October 17, 2018

Reviving Biblical blue

Blue and white are the traditional colors of the tallit, and, for that reason, the colors of the flag of Israel. And yet the ancient craft of making blue dyes for use in sacred garments was lost to the world for centuries. Just as the Jewish people longed for Zion, they also longed to reclaim the long-lost secret of the blue thread that the Bible commands us to wear on the corners of our garments.

So we learn in “The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered” by Baruch Sterman with Judy Taubes Sterman (Lyons Press: $24.95), which can be enjoyed as a mystery, a travelogue, an adventure story and a work of scholarship. Sterman embarked on a search through history and around the world for the secrets of the Murex trunculus, a marine snail whose entrails were used in antiquity to create a unique blue dye — “the sacred, rarest blue,” as they put it.

The mystery began in late antiquity, when the use of dyes in vivid colors, all produced with shellfish, began to fade. “By the fall of Constantinople in 1453,” the authors explain, “[t]he secrets of the highly developed art, its significance once immeasurable, were lost.” Another four centuries would pass before a French zoologist rediscovered the arcane uses of the Murex trunculus and other marine snails.

The mystery deepens because the ancients did not distinguish the color blue from a “whole range of colors from blue to red,” all of which were described by the same word — purple. We know that these colors were regarded as symbolic of royal rank and imperial power throughout the ancient world, but the Israelites reserved an even more exalted place for them: “To the ancient Israelites, however, these dyes possessed a holiness not by imperial fiat but because God Himself commanded their use in His worship.” 

The point was made in the biblical commandment that a single thread of blue — tekhelet is the Hebrew word — should be affixed to the corners of a garment, a passage that resulted in the wearing of the tallit in later centuries. “In the Roman world, the use of distinguishing colors became increasingly exclusive, reserved for the elite,” the authors explain, “whereas in Jewish culture, the tekhelet string bound people together, an expression of social equality.” Yet the loss of blue dyes meant that ritual fringes could conform with the biblical law. “And now we have only white,” the compiler of the Midrash complained in the eighth century, “for tekhelet has been hidden.”

Modern chemical dyes allowed the use of textile dyes in a fabulous array of colors, but Jewish purists still longed for the authentic color of blue that was mandated in the Torah. So, too, do the authors of “The Rarest Blue,” who explain in fascinating detail how colors were deployed throughout the ancient world as status symbols, expressions of political iconography and repositories of the sacred. They move forward in history, as they described how politics and archaeology were fused in the imperial ambitions of the Western powers and, of course, the Jewish people, and a thread of blue runs through the whole account.

The priests of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, for example, wore garments of tekhelet, including a 16-meter sash that was worn around the waist. Today, the pious Jews who look forward to the building of a Third Temple are fashioning the requisite tools, vessels and elaborate priestly vestments, all according to scriptural specifications. “The Temple Institute has made 120 full sets of these garments that hang today in the closets of Jews of priestly lineage around the world,” the authors report. “Those priests dream of the day when they will don the uniforms to perform their service in the Temple.”

Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, Chief Rabbi of Ireland and then of Israel, as another example, was among the founding fathers of the Jewish state, a man who was fully engaged in the politics and diplomacy of his era. But he was also a lifelong student of “Hebrew porphyrology — the term Herzog coined for the study of the ancient biblical dye tekhelet” — and conducted his own exacting investigations into contemporary efforts to reproduce it. “The dream of this modern, intellectually sophisticated, utterly devout rabbi,” the authors insist, “[was] to restore the possibility of fulfilling the ancient commandment of wearing tekhelet.”

The story in “The Rarest Blue” ends on a note of triumph that can be understood variously as an affirmation of piety or as the success of a scientific enterprise, or perhaps both. “For more than a millennium, no eye had seen threads of genuine tekhelet,” the authors conclude. “Today hundreds of thousands around the world wear the tekhelet strings on their prayer shawls. To paraphrase the words of the ancient Midrash: Now we no longer have only white string, for tekhelet once again has been revealed.”