Tekhelet: The Mythical Color of the Sky
by Dr. Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.
What does the word mean?
The usual translation for the ancient Hebrew word Tekhelet is sky blue, azure blue, or cerulean blue, but the true meaning of the word is "the color of the sky." The sky is generally thought of as blue, but in reality, it has many colors. It may be the pale blue and pink of sunrise, the deep blue of mid-day, the touch of gold added in the afternoon, the mix of blue, lavender, and orange at sunset, or the night sky, dark blue and full of stars. All of these may represent Tekhelet.
The long history of Tekhelet
The history and mythology of Tekhelet go very deeply into the past. As it often happens, they are interconnected. Thousands of years ago, the inhabitants of Mesopotamia valued the color. A favorite stone was lapis lazuli, used for eyes in statues of their gods and also for personal decoration and jewelry. The gems ranged from intense blue with touches of gold which looked just like the night sky, to light blue that looked like the sea or the sky. They also ground the precious stone for special dyes.
For the ancient Israelites, it was a holy color. Blue is often mentioned in the Bible as God's color — for example, the throne He sits on, and the pavement under His feet are made of sapphire. It is minutely described in the Bible1 and details are given about using it in the Tabernacle in the desert, including the use in priestly clothes, covering for sacred vessels, and curtains, among other furnishings. The same styles were used later in Solomon's Temple. Every man was ordered to attach a string colored with Tekhelet, called the Tzitzit, to the corner of his garment, as a constant reminder of the relationship between God and himself. To these days, orthodox Jews still have these strings on the prayer shawls. The Israelites favored jewelry made of sapphire which comes in several shades of blue. Some researchers believe that "sapphire" actually means lapis lazuli, but it is not certain; the area has other blue and purple stones that could be mined and used for the same purposes.
The Romans referred to Tekhelet by the name "hyacinthine purple," but since they left records of another color called "Tyrian purple" (which the Jews called "Argaman"), there is considerable confusion as to their origin. Pliny claims it was derived from the Murex snail.2
In Buddhism, light blue stones such as turquoise are often used as personal protection amulets, and the "Blue Buddha," who is the Buddha of Medicine, is associated with the deep color of lapis lazuli. The color has been (and still is) highly valued for centuries in India, Tibet, and Nepal.
In Christian myths and legends, blue represents heaven, eternity, and truth. In Christian art, the Virgin Mary often wears a blue mantle, and in divine appearances during visions, she invariably had at least some blue in her attire, such as a sash or trim, even when the mantle was white or gold. In Tyndale's 1529 English translation of the Bible, the word for Tekhelet is jacinth (meaning hyacinth) while the King James Version (1611) translated it as "blue." But in 1611 the word "blue" is known to be somewhat generic, including a wide range of hues ranging from blue to violet.
The source of the blue dye
Fierce debate rages concerning the ancient source of the dye. The Bible says it was derived from Hilazon. But no one knows what the creature is. For centuries, scholars thought it was a tiny sea snail, whose Latin name is Murex trunculus, also known as Hexaplex trunculus. It was abundant in ancient Phoenicia, today's modern Lebanon.i Other scholars objected, since how could it be used in the holy Tempe while sea creatures other than fish were considered unclean by the ancient Israelites? These researchers claimed that the source of the dye was the indigo plant.
Modern attempts to reproduce the dye from the Murex have mixed results. These experiments started in 1832 and continued to this day. An interesting test showed that some murex yield blue and others yield purple; the difference was related to the snail's gender (males produce blue, while female produce purple dyes). But segregating the creatures according to the gender is not a simple task since the males experience sex reversal into females after one year of life. Even more confusing is the fact that while they function as females, they retain the male sexual organs. Identification, therefore, is challenging.
It is entirely possible that the dye was derived, as mentioned above, from plants. A seventh-century document describes dying with woad and madder3 and a tassel found in the Dead Sea Cave of the Letters has been analyzed to be made from these plants as well.4
During the Hellenistic period, Tekhelet was translated invariably into "hyacinth," and in classical Greek, the hyacinth is the well-known flower Hyacinthus orientalis, native to Phoenicia. The same formula appears in the Talmud.5 However, in Tractate Menachot, the snail theory is supported.
Whichever source was used, the great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Meir, stated the high, mythical value of Tekhelet beautifully: "Whoever observes the mitzvah of tzitzit, is considered as if he greeted the Divine Presence, for Tekhelet resembles the sea, and the sea resembles the sky, and the sky resembles God's holy throne."6
i.Ancient Israel and Phoenicia enjoyed friendly trade and social relations for centuries. In addition, several Israelite kings were allied to Phoenicia through marriage.
- See Exodus, Chapters 24-40, and Numbers, Chapter 4.
- Pliny the Elder. Natural History, Book IX, LX-LXV.
- Wouters, J. (1992). Dyes in History and Archaeology, 10, pp. 17-21.
- Koren, Z.C. (2001). Proceedings of the International Conference on Colours in Antiquity. University of Edinburgh, UK.
- Midrash Sifrey, on Numbers 14:41. However, in Tractate Menachot, the snail theory is supported.
- Sifre, Shelach, 15:39.