Murex and other dyed textile from Timna Valley

10th Feb 2021

Baruch Sterman and Judy Taubes Sterman of the Ptil Tekhelet Association just published a fascinating article in Traditional on new archaelogical discoveries related to Murex trunculus. The article discusses a recent dig in Timna Valley (known as the site of King Solomon's Pillars) under the auspices of the Israel Antiquities Authority aimed at gleaning insights into ancient dyeing technologies. The finds include the oldest known dyed textiles from the Southern Levant.

Archeological finds of dyed textiles are rare, the Stermans note, and those from the Timna Valley find are now the oldest known Murex-dyed fabrics in the region, enduring three millenia in part due to the arid climate.

According to the Gemara, once the dyeing is finished and the color set, tekhelet will not change or fade. The Rambam's remarks that it is “steadfast in its beauty and will never alter” (Hilkhot Tzitzit 2:1), are certainly attested to by the rich hue seen in these newly rediscovered, 3,000 year-old samples.

The Sterman essay explains that the Jewish approach to various esteemed "high fashion" clothing items in the ancient world, differed somewhat from their non-Jewish contemporaries.

While in Rome the blue and purple clothes became a way to exclude the commoner from elite society, the Torah calls upon the entire community to step up and join the religious aristocracy. The Kohen Gadol in the Beit HaMikdash dressed in a robe of pure, striking blue, the lay priest in an all blue sash, and each individual is told to attach one thread of tekhelet to the corners of his own garment, so that the Jewish people literally become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Shemos 19:6). 

The tzitzit, Professor Jacob Milgrom suggests, illustrate “the epitome of the democratic thrust within Judaism which equalizes not by leveling but by elevating: all of Israel is enjoined to become a nation of priests.”

Though purple was prized above all other colors by the ancient cultures surrounding Israel, the Jews esteemed the sky blue tekhelet as the most cherished and holiest of all colored fabrics. Purple, though beautiful, is raw and earthy, but tekhelet, like the deep, fathomless ocean, and the vast, soaring sky, reaches out to infinity. “Why is tekhelet singled out from all the colors?” Rabbi Meir asks, “Because tekhelet is similar to the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the Holy Throne” (Sota 17a). 

Along the same lines, though from an entirely different milieu, the great Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, who had the fascinating neurological condition known as synesthesia, where he experienced color not only visually but also audially, writes, “The deeper the blue, the more it beckons man into the infinite, arousing a longing for purity and the supersensuous. It is the color of the heavens just as we imagine it.” 

Gazing upon the color of tekhelet – as the Torah enjoins us to do with the tzitzit strings, “and you shall look at it” (Bamidbar 15:39) – inspires us to lofty, transcendent contemplation.

To read the entire article, click here>>