— by Hannah Lee
With gratitude to Diane Sandoval and Rabbi Dr. Joel Hecker for their feedback.
Do you know anyone who wears tekhelet tzizit, ritual fringes with one blue cord with dye from one special species of marine creature, the chilazon? I’ve learned that Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Professorial Chair in Talmud and Rosh Kollel at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) does. Furthermore, the eminent rabbi recently met with Dr. Israel Ziderman, the Israeli biochemist who identified the correct species of snail and agreed to join the Public Council of the Tekhelet Foundation to help advance this project.
In workshops on tzizit, Rabbi Goldie Milgram teaches that in Biblical times, the Kohen Gadol wore a tunic made only of tekhelet (Exodus 28:31). Tekhelet thread is used in the coverings for the Mishkan (tabernacle), the parochet (curtain), and the efod (tunic). (Exodus 26:1,31; 28:6,28)
More after the jump.
Jews stopped wearing tekhelet tzizit 1,300 years ago when its authentic source was in question. The reappearance of tekhelet dates back to 1887, when the Radziner Rebbe (Grand Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner) proposed that the Sepia officinalis (common cuttlefish) met many of the criteria for the chilazon. Within a year, Radziner chassidim began wearing tzitzit dyed by this cephalopod. However, chemical analysis later determined that it was actually a well-known synthetic dye “Prussian blue,” made by reacting iron sulfate with oxygen from the cuttlefish blood.
The next attempt came just before the Second World War, when the Admor M’Rozhin, one of the great Chassidic leaders, came to the conclusion that the dye needed for tekhelet came from a fish called the Dag HaDyio, literally the Ink Fish. His proposal was not accepted by the great poskim (jurists).
From L to R: Rabbi Avi Berman, Head Orthodox Union Israel; Dr. Yisrael Ziderman, Scientific Head of the Tekhelet Foundation; Foundation ‘s Development Executive Chanan Ziderman; Rabbi Aaron Adler, Foreign Liaison of the Foundation’s Public Council; Rabbi Herschel Schachter, Rosh Yeshiva of REITS at Yeshiva University.
In 1913, Rabbi Isaac Halevy Herzog, later Chief Rabbi of Ireland and then of Israel, published his doctoral thesis on “Hebrew Porphyrology.” He identified the source of the dye as the Yantina fish, but he did not attempt to introduce this opinion because current practice follows the teshuvah of the Rema, Rabbi Moshe Isseles [Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 9:5] that today tzizit must only be white. The Mishna Berura says the same. Rabbi Sholom DovBer, the fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch, maintained that according to the teachings of Kabbalah the chilazon will not re-emerge until the coming of the Messiah.
I asked Rabbi Albert Gabbai of Mikveh Israel if the Sephardim wear tekhelet. He said that [most] Sephardim follow the teshuvah of the Rambam and wearing white tzizit fulfills the mitzvah. Many now do wear tekhelet, but he has not accepted the practice.
Drawing upon Rav Herzog’s work, Dr. Ziderman identified the banded dye-murex snail(Hexaplex Trunculus) as the ancient source of the tekhelet. Shells of these snails have been found in the excavations of ancient homes in Jerusalem, as tekhelet had also been used to dye the garments of the Kohanim.
In 1993, Dr. Ziderman’s scientific work was applied in the making of kosher tekhelet tzitzit by the Ptil Tekhelet Association. Currently snails from Eastern Europe are used for the dye, because the snails found on the Israeli coast are a protected species, thus unavailable for this purpose. Only 5,000 sets of tekhelet tzizit are sold each year and the price is prohibitive for many Jews ($36 at Bala Judaica for the blue tzizit versus $3 for the white ones). Dr. Ziderman founded the Tekhelet Foundation to raise dye-murex snails in Israel, so tallit manufacturers can make tekhelet tzizit at affordable prices.
One thousand snails have been sent to the National Center for Mariculture in Eilat, to begin a three-year study on breeding the banded dye-murex in sea-water tanks. After the best procedures are determined, facilities will be built and the production of the dyes will begin. The goal of the Tekhelet Foundation is to produce 50,000 tekhelet sets by 2017, and 250,000 sets by 2020.
The Tekhelet Foundation is a not-for-profit organization. Chanan Ziderman, Development Executive and son of Dr. Ziderman, says, “This mitzvah could unite Jews of all backgrounds, as tekhelet would again become a sign of godliness and a symbol of our faith.”