Tag Archives: Megillah (Tractate)

Shabbat or Shabbos: Who Pronounces Correctly?

The “Table of Nations”. One version of a map based on Genesis 10 and the seventy root nations. Originally, the seventy nations were based in the Middle East surrounding the Holy Land, as depicted here. After the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), they were dispersed all over the world.

This week we read parashat Noach, where we are introduced to the seventy root nations, languages, and regions of the world. One of these is Ashkenaz, later associated with roughly what is today Germany, and giving rise to the term “Ashkenazi Jew”. One of the more salient features of Ashkenazi Judaism is the way that Hebrew letters are traditionally pronounced. This is all the more amplified today when we are used to hearing Modern Hebrew, which was based primarily on Sephardic pronunciation (even though it was devised by Ashkenazis).

The question is: who actually pronounces more correctly? Is the Sephardic pronunciation indeed better, like those Ashkenazi Zionists believed when they set the rules of Modern Hebrew? Or maybe the Ashkenazi way is the authentic pronunciation, like many in the Orthodox world maintain? The short answer is that both are incorrect. For the long answer, read on.

Doubled Letters and Pronouncing “S”

We will avoid discussion of Hebrew vowels here, for this is a more difficult issue. On the consonants, however, we can come to some clear conclusions. The main issue centres around the seven letters of Hebrew that are called kefulot, “doubled”, those that have two distinct sounds. Sefer Yetzirah, one of the most ancient mystical texts and traditionally attributed to Abraham himself, is perhaps the oldest primer on the Hebrew letters. As we’ve explained in the past, it divides the letters up into three categories: the “three mothers” (Aleph-Mem-Shin), the “seven doubles” (Beit-Gimel-Dalet-Kaf-Pei-Reish-Tav), and the remaining “twelve elementals”.

We will start with the last of the doubles first, as the biggest feature of Ashkenazi pronunciation is certainly the pronunciation of the letter Tav (ת), when without a dagesh, as a “Sav”. Therefore, words like Shabbat (שבת) become Shabbos. While everyone agrees that a tav with a dagesh (תּ) should have a hard “T” sound, what should a tav without a dagesh sound like? To pronounce it as an “S” is highly problematic, for certain words would then have a confused meaning. For example, parashat Mattot (מטות) would become “mattos”, which has a very different meaning for a modern speaker, while the name “Anat” (ענת) would have a very unfortunate meaning even for a traditional Torah scholar.

What is that tav supposed to sound like, and why did Ashkenazis develop an “S” sound? The answer is actually quite simple: The proper pronunciation of a tav without a dagesh is a “Th” sound, like in the word thermometer. This is why words with a tav are (rightly) transliterated into English with a “th”, such as Sabbath. Because Eastern Europeans are unable to pronounce the “Th” sound, which doesn’t exist in their languages (we’ve probably all heard a Russian person say the word “three” as sree), Ashkenazis naturally pronounced the thav as a sav. Most Sephardis lost the thav, too, and pronounced it simply as a hard tav, making no distinguish between a tav with a dagesh or without. Yemenite Jews are among the few communities which have maintained the proper pronunciation, and do indeed say “Th” where necessary.

While Ashkenazis started to say “s” in place of “th”, Sephardis may have their own “s” problem. Many Sephardis (including in my own Bukharian community) pronounce the letter Tzadi or Tsade (צ), not as a “Ts” sound, but as an “S” sound (a Sa’ade). Therefore, words like tzitzit (ציצית) are pronounced as “sisit”, and mitzvah (מצוה) is “misvah”. Sephardis maintain that this is the correct pronunciation, arguing that Hebrew never had a “Ts” sound. They have support for what they say, because the same argument was made by Sa’adia Gaon (c. 882-942) long ago in his commentary to Sefer Yetzirah. He said that because Hebrew is a pure language, its alphabet has only pure consonants, meaning no letters should have a combination of sounds (like “Ts”, which is a combo of “T” and “S”).

Having said that, Sa’adia Gaon grew up in an Arabic environment, and Arabic does not have a “Ts” sound, much like Eastern Europeans do not have the “Th” sound. We may be led to believe that Sephardis began to say “s” in place of “ts” due to the surrounding Arabic influence. On the other hand, there is a stronger argument that Ashkenazis developed a “Ts” sound for tsade because of the influence of German, where the letter Z is pronounced “Ts”. This is the view of Rabbi David Bar-Hayim, who is an especially excellent source since he is Ashkenazi in heritage but speaks in beautiful ancient Hebrew (or, as close as we know how to get to ancient Hebrew).

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) had a huge impact on the development of the Modern Hebrew language.

Rabbi Bar-Hayim notes that when the Ashkenazi Zionist “Council of the Hebrew Language” (or Hebrew Language Committee, originally founded by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in 1890) convened in 1913 to establish the rules of Modern Hebrew, they deliberately set tsade to sound like “Ts” to mirror German “Z” which they were used to and needed. They were well aware that tsade should sound like sa’ade, which is the authentic ancient pronunciation. Having said that, I brought up the issue of tsade with a Yemenite colleague who told me that older Yemenites actually distinguish between a tsade with a dagesh and a tsade without. The former does indeed sound similar to a soft “Ts” sound. So, it is possible that tsade once had two slightly distinct sounds, and perhaps Ashkenazis retained one version, with a little modification influenced by their surroundings.

Whatever the case, even among many Sephardis I no longer hear much of a distinction between a regular “S” sound and the traditional Sa’ade, which is deeper and requires putting the tongue up against the roof of the mouth. The result is that we have another (incorrect) “S” hardly distinguishable (if at all) from the Samekh (ס) and a Sin (שׂ)! On that note, why do we have both a samekh and a sin anyway?

Shibbolet or Sibbolet?

If we go back to the ancient Sefer Yetzirah, we find that the letter Shin is not listed among the “double” letters. Apparently, it should not have two distinct sounds! In fact, we see much evidence that shin was once strictly a “Sh” sound, as illustrated in the Tanakh (Judges 12:5-6):

And the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites; and it was so, that when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said: “Let me pass,” the men of Gilead said to him: “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he said: “No”, then they said they to him: “Say ‘Shibbolet’ and he said ‘Sibboleth’, for he could not pronounce it right. Then they laid hold on him, and slew him at the fords of the Jordan; and there fell at that time of Ephraim forty-two thousand.

In the times of the Judge Yiftach of Gilead, Israel was tragically mired in a civil war. The Gileadites crushed the Ephraimite forces, and then went after their fugitives. They found an easy way to determine who was an Ephraimite: just ask him to say the word “Shibbolet” (שִׁבֹּלֶת). The Ephraimites were unable to pronounce the letter shin, and instead pronounced it with an “s”, sibbolet.

Later in history, the Ephraimites became the dominant tribe in Israel. They were the most numerous, and held onto the monarchy in the Northern Kingdom when the nation split after King Solomon’s reign. In fact, the word “Ephraim” became synonymous with “Israel”. Throughout the Tanakh, the prophets refer to the Kingdom of Israel as “Ephraim”. When the Ephraimite Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians, many fled south to the surviving Kingdom of Judah, and had a huge influence on the development of Judah, as numerous scholars have shown. It isn’t hard to conclude that during this time it became common to pronounce the letter as both shin and sin. Over time, it seems certain words with shin were pronounced with “sh”, and others with “s”.

If we look at the Torah, we actually find far fewer words where shin is pronounced as sin. In the first chapter of the Torah, for example, there are 17 root words with the letter pronounced as “Sh”, and only three pronounced as “S”. Take Biblical names as another example: Shet, Enosh, Metushelach, Ishmael, Shimon, Asher, Nachshon, Shlomo, Ishayah, Hoshea, Yehoshua, Yishai, Avshalom, Yoshiyahu, Shamgar, Bat-Sheva, Elisheva, Shifrah, Shlomit. It is hard to find a name in Hebrew with an “S” sound, among the few being Sarah (which makes just as much sense if it were Sharah), perhaps Issachar (the pronunciation of which is debated), and Israel.

On that last one, all the evidence suggests that originally it was Ishrael. The Sages say that Israel is an anagram of Yashar-El (“Straight to God”) or Shir-El (“God’s Song”). Also, Israel is called “Yeshurun” in the Tanakh multiple times, which the Sages say is really the same name as “Israel”. So, it seems we really should be Ishrael. But, because it was the Ephraimites who ruled the Kingdom of Israel, it is obvious that they would have called their own kingdom “Israel”, and the name stuck!

B and V, G and J, D and Dh

The first of the doubled letters is Beit (בּ), which can also be Veit (ב). If we have a “V” sound there, why have another “V” in the form of the letter Vav (ו)? In reality, the vav was a Waw in ancient times. This is the reason the Tetragrammaton is transliterated into English as YHWH, and not YHVH. Interestingly, the “W” sound inherently contains a “U” sound within it, as it is pronounced wua. This is why the vav in Hebrew is also a “UU” or “OO” sound, as in shana tova u’metuka (שנה טובה ומתוקה). It is therefore quite fitting that a W in English is called a “double-U”, hinting to its ancient origins as a UU or OO sound. Once more, the Yemenite Jews still got it right, for they are among the few which recite a vav as a waw.

The next letter over is Gimel (ג). Although Sefer Yetzirah tells us it is a doubled letter, today we generally pronounce all gimels with a hard “G” sound. Yemenites, however, pronounce a gimel with a dagesh (גּ) as a “J”, like in Arabic. So, a camel would be jamal (Hebrew: gamal), and it is the reason Muslims call their pilgrimage holiday a hajj (Hebrew: hag). Sa’adia Gaon, for the same reason that he said a Tsade cannot be a “Ts” sound, said that a gimel cannot be a “J” sound, as it is a “combined” sound and not a pure consonant. The gimel with a dagesh should be a hard “G” sound, like in “egg”. This is one that the Yemenites probably have wrong. The Yemenites do seem to have the non-dagesh variant of the gimel correct, pronouncing it like a rolling ghr, similar to a Modern Hebrew Reish. (When Yemenites say it, it sounds like Rimel, not Gimel!)

Next there’s Dalet (דּ), another doubled letter which is today always pronounced with a hard “D”. The soft variant (ד) is a “Dh” like in the word “that”. It is important to note the difference between a Thav and a Dhalet: the thav is pronounced like “three”, while the dhalet like “that”. Can you hear the difference? This particular sound is of utmost halachic significance: The Sages instruct us that when a person recites the Shema, they must extend or prolong the final dalet in the word echad. With a hard “D”, this is impossible! With a soft “Dh”, on the other hand, one can easily stretch the sound.

Chanukah or Khanukah?

The fourth of the doubled letters is Kaf (כּ) or Khaf (כ). This one is properly preserved today, for the most part. The only issue is the confusion with the similar-sounding letter Chet (ח). The difference is that khaf has that slight, soft “K” sound which Judaism is stereotypically famous for. Chet, meanwhile, is more like an Arabic-sounding “Ch” that comes from the throat, as Sefer Yetzirah explains that Chet is a guttural sound, together with Aleph, Hei and ‘Ayin. So, the way that people today typically say “Chanukah” or “challah or “Chaim” is totally wrong—they are saying “Khanukah”, “khallah”, and “Khaim”! These words should start with a throaty chet, not a rough khaf.

On that throaty note, the same is true for the letter ‘Ayin (ע). People tend to pronounce the ‘ayin like an Aleph, where there should be a clear difference. The ‘ayin comes from the throat and is almost like a longer “A” sound with a swallowed pause in the middle. For example, Jacob should be transliterated as Ya’akov, not Yakov. Because of its throatiness, the letter ‘ayin is often transliterated into English with a G, as in “Gomorrah” (עמרה) and “Gaza” (עזה). Many Sephardic and Mizrachi communities retain this sound. They don’t retain the Tet (ט), which is thought to be like a throaty thav, sounding almost like thoith. I don’t think anyone is quite sure exactly how a tet should be pronounced.

Pei (פּ) and Phei (פ) are simple enough that it seems we still got them right. The Kuf or Qoph (ק) is trickier. It is again deeper than the kaf, and almost sounds like a fusion of kaf and khaf with a brief pause in the middle. Ashkenazis pronounce it no different than a kaf, which is incorrect. Many Sephardis (including Bukharians) maintain the proper qoph sound.

Finally, there’s Reish (ר). Sephardis generally pronounced it like a hard “R” sound, while Ashkenazis with a softer “R” like in Modern Hebrew. (It is quite ironic that some old school Ashkenazi Russian Jews have a clearly-accented “R” when speaking Russian, even though Russians themselves pronounce the “R” hard like Sephardis!) It is possible that the two ancient reish sounds were these two variants. Perhaps Ashkenazis preserved one, while Sephardis preserved the other. (There are other “R” possibilities, such as the English “R”, which is entirely different. Try saying Rimon in Ashkenazi/Modern Hebrew, English, and Sephardi, and notice how they get progressively harder.) Rabbi David Bar-Hayim has a different explanation for the two “R”s, pointing out how rare the reish with a dagesh (רּ) is. By some estimates, it appears fewer than 20 times in all of Scripture.

The Verdict

Half marks represent some communities retaining the sound and some not.

So, who pronounces more correctly? No one has it totally right, but the traditional Yemenites are the closest (see chart for scores). Halachically, each Jew should strive to read the Torah with the best pronunciation possible. The Talmud (Megillah 24b) states that there was a time when Jews from the towns of Haifa, Bet She’an, and Tibonim were forbidden to be called up to recite the Priestly Blessing or “pass before the Ark” because they confused the letters aleph and ‘ayin (like many do today). Based on this, the Halacha as codified in multiple places is that a person selected to be the chazzan or ba’al koreh should have impeccable pronunciation. This may be reason enough for everyone to slowly adopt the more correct and more ancient Hebrew (as Rabbi David Bar-Hayim has done).

On the other hand, there are those authorities who maintain that a person should not deviate from the long-standing customs of their communities. And there is a certain beauty in having different styles of speech and different styles of prayer—as long as we can all understand each other and be unified as the one nation we are meant to be.

The Secret Behind Wearing Masks and Getting Drunk

This Wednesday evening marks the start of the festive holiday of Purim. There are four central mitzvot to be done on Purim: listening to the reading of Megillat Esther, sending gifts of food to one’s fellow, giving charity to two or more people in need, and enjoying a holiday feast. In addition to these, there are two well-known and widespread Purim customs: dressing up in costumes, and getting inebriated. Although these two customs are unfortunately sometimes taken to improper extremes, the meanings behind them are quite profound.

Searching For Yourself

1882 Lithograph of ‘The Disgrace of Vashti’

The practice of wearing costumes comes from the Megillah itself. One of the major themes of the Purim story is the characters “dressing up”. First there’s Vashti, who is asked by her husband to get dressed up in her royal garments and present herself before all of his guests (Esther 1:11-12). She refuses to do this, thereby losing her queenship. A search for a new queen begins, and the winner is a modest Jewish girl who has no interest in being a royal. The humble Hadassah is dressed up and transformed into the Persian Queen Esther. (Ironically, while “Esther” is a very common Jewish name today, Esther’s own Jewish name was Hadassah; “Esther” was her non-Jewish name, from the very non-Jewish idol Astarte, or Ishtar. Of course, Esther does have a Hebrew root as well, meaning “hidden”, which fits neatly into the Purim story.)

There is more dress up to follow: Haman wishes to be dressed up in the king’s robes and, in another bit of irony, it is Mordechai who ends up being costumed as king (Esther 6:6-11). The Talmud (Megillah 12a) adds that King Ahashverosh came to his banquet dressed up in the special garments of the kohen gadol, the Jewish high priest. Some are of the opinion that the reason he held the banquet in the first place was to mark the end of the prophesied 70-year exile of the Jewish people, which he miscalculated. With the Jews remaining in exile as his subjects, he felt a victory banquet was in order. Dressing up as the kohen gadol was meant to symbolize the end of Jewish hopes of returning to their Promised Land and rebuilding their Temple, with Ahashverosh himself now being their “high priest”.

‘The Triumph of Mordechai’ by Pieter Lastman (1624). Historical records from Ancient Persia show that there was indeed a courtier to the Persian king in Shushan (Susa) named Marduka. It looks like he was originally the king’s accountant.

So, wearing costumes is a major Purim theme right from the Megillah. And the Megillah is full of many more hidden identities. The Talmud (Megillah 12b) reveals that Memuchan (Esther 1:16), the advisor who instructs King Ahashverosh to get rid of Vashti, is the same person as Haman. Meanwhile, Hatach (4:5), Esther’s trusted attendant, is one and the same as the prophet Daniel (Megillah 15a). The Talmud also brings an opinion that Mordechai was really the prophet Malachi. (“Mordechai”, too, appears to be his non-Jewish name, based on the name of the supreme Babylonian deity, Marduk.)

Therefore, the custom of getting dressed up and taking on a different identity is very much in the spirit of Purim. In ancient times, Purim was more specifically celebrated with a masquerade. Why wear a mask? Why hide who we really are? The truth is, we don’t just get “dressed up” on Purim. Each of us puts on a metaphysical mask every day of our lives, and we wear different masks in different settings. There is the mask that we wear at work, and the one that we have in front of our kids, and a different mask entirely when we’re out with friends. When can we really be ourselves?

In yet another irony (irony is a major theme of Purim, too), we only get the chance to truly be ourselves when we hide behind a mask! It is behind a mask—when no one can recognize us—that we finally feel free to let go and be ourselves. This is hinted to in the Hebrew word for getting costumed up, l’hitchapes (להתחפש).

In Hebrew, a verb that begins with the prefix l’hit (להת) is reflexive, ie. something that you do to yourself. For example, lirchotz (לרחוץ) is to wash something, while l’hitrachetz (להתרחץ) is to wash one’s self. To dress a child is lehalbish (להלביש), while to get yourself dressed is l’hitlabesh (להתלבש). The verb for putting on a costume, l’hitchapes (להתחפש), is reflexive. What does it mean when we remove the reflexive prefix? Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh beautifully points out how it becomes l’chapes (לחפש), “to search”. In other words, l’hitchapes—to put on a costume—literally means “to search for yourself”!

It is often only when we mask our identity that we can act as we truly are. This can be a powerful tool for introspection and self-discovery. It can especially reveal one’s vices, and this will hopefully allow a person to recognize what they have to work on to become a better person. On Purim, there is huge potential for real teshuva, “repentance”, like no other time. No wonder that our Sages compared Purim to Yom Kippur, and it is commonly said that Yom HaKippurim (the way it is referred to in the Torah) can be read Yom k’Purim, “a day like Purim”.

Alcohol has a similar function.

What Alcohol Does to Your Brain

The human brain is a complex network of billions of neurons that interact chemically and electrically with each other. The molecules that turn these neurons on and off are called neurotransmitters. The brain’s main excitatory neurotransmitter is glutamate, while its main inhibitory neurotransmitter is gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA for short. Alcohol in the brain causes an increase in GABA. (Others hold that alcohol doesn’t necessarily increase the amount of GABA, but binds the same receptors, causing the same inhibitory effect.)

The result is a steady “shutting down” of more and more of the brain. Inhibition in the prefrontal cortex would cause poor decision making. Inhibition in the motor cortex would affect movement, and in the occipital lobe, vision. Speech is slurred, hearing is affected, and the more alcohol that is consumed, the more of the brain is suppressed. If a person drinks far too much alcohol it could be fatal because eventually even the brain stem, which controls vital functions like breathing, will be inhibited.

Now, a person should certainly not drink anywhere near that amount. But, alcohol in moderation does allow a person to mellow out, loosen up, and act more like themselves. In this way, drinking alcohol is similar to putting on a costume. By drinking a little bit, a person can discover who they really are. This is further assisted by the fact that GABA is also involved with reorganizing the brain, and causing the formation of new neurons and new synapses, or connections. (Note: this does not mean that alcohol is somehow healthy or that it should be imbibed regularly. On the whole, it is damaging to the brain and possibly even worse for the liver.)

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 38a) states nichnas yayin, yatza sod, “when wine goes in, secrets come out.” One can understand this statement on two levels: the simple meaning is that, as everyone knows, a person who gets drunk is quite likely to let their mouth run wild and spill their secrets. On a deeper level, “secrets” may refer not to one’s own inner secrets, but to the secrets of the Torah.

One who has a few drinks, inhibits their conscious mind a little bit (maybe even stimulates the formation of some new synapses a little bit) might able to peer deeper into the Torah, revealing previously unknown secrets. One such mini-secret is hidden within that Talmudic statement itself, where the gematria of “wine”, yayin (יין), is 70, equal to the value of “secret”, sod (סוד). Nichnas yayin, yatza sod; seventy goes in and seventy comes out. What the Talmud is saying (and what neuroscience has now confirmed) is that alcohol may lead one to think more creatively, or outside the box, or differently than the way they usually do.

The Kabbalah of Ad d’Lo Yada

When it comes to drinking on Purim, the Talmud (Megillah 7b) famously states that a person should drink to the point of ad d’lo yada, “not knowing” the difference between “Blessed is Mordechai” and “Cursed is Haman”. This statement is highly problematic. One would have to be incredibly intoxicated not to know such a basic distinction, yet Jewish law prohibits a Jew from ever being so heavily under the influence. Most halachic authorities maintain that a person should drink just enough to feel soft and sleepy. So, why describe such an extreme state of intoxication on Purim?

Basic Gematria Chart

In reality, drinking on Purim isn’t at all about getting smashed to the point of losing control. On the contrary, what we should be doing is drinking just enough to allow us to see beyond. Nichnas yayin, yatza sod—take in a little to reveal those hidden secrets. The clue is in that very maxim, where “wine” and “secret” had the same gematria, 70. Now, look at “Blessed is Mordechai” (ברוך מרדכי) and “Cursed is Haman” (ארור המן). The gematria of these two terms is also the same, 502! When the Talmud states that one should drink until they can’t tell the difference, what it really means is that one should drink until they can look more acutely, and recognize that the two are numerically the same. The message is to look deeper into the text to find the secrets hiding within. That is, after all, the main theme of Purim. It is the very meaning of Megillat Esther, which can literally be translated as “revealing the hidden”.

Why would the gematrias of “Blessed is Mordechai” and “Cursed is Haman” be the same to begin with? This brings us back to the first idea that Purim is about discovering our true selves. Mordechai and Haman are equal because they represent two forces which reside inside each person. There is Mordechai, the yetzer hatov, the good inclination; and Haman, the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. The two are in a constant struggle with each other, each seeking to gain the upper hand, and it is our duty to nurture the former and restrain the latter.

On Purim, when we wear costumes and get a little inebriated, one or the other may get the upper hand. For some, hiding behind a mask and mellowing out makes them a better person, while for others it makes them worse. If we take the time and effort to observe ourselves carefully in that state—observe our thoughts, words, and actions—we can thereby understand ourselves more thoroughly, and discover what we need to do to maintain the right balance of “Blessed is Mordechai” and “Cursed is Haman”, 502 and 502. We can learn how to better nurture the good inclination, and more effectively restrain the other one. In fact, this is alluded to in another term from the Megillah which has that numerical value. At the end of the narrative, we read the following important verse:

Now in the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on its thirteenth day, when the king’s commandment and his decree drew near to be put in execution, in the day that the enemies of the Jews hoped to rule over them, it was turned to the contrary: that the Jews had rule over those that hated them… (Esther 9:1)

In this verse we find the key term v’nahafoch hu, that everything was “turned upside down”. On Purim, sibru oivey haYehudim lishlot bahem, “the enemies of the Jews hoped to rule over them”, but then everything flipped around and the Jews dominated their enemies instead. The words haYehudim lishlot bahem, literally “the Jews, dominated over them”, has a gematria of 502 as well. Perhaps there is a latent message here for each of us today, all Jews, to dominate over them, our inclinations, our 502s. To learn to become fully in control of ourselves. That way, regardless of whether we are inebriated or sober, in costume or not, we will always be completely righteous and holy.

This Purim, look deeper inside the text, and deeper into yourself. Drink a little and get in costume; be yourself, observe your actions and words very carefully, and aim to discover who you really are.

Chag sameach!

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.