Torah commandment requiring its presence on specific garments, and certainly not on the description of the color.

It was quite an eclectic group that gathered in Jerusalem to mark the centennial anniversary of the publication of the doctoral dissertation of Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, the former chief rabbi of Israel, on this very subject. There were rabbis there and Talmudic scholars, American yeshiva students, archeologists, chemists, marine biologists, Near East studies experts and just plain old tekhelet enthusiasts – a group of mainly observant folks unabashedly obsessed with the topic.

“The bottom line is that tekhelet is the most important color in history,” explained Ari Greenspan, a nice Jewish dentist from New Jersey who moved to Israel years ago and is proud to count himself among them. “It was one of the most important commodities in the ancient world for the Jews.”

Greenspan is the co-founder of Ptil Tekhelet, an Israel-based non-profit that produces its own line of tzitziot [tassels attached to the four-cornered garments traditionally worn by men] dyed with the Biblical blue color, which co-sponsored the conference. Its stated mission is to accommodate those who wish to once again fulfill the commandment that appears in the following verse in the Book of Numbers: “And they shall place upon the tzitzit of each corner a thread of tekhelet ... ”

After the Second Temple was destroyed and the Jews were forced into exile, the secret of producing this precious color was gradually lost. And even though the Talmud states that it was derived from the inner parts of the marine animal known as the hilazon, no one can say for sure today what that creature was, though the overriding consensus seems to be that it is the Murex snail.

So was this snail the source of a color that resembles light blue, sky blue, indigo, or possibly even green, as the great Torah commentator Rashi once argued? “It depends on who you ask and what period in history you ask them,” as the Bar-Ilan University archeology professor, Zohar Amar, diplomatically put it when the question came up at a panel.

Asked whether tekhelet veered more toward a shade of light blue or darker purple, Hebrew University Assyriologist Wayne Horowitz gracefully averted confrontation as well. “I don’t know, sorry, and thanks,” he said, closing the discussion.

But Greenspan and his cohorts at Ptil Tekhelet were clearly in the light blue camp. “The Rambam says it was light blue, the Radzyner rebbe [Rabbi Gershon Leiner, who in the 1850s began wearing tekhelet] said it was. There’s no doubt that’s what the rabbis meant when they used the term. What the Romans meant − that’s up for debate.”

How does he account for the relatively recent tekhelet craze? “It’s that one mitzvah that’s disappeared that we have the opportunity to do again,” says Greenspan. “You can’t build the Temple today, you can’t bring sacrifices, but this is a mitzvah that every Jew could do, and for some technical reason it disappeared.”

Dr. Isaac Herzog, a professor of law at Ono Academic College, tied his grandfather’s profound interest in the topic to his passion for the Land of Israel. “It’s clear to me that it had to do with his great yearning for a spiritual renaissance in this place,” he told the conference participants.

The opening address was delivered by his cousin, the newly elected Labor Party leader who happens to be the other namesake of the former chief rabbi. As one of the conference organizers noted: “If we could get the head of the Labor Party to address a gathering here at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, then surely the coming of the Messiah is approaching.”

In which case, it may not be long before the People of Israel finally know what is the true blue.

A nearly 2,000-year old textile that appears to contain a mysterious blue color described in the Bible, one of the few remnants of the ancient color ever discovered.Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

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