One wouldn’t expect to find hundreds of snails in a landlocked town like Kfar Adumim, situated in the desert east of Jerusalem. Yet there they are, albeit mostly reduced to powder, having been shipped in from the Adriatic Sea for a purpose as old as the Torah itself.
Millions of Jews throughout history have recited the line in the daily prayers in which God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites to “place upon the tzitzit of each corner a thread of tekhelet.” Translated as “turquoise wool,” the blue strings of tekhelet (or techeilis) were to be inserted among the white tzitzit strings to remind the garment’s wearer of two of God’s greatest—and bluest—creations: ocean and sky. Yet many Jews probably have no idea that, thanks to a unique fusion of scientific and religious passion, this commandment is once again available to the masses after a hiatus of nearly 1,400 years.
“Techeiles is a quintessential example of science and Torah working hand in hand,” Baruch Sterman, a physicist and author (with his wife Judy) of “The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered,” tells JNS.org during a tour of the Kfar Adumim tekheletfactory. “After 25 years of studying it, I’m still learning about both aspects.”
Now, thanks in large part to a few enterprising individuals and some enthusiastic rabbis, what appears to be original chilazon has been found—and tekhelet strings are being dyed in a fashion much like the process performed by our ancestors.
More than 20 years ago, a rabbinical student named Eliyahu Tavger was conducting a search for the authentic dying process. In 1988, he succeeded in dying wool with the extract of the murex trunculus snail’s gland. At the same time, a young American-born immigrant to Israel named Joel Guberman—looking for some way to honor the memory of his brother, who was killed in a car accident—became fascinated with the ancient mitzvah. He recruited two friends who had scuba-dived in the past, and they met up with Tavger for an undersea hunt for murex specimens at the waterfront near Acre. They found a whopping 293.
All thanks to this one little snail.
On a tour of the factory, visitors will meet several of the snails at the aquarium in the facility’s lobby, naturally camouflaged to resemble stones. Visitors dunk their own ball of combed wool into a beaker filled with powdered gland extract and chemicals, to bring out the brilliant blue. Once dyed, the thread’s color never fades.
“If you hold water in your hand or look at the air around you, both look clear,” Guberman tells JNS.org on the tour. “You have to step back enough to see that the sea and the sky are blue. The techeilisreminds us that we need to take the long view of life to really appreciate it.”
Indeed, according to author and psychiatrist Rabbi Abraham Twerski, “White symbolizes purity and blue, the color of the heavens, represents holiness. The white combined with the blue techeilisconveys the message that a mortal can indeed achieve a state of holiness, and the techeilis string points the direction to a truly spiritual life.”
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