This week’s Torah portion is Shelach, where the mitzvah of tzitzit – and the blue string of Tekhelet that hangs from them – is recorded. To mark that, Ptil Tekhelet is running a Shabbat HaTekhelet campaign in which numerous Rabbis and educators from around the world will be giving classes and sermons to highlight the importance of Tekhelet. We met up with Dr. Baruch Sterman, co-founder of Ptil Tekhelet and author of The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered, to find out more about this initiative.
Question: Tell us about Shabbat HaTekhelet.
Sterman: Ptil Tekhelet was founded not only to produce strings dyed from the authentic Chillazon – the sea-snail Murex trunculus – but also to promote education relating to the topic. Over the years we have seen tremendous growth in adoption of Tekhelet, but most importantly, the topic has moved from the arcane to a source of lively discussion in the Beit Midrash, in the academic halls, and around the family table. Yet, there are so many who don’t really know about Tekhelet, or who haven’t heard that it is once again relevant on the practical level. For various reasons, the use of Tekhelet and all knowledge of the snail source of the dye, along with the process of manufacture was lost over 1,000 ago, and there is confusion about the implications of the recent advances that have led many to adopt Tekhelet. Shabbat HaTekhelet is meant to bring the mitzvah to the fore – in a positive way and with no objective of convincing anyone one way or another. We want to let people know that serious figures are taking the issue seriously, and that a Jew who cares about performing mitzvot should do the same. An impressive cross-section of rabbis has put their names to that message.
Q: How has Tekhelet developed since Ptil Tekhelet was founded?
Sterman: In that first year, 30 years ago, we succeeded in making five sets of Tekhelet. We now produce over 20,000 a year and have just dyed set number 300,000! We can’t know for sure how many people are wearing Tekhelet, but we estimate that number to be around 150,000. What is most exciting is the wide spectrum across diverse Jewish communities all around the world.
Q: Is there anything new in Tekhelet research that has come out over those 30 years?
Sterman: When we first started, there was skepticism. Some people were ready to believe that Murex was the source of ancient purple, but that Jews must have had some other source for producing blue Tekhelet. Over the past years evidence has come to light that the ancients in fact did produce blue from the Murex snails. Two fabrics from the 1st-2nd centuries found in the Judean desert were analyzed showing conclusively that the blue dye on them came from Murex. That means that in the times of the Mishna, Jews in Eretz Yisrael knew the secrets of obtaining blue from sea-snails, though the exact method of how they did it remains uncertain. Archaeologists at the University of Haifa recently showed me two shards of pottery from Tel Shikmona (near Haifa) which were stained with Murex dye. One was purple, the other was blue. These shards date back to the 11th century BCE – the time of David Hamelech! So, the argument that the ancients did not know about dyeing blue from Murex has been disproven. There is now an overwhelming consensus among the experts, which didn’t exist earlier.
Q: If the evidence is overwhelming, why is the adoption relatively low?
Sterman: Scientific evidence is not the only factor to be considered when weighing a halachic decision. Jewish law, like every legal system, has constraints and an internal logic. Some Rabbis feel that the evidence is not conclusive, or that science, archeology, linguistics, etc. are not admissible in the court of halacha. There are also those who feel that the only determining factor in halacha is an unbroken tradition. Some refrain from wearing Tekhelet since they follow Rabbis who are opposed, but I think that overall, the main impediment to adoption is a mix of lack of knowledge of the issues, a feeling that it is not something serious, and a healthy conservatism that is wary of any type of change.
Q: How has this ‘obsession’ affected your life personally?
Sterman: Tekhelet really has taken over my identity in many ways. My work has introduced me to a whole new world of knowledge. I’ve also had the privilege through Tekhelet to work closely with many great people – my co-founders, colleagues and board members at Ptil Tekhelet, illustrious Rabbis and top-notch scientists, an eclectic group of Tekhelet enthusiasts, all of whom I am in contact with regarding various related issues. I am inspired by the countless people from around the world who write with questions, suggestions, and thoughts on Tekhelet. My wife and I wrote an award -winning book on Tekhelet together and continue to work jointly on articles that have appeared in various publications.
Q: How do you see the next 30 years of Tekhelet?
Sterman: We are currently working on building a state-of-the-art Visitors Center adjacent to our factory. The whole story of Tekhelet is exciting and uplifting and it brings together so many diverse areas of knowledge – Torah, history, chemistry, marine biology, archeology, religion etc. It is the greatest example of Torah and Science complementing each other, and of the multidisciplinary perspective that today’s educators seek. Nothing beats the magic of watching the wool change color before your eyes into the magnificent sky-blue of Tekhelet. We are always doing research aimed at improving the efficiency of our processes. I think that the most important challenge that will face us in the coming years is to ensure that Tekhelet is available for future generations by establishing Ptil Tekhelet as a solid and stable organization that can endure. A great rabbi once remarked that Jews aspire to be Shomer Mitzvot – to keep the commandments. “You,” he told me, “have been given the task of being a Shomer Mitzvah – to safeguard and watch over one mitzvah, Tekhelet.” That is a responsibility I strive to fulfill.