The Modern Revival of Techelet

By Peter Abelow

One of the marvels of touring modern Israel is being able to see the Tanach come alive as one visits sites where Jewish history unfolded 3000 years ago. We can walk on the ground where our ancestors walked, touch the walls that our forefathers built and see the landscapes of Eretz Yisrael precisely as they are described in the pages of the Prophets. A particularly exciting consequence of our return to Israel–and a very relevant one when it comes to contemporary Jewish practice–is the discovery off the Mediterranean coast of what many believe to be the chilazon (a seacreature that provides the dye for the Biblical techelet [the blue thread])and the reintroduction of the Biblical dyeing process. In many communities, in Israel as well in chutz laaretz (the Diaspora), tallitot, containing what many believe to be the Biblically

commanded techelet are becoming an increasingly common sight.

In Numbers (15:38), we read: “Speak to the people of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a thread of blue.” Our oral tradition (Talmud Menachot 44a) teaches that “the chilazon resembles the sea in its color, and in shape it resembles a fish; it appears once in 70 years, and with its blood, one dyes the blue thread; and therefore it is so expensive.” Extensive research has revealed that the Murex trunculus snail is the most likely candidate to be the source of techelet. Somehow, during the Roman period, the mitzvah of techelet was gradually lost. A few years ago, however, the P’til Tekhelet organization was founded to reintroduce this long lost mitzvah. An Israel-based, non-profit organization, P’til Tekhelet manufactures techelet dyed from Murex snails, produces tzitzit and provides education on this special mitzvah.

This story of techelet comes alive in two different places. First, at the P’til Tekhelet factory, located in Kfar Adumim, approximately 20 minutes east of Jerusalem, just off the main highway to the Dead Sea area. Visitors to the techelet factory can see the entire wool dyeing process, a large aquarium display with live snails, as well as the manufacturing of the tzitzit strings. Additionally, visitors can view an excellent film. One of the highlights of the visit is the opportunity to duplicate the dyeing process as it was done by our ancestors more than 3000 years ago. Have a child carefully extract the wool from the beaker and amazingly, before your eyes, as the wool is exposed to the oxygen in the air, it will turn blue. Groups with more time can actually spin their own tzitzit strings.

The discovery of large numbers of broken shells of Murex snails. led experts to the conclusion that this snail…is indeed the chilazon of our tradition.

A visit to the techelet factory must be arranged in advance with Joel Guberman; you can reach him at 058-788-138 or 02-590-0577 or send email to joel@tekhelet.com. You can also visit the factory’s web site at www.tekhelet.com.

The other place you should visit is the Biblical city of Dor where recent archaeological excavations served as the initial impetus for the rediscovery of techelet. Located on the Mediterranean coast near Caesarea, Dor is mentioned in the books of Joshua, Judges and Kings and was the main port city in this area until Herod built nearby Caesarea in the late first-century b.c.e. In Dor, archaeologists have discovered evidence of a dyeing industry dating back to the Roman period. Specifically, they uncovered large dyeing pits with rings of purple (argaman) and blue. The discovery of large numbers of broken shells of Murex snails around the vats led experts to the conclusion that this snail, which is found in nearby coves along the shore, is indeed the chilazon of our tradition.

The Museum of Underwater Archeology is another important site to visit. If you are traveling between Tel Aviv and Haifa, leave the main highway at Zichron Yaakov, turn left on the old road towards Haifa and then left again to Dor and Nachsholim. As you approach the beach, there is a stone building on your right which appears to be roofless. This structure was originally built over 100 years ago to house a wine bottle factory, which was part of the growing enterprise of the Carmel Wineries in nearby Zichron Yaakov. While the wine business was a great success, the bottle factory failed and the building was abandoned for many years. Recently though, along with the extensive excavations at nearby Tel Dor, the building was refurbished and reopened as a museum.

The museum has an extensive exhibit of artifacts from the Biblical period as well as an exhibit about the chilazon and the techelet dyeing process. Make sure you ask Yisroel, the museum director, to show you the film on techelet. The museum’s number is 04-639-0950. In conjunction with the museum, P’til Tekhelet arranges customized group tours, which include snorkeling and hands-on dyeing. These expeditions must be coordinated in advance.

Peter Abelow is a licensed tour guide and the associate director of Keshet—the Center for Educational Tourism in Israel, specializing in family, group and synagogue tours that make Israel come alive “Jewishly.”

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This article was featured in the Fall 2001 issue of Jewish Action.
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