Tekhelet is one of the colors mentioned in the Torah, traditionally associated with a shade of blue. It is mentioned frequently alongside gold, silver and silk as a precious commodity. There is a Biblical commandment to tie a thread of Tekhelet around the tzitzit (fringes) of cornered garments. In addition, Tekhelet is required in the garments of the High Priest, as well as for the coverings of the holy vessels.
The Talmud describes Tekhelet as coming from a sea-creature called a chilazon. In a homiletic passage, the chilazon is characterized as “similar to the sea, being similar to [but not] a fish, and coming up from the sea once in seventy years [rarely].” Chilazon in modern Hebrew means “snail”. Rabbinic, historical, archaeological and chemical evidence point to Murex trunculus snails as the source of Tekhelet.
Murex snails possess a gland which contains the source of Tekhelet. Dibromoindigo, which originates from glandular secretions of a fresh snail, bonds chemically to wool when put into solution in a reduced state (vat dyeing). In the presence of sunlight, the dibromoindigo debrominates to indigo, leaving color-fast blue wool.
Murex trunculus snails live along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. In ancient Israel, the tribe of Zebulun, located on the North-East coast, was attributed with having the chilazon. Archaeological digs have since uncovered mounds of broken Murex shells and remains of the dyeing industry on the North-Eastern coast of Israel. Today, since Murex trunculus snails are a protected species in Israel, snails for Tekhelet are obtained and processed outside of Israel (Greece, Spain) where they are caught and sold for food.
The dye extraction process is performed by workers under P’til Tekhelet’s supervision. The actual dyeing of wool with the Tekhelet is undertaken by P’til Tekhelet, (in Jerusalem and its environs) under the direction of its founder Rav Eliyahu Tavger, and in consultation with various Poskim. The wool is dyed expressly with the intent of the mitzvah, as dictated by halacha.
One to make the dye and 29 to tie the tzitzit (just kidding). We estimate that it takes approximately 30 snails to produce a set of Tekhelet strings. However, this number may very well fluctuate based on season, port of origin, extraction technique, etc. Scientific investigation of these influences will hopefully produce more accurate information in the future.
There are different opinions regarding how Tekhelet should be tied. Bear in mind that the technique chosen does not qualify/disqualify the mitzvah, except for certain minimal requirements. Today, Tekhelet is being tied following the opinions of various legal authorities including the Vilna Gaon, the Rambam, the Sefer HaChinuch, and Chabad.
Wearing Tekhelet on tzitzit is a mitzvah prescribed by the Torah. It is a commandment which is intended for all generations, independent of location and unrelated to the existence of the Temple. It is only during the last century that we have had the means and privilege of embarking upon the restoration of Tekhelet, which has been denied to us for many centuries. Dare we let this opportunity pass us by?
Archaeological discovery of mounds of Murex snails at coastal dyeing sites, as well as literary evidence from the ancient world of dyeing and chemical analysis of the Murex dye, are all strong evidence in support of this conclusion. More importantly, the growing number of Rabbinic personalities and halachic communities wearing Tekhelet today, lends further credence to its authenticity. The results of the “real” test, however, will only be validated by its acceptance in the years, if not generations to come.
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