Tag Archives: Greek

The Origins and Meaning of Sandak

In this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, we read of God’s covenant with Abraham, which was sealed with a circumcision. For centuries, the most important honour given at a traditional brit milah is the role of sandak, or sandek, the person who holds the child during the circumcision. While everyone knows what a sandak is, few actually know what a sandak is! Where did this role come from? What does it mean? And what is the deeper spiritual significance behind it?

The Godfather

The role of the sandak emerged from the necessity of the mohel having an assistant. Someone, of course, has to hold the baby and keep the legs away so that the mohel can properly do his job. This is actually the simplest meaning of the term “sandak” which, like many Jewish words, has its origins in a Greek etymology: sunteknos, or syntekno, literally meaning the person “with the child” or the “child’s companion”. In Latin, which was also familiar to our ancient Sages, there is a related etymology that comes of the Greek, but has a further meaning:

The Latin term syndic referred to a government official or representative, especially a judge. It comes from the earlier Greek root sundike, literally meaning the person tasked “with justice”. Such a person would have been granted a measure of power by the state, and could confer protection to others (or at least advocate on behalf of others). The same term is the root of the modern word “syndicate”, referring to a group that comes together to make themselves more powerful in order to accomplish some goal (often of a criminal nature, but not necessarily).

The Latin syndic is the most direct etymology for the term sandak, and implies that the sandak has the job of protecting the child. For this reason, the sandak is often referred to as the Jewish version of a “godfather”. In fact, in olden times another term for sandak was av sheni, the “second father”. It is possible that it came with the responsibility to care for the child in the event that the father passed away. This is why some say that the father of the child should not be the sandak for his own baby.

Others say that the father should be the sandak, for the role is only of a spiritual nature, and there is no other obligation of the sandak after the brit. Mystical texts speak of a spiritual danger to the uncircumcised child, which is why there are customs to stay up all night before the brit to learn Torah in order to confer spiritual protection to the child (called a Brit Itzchak or a Vach Nacht). From this perspective, there is no reason why a father cannot be the sandak for his own child. Moreover, the mitzvah of circumcision is actually incumbent upon the father himself. Ideally, the father should circumcise his own child, and only if he is unable to should he appoint a professional mohel to serve in his stead. Therefore, by being the sandak, the father can at least participate directly in the mitzvah in an alternate way.

It is fitting to point out here a possible Jewish origin for the term “godfather”. It may come from a Midrash on this week’s parasha. The Sages ask: who was Abraham’s sandak when he was circumcised? They answer that God Himself was the sandak for Abraham. He was, quite literally, his “Godfather”.

Enter Eliyahu

Another mystery of the brit milah ceremony is the “Chair of Eliyahu”. Every brit has a special chair designated for the prophet-angel Eliyahu, and it is customary for the sandak to sit on this chair, upon which the circumcision takes place. The chair is there because it is said that Eliyahu attends every brit. Why? As we’ve written in the past, Eliyahu once accused the Jewish people of abandoning God’s covenant (I Kings 19:10), God replied:

I vow that whenever My children make this sign in their flesh, you will be present, and the mouth which testified that the Jewish people have abandoned My covenant will testify that they are keeping it. (Zohar I, 93a)

In a slightly different version, the Midrash (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, 29) records that Eliyahu praised himself by saying that he has always been “zealous” for God and His covenant. And yet, Eliyahu fled from the evil Queen Jezebel when she was out to get him for trying to get the Jews to return to the Covenant. Because he fled and abandoned his own mission, God tasked him with being present at each brit milah, every time a new Jew is brought into the Covenant. The Midrash concludes that this is why we place a chair for Eliyahu at each brit.

‘Elijah Taken Up to Heaven’

We’ve noted multiple times before that Eliyahu never died and was taken up to Heaven alive, being transformed into an angel, called “Sandalfon”. As explained here, Sandalfon is also a Greek-derived appellation that the Sages used, to avoid using the true angelic name which is a secret. It isn’t difficult to see that the root of Sandalfon is the same as the root of sandak. And we can now understand why the sandak sits on Eliyahu’s chair:

The sandak serves as the earthly representative of Eliyahu. He is imbued with the spirit of that angel-prophet, and this is how Eliyahu is able to “attend” every brit milah, as God instructed him. It isn’t just a metaphorical thing, the sandak is really elevated to a higher angelic status. This is why it is customary (especially in Sephardic communities) for people to request a blessing from the sandak after the brit. The sandak carries this great blessing with him all day. For example, if the sandak later goes to pray Minchah at a minyan—even one that had nothing to do with the brit, and could be in a difficult country altogether!—that minyan does not pray Tachanun, the “sad” part of the prayer service. The presence of the sandak changes everything around him. He is likened to a walking, real-life angel. In fact, Jewish tradition holds that a sandak has all of his sins erased, and is then blessed with tremendous abundance.

For this reason, there is a rabbinic debate whether a single individual should be a sandak more than once. Because it is such a great honour, and carries such intense spiritual potential, some hold that we should spread the opportunity to as many different people as possible. Others maintain that there is no requirement to do so, and it is best to select the most righteous individual to serve as sandak. Because the sandak is the spiritual “companion” of the child, it is believed that some of the sandak’s own qualities will pass on to that child. It is therefore best to choose a righteous person. (In certain communities it was once normal for the local rabbi to be the sandak for all the children. Also, among those who rabbinic authorities who do permit a person being sandak multiple times, some say a person should not be sandak multiple times within a single family.)

Another custom, still strong today, is to honour a grandfather with being sandak. Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz points out how this may come from the Torah itself, where we read: “And Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation; the children also of Machir the son of Menashe were born upon Joseph’s knees.” (Genesis 50:23) The Targum Yonatan explains that Joseph was the sandak for his grandsons.

On a final interesting note, there is a question regarding selecting a sandak who, while righteous, might have some kind of deficiency, such as a physical disability. The Lubavitcher Rebbe once responded to a question where a person asked if it is okay that the sandak is infertile. The Rebbe replied in the affirmative, saying that only the positive qualities of the sandak are passed on to the child. This makes perfect sense in light of the fact that any negative qualities of the sandak are erased that day, as noted, and he is elevated to the status of a wholesome angel that has no deficiencies.

How Many Books Are in the Torah?

In this week’s parasha, Beha’alotcha, there is a strange occurrence in the text of the Torah. The traditional way of writing Numbers 10:35-36 in a Torah scroll is with two inverted letter nuns around it:

There are a number of reasons given to explain this strange phenomenon. One answer from the Talmud (Shabbat 115b-116a) is that the nuns are there because the two verses that it surrounds make up a whole independent book of the Torah! So, the first part of Numbers, 1:1-10:34, makes up one book, then come these two verses which are a book of their own, and then the rest of Numbers, 11:1-36:13. This means that the Torah is not composed of five books, but seven books, and this is the meaning of King Solomon’s words: “Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn seven pillars.” (Proverbs 9:1) The seven books of the Torah correspond to the seven classical pillars of wisdom (which we have discussed before here).

Others hold that the nuns are there because these two verses belong earlier in the book of Numbers, but were moved here for various reasons. The Talmud does not actually say that the two verses are surrounded by nuns specifically, which led some authorities to suggest putting those nuns in actually makes a Torah scroll not kosher! This was the opinion of the Maharshal (Rabbi Shlomo Luria, 1510-1573), who stated that the inverted nuns are an entirely Kabbalistic thing, and suggested the current way of writing it isn’t exactly accurate. (See Chokhmat Shlomo on Shabbat 115b, and his Shu”t #73.)

Whatever the case, there is some beauty in saying the Torah is made up of 7 books, considering the importance of that number in Judaism. Nonetheless, everyone agrees that the Torah is a chumash made up of the Five Books of Moses, not seven. One of the earliest sources to state this is the ancient Jewish-Roman historian Josephus (37-100 CE). In Against Apion 1:8, he wrote:

For we do not have an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have] but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death. This interval of time was little short of three thousand years; but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia [Ahashverosh], who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life.

It is true, our history has been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but has not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there has not been an exact succession of prophets since that time; and how firmly we have given credit to these books of our own nation is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add anything to them, to take anything from them, or to make any change in them; but it is become natural to all Jews immediately, and from their very birth, to esteem these books to contain Divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be, willingly to die for them.

Josephus explains that the first five books of the Tanakh are those written by Moses. The following 13 were composed by the prophets that followed him, until the time of Esther. The remaining four are hymns and precepts for life. Josephus explains how there are indeed more books (referring to the apocryphal ones), but they are not included in the official canon since the era of prophets had ended, and the divine nature of those additional books is uncertain. Altogether, he says the Jews have 22 books—yet today we number the Tanakh as having 24 books! How do we account for this discrepancy?

Which Books are Holy?

The standard explanation for this discrepancy is that in the time of Josephus the book of Lamentations was combined with Jeremiah (since he wrote it), and the book of Ruth was included within Judges, where it belongs chronologically. The thirteen books of the prophets were: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Twelve Prophets, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. The remaining four “poetic” books are Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs. Indeed, the traditional way of writing the scrolls for three of these books—Psalms, Proverbs, and Job—was unique, in two-column fashion, and with special cantillation marks. They were collectively called Sifrei Emet, “Books of Truth”, where Emet (אמת) stands for Iyov (איוב), “Job”; Mishlei (משלי), “Proverbs”; and Tehilim (תהלים), “Psalms”.

The Song of Songs was always a controversial book. Because of its explicitly sexual language, and the fact that it seemingly offers little in the way of history, prophecy, or law (at least not in its simple reading), there were those who wanted to remove it from the Tanakh. Rabbi Akiva famously defended its inclusion in Scripture, calling it the “Holy of Holies” (Yadayim 3:5). There in the Mishnah, the Sages debate the holiness of one other book: Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). This one, too, offers little in the way of history, prophecy, or law (at least in its simple reading), and of course, is quite depressing, too. The entire passage in the Mishnah is a fascinating read, and connects to our weekly parasha:

A scroll on which the writing has become erased and eighty-five letters remain, as many as are in the section beginning, “And it came to pass when the ark set forward…” (Numbers 10:35-36) defiles the hands. A single sheet on which there are written eighty-five letters, as many as are in the section beginning, “And it came to pass when the ark set forward”, defiles the hands. All the Holy Scriptures defile the hands. The Song of Songs and Kohelet defile the hands.

Rabbi Yehudah says: the Song of Songs defiles the hands, but there is a dispute about Kohelet. Rabbi Yose says: Kohelet does not defile the hands, but there is a dispute about the Song of Songs. Rabbi Shimon says: Kohelet is one of the leniencies of Bet Shammai and one of the stringencies of Bet Hillel. Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai said: I have received a tradition from the seventy-two elders on the day when they appointed Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah head of the academy that the Song of Songs and Kohelet defile the hands. Rabbi Akiba said: Far be it! No man in Israel disputed that the Song of Songs does not defile the hands, for the whole world is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies. If they had a dispute, they had a dispute only about Kohelet. Rabbi Yochanan ben Yehoshua, the son of the father-in-law of Rabbi Akiva, said in accordance with the words of Ben Azzai: so they disputed and so they reached a decision.

The Sages use the term “defiling the hands” to refer to a sacred book. If it is truly divine, it is said to cause the hands to become spiritually “unclean”. The idea is that we should be careful to touch its holy parchment. To this day, people avoid directly touching the scroll of Torah when they go up for an aliyah, and instead use their tallit. The Mishnah states that all books of the Tanakh “defile the hands”, ie. they are all sacred. The same is true for any writing that has at least 85 letters worth of Torah. How do the Sages derive this? From that special section in our weekly parasha that is delineated by two inverted nuns. There are 85 letters in them, and they are likened to a book of their own. Therefore, any time there are 85 letters of Torah written on some parchment, that piece of parchment becomes sacred.

The Mishnah then goes on to debate whether Shir HaShirim and Kohelet “defile the hands”. Rabbi Yehuda holds that Shir HaShirim is holy, but Kohelet’s status is unclear, whereas Rabbi Yose insists that Kohelet is not holy, and the status of Shir HaShirim is unclear! Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says that Beit Shammai considered Kohelet not holy, but Hillel considered it holy. Shimon ben Azzai confidently states that he is certain both books are holy. Rabbi Akiva is certain about Song of Songs, but suggests there may have been a dispute on Kohelet. The final word goes to Rabbi Yochanan ben Yehoshua, who concludes that the earlier Sages did debate on whether these two books should be included, and decided at the end that they should.

Considering that all of the great rabbis cited above were born after Josephus (except possibly Rabbi Akiva, who in any case was not a rabbi until much later in life), it might be that Josephus speaks of the Tanakh as having 22 books because Shir HaShirim and Kohelet were still under debate in his day. It is possible that he placed them with the other apocryphal works whose sacred status is unclear, which he briefly mentions. (In that case, Lamentations would probably be among his four books of hymns, and Ruth among his 13 prophets.) There is a certain elegance in organizing the Tanakh into 22 books, one for each letter of the divine Hebrew alphabet. Since God created the universe through these divine letters, and by using the Torah as a blueprint, and since God Himself states that were it not for His Torah He would not have created the universe to begin with (Jeremiah 33:25), having 22 books of Tanakh is fitting.

(There is a similar tradition regarding the Zohar: It is said that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught 22 volumes of mysticism, one for each letter of the alphabet. All were lost except the volume on the letter zayin, hence the Zohar.)

36 for Light, 40 for Purification

Having said all that, the reality is that the Tanakh has neither 22 nor 24 texts. Ezra and Nehemiah are always combined into one, even though they are separate books with different authors. The book of Twelve Prophets, Trei Assar, is a collection of twelve “minor” prophets, short texts that were put together for convenience. If we count each of these as a separate book (since it is), we get 36 books. This is a good number because 36 represents or haganuz, the divine light of Creation which shone for 36 hours before being concealed.

Even that number is not complete, though. The book of Psalms is actually five different books (Psalms 1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106; 107-150). Each has an overarching theme, and each ends with a concluding line to close the book. (This is most evident with Psalm 72, which closes Book Two with the verse “The prayers of David, son of Yishai, have ended.”) With Psalms divided into its 5 parts, the total number of books in the Tanakh comes to 40!

Forty is not without significance either. That number parallels the forty days and nights Moses spent on Sinai receiving the Torah. This is also the number of days and nights it rained during the Great Flood to purify the world, and the minimum amount of water necessary for a kosher mikveh (40 se’ah). Study of Tanakh similarly serves to purify us, and we wrote recently of the mystical meaning of the letter mem—whose value is forty—and its intrinsic connection to the Torah.

Names of God  

The text of Ana b’Koach, and the 42 Letter Name of God on the left.

Finally, if we take this week’s parasha and the Talmud into consideration, and assume the Torah has seven books, it brings our total up again to 42. This number is associated with one of the most important names of God. The Talmud (Kiddushin 71a) states that the Forty-Two Letter Name of God cannot be revealed to a person unless they are “modest, and humble, and at least middle-aged, and does not get angry, and does not get drunk, and does not insist upon his rights.” The Talmud does not state what this name is. It is generally accepted to be the initials of Ana b’Koach, which has 42 words. At least one alternate tradition is that the Name is composed of the first 42 letters of the Torah. Another is that it is made up of the Tetragrammaton, plus the milui (“letter-filling”) of the Tetragrammaton, plus the milui of that. Some say there are multiple versions of the Name, corresponding to different dimensions of Creation.

The Name of 45 Using Milui

The number 42 is significant for many other reasons. It represents the entirety of Torah, since the Written Torah begins with a letter bet (“Beresheet”), and the Oral Torah (ie. the Mishnah/Talmud) begins with the letter mem (“M’imatai”), together adding up to 42. When God told us to speak words of Torah all the time (Deuteronomy 6:4, which we recite daily in the Shema), the words used are v’dibarta bam (ודברת בם), alluding to the Written and Oral Torahs. And, of course, in Douglas Adams’ classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the number 42 is the answer to “life, the universe, and everything”.

It should be mentioned that when the Tanakh was first translated into Greek over two thousand years ago, the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles were split in half. This is because while Hebrew lacks vowels, Greek doesn’t, so the translations were a lot longer than the originals. The Greek versions could not fit on standard scrolls, so they were divided in two. A whole system of numbering and citation was built around that. Eventually, that system was adopted by Jews, too, and we use it today. Although this division is seemingly non-Jewish in origin, the most likely case is that the division was instituted by Jewish scribes, as they were the ones translating the Hebrew into Greek (see Septuagint). If we maintain those divisions, the Tanakh would have 45 books!

Forty five is the gematria of Adam (אדם), and also another important Name of God in Kabbalah (יו”ד ה”א וא”ו ה”א), referred to as Shem Mah, “the Name of Forty-Five”. This is the name most associated with tikkun, man’s rectification and perfection. A person who fully rectifies themselves, ascends to the highest spiritual levels, and unites with God is said to be a complete “Adam” of Forty-Five, and is one with God’s Name of Forty-Five. This monumental task would be impossible to accomplish without study, meditation, and practice of the Tanakh and its 45 parts.

Why 24?

Despite all of the above possibilities, the Sages set the official number of Tanakh books at 24. Why this number in particular? Several weeks ago we discussed the significance of this number as it pertains to the traditional 24 ornaments of a Jewish bride. Since the Jewish people standing at Mt. Sinai were compared to a bride—with God being the groom, and the Torah being the ketubah—and a bride is to be adorned with 24 ornaments, God “adorned” us with 24 precious holy works of the Tanakh.

Another explanation is that there are 24 hours in a day. We read in the Tanakh that words of Scripture should never leave our lips, and that we should be meditating upon these holy words yomam v’lilah, “all day and night” (Joshua 1:8). This is the exact same term used in Jeremiah 33:25 (cited above) where God states that were it not for His covenant yomam v’lilah, ie. if His Torah was not observed and studied 24/7—He would “not establish the laws of Heaven and Earth.” God created this universe, with all of its natural laws and cycles, on the condition that His Torah would be diligently kept. And the most important cycle of nature for us humans, giving structure to our lives, is the daily rhythm of 24 hours. The 24 books of Tanakh appropriately parallel this.

Some scholars have pointed out another interesting parallel: in the ancient Greek world the most important text of study was Homer’s Iliad, which was generally divided into 24 books. Rabbi Burton Visotzky writes:

Much as the Greeks and Romans wrote commentary and endlessly quoted from the twenty-four books of “the divine Homer”, so the rabbis quoted and commented on the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible. That the number of books is the same is not a coincidence; it required the rabbis to do some creative accounting in order to show that the rabbinic canon and the Greco-Roman “canon” were libraries with the same number of volumes. (Aphrodite and the Rabbis, pg. 11)

While Visotzky suggests that the Sages wanted to make the Tanakh 24 books so that it resembles Homer’s 24 books, it might have happened the opposite way.

Jews vs. Greeks

It isn’t clear when Homer’s Iliad was first divided into 24 books. The consensus is that it wasn’t until around the 2nd century BCE. The Tanakh was first compiled by the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah, the “Men of the Great Assembly”, before this. Although we saw above that the status of a couple of books was still in debate, the overall structure of the Tanakh was set by the 2nd century BCE, and it was around that same time that the Tanakh was firstly translated into Greek.

Scholars generally like to point out how much the Jewish Sages adopted from the Greeks, yet they forget how much more was adopted by the Greeks from the Jews! This was well-known in ancient times, too. The 2nd century CE philosopher Numenius of Apamea famously admitted “What is Plato if not Moses speaking Greek?” Perhaps more than any other historian, Samuel Kurinsky shows in great depth the forgotten (and often deliberately buried) impact that the Jews had on the ancient world, including the Greek world. To offer just one example, he writes of the great Pythagoras, among the most famous of Greek philosophers:

Josephus quotes from a book by Hermippus of Smyrna in which Hermippus baldly stated that Pythagoras had plagiarized Thracian and Jewish concepts, accusing Pythagoras of the “imitation of the doctrines of the Jews and Thracians, which he transferred to his own philosophy.” Josephus then adds a pointed emphasis of his own: “For it is truly affirmed of this Pythagoras, that he took a great many of the laws of the Jews into his own philosophy.” (The Eight Day, pg. 290)

Kurinsky then refers to the ancient works of Hecataeus of Abdera, a 4th century BCE Greek historian who described the Exodus, and the leadership of Moses, “famed for his wisdom and valor”. Hecataeus goes on to state that the founders of Greece, the heroes Cadmus and Danaeus, were also part of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt! Kurinsky concludes:

Hecateus thus places the purported founder of the Hellenic culture as emerging from within a Judaic matrix. Whether Cadmus and Danaeus were fictional characters or not, they symbolize the process by which fundamental Judaic precepts arrived on the Greek scene.

Therefore, it is just as likely that the Greeks organized their Homer into 24 books to mimic the Jews’ 24 books of the Tanakh! The only good argument in favour of the Greeks doing it first is that by the end of the 4th century BCE, the Greek alphabet had been reduced to its current 24 letters. So, Homer was divided into 24 parts, one for each letter of the Greek alphabet. Maybe this is why Josephus speaks of the Tanakh in 22 parts, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Repairing the Jewish World

A mausoleum in Yavneh believed to be the tomb of Rabban Gamliel II.

So how did 22 books of Tanakh become 24? One possible answer might lie with Rabban Gamliel II, a contemporary of Josephus. The Talmud (Bava Kamma 83a) states that the house of Rabban Gamliel was filled with 1000 students, 500 of whom studied Torah, and 500 of whom studied Greek wisdom. It seems Rabban Gamliel presided over a massive and important academy where scholars poured over these texts 24 hours of a day—half of them studying and discussing the 24 books of Homer, and half of them studying and discussing the 24 books of Tanakh. It isn’t difficult to imagine the two halves of Rabban Gamliel’s school dividing their work into an equal number of textbooks.

Rabban Gamliel lived through the destruction of the Second Temple. He was the first president of the Sanhedrin once it moved to Yavneh at the conclusion of the Great War with Rome. And this leads us to one final suggestion as to why the Sages grouped the Tanakh into 24 books.

The Talmud (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 53b) states: “The Jews were not exiled until they had divided into 24 sects.” As is well-known, the destruction of the Second Temple was decreed in Heaven because of sinat hinam, baseless hatred and divisiveness among the Jews. The antidote is ahavat hinam, love and unity among all Jews. Achieving this begins with the individual. Each person needs to refine themselves to the highest degree in order to love their fellow. And refinement is impossible without the Torah. As the Midrash states, the Torah and mitzvot were given in order to refine us (Beresheet Rabbah 44:1). And therefore, the antidote for Jewish divisiveness—symbolized by the number 24—is study and practice of the 24 books of the Tanakh.

What is Tekhelet?

At the beginning of this week’s parasha, Tetzave, the Torah describes the special garments worn by the Kohanim. Making these garments requires the use of three unique dyed fabrics: tekhelet, argaman, v’tola’at shani, “blue, purple, and crimson wool”. Last year, we discussed tola’at shani and the practice of wearing a red string on the wrist. This year we will explore the other two ingredients: tekhelet and argaman. What are they and where do they come from?

In Greek mythology, the hero Hercules discovered Tyrian purple when his dog chewed on sea snails, as depicted here in Peter Paul Rubens’ “Hercules’ Dog Discovers Purple Dye”

Argaman is more commonly known as “Tyrian purple” or “royal purple”, a famous and prized dye in ancient times. Historical records and archaeological findings show that as early as 3500 years ago, trade in Tyrian purple was widespread across the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It was the Phoenicians who were experts in its production, and carried it around the region. (In fact, the root of the term Phoenician means “purple” in Greek. Similarly, some scholars have found evidence that Canaan means “dye merchant”.) Tyrian purple was worth at least as much as silver, and in some points in history, more than gold.

By the Roman Era, it was so expensive and prized that it was essentially only worn by royalty, hence “royal purple”. An average Roman, or even a Roman senator, would wear a toga pura, plain white, while magistrates and priests wore a toga praetexta, with a purple stripe or hem. Only the emperor would wear a toga picta, one that was entirely dyed purple, with gold embroidery. (Such a toga might also be worn by high ranking generals during their victory processions, as well as by the consuls.)

Shells of the Murex snails that produce purple and blue dye. (Credit: U.Name.Me)

How did the Phoenicians produce argaman? It was extracted from the glands of shellfish on the Phoenician shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. These Murex snails make the dye as a defense mechanism, spraying it on potential predators (just as squids and octopuses, their mollusc relatives, famously do). Research shows that the snails also use the dye for their own predatory behaviour when catching prey, and also as an antimicrobial to protect their eggs. To extract the dye, the snails are either “milked”, which takes a very long time, or more commonly, pierced through their shells to have the glands removed. It would take over 10,000 snails to produce just a few grams of dye!

Tekhelet was made the same way. Though not nearly as popular in ancient times, it was known as “royal blue”. The Phoenicians made it the same way, extracted from a snail. Some say it was derived from a different species of snail, while others point out that the same Tyrian purple, when exposed to large amounts of UV radiation (sunlight), becomes blue.

The Talmud (Menachot 44a) states that the dye was made from chilazon, a snail “whose body resembles the sea, and its form resembles a fish, and it comes up once in seventy years, and with its blood one dyes tekhelet, and therefore its blood is expensive.” It’s not quite the blood of the snail that makes the dye, of course, nor do the snails emerge only once in seventy years. This bit probably entered the Talmud because by that point in history, tekhelet production among Jews had long ended, and knowledge of its exact extraction forgotten. It was probably difficult, if not entirely impossible, for Jews to get their hands on it.

Tzitzit with tekhelet (Credit: Tekhelet.com)

Dr. Baruch Sterman, in a paper for B’Or HaTorah (vol. 11, pg. 185), points out that by the 4th century CE it was actually a crime for a commoner to wear tekhelet across the Roman world. It is highly likely that it was then, for this reason, that most Jews stopped using tekhelet in their tzitzit. Dr. Sterman brings proof from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 12a), where we read how two rabbis were arrested by the Romans for possessing tekhelet. Wealthy Jews living in the Persian Empire continued to pay exorbitant rates to import and use it, until sometime in the middle of the 7th century. It was then, likely due to the rise of Islam and the rapid Arab conquest of the region, that use of tekhelet among all Jews essentially ceased. This is why until today the majority of Jews do not use tekhelet in their tzitzit (as the Torah commands). However, in recent decades, the Murex snails have been rediscovered, and tekhelet is once again available.

Having said all that, Karaite Jews—a small group that rejects the Talmud—believe that tekhelet (and argaman) could not have been derived from snails. And they actually have a couple of seemingly valid points.

The Problem of Karaite Tekhelet

The Karaites believe that tekhelet cannot come from a snail because the Torah would not command something so important to come from a non-kosher animal. They also argue that royal blue tekhelet from snails would have been far too expensive for the average Israelite. Finally, they point out that God commanded this to the Israelites in the Wilderness—so where would they find sea snails in the middle of the desert? Instead, Karaite scholars proposed that tekhelet came from an indigo plant, such as the Indian Indigofera tinctoria (incidentally, this is the indigo once used to dye jeans blue).

Another, more likely, possibility is the woad plant, Isatis tinctoria, which contains the same indigo dye. This plant actually grows in Israel, and was once known as “Asp of Jerusalem”. Interestingly, the Mishnah (Megillah 4:7) states how Kohanim are forbidden from blessing the congregation if their hands are stained with “istis”, ie. the Isatis tinctoria dye. The Bartenura (Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura, c. 1445-1515) confirms that istis is a dye “whose colour resembles tekhelet”. This makes it clear that Kohanim in the ancient Holy Temple did use woad as a blue dye, though for what purpose is unclear.

Karaite Jews today continue to make tekhelet from indigo or woad to dye their tzitzit. Since Karaites hold strictly to the Written Torah, they maintain that tzitzit must be blue (and cannot be entirely white like most current “Rabbinic” tzitzit). They hold that any blue dye is fine, since the Torah does not explicitly say that other blue dyes are forbidden. The Talmud, meanwhile, states that a person who uses plant-derived blue dyes instead of authentic tekhelet is sinning, and God declares that He will “exact retribution” from such a person (Bava Metzia 61b, see also Tosefta on Menachot 9:6). And here the Karaites should take heed, for when it comes to tekhelet they are absolutely mistaken.

The big problem for the Karaites is basically everyone else. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) wrote in his History of Animals about the production of blue and purple dyes from snails, as did the Roman philosopher and historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) in his Natural History. These were the choicest and best dyes for clothes and fabrics. While tekhelet and argaman were expensive for the distant Greeks and Romans to procure, they would not have been expensive for the ancient Israelites. After all, these dyes were only expensive to purchase; there is no indication that they were expensive to produce. And the Israelites, like the Phoenicians and Canaanites, were the producers. They made the dyes cheaply, and exported them far and wide, for a healthy profit.

It was only in later centuries, when Israel was no longer an independent entity and was subject to a series of foreign empires, that Jews lost control of the means of tekhelet production. Tekhelet became rarer, and more expensive, and eventually forbidden. This development only occurred in the late Second Temple era, and possibly later. Still, when chemists in the 1990s analyzed blue fabrics uncovered at the Masada archaeological site, they discovered that the fabrics were indeed dyed with Murex snail tekhelet. Even in the late Second Temple era, tekhelet was available and used widely. Besides, the average Israelite in those days would have needed only a minute amount to dye a handful of strings to fulfil the mitzvah of tzitzit.

Another bit of evidence for the fact that snail dye was the real tekhelet comes from the Tanakh itself. While we’ve already seen how historical and archaeological records make it clear that the ancient Phoenicians were experts in snail dyes (not any plant-based blue dyes), we mustn’t forget that these same Phoenicians were heavily involved in the production of Israelite holy items, too! We read in the haftarah for last week’s parasha (I Kings 5:26-6:13) how King Solomon made an agreement with the Phoenician King Hiram, and the latter’s workers played an instrumental role in the construction of the Holy Temple. Granted, this was not the Mishkan of the Wilderness, but the later Temple was based on the earlier Mishkan, and the items were fashioned to the same specifications.

Where was Hiram’s capital city? The Tanakh always refers to him as melekh tzor, “King of Tyre”. This is the selfsame Tyre as the Tyre of Tyrian purple and Tyrian royal blue. We read how “Hiram, king of Tyre, sent his servants to Solomon…” (I Kings 5:15) It is hard to believe that it’s only a coincidence that the Tyrians renowned around the ancient world for their snail dyes are the same ones that the Tanakh tells us worked in Jerusalem! The evidence is therefore quite strong that tekhelet and argaman are the same as the snail-derived Tyrian dyes.

Tekhelet in the Wilderness

The nail on the coffin comes from an even more ancient historical text. Long before Pliny, Aristotle, and even Hiram, the ancient Egyptian Papyrus Anastasi I—dated back to the Nineteenth Dynasty (c. 1292-1189 BCE)—mentions how a royal blue dye is made from sea creatures and smells like putrid fish. This is particularly important because the Nineteenth Dynasty was the time of Pharaoh Ramses II, who is the one most associated with the Exodus. Ramses II built a new capital city which, of course, he named after himself, and which archaeologists have uncovered and refer to as Pi-Ramesses. This is the same city that the Torah mentions the Israelite slaves built (Exodus 1:11). Putting the pieces together, we now have an answer to the question posed by the Karaites: how did the Israelites find tekhelet and argaman in the Wilderness?

The Torah tells us that when the Israelites left Egypt, God commanded them to ask the Egyptians to give them precious materials: “And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses, and they asked of the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment.” (Exodus 12:35) The Israelites got tekhelet and argaman from the same place they got their gold and silver (also used in constructing the Mishkan): from the Egyptians. The Papyrus of Anastasi proves that the ancient Egyptians, too, produced blue and purple dyes from Mediterranean snails. They made “raiment”, garments and fabrics dyed with these colours. The Torah informs us that the Israelites took these fabrics with them. And this is how they had them available for the Mishkan in the Wilderness!

Despite all that’s been said, the Orthodox world today has been very slow in readapting the use of tekhelet. Some rabbis maintain that these Murex snails are not the right ones. The Radziner Rebbe (Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner, 1839–1891) didn’t know about the snails at all and instead consulted chemists to produce a blue dye from the common cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis. The problem is that the cuttlefish only produces black ink, and turning it blue was a long chemical process that required adding iron filings. When later analyzed by experts, it was found that the Radziner Rebbe’s dye was basically synthetic, and the blue was simply a result of the added iron. (For more, see Dr. Sterman’s article in B’Or haTorah, cited above.) Meanwhile, Rabbi Isaac Herzog (1888-1959, Israel’s first Chief Rabbi) was an early proponent of snail-derived dyes.

In recent decades, more and more researchers have explored the subject, and today everything points to tekhelet being the blue dye of the Murex trunculus snail. The scientists at Masada confirmed it chemically, and although some state that there is no chemical difference between woad, indigo, and Murex blue, there are small differences in their molecular structure. One with a chemistry background will agree that the addition of even a single atom can dramatically change the nature of a substance. Still, many rabbis are reluctant to adopt tekhelet, and have decided it is best to wait until Mashiach comes just to be sure.

Comparing the chemistry of blue dyes: though looking similar to the untrained eye, the chemical structure of plant-based Indigotin (top left) is different from synthetic indigo (bottom left) and the indigo of Murex snails (bottom right).

And as for the Karaite argument that the Torah wouldn’t command something derived from a non-kosher animal, this argument falls apart when considering the third ingredient that always goes along with tekhelet and argaman: tola’at shani. The word is literally translated as a “crimson worm” or, more accurately, “red insect”. Tola’at definitely refers to a bug of some sort, as we read in Exodus 16:20 how leftover manna was infested with tola’im.

Tola’at shani is undoubtedly referring to the common carmine dye used around the world, and known commercially in food as E120. This dye is derived from a variety of scale insects, most commonly the cochineal family of bugs. Professor Zohar Amar of Bar Ilan University spent many years researching tola’at shani and concluded that it is unquestionably a red insect, which nests in the common Israeli oak tree. In fact, the Temple Institute has already begun harvesting these insects to produce an authentic avnet, the priestly belt that requires the red dye, in preparation for Mashiach’s coming and the return of priestly service in the forthcoming Third Temple.

Clockwise from top left: Professor Amar leads the Temple Institute’s Tola’at Shani harvest; the “crimson worm” on a branch of an Israeli oak tree; Professor Amar holds a cup of crimson water produced by crushing a single worm.