Deep Blue: Notes on the Jewish Snail Fight


The Bible requires Jews to tie a tekhelet (blue) cord as part of their tzitzit (fringes on traditional prayer shawl and everyday undergarment). Rabbinic sources of antiquity insisted that the tekhelet dye must have been produced from a marine mollusk termed hillazon. For various reasons, the custom of having this tekhelet cord, which is usually associated with the colors blue or violet, disappeared from Jewish material culture sometime in late antiquity. During the 1880s the Hasidic leader Gershon Hanoch Leiner of Radzin (Radzyń Podlaski, Poland) announced that he had found the ancient hillazon and succeeded in producing tekhelet, which he distributed to his followers. However, his tekhelet did not gain popularity. A much wider interest in tekhelet began in the 1980s, when a new tekhelet was introduced by religious Zionist Jews, resulting in an abundance of Orthodox publications on the subject. However, the 1980s renaissance of tekhelet raised objections from various Jewish Orthodox circles. This paper aims to sketch a preliminary map of the tekhelet debate that took place after the introduction of the second tekhelet in the 1980s. It opens with a brief history of tekhelet, followed by a description of the dominant narrative of contemporary tekhelet, and its main opponents. The rest of the article presents central focal points of the controversy: debates regarding the production of the dye; issues of authority regarding acceptance of the new tekhelet; and a messianic tension revealed by the discussion of tekhelet. By providing a non-Orthodox account of the tekhelet debate, this article sheds light on contemporary tekhelet discourse yet also exposes fundamental issues in contemporary Orthodox Judaism, particularly with respect to the relationship between religion and science, and the tension between radicalism and conservatism.

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  1. 1.

    This text accompanied the mass-funding campaign for the conference. See: Accessed October 26, 2014. Similar texts appeared in other announcements.

  2. 2.

    A note about terminology: Although tekhelet is often translated into English as blue and hillazon is commonly translated as snail, there are debates on these translations because every translation conveys interpretation and implies a specific resolution. Hence, in this paper I will use the Hebrew originals. Moreover, there is a difference in the spelling of the word: While Ptil Tekhelet and other Murex supporters usually spell it tekhelet, their opponents use spellings like techeles, tcheiles. I will follow the transliteration rules of the Hebrew Academy of the Hebrew Language, which suggest tekhelet.

  3. 3.

    See the links to the various media items: Accessed October 26, 2014.

  4. 4.

    Although religious Zionists are sometimes described as the manifestation of Modern Orthodoxy in Israel, these groups are not identical (Liebman 1988).

  5. 5.

    An example of what appears to be a comment written by a non-Jew to an article published on the website of CBS News: “I have never seen US Jews wearing blue fringe. Is it on their underwear?” (Accessed October 26, 2014).

  6. 6.

    Growing interest in this topic is evident in the fact that several books on the subject matter have been published in the last decade. For example, see, Gary B. Ferngren (ed.), The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 2000); Philip Clayton and Zachary Simpson (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Peter Harrison (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

  7. 7.

    Correspondence was initiated or interviews were conducted with (in alphabetical order): Zvi C. Koren, Mendel Singer, Ehud Spanier, Assaf Stein, Baruch Sterman, Eliyahu Tavger, Israel I. Ziderman. Shlomo Englard, the rebbe of Radzin, declined my request to speak or correspond.

  8. 8.

    For example, in 1991 Edelstein funded the establishment of The Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artifacts at the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, and donated his book collection to The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The Edelstein Center for the History and Philosophy of Science, Technology and Medicine at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem is supported by the Sidney and Mildred Edelstein Foundation.

  9. 9.

    The Talmudic Encyclopedia was a prominent research project of religious Zionist Jews in the first decades of the State of Israel, parallel to the Hebrew Encyclopedia.

  10. 10.

    A selection of Ziderman’s major publications on tekhelet: Israel I. Ziderman, “Halakhic Aspects of Reviving the Ritual Tekhelet Dye in the Light of Modern Scientific Discoveries,” in The Royal Purple and Biblical Blue, 207-220; “Lehidush Mitsvat Tekhelet Batsitsit,” Tehumin 9 (1988), 423-446 (Hebrew); “Hagilui Mehadash Shel Hillazon Hatekhelet Beyameinu,” Hama'yan 34.4 (2005), 27-39 (Hebrew); “The Biblical Dye Tekhelet and its Use in Jewish Textiles,” Dyes in History and Archaeology 21 (2008), 36-44.

  11. 11.

    See their website: Accessed February 22, 2015.

  12. 12.

    For the library, see: Accessed October 26, 2014.

  13. 13.

    A review on the Hebrew translation: Gadi Sagiv, Haaretz Books Supplement, March 28, 2014, 10-11 (Hebrew).

  14. 14. Accessed October 26, 2014.

  15. 15.

    This is explicitly stated when Sterman and Taubes-Sterman quote Jacob Milgrom (ibid.).

  16. 16.

    An article supporting the Murex, written by Rabbi Mordechai Avraham Katz and published in 1997 in Or Yisroel, an Orthodox Jewish periodical, initiated a debate. In response to Katz’s article, Englard published an article in the subsequent volume, followed by Katz’s response. In the next volume the journal published three additional responses (in the “Responses” section, not as articles): A response from the aforementioned Murex advocate Rabbi Eliyahu Tavger; the response of Elhanan Reuven Goldhaber, another scion of the Leiner family supporting Radzin tekhelet; and a second response by Katz, the author of the first article.

  17. 17.

    Additionally, after the debate, this journal published two letters, taking opposing sides: Yechiel Yizchok Perr, ibid, 43 (2002), 125-128; Yisroel Yosef Taub, ibid, 44 (2002), 116-119.

  18. 18.

    See, for example: Shaul Kaplan, “Gilui Hatekhelet,” Or Torah 417 (2002), 722-730 (Hebrew). One of those who seems to have been temporarily convinced by Kaplan was the Jerusalemite rabbi and kabbalist Itzhak Meir Morgenstern, Penei Hama (Jerusalem, 2009), 181-195 (Hebrew). On the matter of the decline of the Janthina theory, see: Diana Bahur-Nir, “The Hillazon of the Messiah,” Calcalist Supplement, January 16, 2014 (,7340,L-3621850,00.html Accessed October 26, 2014).

  19. 19.

    The letters of Aviner: Aviner 1996. The debate between Ariel and Aviner, as well as a reprint of Aviner’s letters, was published in Ariel 2005, pp. 64-91.

  20. 20. Accessed October 26, 2014.

  21. 21.

    Rabbi Eliyahu Tavger relayed this view to me in an in-person interview on March 7, 2013. In Edelstein’s preface to Herzog’s dissertation he does not discuss the hue of tekhelet.

  22. 22.

    However, it seems that subsequently Ziderman changed his opinion after discovering that when a purple Murex dye is heated, it can turn blue, and perhaps constitute the hue of tekhelet.

  23. 23.

    Yehuda Rock, “Hidush Hatekhelet Veinyanei Tzitzit Vetekhelet,” (Accessed October 26, 2014), 15-17. It is likely that after receiving this critical response Ziderman clarified his argument: Although the Hebrew word sagol denotes both violet and purple, he claimed that tekhelet is violet whereas argaman is purple. See: Accessed October 26, 2014.

  24. 24.

    Rabbi Eliyahu Tavger communicated this to me in an in-person interview on March 7, 2013.

  25. 25.

    For references to the parts of the debate: Accessed October 26, 2014.

  26. 26.

    I intend to discuss the 19th-century tekhelet initiative and debate in a separate article.


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Correspondence to Gadi Sagiv.

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Sagiv, G. Deep Blue: Notes on the Jewish Snail Fight. Cont Jewry 35, 285–313 (2015).

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  • Tekhelet
  • Colors and Dyes in Judaism
  • Religion and science
  • Orthodox Judaism
  • Zionism
  • Messianism