The messiah's blue-colored snail

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After a thousand-year mystery, raging passions, countless research and one snail who will supposedly help the Jews finally fulfill the commandment of the ritual fringes, the crazy chase after the biblical light blue color has reached its end.

The village of Kfar Adumim, 2014: Looms and snails

Two long and narrow aquariums receive guests at Ptil Tekhelet ["a cord of blue"], a small factory, somewhere between a shack and a hangar, at the entrance to the Kfar Adumim settlement in the Judean hills. They are outfitted especially for sea snails called Dark-Spined Argemon [Murex tumulus], but a close look reveals that in the two aquariums there is actually only one snail. “They don’t last long here,” one of the workers explains. “They have a somewhat cannibalistic side, they eat each other.”

There are no live snails, but these carnivorous snails’ dried pigment glands are found in plastic containers. They arrive by special deliveries from fishermen in Croatia, who pull out the snails from the sea, crack their shells open and separate their pigment glands from their bodies with a shaving razor. In Kfar Adumim they take the pigment glands, which are purple at this point, soak them in a special solution that creates a reduction process (the opposite of the oxidation process), and then leave the jars with the glands in the sun for about an hour.

At this point the factory workers put some cotton into the solution and let it soak for a half hour. Afterward they wash it with water and let the air oxidize the color, which gradually turns into a light shade of blue. When the cotton is dry, they start spinning the strands in a hand loom, and then weave them in various weaves. In the end they get strands of blue thread, which give the factory its name, and the workers are filled with pride: They’ve fulfilled a mitzvah [a Jewish religious commandment].

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London, 1913: Rabbi Herzog investigates

Before he was the chief rabbi of Israel, winner of the Israel Prize, the father of the former president of Israel and the grandfather of the chairman of the Labor Party – Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog was a student at the University of London who studied mathematics and Semitic and classical languages. One of his main areas of interest was the connection between sea snails and dyeing fabrics in biblical blue: He spent years searching for the way to produce the colors biblical blue and royal purple just like in ancient times, in the Bible.

The biblical blue and royal purple were once unique, rare and expensive colors that were used in the temple and also defined as part of the commandment of the fringes (tzitzit), as a physical reminder of the existence of God and even as an analogy for the connection with him. “Speak to the children of Israel and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of God and observe them,” commands Moses in Numbers 15. Later on, tradition explained the connection in that “blue is similar to the sea, and the sea is similar to the heavens, and the heavens are similar to the throne of God,” and Rashi [acclaimed medieval commentator of the Torah and Talmud] interpreted, “Anyone who fulfills the commandment of the tzitzit, it’s as if he mirrors the presence of God.”  

For about 2,000 years the commandment was fulfilled and the fringes ended with a blue cord. In the rest of the Mediterranean basin, emperors and kings were dressed in garments of blue and purple, called purpura. But about a thousand years ago it seems the use of the biblical blue and royal purple ended in the ancient world, colors from sources that were easier to produce entered the picture, and the world moved on.

Despite that, for hundreds of years, there were those who didn’t let go of the lost biblical blue. Early texts, Jewish and non-Jewish, that mentioned the biblical blue, left a trail of hints, a secret code that centered on a mysterious snail and stirred rabbis and historians, biologists and chemists, archaeologists and anthropologists. The researchers of biblical blue were not many, but they were committed to reconstructing the enchanting color of the ancient world.

The point of departure of the secret code was the sea: The Talmudic rabbis, Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus wrote that the biblical light blue and purple originated in the sea. The next station was the snail: “Light blue is not kosher, except from the snail. If one brought it not from the snail it is invalid,” thus is written in the Talmud, already giving some indications. “The creature is similar to a fish and its body is similar to heaven and it only comes ashore once every seven years.” And there’s another criterion, that the color won’t fade, “it endures in its beauty.” All in all there are nine aspects that fit into these main hints, but they do not really point to a specific snail. 

Nevertheless, they have searched for it all these years. Rabbi Herzog dedicated his dissertation to the topic at the University of London in 1913. He researched and examined all the information available in his day, until he ultimately gave up a bit. On the basis of biological and archaeological research, Herzog concentrated on snails of the Murex variety. He sought the assistance of chemists, but did not succeed in proving that they are the source of the biblical blue. “I think it’s impossible to produce pure blue from the purple-producing snails I am aware of,” he wrote in one of his letters. In the dissertation itself, at the end, as a frustrating last recourse, he turned the spotlight to another snail, smooth, small and blue: “If all hope must be abandoned of rediscovering the blue snail in some kind of Murex (Argemon) snail – we won’t do worse if we suggest the Janthina snail.”

Until his death, Herzog never knew the answer. But since then, science has advanced, research has continued and the code has been cracked. Today, scientists and rabbis know how the biblical blue was produced. More than that: Today, it is produced once again.

Jerusalem, 2013: The tribe of Zebulon took my life

A hundred years later, the doctorate Herzog submitted on the topic was celebrated at a special conference on the blue snail, which was held at the end of December at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. In the air there is an atmosphere of a clique of secret keepers, and the lobby is filled with all the blue underground people, the scientists and the rabbis who have studied the topic for years. Almost all of them are bearded, wear a Jewish skullcap and have an Anglo-Saxon accent, and the words “the chilazon” (the snail in Hebrew) repeat in almost every conversation.

Outside the hall wanders a tall, blue-eyed and restless man. “I’m going to escape soon, or I’ll start crying,” he tells me, emotionally. This is Dr. Shaul Kaplan, 59, a marine biologist who has studied a snail called Sgolit for 15 years, which is the same Janthina that Herzog pointed to. “There are nine very specific signs that if taken together are like a fingerprint that points to one kind of snail – Janthina,” explains Kaplan. But even after 15 years he hasn’t succeeded in producing a stable blue from it, and in the meantime it’s become clear that it can be produced from the Argemon. “So I was wrong and they were right, but they do not have the signs.”  

Kaplan studied at Bar-Ilan University and worked at the Israel Institute for Oceanographic and Limnological Research. More than 20 years ago he became religious, and around then he participated in a professional conference in Washington, where he met Professor Hyman Schiffer, a Canadian doctor and researcher. Schiffer told him about one of his ancestors, the Hassidic leader of Radazin, who was a central figure in the 19th-century efforts to renew the production of biblical blue, and “that conversation lit a fire in my brain in the color blue,” says Kaplan about the volatile combination between a scientific mystery and a religious motivation. “Blue suddenly became not just any color – I could taste it, smell it, it became my direction in life. I bought a boat called Janthina and started going out to the sea to look for those snails. I researched them for 15 years. It conquered me, excited me, I thought or dreamed of it alone.”

Nevertheless, it wasn’t it. The attempt to determine the source of the error with Kaplan brings up a surprising theory: “It was an intentional misdirection on the part of the tribe of Zebulon, which didn’t want anyone to steal their livelihood. The Murex (Argemon), besides being a snail – doesn’t have any of the signs. It says that it’s the color of the sea and the sky, and the Murex is white. It says its dye is black like tar, and this is a false sign since its dye is transparent. It says that the snail comes ashore once in seven years, and elsewhere it says once in 70 years – and the Murex doesn’t come ashore at all. I walk around the shores, Murex doesn’t come up to the shore! It lives at the bottom of the sea from the beginning to the end of its life. It’s written that it looks like a fish. Fine, their snail is the right snail, the one from which they produced blue so many years ago. But it’s pathetic to say that it matches the signs, it’s an insult to intelligence.”  

And an insult to his Janthina, which he loves no less after 15 years. ''It’s a fascinating snail. It’s blue, it even floats on the surface of the water. And it builds a nest of bubbles with its foot, inserts a bubble within a bubble until it creates a sort of raft, and it looks like a fish, with a head and a tail. And when you see it float you can’t tell there’s a snail underneath. It’s amazing to see it.”

Kaplan has succeeded in producing a shade of blue from the Janthina, and shows a bag with tzizit cords dyed biblical blue, as well as purple and blue – all of them faded. “It’s the dye of the Janthina. I went 20 miles out to sea in order to gather it and grew it in a lab in Jaffa. It creates an iridescent, prettier blue than that of the Murex, but it fades after two weeks. So I was wrong because I insisted on going after the signs. And the signs are a lie – but a good lie. You understand? They built a lie that brings you to a snail that does produce dye, but a dye that fades. They were smart, the people of Zebulon.”

Kaplan is rather lonely in the field with this theory. “You can’t tell rabbis that what’s written in the Talmud isn’t correct,” he says. “Biblical blue was very expensive, like gold. Cleopatra had a large ship and its entire sail was dyed from this snail in order to show her wealth. Thus, when they asked the tribe of Zebulon where the blue is found, they gave the signs pointing to another snail in order to protect their livelihood. It sat with the Talmudic rabbis for 2,000 years and waited for me to fall in this trap, and that’s exactly what happened. It’s a good correction for what I did before I became religious. But if I have to hear them talk about it at the conference all day I’d kill myself, pretty soon I’ll escape from here. I wasted 15 years and didn’t extract light blue. Fifteen years and their success is my failure!” 

This failure leads him to self-examination, with a strong sense of a missed opportunity. “It came upon me like a tsunami. It was an obsession. It changed the course of my life, I could have been a professor at Bar-Ilan. I burned myself, went crazy on the way. Only two months ago I understood that the signs were a lie, and this is the first winter that I’m not searching for the snails in my boat. But now that I understood that all that I did was a huge correction for my secular phase, maybe I could succeed in something else. I’m about to become a taxi driver, I’ll finish the course in two weeks. I want to sit in my boat and stare at the clouds, but if you want a taxi – I’m available.” 

Naples, 1887: The Polish Hassidic leader [Rebbe] goes to sea

It seems the Jews stopped using biblical blue around the 7th century CE, and it disappeared from the rest of the Mediterranean basin around the 13th century. Some 600 years later, in 1857, at one of the Spanish shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the renowned French zoologist Henri de Lacaze-Duthiers sat and watched the fishermen at work. He saw one of them crack the shell of a snail and smear it on his shirt. It was stained with yellow marks, which turned green, and after several minutes, bluish-purple. The researcher started examining those snails, and in the end he was the one who identified the three species of Argemon that live in the Mediterranean Sea and can produce the biblical blue and royal purple colors: the Dark-Spined Argemon, the Sharp-Spined Argemon and the Red-Mouthed Argemon. Only he never really dealt with how to produce dye from them.

Exactly 30 years later the Hassidic leader of Radazin in Poland arrived in Naples, Italy. He was immersed in those years in attempts to renew the commandment of the biblical blue cord, and even wrote three articles on the topic, which among other things connected the discovery of the biblical blue with the coming of the messiah. “For certainly (the biblical blue) will be discovered by the building of the third temple swiftly and in our day, since it will be needed for the priestly garments,” he wrote, for instance, in the essay, “The Eye of Blue.” But the Hassidic leader did not know about the snails that the French researcher identified, and the assumption of his research was different. 

Maimonides’ hint, according to which the blood of the snail is “black as ink” led to the theory that the snail is actually a creature called a cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis), and the Hassidic leader adopted the idea and went out to search for the cuttlefish. He found it at the Center for Marine Research in Naples, and returned home to Poland with it, where he started to produce blue cords with its dye. But in order to arrive at the right color the Hasid also used chemical agents, that is, he didn’t produce natural blue only from the sea creature. Even if the biblical blue returned to the tzitzit, the cuttlefish wasn’t the answer to the ancient riddle, and Rabbi Herzog’s doctorate brought an end to this possibility, when after a chemical test he determined “the color agent that the cotton cord (of the Hassidic leader) is dyed with is a color on the basis of regular modern tar. The details regarding the use of the cuttlefish are misleading. It’s entirely impossible to dye using this substance.” Among the Radazin Hassidic court, by the way, they are still convinced that the source of the color is the cuttlefish, and still hang on to the cords dyed with it.

The temple, the 1st century BCE: The thread of the high priest

For at least a thousand years, blue was a significant status symbol, “a sign of wealth and prestige, which decorated the robes of emperors, kings, princes and noblemen, and was used by priests in their holy work,” writes Baruch Sterman in "The Rarest Blue," [the English title of] the book he wrote with his wife Judy, which was published this year by Yedioth Sefarim. Sterman, one of the leaders of the Ptil Tekhelet Association, which today produces the blue cords, describes his personal quest to renew the commandment. “We live today in a world of vibrant and infinite color. But in the ancient world this wealth didn’t exist,” he reminds us. 

Judy Sterman adds “In the ancient world blue was worth 20 times more than gold. It was the color of royalty. In the days of the Romans only the emperor was allowed to wear it and the punishment for others who wore it was death. Jews, too, were forbidden to wear the tzitzit.” In Judaism threads dyed blue were used for the garments of the priests in the temple, including in the breastplate of the high priest. The written evidence for the use of blue is backed by archaeological evidence, in fabric colored by the snail that were found in the Judean desert as well as large stores of Argemon shells found at the Dor coast and around Haifa [in the north of Israel], testimony to a real industry of producing the color from the snails.

The Jews have been curious about biblical blue all these years because of the commandment of the tzitzit, “as a daily reminder of the commitment to observing the commandments and to the Creator of the Universe,” as Baruch Sterman writes. But this reminder was lost, with the Arab conquest of the Land of Israel, and later with the fall of Byzantium. And since then observant Jews have lived with the knowledge that “biblical blue doesn’t exist.”

“A Jew says every day as part of the Shema [Listen] prayer recitation, ‘and they attached a cord of blue at the fringe of each corner,’ but this became extinct,” says Judy Sterman. “For the rest of the world this wasn’t so important, they discovered how to produce blue from plants and it’s more convenient than the stink that’s entailed in working with the snail, but in the Talmud it says it must come from the snail, so they continued searching.” And suddenly, all those who grew up with white tzitzit, because “there’s no light blue,” discovered that it does actually exist.  

Haifa, 1983: The sun makes all the difference

Like not a few discoveries, the discovery of the snail was a result of coincidences. In the second half of the 1970s Professor Ehud Shafnir, 68, a marine biologist from the University of Haifa, started to study the carnivorous habits of the Argemon snails. But then Sidney Edelstein, an owner of a dye factory from New Jersey who had been searching for the biblical blue, reached him and gave him a grant to study, along the way, also how to produce dye from the Argemons. Shafnir worked with Professor Otto Elsner, an expert in ancient dyes who researched their modes of production and worked at the fashion design Shenkar College in Ramat Gan, as well as Israel Zeiderman, a chemist specializing in coloring, who had studied biblical blue along the years. Very quickly all those involved in the field discovered how the Argemon can produce a molecule of purple (di-bromo-indigo), but not how it can produce blue (indigo) – two atoms of brom separated the two colors, and their removal was the missing link in solving the puzzle. This is what Shafnir and his colleagues searched for.  

“I would dive in Acre and bring a collection of snails to the university,” tells Shafnir. “We knew that we needed a lot of snails, and I would put them in a bucket with a portable air pump and a battery, so that there would be oxygen in the water, and that’s how I drove with them in the car. I would come once or twice a week with a bucket, and we would squash them with clamps, and our hands would turn purple and stinky. It’s dirty work, the people who did it in the Roman period were slaves, and now we did it.

“One of our important discoveries was in 1979. The shells found in archaeological digs had nice round holes, like they were done with an electric drill, and we didn’t know what created them. When we left for Passover break we had a misunderstanding and no one fed the snails in the aquarium at the university. When we returned from break we found shells with those same nice round holes, and we understood that because they were not fed, the snails produced poison that drilled into the shells of other snails, and they ate them. We understood that the ancients used the pigment glands of live snails, which ate each other.”

This discovery solved the mystery of the round holes, but it was far from helping to understand how to produce the color. Elsner and Shafnir knew that the sun had an important role in the process, but they couldn’t figure it out. Several years of many experiments were needed to crack the enigma, and they succeeded in creating the biblical blue only in 1983. “We cracked a big snail, we removed its gland, warmed it, left it in the sun, dipped a cotton thread in it – and got biblical blue, very light, but very clear.” 

Calcalist:  How did you react when you understood that you succeeded in doing what many others have tried for so many years?

"We didn’t jump one on the other. Maybe I’m an excitable person, but Otto was a cold Russian fish, quiet, modest. He only said quietly, 'That’s interesting.'"

Continued experiments led to complete understanding of the process, which combines a special solution that creates a reduction and needs to stand in the sun and exposed to the air. The discovery was published in a historic article, and afterward Shafnir also edited the book, The Royal Purple and the Biblical Blue: Argeman and Tekhelet. He always focused on the scientific side of the biblical blue, “which interests me more than the religious side. But I hope that the research into the biblical blue will be my ticket in the passageway between hell and heaven. However, in any case I’m not sure I want to be in heaven, I will certainly not meet any of my friends there.” In the meanwhile, he’s moved on to study lobsters.

Achziv coast, 1991: To be a part of something big

It seems that the first Jew to start wearing fringes with biblical blue was Rabbi Eliyahu Tavger. He read the writings of the chemist Zeiderman on the topic, started getting interested, heard about the discovery of the right snail and wanted to dye fringes for himself. After several attempts he succeeded in creating several sets for himself and in renewing the commandment of the biblical blue. Today he serves as the rabbi of the Ptil Tekhelet Association.  

The society, including its cord factory, is run by Joel Guberman, who established it 22 years ago. “I had a brother, Avi, who was killed in an accident,” says Guberman, an occupational therapist. “I wanted to take on a commandment in his memory, and I decided on the commandment of the fringes and saw that the essence of it is the biblical blue. I read articles by Zeiderman and he directed me to Rabbi Tavger, who produced the color in his home for four years. They told me that in order to fulfil the commandment we need divers to get the snails, so I brought some friends who knew how to dive.”

The diving friends were two men who grew up with him in New Jersey – Baruch Sterman, a physicist, and Ari Greenspan, a dentist. “We came to the Caesarea coast in 1991, to a very stormy sea,” recounts Sterman. “We almost drowned and found nothing, it was very frustrating. After that we went up to Achziv, where the sea was quieter and shallower, and we succeeded in getting 293 snails, and this was enough for five cords. We broke the shells with Rabbi Tavger, we did all the dying at home, and we brought the cotton to an ultra-Orthodox spinner from Jerusalem, and saw how he spun it into cords. We were not only excited by it, we also understood that it’s a crossroads in history. Thus after we did it we couldn’t say, OK, only we have the biblical blue. We felt that we had to disseminate it.” And Guberman adds, “We saw that there are other people who want the biblical blue, but not everyone can search for it and dive, and work with a chemist. So 22 years ago we founded the association, and we would dye at home, and 15 years ago we established the factory.” 

Ptil Tekhelet is the only place in the world where they use biblical blue like in ancient times. Every year close to 400,000 pigment glands of the Dark-Spined Argemon snails (Hexaplex trunculus or Murex trunculus, in short, Murex) arrive at the factory and its five workers stand at dyeing stations with ancient tools called a yorah (cauldron) and a dolala, weave at looms and produce a thousand fringes with blue cords every month (in every fringe there are 23 cords, eight woven together in each of the four corners), that are sold for 140-190 shekels (more than six times that of a regular tzitzit without the blue). However, this is not a for-profit company, but an “association for the advancement and dissemination of biblical blue,” as it defines itself, that also deals with research on the topic and in public relations, in order to renew the commandment. And there’s another element here that hovers in the background even if it’s hardly spoken about: Tradition claims that the biblical blue will be discovered before the coming of the messiah and the salvation, as an omen. And so, the biblical blue is already here.

Sterman, the vice president of research in a high-tech firm, admits he can’t help but get carried away. “I’m a religious man and also a scientist, and suddenly I found a way to combine these two things. My family has also been swept up in it – it’s hard not to be, when you feel you have an opportunity to be a part of something big, to return something that was missing for many years, that people longed for, that the Torah says we must do.”

Since the snails are protected in Israel, they arrive from abroad today (actually, only their pigment glands are sent here after they’ve been dried.) In his book Sterman describes the first time he bought a kilo of the snails on the coast of the Greek island Herculion, in 1993, and cracked them on a rock, one by one, to the laughter of the local children. “I found the spot on the back of the shell, far from the opening at two-thirds of the length of the shell, and with a strong hammer’s blow I perforated it. I inserted my pinky into the opening, pushed the snail into the depth of the shell, until most of its soft body was pushed out. If the act was exact – a yellowish gland bubbled out, about 6 millimeters long, as wide as a spaghetti noodle. With a shaving razor, and the opposing pressure of my thumb, I removed the gland and dropped it into a jar.” Now he adds, “I returned to Israel with blue hands, but I felt pride.” 

From the viewpoint of the people of Ptil Tekhelet, this was just the beginning. “For our small group the mystery was solved,” says Mois Navon, a volunteer in the association. “But there’s a lot more to show to people, to prove to them that it’s really the biblical blue snail. We’re trying to convince people, and it’s almost a war to deal with all sorts of difficult questions, such as how to make a holy object from a non-kosher creature. We sell books we’ve written on the topic, give lectures and visit great rabbis in order to convince them to write a letter to their congregation that this is really the original blue, but it goes slowly. We reached [late Chief Rabbi] Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, but he told us, ‘No, we’ll wait for the messiah.’”

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