Can We Identify the Techeiles?

Parshas Shelach includes the mitzvah of wearing techeiles on our tzitzis. Rashi, in the beginning of Parshas Korach, mentions that the followers of Korach donned garments that were completely techeiles. Therefore, whether we are in a place that reads Shelach this week or one that reads Korach, it is appropriate to read about:

Can We Identify the Techeiles?

wool-1196345-640x640When we are commanded about wearing tzitzis, the Torah includes two mitzvohs. In addition to the mitzvah of wearing tzitzis threads on the corners of the garment, there is an additional mitzvah that some of the tzitzis threads should be dyed with a special dye called techeiles. (It is a dispute among the Rishonim how many threads are to be dyed techeiles. That topic we will leave for a different time.) This dye must be made from a species called chilazon (Tosefta Menachos 9:6).

Although the regular use of techeiles stopped over a thousand years ago, there have been a few attempts within the last 130 years to reintroduce the practice of wearing techeiles threads alongside the white threads. This article will present the differing opinions on this question and some of the issues that have been raised.

At the time of the Gemara, the nature of chilazon and its manufacture was still known and practiced (see Menachos 42b). However, some time after the period of the Gemara, the use of techeiles ended. By all indications, techeiles fell into disuse sometime after the period of Rav Achai Gaon, the author of the She’iltos, around 4520 (760). Although I have seen it claimed that by the time, techeiles was no longer worn in his era (The Royal Purple, page 112), Rav Achai mentions some of the halachos of wearing techeiles (see She’ilta 126). Although there is no indication that, in his day, he knew people who were still wearing techeiles, he also makes no mention of the practice no longer existing. The obvious reading is that he knows that some people may still be wearing it.

There is an allusion in the Ramban that, in his day, techeiles was still worn, although it is possible that he was referring to the color and not the source.

It is unclear why the Jewish people stopped using techeiles. Numerous theories have been suggested as to why wearing techeiles ended, but these are all theories with no evidence to support them. The wording used by the midrashim is: “now, we have only white tzitzis, since the techeiles was concealed” (Medrash Tanchuma, Shlach 15; Medrash Rabbah, Shlach 17:5). Some poskim understand that there are halachic or kabbalistic reasons why techeiles should not be worn until Moshiach comes (Shu”t Yeshuos Malko #1-3). According to this opinion, the Medrash means that the source of the techeiles was concealed, and it is to be revealed only at a future time when Hashem wants us to wear it again.

Other poskim disagree and contend that we should still attempt to fulfill the mitzvah of wearing techeiles on the tzitzis. They explain that the Medrash means that techeiles became unavailable. Rav Herzog, zt”l, who followed this approach, speculated that persecution by anti-Semitic governments ended the production of techeiles (The Royal Purple and the Biblical Blue, page 112). Still another possibility is that the knowledge how to produce the techeiles was lost, or that there was no longer availability or access to the chilazon, the source of the techeiles.

The Radziner Rebbe’s Research and Conclusion

In 5647 (1887), the Radziner Rebbe, Rav Gershon Henoch Leiner, zt”l, published a small sefer, Sefunei Temunei Chol, wherein he discusses the importance of fulfilling the mitzvah of wearing techeiles, even today. In his opinion, the Medrash quoted above means that techeiles became unavailable, not that we are not permitted to wear techeiles. The Radziner encouraged wearing something that may be techeiles, because one is possibly fulfilling a mitzvah min hatorah. Thus, he contended that if he could identify a species that may be the chilazon, and he could extract a dye from it, then one should wear tzitzis that are dyed this way.

The Radziner, himself, analyzed every place in the Gemara where the word chilazon is mentioned and defined what characteristics would help us identify it. Based on his analysis, he drew up a list of eleven requirements with which one could identify the chilazon. Among other requirements, these included that the chilazon would be located in the eastern Mediterranean Sea; that it must be able to live on land, at least for a brief period of time; that it produces a black ink and that it must have fins, bones, and sinews. The Radziner concluded that if one located a marine animal that meets all the requirements, one can assume that it is the chilazon.

Having completed his halachic research, the Radziner then began his scientific research to identify the chilazon. He traveled to Naples, Italy, to study marine animals that would meet all the requirements of techeiles. In Italy, he decided that the cuttlefish, which in many languages is called an inkfish, is indeed the chilazon from which one produces techeiles. The cuttlefish meets every one of the Radziner’s requirements for chilazon, including that it emits a dark dye, which is the reason why it is called an inkfish. The cuttlefish is not a true fish and is capable of living on land for brief periods of time.

The Radziner then published his second volume on the subject, Pesil Techeiles, in which he announced his discovery of the chilazon and all his proofs why the cuttlefish meets all the requirements of the chilazon. Subsequently, the Radziner published a third volume, Ein HaTecheiles, whose purpose was to respond to all the questions he had been asked regarding his identification of techeiles. The three volumes have been republished together under the title Sifrei Hatecheiles Radzin.

Reaction to the Radziner’s Proposal

Although the Radziner took much effort to present his case, most of the Gedolei Yisroel did not support his theory. The primary reason for his publishing Ein HaTecheiles was to refute those who had disagreed with him and to convince others of the validity of his approach. He attempted to get several great poskim to agree with him, particularly, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector (the Rav of Kovno and the posek hador at the time), the Beis HaLevi (then the Rav of Brisk), Rav Yehoshua Kutno (author of Yeshuos Malko, the Rav of Kutno and considered one of the poskei hador, particularly among the chassidim), the Maharil Diskin (who had been Rav of Brisk and was living in official retirement in Yerushalayim), and Rav Shmuel Salant (the Rav of Yerushalayim). None of these Rabbonim accepted the Radziner’s proposal. Their reasons for rejecting his proposal are significant.

The Brisker Approach

Beis HaLevi wrote that he was convinced that because of mesorah, the inkfish cannot be the source of the techeiles. There are two versions as to why the Beis Halevi objected.

According to this namesake and great-grandson, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichek of Yeshiva University and Chief Rabbi of Boston, the Beis Halevi held that when the Torah requires the usage of a specific type or species of item to fulfill a mitzvah, one cannot do so without a mesorah that this is the correct object being referred to. Attempting to identify the type or species on the basis of research, analysis or proofs will not help; nothing can be substituted for mesorah. Thus, no matter how compelling the evidence is that a specific species is the chilazon of techeiles, one will not fulfill the mitzvah of wearing threads dyed with this color without the substantiation of the mesorah (Shiurim Lezeicher Aba Mari, Volume I, page 228). When Eliyahu HaNavi returns as the precursor to the Moshiach, he will identify for us the mesorah he received from his rabbei’im and, thereby, we will be able to identify the proper techeiles.

However, the Radziner quotes that the Beis Halevi disagreed with him for a different reason. According to the Radziner, the Beis Halevi’s concern was that since the inkfish was a known species, why would klal Yisroel not have observed techeiles for over a thousand years, if it could have? This proves that inkfish is not the source of the techeiles (Sifrei Hatecheiles Radzin, page 191).

Other Counter Arguments

Rav Yehoshua Kutno and Rav Yitzchok Elchonon disagreed with the Radziner for a different reason. In their opinion, the Medrash quoted above should be understood literally, meaning that techeiles had been placed in genizah until Hashem again wants us to observe this mitzvah. Their assumption is that the species that provides techeiles is not currently available and will become so only when Hashem wants. Rav Yehoshua Kutno suggests several reasons why this happened, reasons that are beyond the scope of this article.

Others were opposed to wearing techeiles, because of sources in the writings of the Ari and other mekubalim that say that we are not to use techeiles until the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash, bimheira beyameinu. The Radziner did not agree with their interpretation of these sources.

An additional objection was raised against the Radziner’s position that one should wear questionable techeiles, since one may be fulfilling the mitzvah. This is based on the poskim who contend that one who places blue tzitzis that are dyed with a dye other than techeiles on a white garment does not fulfill the mitzvah. Therefore, it is preferable to wear white tzitzis, if one is uncertain (see Rama, Orach Chayim 9:5).

There were also objections to the Radziner’s conclusions on other grounds. Some objected to his choosing a non-kosher species as the source or the techeiles, since there are early poskim who contend that the techeiles must come from a kosher species. Others contend that the color of the Radziner’s techeiles was wrong, since Rashi states that techeiles is green.

On the other hand, there were some gedolim who considered the merits of the Radziner’s position. The Maharsham wore a talis with the Radziner’s techeiles, although apparently he did so only in private. However, in the final result, only the Radziner’s own chassidim and some Breslever chassidim wear the techeiles that the Radziner introduced.

Rav Herzog’s Research

More than twenty years after the Radziner’s passing, Rav Herzog (later to become the first Chief Rabbi of Israel) researched the source for the techeiles. This was done as Rav Herzog’s doctoral dissertation and is now published under the title, The Royal Purple and the Biblical Blue. In his analysis of the halachic issues involved, Rav Herzog accepted most of the Radziner’s opinions and interpretations. However, there are some aspects of the Radziner’s approach with which Rav Herzog took issue. Whereas the Radziner assumed that every place in the Gemara mentioning chilazon refers to the chilazon that was used in making techeiles, Rav Herzog assumes that the word chilazon means a sea snail, and not necessarily the snail used in making the techeiles. Thus, in Rav Herzog’s opinion, not all of the Radziner’s requirements in determining the species for the techeiles are accurate (The Royal Purple…, page 76). Therefore, Rav Herzog focused on determining, from among the numerous species of sea snails, which ones are the most likely candidates to be the chilazon that was specifically used for producing techeiles dye.

There is one major point of the Radziner’s conclusions with which Rav Herzog took issue. Rav Herzog took samples of the dye recommended by the Radziner as techeiles and had them chemically tested. Based on results that he received from laboratories, Rav Herzog concluded that the blue color that results from the Radziner’s techeiles is not caused by anything in the cuttlefish ink. The chemists he consulted contended that the color is an artificial dye named Prussian blue, which was created by the chemicals added as part of the processing. Since he could not discern anything in the cuttlefish that causes the blue coloring, Rav Herzog reaches the conclusion that the cuttlefish could not possibly be the source of the techeiles (The Royal Purple…, page 116). (There are answers to explain how the Radziner might have responded to this question that are beyond the scope of this article. I believe that there is a website that discusses this.)

Rav Herzog conducted much research on which sea snail is the most likely source for techeiles. However, in his conclusion, he rejects each of these species because they do not meet all the requirements listed by the Gemara and Rambam. Thus, after much scientific and halachic research in his dissertation, Rav Herzog did not have a source of techeiles to recommend. However, in Rav Yechiel Michel Tukachinski’s work, Ha’ir Hakodesh Vehamikdash (Volume V, page 55), written many years later, he cites Rav Herzog as having decided that one of the species is, indeed, the correct source of the techeiles, although a careful reading of Rav Herzog’s article there implies that he was still undecided.

A point to note, is that Rav Herzog’s basic assumption, that chilazon must be a sea snail is based on his extensive background in linguistics. However, this is not a halachic argument. Each of the reasons mentioned by the poskim who disagreed with the Radziner’s proposal applies to Rav Herzog’s suggestions. We should also note that, in his explanation of the Gemara in Shabbos, which discusses how the techeiles dye is extracted from the chilazon, Rav Herzog took issue with how Rashi explains the Gemara. (The question is whether the word potzei’a in the Gemara means to squeeze the fluid dye out of the chilazon or to smash it.) I will note that Rav Herzog’s approach is probably the more obvious way to understand that passage of Gemara, and yet Rashi clearly rejects it. Although Rashi presumably never saw techeiles removed from the chilazon, he obviously had a compelling reason for interpreting the Gemara as he does. Until the era of techiyas hameisim, we will never know whether Rashi had a compelling proof from Chazal, an oral tradition, or ruach hakodesh that told him why he should understand the Gemara this way.

Recently, some have attempted to answer the questions raised by Rav Herzog regarding which sea snail is the source of the techeiles. These researchers have suggested that one of the species of sea snail named Murex trunculus may, indeed, be the source for techeiles. Rav Herzog rejected this species as the source for techeiles for several reasons that these researchers feel that they have resolved. Several works have recently been published advocating the wearing of tzitzis dyed with Murex trunculus extract, as a fulfillment of the mitzvah of wearing techeiles. One of the reasons cited as strong evidence of Murex trunculus being the source of techeiles is that it is rare to find in the marine world anything that will naturally produce a blue dye, and that since this snail is found in the correct geographic location, this should indicate the likelihood of it being the source of the techeiles.

It should be noted that the method currently used to process the dye from the Murex trunculus cannot be the correct method of dyeing techeiles threads. This is for the following three reasons:

  1. The current method of extracting dye from Murex trunculus involves removing a gland from the snail, which would involve the melacha of gozeiz, removing part of a living creature. (According to many poskim, one violates this also by removing part of a creature that has since died.) Clearly, this could not have been the method of removing the dye from chilazon in earlier days, as can be proved from the Gemara (Shabbos 75a), since although the Gemara mentions other prohibitions, it omits mention of this one.
  2. Another objection is based on the fact that it can be demonstrated from the Gemara that the removing of the source of the dye from the chilazon kills it, although one would prefer that the chilazon remain alive for as long as possible. However, in the process used to remove the dye from murex, the snail can remain alive for several hours after the process has been completed.
  3. A third problem with the current method of using Murex trunculus requires an introduction. At the time of the Gemara, there were unscrupulous individuals who sold threads dyed with a coloring called kla ilan. This coloring is not kosher as techeiles, and therefore, someone wearing it on his tzitzis would not fulfill the mitzvah of wearing techeiles. According to the Aruch, kla ilan is indigo, a vegetable dye that has a blue color. Thus, the Gemara was concerned about someone selling indigo-colored threads as techeiles threads to an unsuspecting buyer. The Gemara describes a test that can be used to check whether the threads are kla ilan or techeiles, by testing the threads for colorfastness, whereby kla ilan would fade, whereas techeiles would remain fast. However, if the dye produced from Murex trunculus is indigo, and the substitute is also indigo, how could a chemical test for colorfastness be used to determine what was the source of the indigo?

We can also note that, in addition to the source quoted above from Rashi, it is quite clear that the Rambam could not identify Murex trunculus as the source of the techeiles. The Rambam describes that the “blood” that is the source of the techeiles is black when removed from the chilazon. The gland extract removed from Murex trunculus is clear when it is removed and changes color afterwards.

Obviously, I am not the first one to note these difficulties with the process of extracting dye from Murex trunculus. However, the responses I have seen to answer these questions are tenuous. It should also be noted that the descriptions used by Chazal to identify the chilazon are not a very smooth fit to Murex trunculus.

In conclusion, I personally remain unconvinced that either the inkfish or Murex trunculus are the correct sources of techeiles. It is also seems clear to me that the list of prominent poskim who disagreed with the Radziner would all still feel that we do not have access to the true techeiles.