Hem of His Garment


Dr. John D. Garr

A Ribband of Blue

    Literally and grammatically there was something more about the tzitzit (fringe) that was to call Israel’s attention to the commandments of God. In each tzitzit of each garment was to be a single ribband (thread) of blue. The Hebrew word for "ribband"is(petil), meaning a cord or thread twisted into a fringe. It is perfectly described in the apostolic Greek kravspedon (kraspedon), "the appendage . . . made of twisted wool." Even more than the tzitzit itself, this single twisted blue thread was to be the reminder of God’s mitzvot. Linguistically, the antecedent of the pronoun it (upon which Israelites were to look and remember)is "ribband" or the thread of blue.Since the word tzitzit is feminine and "it" ("You shall see it. . .") is masculine, the only antecedent possible is the thread of blue. The term for this "blue" in Hebrew is (tekhelet). Some sages have explained that the use of the masculine pronoun here may allude to an awareness of the Divine ("You shall see him [God] . . .").

     In the ancient world, dyes that were both colorful and not subject to oxidation or fading were rare and costly. There was a particular fascination with colors in the spectrum ranging from crimson, through purple, to sky blue. These colors are frequently mentioned in the Bible as (tekhelet) "blue," (’argaman) "purple," and (tola’) "crimson." The blue dye was derived from the hypobranchial gland of the Murex trunculus mollusk (sea snail), the purple from the hypobranchial gland of the Thais haemastoma sea mollusk, and the crimson from the dried body of the female coccus ilicis worm or maggot. Each of these dyes was used to color fabrics that were essential parts of the Tabernacle.

     The dye for the color tekhelet was literally worth its weight in gold and more in the ancient world. As a matter of fact, wool dyed with tekhelet was worth up to twenty times its weight in gold. One modern investigator demonstrated the high cost of tekhelet and purple dyes by finding it necessary to use over 8,500 such snails to obtain one gram of dye. Though a substitute dye, kela ilan, could be extracted from the Indian indigo plant, the best dye which did not fade or oxidize was taken from live mollusks or sea snails. It has been suggested that tekhelet dye from the Murex trunculus was one of the fastest dyes in the ancient world. (It binds very tightly to wool and will not fade over time.) It was probably for this reason that the Talmud specified that tekhelet for the tzitzit must come from a (chilazon), which means any kind of land or sea snail in modern Hebrew but probably referred to the Murex trunculus in ancient times. As the Talmud required, the Murex trunculus had a shell and came from "between the ladders of Tyre and Haifa." The Talmud also specified that the dye be extracted from a live snail, necessitating harvesting from the sea floor and immediate extraction, as was the case with the Murex trunculus.

    Because of their beauty, garments with these colors were in such demand that only the wealthy aristocracy and those of royalty could afford to wear them. Kings and emperors had their robes dyed in this "royal blue," or "royal purple." Due to the lucrative nature of purple and blue dyeing and the status conveyed by wearing such colors, there was much jockeying for control over the industry. The Romans brought the dyeing industry under imperial control, with Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar restricting use of these dyes to the ruling classes. Nero decreed that only the emperor had the right to wear blue or purple garments. By the fourth century C.E., the Roman emperors decreed that these dyes be controlled wholly by the state.

    The most ancient of references to tekhelet is found in the Tell-el-Amarna Tablets (1500-1300 B.C.E.), where a "sab�tu s� tak�lti" (garment of tekhelet) was listed as one of the riches sent by the King of Mittani to the Egyptian prince as a dowry for his daughter.10  Legend has it that the blue and purple dye was discovered when Hercules’ dog bit into a Murex snail on the shores of Tyre, leaving his mouth stained purple. Tyrian coins from around 200 C.E. depict this legend, with the Murex clearly visible.11 

    Archaeological evidence suggests that the tekhelet dyeing process may have originated in Crete, where purple was being manufactured by Minoans as early as 1750 B.C.E.12  Mounds of crushed Murex trunculus snails from around 1200 B.C.E. have been discovered at various sites between the promontory of Tyre in Lebanon and modern Haifa in Israel.13  Historical references are made to this blue and purple dyeing process in the writings of Pliny the Elder14  and Aristotle,15  both of whom describe the mollusks, where they may be located, and the procedure for dyeing with them. From the archaeological and historical evidence there seems to be little doubt about the origin of the color tekhelet. Though some have suggested that it was extracted from the mollusks Janthina pallida and Janthina bicolor, most scholars agree that both tekhelet and argaman were extracted from Murex snails.16 

    Rediscovery of the dyeing process from the Murex trunculus snail has also helped clear the confusion between references to purple and blue in the ancient world. These terms were often used almost interchangeably so that "royal blue" was actually purple. Lydia, a merchant in "purple" was probably actually a seller of tekhelet (blue).17  When the secretion from the hypobranchial gland of the Murex trunculus mollusk is extracted, it is a clear, yellowish liquid, dibromoindigo, which is put into a reduced solution for vat dyeing of wool. In the presence of sunlight, however, the ultraviolet spectrum causes the dibromoindigo to debrominate to indigo. The shade of the resultant color is dependent upon the degree of exposure to ultraviolet light; therefore, on a cloudy day or in controlled sunlight, the color is more violet or purple while on a cloudless day, the color is sky blue.

    In Bible days, tekhelet was used in ancient Israel in garments for princes and nobles.18  The High Priest’s robe was entirely of tekhelet, and various fabrics used in the Tabernacle and Temple were of tekhelet. It was also used in fabrics for royal palaces.19  The people of primitive Tyre were expert dyers with tekhelet,20  and the tribe of Zebulun participated in this industry21  as a part of its inheritance that included "the hidden treasures of the sands."22  The Israelites under Deborah fought a war with the Canaanites that most likely involved this issue: ". . .to Sisera a prey of divers colours, a prey of divers colours of needlework, of divers colours of needlework on both sides, meetfor the necks of them that takethe spoil. . ."23 

    In the time of Jesus, the tallit with tzitzit with a thread of tekhelet was most certainly in use by Jewish men. By that time, it is possible that some primitive form of the modern prayer shawl had emerged; however, some form of the ancient mantle was likely still in popular use. At any rate, there can be no doubt but that the garment which Jesus wore as an integral part of his Torahcentric lifestyle was the tallit with tzitzit and tekhelet. His mantle or prayer shawl was a rectangular woolen garment with a fringe appended and hanging down from each of its four corners, featuring a single strand of blue thread woven or twisted into each fringe. This was the "hem" of his garment which brought healing to "all who touched it."

    Despite all the destruction of subsequent wars in Israel and surrounding area, the tekhelet industry continued to produce the dye that was used to make the distinctive marking in the outer garment of Jewish men until at least 570 C.E., at the time of the redaction of the Talmud. Rabbi Isaac Herzog suggests that the final destruction of the Jewish tekhelet industry occurred with the Arab conquest of Israel in 683 C.E.24 

    The secrets of tekhelet were then lost for perhaps thirteen centuries, but they were rediscovered through the dedication of enterprising rabbis, including Rav Gershon Henokh Leiner of Radzyn, who thought that it was derived from a squid’s black secretion subjected to heat and mixed with iron filings.25  Rabbi Isaac Herzog, first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, did extensive research which disproved the Radzyn theory and concluded that the Murex family was the likely source of tekhelet. In 1985 Rabbi Eliahu Tavger of Jerusalem began researching the ritual fringes and finally succeeded in exacting the process of dyeing with tekhelet according to halacha. Today, after more than 1,300 years, tzitzit are again being made with a thread dyed with tekhelet under the auspices of P’til Tekhelet, a non-profit Israel-based organization that obtains snails, extracts the dye, and dyes pure Merino wool. These Israelis are among the many Jewish people internationally who have a passion for restoring ancient materials and practices to Judaism, no doubt a part of the spirit of restoration that is active in many faith communities, both Jewish and Christian.

    The majority of Jews today still use use a prayer shawl with plain white tzitziyot. Some use a blue stripe across the tallit to recall the tekhelet thread while others use a black stripe rather than the blue in remembrance of the destruction of the Temple. Increasing numbers, however, are returning to the tekhelet-threaded tzitzit the tradition of their ancient ancestors.


 1 Exodus 26:1, 31; 28:6.

 2 Baruch Sterman, "Tekhelet" (a paper posted on the Internet Website of P’til Tekhelet, www.techeiles.org.il), p. 2.

 3 Talmud, Seder Moed, Shabbat 75a.

 4 Shabbat 26a; Sifre Deuteronomy 354.

 5 Devarim Rabba 67:ll; Talmud, Seder Moed, Shabbat 85a.

 6Talmud, Seder Moed, Shabbat 85a

 7 Seutonius, Vita Caes, p. 43.

 8 Vita Neronis, p. 32.

 9 J. T. Baker, "Tyrian Purple: an Ancient Dye, a Modern Problem," (Endeavor, 33, 1974), pp. 11-17.

 10 Samuel Mercer, The Tell El-Amarna Tablets (Macmillan, 1939), p. 85.

 11 Baruch Sterman, p. 2.

 12 Robert Stieglitz, "The Minoan Origin of Tyrian Purple," (Biblical Archaeologist, 57:1, 1994), pp. 46-54.

 13 J. B. Pritchard. Recovering Sarepta, A Phoenician City (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), p. 38.

 14 Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book IX, LX-LXV.

 15 Aristotle, De Animalibus Historia, p. 175.

 16 Encyclopaedia Judaica: "Tekhelet."

 17 Acts 16:14.

 18 Ezekiel 23:6.

 19 Esther 26:31.

 20 II Chronicles 2:6; Ezekiel 27:7.

 21 According to the midrash of Talmud, Seder Moed, Mas. Megilah. 6a.

 22 Deuteronomy 33:19.

 23 Judges 5:30.

 24 Isaac Herzog. The Royal Purple, p. 114. Quoted in Baruch Sterman, p. 5.

 25 See Baruch Sterman, p. 6.

Excerpts of Hem of His Garment is taken from Restoration Foundation’s website