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Coronavirus and the Coming of Mashiach

In this week’s parasha, Vayikra, we see the word HaMashiach (המשיח) appear for the first time. In fact, the word only appears a total of four times in the entire Torah, three in this week’s parasha, and once next week. In all four cases, the Torah is not speaking of the messiah, but rather of the High Priest, the anointed kohen gadol. Of course, this is only true on the surface, peshat, level. On a deeper, mystical level the Torah is indeed alluding to the messiah at the End of Days.

It is fitting that we are reading these words now, when the Jewish world is abuzz over what coronavirus means in the grand scheme of things, and whether, perhaps, it is a sign of Mashiach’s coming. Jewish social media is full of posts and reposts affirming that coronavirus is absolutely a sign of Mashiach’s arrival, with all kinds of “proofs” based on gematria and ancient prophecies. While some of these are accurate, others are nonsensical, absurd, or just plain fake, so it is worth checking the sources behind everything you receive.

Many of the posts cite the same verse, Isaiah 26:20: “Go, my people, enter your chambers, and lock your doors behind you. Hide but a little moment, until the fury passes.” This verse is indeed a prophecy for the End of Days. The preceding verse speaks of the Resurrection of the Dead (“Your dead shall live, dead bodies shall arise; those that dwell in the dust will awake and sing…”) while the verse that follows describes God’s final retribution: “Behold, God shall come forth from His place to punish the dwellers of the earth for their iniquity…” Having said that, it isn’t only sinners that perish. On the contrary, Isaiah cautions everyone to hide behind closed doors for, as the Sages teach, in such moments the angel of death is let loose and doesn’t differentiate between the righteous and the wicked. (For a detailed explanation of this, see Alshech on Exodus 12:13.)

Now, what exactly is the nature of the za’am (זעם), “fury”, that Isaiah speaks of? Is it really a virulent plague?

A Plague Before Mashiach

In several places, the Sages speak of a great plague that will befall the world before Mashiach comes. Possibly the earliest mention of this is Tosefta Ta’anit 2:11, where the Sages discuss if a global flood can come upon the Earth again, since God promised it wouldn’t (Genesis 9:15). The Sages qualify that statement:

Rabbi Meir said: A flood of water will not come again, but a flood of fire and brimstone will, like He brought upon the people of Sodom, as it is written, “And God rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire.” (Genesis 19:24) Rabbi Yehudah said: A flood upon the whole world will not come again, but a flood upon individuals will, such as if a person is at sea and his ship sinks and he dies—this is like a personal flood. Rabbi Yose said: A flood of water will not come again, but a “flood” of plague upon the idolaters in the days of Mashiach will…

A similar statement is found in the Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2:13):

“The fig tree puts forth her green figs…” (Song of Songs 2:13) Said Rabbi Chiya bar Abba: before the days of the messiah, a great plague will come to the world, and the sinners will succumb to it “…and the vines in blossom give forth their fragrance…” (ibid.) These are the survivors, of whom it is said: “And it shall be, that he that is left in Zion, and he that remains in Jerusalem [shall be called holy…]” (Isaiah 4:3)

Such passages agree that a devastating plague will come upon the world at the End of Days to strike down idolaters and sinners (though even the righteous will suffer among them). It is interesting to point out how the coronavirus we are dealing with today has, strangely, left the vast majority of children unaffected, with mild symptoms, or none at all. Scientists have yet to find a good explanation for this baffling phenomenon. Perhaps, from a spiritual perspective, it is because innocent children cannot be categorized as “sinners” or “idolaters”, and are being spared.

The Midrash Rabbah quoted above goes on to cite a couple of passages that also appear in the Talmud about the final seven-year period before Mashiach comes, and the state of the world during that time. We’ve written about both of these prophecies on multiple occasions in the past (see, for example, #21 here), so we shall not repeat them. It suffices to say that much of what the Sages predicted has come true. The final sign given in the lengthy midrashic passage is that if you see a generation where people are growing bolder and bolder, love to “rant and rave”, where blasphemy is widespread and people constantly “taunt” God, you should expect Mashiach to be near.

This is one of the factors that distinguish between the current state of the world compared to previous global plagues. For example, the Spanish Flu that started in 1918 certainly qualifies as a great plague that engulfed the entire world, with an estimated 50 million deaths. It came at the same time as World War I, and there were certainly Jews then who expected Mashiach imminently. The critical difference between then and now is the set of prophecies in the Talmud, which are more descriptive of today’s world than, say, 1918, as well as the fact that today we have the State of Israel. The latter is especially significant, since Ezekiel (ch. 37-38) prophesied that Jews would first return to Israel, settle down and build a prosperous country, and only then Mashiach would come. Thus, it is only today that essentially all the prophecies have been fulfilled. And there is at least one more.

Rome and the Enemies of Israel

Another intriguing prophecy that has been brought to light in recent days is the destruction of Rome. The notion that Rome will be crushed before Mashiach comes is found across ancient Jewish texts. This is because, of course, for most of history the biggest oppressor of Israel has been Rome. It was Rome that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and thrust the Jewish people into this current, millennia-old exile. From historical records, we know that Rome enslaved countless Jews, far more than any other empire in history (see, for example, Samuel Kurinsky’s The Eighth Day). Later, Rome transformed into the Christian Empire—its seat being the Vatican in Rome—from which horrifying crusades, inquisitions, and other terrors were launched.

For the Sages, the greatest enemy was always Rome, and for Mashiach to come it meant Rome must fall for good. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a-b) records how when the students of Rabbi Yose ben Kisma asked him when Mashiach would come, he answered: “When [Rome] falls down, is rebuilt, falls again, and is again rebuilt, and then falls a third time, before it can be rebuilt the son of David will come.” Rabbi Yose predicted that Rome would fall three times. The third would be the last, and then Mashiach would come.*

While the city of Rome has been conquered and sacked multiple times, there have been three major powers that can be called “Rome”. The first was the Roman Empire itself, which formally came to an end in 476 CE. Then, in 800 CE, Pope Leo III resurrected the title and crowned Charlemagne as Roman Emperor once more. What followed was the era of the “Holy Roman Empire”. By 1648, the Holy Roman Empire was dismantled (though the title was carried on by some German powers until 1806). Finally, in 1861 the various kingdoms and states on the Italian peninsula unified to form the modern nation-state of Italy in the hopes of forging a renewed, strong Rome. Today’s Italy can therefore be seen as the third incarnation of ancient Rome. (This is all the more compelling when we remember that Italy was Hitler’s primary ally.)

As it stands currently, Italy has been hardest hit by the coronavirus. They have already had more than double the casualties of China, where the plague began. While we sincerely wish for everyone around the world to be healthy and protected from this dreadful pandemic, it is understandable why some have connected Italy’s unfortunate (and inexplicable) fate to this ancient prophecy. On that note, closely following Italy in terms of casualties are Spain and Iran—probably next in line when it comes to horrible treatment of the Jewish people throughout history. Of course, these numbers will change with time, and we pray for the plague to end immediately so that none more shall perish, no matter where they happen to live.

A Final Prophecy and a Call to Action

The Sages famously state that “in Nisan they were redeemed, and in Nisan they are destined to be redeemed again.” (Rosh Hashanah 11a-b) Just as the Israelites were saved from ancient Egypt in the month of Nisan, the Jewish people in the End of Days will be saved in the same month. The Sages actually debate in these pages whether the Redemption will take place in Nisan or in Tishrei, bringing various Scriptural proofs for both possibilities. The only conclusion is that both must happen: the process will begin in Nisan, and end in Tishrei, with the blowing of the Great Shofar.

Tonight, we usher in the month of Nisan. It is a most auspicious time to bring about the Final Redemption. Now is the time to take this opportunity seriously and prepare. Thankfully, God has made it easy—after all, just about everything is closed. There are no shows, no sports games, no vacations, no activities. There is nowhere to go. For most people, there is no need to even go to work. All distractions are out of the way. Now is the time for Torah and mitzvot, for prayer and repentance.

Finally, the Sages state that the best way to bring Mashiach is for all the Jewish people to keep Shabbat together, and that if the entire nation kept just one Shabbat properly, Mashiach would come (Shemot Rabbah 25:12). The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847-1905) added that the ideal time for this unified Shabbat is the last Shabbat of the month of Adar, right before the start of Nisan (see his commentary on Parashat Zachor). That Shabbat was just a few days ago, and it just so happened that the parasha we read was Vayakhel-Pekudei, which begins with God’s command to keep the Sabbath! (Exodus 35:2) The timing couldn’t be better. Heck, even the Pope has called for everyone to keep Shabbat like the Jews!

With the State of Israel, and much of the rest of the world, currently on lockdown, God has made it especially easy for us to fulfil one proper, nation-wide Sabbath. This week we have another tremendous opportunity, and the Shabbat that follows is Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Sabbath” before Pesach. If we do our utmost now then maybe, just maybe, it will be the Great Sabbath that brings the Final Redemption.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

*Click here to read about the “Three Romes” and the coming of Mashiach from a different perspective.

The Rabbi That Made Judaism as We Know It

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva from the Mantua Haggadah of 1568

This week we continue to celebrate Passover and count the days of the Omer. The 49-day counting period is meant to prepare us spiritually for Shavuot, for the great day of the Giving of the Torah. As our Sages teach, the Torah wasn’t just given once three millennia ago, but is continually re-gifted each year, with new insights opening up that were heretofore never possible to uncover. At the same time, the Omer is also associated with mourning, for in this time period the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva perished, as the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) records:

Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gabbatha to Antipatris, and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua—and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: All of them died between Pesach and Shavuot.

Rabbi Akiva is a monumental figure in Judaism. People generally don’t appreciate how much we owe to Rabbi Akiva, and how much he transformed our faith. In many ways, he established Judaism as we know it, during those difficult days following the destruction of the Second Temple, until the Bar Kochva Revolt, in the aftermath of which he was killed.

Rabbi Akiva is by far the most important figure in the development of the Talmud. From various sources, we learn that it was he who first organized the Oral Torah of Judaism into the Six Orders that we have today. The Mishnah, which is really the first complete book of Jewish law and serves as the foundation for the Talmud, was possibly first composed by Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 86a) states that the main corpus of the Mishnah (including any anonymous teaching) comes from Rabbi Meir, while the Tosefta comes from Rabbi Nehemiah, the Sifra from Rabbi Yehuda, and the Sifre from Rabbi Shimon—and all are based on the work of Rabbi Akiva. Indeed, each of these rabbis was a direct student of Rabbi Akiva. (Although Rabbi Nehemiah is not listed among the five students of Rabbi Akiva in the Talmudic passage above, he is on the list in Sanhedrin 14a.)

In short, Rabbi Akiva began the process of formally laying down the Oral Tradition, which resulted in the production of the Mishnah a generation later, and culminated in the completion of the Talmud after several centuries.

It wasn’t just the Oral Torah that Rabbi Akiva had a huge impact on. We learn in the Talmud (Megillah 7a) that Rabbi Akiva was involved in a debate regarding which of the books of the Tanakh is holy and should be included in the official canon. Although it was the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah (“Men of the Great Assembly”) who are credited with first compiling the holy texts that make up the Tanakh, the process of canonization wasn’t quite complete until the time of Rabbi Akiva. Therefore, Rabbi Akiva both “completed” the Tanakh and “launched” the Talmud. This may just make him the most important rabbi ever.

That distinction is further reinforced when we consider the time period that Rabbi Akiva lived in. On the one hand, he had to contend with the destruction wrought by the Romans, who sought to exterminate Judaism for good. They made Torah study and Torah teaching illegal, and executed anyone who trained new rabbis. In fact, Rabbi Akiva was never able to ordain his five new students after his original 24,000 were killed. He taught them, but lost his life before the ordination could take place. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 14a) records:

The Evil Government [ie. Rome] decreed that whoever performed an ordination should be put to death, and whoever received ordination should be put to death, and the city in which the ordination took place should be demolished, and the boundaries wherein it had been performed, uprooted.

What did Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava do? He went and sat between two great mountains, between two large cities; between the Sabbath boundaries of the cities of Usha and Shefaram, and there ordained five sages: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yose, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua. Rabbi Avia also adds Rabbi Nehemiah to the list.

As soon as their enemies discovered them, Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava urged them: “My children, flee!” They said to him: “What will become of you, Rabbi?” He replied: “I will lie down before them like a stone which none can overturn.” It was said that the enemy did not stir from the spot until they had driven three hundred iron spears into his body, making it like a sieve…

An illustration of Rabbis Akiva, Elazar ben Azaria, Tarfon, Eliezer, and Yehoshua, as they sit in Bnei Brak on Passover discussing the Exodus all night long, as described in the Passover Haggadah. Some say what they were actually discussing all night is whether to support the Bar Kochva Rebellion against Rome. In the morning, their students came to ask for their decision. They answered: “shfoch hamatcha el hagoyim asher lo yeda’ucha…” as we say when we pour the fifth cup at the Seder.

In the wake of the catastrophic destruction of the Bar Kochva Revolt, and the unbearable decrees of the Romans, traditional Judaism and its holy wisdom nearly vanished. The “world was desolate”, as the Talmud describes, “until Rabbi Akiva came” and relayed that holy wisdom to the five students who would ensure the survival of the Torah. In fact, the vast majority of the Mishnah’s teachings are said in the name of either Rabbi Akiva or these five students. Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai alone is mentioned over 600 times in the Mishnah—way more than anyone else—followed by Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Yose. Without Rabbi Akiva’s genius and bravery, Judaism may have been extinguished.

Meanwhile, Judaism at the time also had to contend with the rise of Christianity. Rabbi Akiva had to show Jews the truth of the Torah, and protect them from the sway of Christian missionaries. It is generally agreed that Onkelos (or Aquila of Sinope) was also a student of Rabbi Akiva. Recall that Onkelos was a Roman who converted to Judaism, and went on to make an official translation of the Torah for the average Jew. That translation, Targum Onkelos, is still regularly read today. What is less known is that Onkelos produced both a Greek and Aramaic translation of the Torah to make the holy text more accessible to Jews (as Greek and Aramaic were the main vernacular languages of Jews at the time). Every Jew could see for himself what the Torah really says, and would have the tools necessary to respond to missionaries who often mistranslated verses and interpreted them to fit their false beliefs.

Interestingly, some scholars have pointed out that Rabbi Akiva may have instituted Mishnah and began its recording into written form as a way to help counter Christianity. Because Christians adopted the Torah and appropriated the Bible as their own, it was no longer something just for Jews. As such, it was no longer enough for Jews to focus solely on Tanakh, for Christians were studying it, too, and the study of Tanakh was no longer a defining feature of a Jew either. The Jewish people therefore needed another body of text to distinguish them from Christians, and the Mishnah (and later, Talmud) filled that important role. This may be a further way in which Rabbi Akiva preserved Judaism in the face of great adversity.

Finally, Rabbi Akiva also preserved and relayed the secrets of the Torah. He was the master Kabbalist, the only one who was able to enter Pardes and “exit in peace” (Chagigah 14b). One of his five students was Rabbi Shimon, yes that Rabbi Shimon: Shimon bar Yochai, the hero of the Zohar. Thus, the entire Jewish mystical tradition was housed in Rabbi Akiva. Without him, there would be no Zohar, no Ramak or Arizal, nor any Chassidut for that matter.

All in all, Rabbi Akiva is among the most formidable figures in Jewish history. In some ways, he rivals only Moses.

How Moses Returned in Rabbi Akiva

We see a number of remarkable parallels in the lives of Moses and Rabbi Akiva. According to tradition, Rabbi Akiva also lived to the age of 120, like Moses. We also know that Rabbi Akiva was an unlearned shepherd for the first third of his life. At age 40, he went to study Torah for twenty-four years straight and became a renowned sage. According to the Arizal, Rabbi Akiva carried a part of Moses’ soul, which is why their lives parallel so closely (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 36):

Moses spent the first forty years of his life in the palace of Pharaoh, ignorant of Torah, just as Rabbi Akiva spent his first forty without Torah. The next forty years Moses spent in Cush and Midian, until returning to Egypt as the Redeemer of Israel at age 80, and leading the people for the last forty years of his life. Rabbi Akiva, too, became the leading sage of Israel at age 80, and spent his last forty years as Israel’s shepherd. As we’ve seen above, it isn’t a stretch to say that Rabbi Akiva “redeemed” Israel in his own way.

More specific details of their lives are similar as well. Moses’ critical flaw was in striking the rock to draw out water from it. With Rabbi Akiva, the moment that made him realize he could begin learning Torah despite his advanced age was when he saw a rock with a hole in it formed by the constant drip of water. He reasoned that if soft water can make a permanent impression on hard stone, than certainly the Torah could make a mark on his heart (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 6:2). Perhaps this life-changing encounter of Rabbi Akiva with the rock and water was a tikkun of some sort for Moses’ error with the rock and water.

Similarly, we read in the Torah how 24,000 men of the tribe of Shimon were killed in a plague under Moses’ watch (Numbers 25:9). This was a punishment for their sin with the Midianite women. Moses stood paralyzed when this happened, unsure of how to deal with the situation. The plague (and the sin) ended when Pinchas took matters into his own hands, and was blessed with a “covenant of peace”. The death of the 24,000 in the time of Moses resembles the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva that perished, with Rabbi Akiva, like Moses, unable to prevent their deaths. In fact, Kabbalistic sources say that the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva were reincarnations of the 24,000 men of Shimon (see Sefer Gilgulei Neshamot, 20).

There is at least one more intriguing parallel between Moses and Rabbi Akiva. We know that the adult generation in the time of Moses was condemned to die in the Wilderness because of the Sin of the Spies. Yet, we see that some people did survive and enter the Promised Land. The Torah tells us explicitly that Joshua and Caleb, the good spies, were spared the decree. In addition, Pinchas was blessed with a long life (for his actions with the plague of the 24,000) and survived to settle in Israel. (According to tradition, Pinchas became Eliyahu, who never died but was taken up to Heaven in a flaming chariot.) We also read in the Book of Joshua that Elazar, the son and successor of Aaron, continued to serve as High Priest into the settlement of Israel, and passed away around the same time as Joshua (Joshua 24:33). Finally, the Sages teach that the prophet Ahiyah HaShiloni was born in Egypt and “saw Amram” (the father of Moses) and lived until the times of Eliyahu, having been blessed with an incredibly long life (Bava Batra 121b). In his introduction to the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1204) lists Ahiyah as a disciple of Moses, later a member of David’s court, and the one who passed on the tradition through to the time of Eliyahu.

Altogether, there are five people who were born in the Exodus generation but were spared the decree of dying in the Wilderness. (Note: the Sages do speak of some other ancient people who experienced the Exodus and settled in Israel, including Serach bat Asher and Yair ben Menashe, but these people were born long before the Exodus, in the time of Jacob and his sons.) These five people were also known to be students of Moses. The conclusion we may come to is that five of Moses’ students survived to bring the people and the Torah into Israel, just as five of Rabbi Akiva’s students survived to keep alive the Torah and Israel.

If we look a little closer, we’ll find some notable links between these groups of students. We know that Elazar ben Shammua, the student of Rabbi Akiva, was also a kohen, like Elazar the Priest. Caleb and Joshua are descendants of Yehudah and Yosef, reminiscent of Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yose (whose name is short for “Yosef”), the students of Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Meir, often identified with the miracle-worker Meir Baal HaNess, has much in common with Pinchas/Eliyahu, while Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai explicitly compared himself to Ahiyah haShiloni in the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 35:2). As such, there may be a deeper connection lurking between the five surviving students of Moses and the five surviving students of Rabbi Akiva.

Lastly, we shouldn’t forget the Talmudic passage that describes how Moses visited the future classroom of Rabbi Akiva, and was amazed at the breadth of wisdom of the future sage. Moses asked God why He didn’t just choose Akiva to give the Torah to Israel? It was such a great question that God didn’t reply to Moses!

The Greatest Torah Principles

Of all the vast oceans of wisdom that Rabbi Akiva taught and relayed, what were the most important teachings he wished everyone to take to heart? First and foremost, Rabbi Akiva taught that the “greatest Torah principle” (klal gadol baTorah) is to love your fellow as yourself (see Sifra on Kedoshim). Aside from this, he left several gems in Pirkei Avot (3:13-16), which is customary to read now between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot:

Rabbi Akiva would say: excessive joking and light-headedness accustom a person to promiscuity. Tradition is a safety fence for Torah, tithing is a safety fence for wealth, vows a safety fence for abstinence; a safety fence for wisdom is silence.

He would also say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of God]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to him that he was created in that image, as it  says, “For in the image of God, He made man” [Genesis 9:6]. Beloved are Israel, for they are called children of God; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to them that they are called children of God, as it is stated: “You are children of the Lord, your God” [Deuteronomy 14:1]. Beloved are Israel, for they were given a precious item [the Torah]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to them that they were given a precious item, as it is stated: “I have given you a good portion—My Torah, do not forsake it” [Proverbs 4:2].

All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted. The world is judged with goodness, and all is in accordance with the majority of one’s deeds.

He would also say: Everything is given as collateral, and a net is spread over all the living. The store is open, the storekeeper extends credit, the account-book lies open, the hand writes, and all who wish to borrow may come and borrow. The collection-officers make their rounds every day and exact payment from man, with his knowledge and without his knowledge. Their case is well-founded, the judgement is a judgement of truth, and ultimately, all is prepared for the feast.

These words carry tremendous meanings, both on a simple level and on a mystical one, and require a great deal of contemplation. If we can summarize them in two lines: We should be exceedingly careful with our words and actions, strive to treat everyone with utmost care and respect, and remember that a time will come when we will have to account for—and pay for—all of our deeds. We should be grateful every single moment of every single day for what we have and who we are, and should remember always that God is good and just, and that all things happen for a reason.

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.