Do Clothes Make the Kohen? — Identifying the Materials from which the Bigdei Kehunah Are Made

In the year 5017 (1257), several hundred Baalei Tosafos, led by Rav Yechiel of Paris, left Northern France on a journey to Eretz Yisrael. Rav Eshtori HaParchi, who lived two generations later, records a fascinating story he heard when he went to Yerushalayim to have his sefer, the Kaftor VaFarech, reviewed by a talmid chacham, named Rav Baruch. Rav Baruch told him that Rav Yechiel had planned to offer korbanos upon arriving in Yerushalayim! Rav Eshtori writes that he was too preoccupied with his sefer at the time to realize that there were several halachic problems with Rav Yechiel’s plan.[1] In Kaftor VaFarech, he mentions some of his own concerns; in addition, later poskim discuss many other potential difficulties. Among the concerns raised is identifying several of the materials necessary for the kohanim’s vestments.

Vestments of the kohen

The Torah describes the garments worn by the kohanim in the Beis HaMikdash as follows: “Aharon and his sons shall don their belt and their hat, and they (the garments) shall be for them as kehunah, as a statute forever.”[2] The Gemara[3] deduces, “When they wear their special vestments, they have the status of kehunah. When they are not wearing these vestments, they do not have this status.” This means that korbanos are valid only if the kohen offering them attires himself correctly.

The regular kohen (kohen hedyot) wears four garments when performing service in the Beis HaMikdash; three of them, his undergarment, his robe, and his turban are woven exclusively from white linen. The Torah never describes how one makes the fourth garment of the regular kohen, the avneit, or belt, but it does mention the material of the belts worn by the kohen gadol – on Yom Kippur he wears a pure linen belt, whereas his regular belt also contains techeiles, argaman, and tola’as shani, different colored materials that I will describe shortly. The Gemara cites a dispute whether the kohen hedyot’s belt also includes these special threads, or whether he wears one of pure linen.[4] The Rambam concludes that the regular kohen’s avneit includes threads of techeiles, argaman, and tola’as shani.[5]

Assuming that Rav Yechiel concluded that the regular kohen’s avneit also includes techeiles, argaman, and tola’as shani, his proposal to offer korbanos required proper identification of these materials, a necessary prerequisite to offering korbanos. This article will be devoted to the fascinating questions that we must resolve to accomplish this task.

What is argaman?

The Midrash Rabbah reports that argaman is the most valuable of these four threads and is the color of royal garments.[6] The Rishonim dispute its color, the Rambam ruling that it is red, whereas the Raavad understands that it is multicolored cloth, woven either from different species or of different colored threads.[7] The Raavad explains that the word argaman is a composite of arug min, meaning woven of different types. This approach appears to be supported by a pasuk in Divrei HaYamim[8] that lists argavan, rather than argaman, as the material used in building the Beis HaMikdash.[9] The word argavan seems to be a composite of two words, arug gavna, meaning woven from several colors, an approach that fits the Raavad’s description much better than it fits the Rambam’s.[10]

The Raavad’s approach that argaman is multicolored is further supported by a comment in the Zohar[11] that describes argaman as multicolored. However, the Radak[12] understands the word argavan according to Rambam’s approach, and Kesef Mishneh, similarly, states that the primary commentaries followed Rambam’s interpretation. The Rekanti[13] quotes both approaches, but implies that he considers the Raavad’s approach to be primary.

By the way, the Ibn Ezra[14] implies that argaman might have been dyed silk rather than wool, whereas most opinions assume that it is wool.[15] Rabbeinu Bachyei[16] contends that silk could not have been used for the mishkan or the Beis HaMikdash, since it is manufactured from non-kosher species. This is based on the Gemara’s[17] statement that non-kosher items may not be used for mitzvos. I will discuss this point further below.

Is argaman a color or a source?

It is unclear if the requirement to use argaman thread means that the thread used for the Kohen’s belt must be a certain shade of color, or whether it must be dyed with a specific dye. Rambam implies that the source for the argaman color is irrelevant. These are his words:

Argaman is wool dyed red, and tola’as shani is wool dyed with a worm.”[18] (The Rambam explains elsewhere what he means when he says “dyed with a worm.” It should also be noted that the Hebrew word tola’as, which is usually translated worm, may include insects and other small invertebrates.) The Rambam’s wording implies that the source of the argaman dye is immaterial, as long as the thread is red. Thus, there may be no halachically required source for the dye, provided one knows the correct appearance of its shade.

Tola’as shani

One of the dye colors mentioned above is tola’as shani. In addition to its use for dyeing the kohen’s belt and some of the kohen gadol’s vestments, tola’as shani was also used for some of the curtains in the mishkan and in the Beis HaMikdash, in the manufacture of the purifying ashes of the parah adumah[19] and for the purifying procedure both of a metzora and of a house that became tamei because of tzaraas.[20]

Tola’as shani is a red color.[21] This presents us with a question: According to the Rambam that argaman is red, the source of which is irrelevant, what is the difference between the shade of argaman and that of tola’as shani? The Radak explains that they are different shades of red, although he provides us with no details of this difference.[22]

Must tola’as shani be derived from a specific source, or is it sufficient for it to be a distinctive shade of red, just as I suggested above that argaman is a color and not necessarily of a specific dye source?

The words of the Rambam that I quoted above answer this question: “Argaman is wool dyed red, and tola’as shani is wool dyed with a worm.” These words imply that although argaman can be used from any source that produces this particular color, tola’as shani must be from a very specific source.

A worm-based dye

Can the pesukim help us identify what is tola’as shani? The description of tola’as, which means worm, implies that the source of this dye is an invertebrate of some type. For this reason, some authorities seem to identify tola’as shani as “kermes,” a shade of scarlet derived from scale insects or some similar animal-derived red color.[23] Support for this approach could be rallied from a pasuk in Divrei HaYamim,[24] which describes the paroches (curtain) that served as the entrance to the kodoshei hakodoshim, the Holy of Holies of the Beis HaMikdash, as woven from the following four types of thread: techeiles, argaman, karmil, and butz, which is linen. The Torah, in describing the same paroches, refers to it as made of techeiles, argaman, tolaas shani, and linen. Obviously, karmil is another way of describing tola’as shani.[25] Similarly, in Divrei HaYamim II,[26] when describing the artisans sent by the Tyrian King, Hiram, to help his friend King Shelomoh, the pasuk mentions karmil as one of the materials in place of tola’as shani. Thus, karmil, a word cognate to kermes, seems to be a synonym for tola’as shani.[27]

However, as I mentioned above, Rabbeinu Bachyei takes issue with this approach, insisting that only kosher species may be used for building the mishkan and the garments of the kohanim. He bases his opinion on the Gemara[28] that states that “only items that one may eat may be used for the work of heaven,” which teaches that only kosher items may be used in the manufacture of tefillin. How does this fit with the description of tola’as shani as a worm derivative?

The Rambam states that the dye called tola’as shani does not originate from the worm itself, but from a berry that the worm consumes.[29] Thus, according to the opinion of Rambam, Rabbeinu Bachyei and others, although tola’as shani and karmil are the same, they are not from non-kosher sources, but from kosher vegetable sources.

Although this is probably the primary approach we would follow in a halachic decision, we cannot summarily dismiss those who identify tola’as shani as kermes or a different invertebrate-based dye. Although Rabbeinu Bachyei objects to a non-kosher source for tola’as shani, those who accept that its source is kermes have several ways to resolve this issue. One possibility is that this halacha applies only to a substance used as the primary item to fulfill the mitzvah, but not if it serves only as a dye.[30]

Others resolve the objection raised by Rabbeinu Bachyei by contending that the color derived from these non-kosher creatures may indeed be kosher. Several different reasons have been advanced to explain this approach. Some contend that this coloring is kosher, since the creatures are first dried until they are inedible, or, because a dead insect dried for twelve months is considered an innocuous powder and no longer non-kosher.[31] (The halachic debate on this issue actually concerns a colorant called carmine red that is derived from a South American insect called cochineal. This color, which is derived from the powdered bodies of this insect, is used extensively as a “natural red coloring” in food production. To the best of my knowledge, all major contemporary kashrus organizations and hechsherim treat carmine as non-kosher, although I have read teshuvos contending that it is kosher and know that some rabbonim of the previous generation considered it to be kosher.)

A similar approach asserts that kermes dye is kosher, since it is no longer recognizable as coming from its original source.[32] This approach is based on a dispute among early poskim as to whether a prohibited substance remains non-kosher after its appearance has been completely transformed. The Rosh[33] cites Rabbeinu Yonah, who permitted using musk, a fragrance derived from the glands of several different animals, as a flavor, because it has been transformed into a new substance that is permitted. The Rosh disputes Rabbeinu Yonah’s conclusion, although in a responsum[34] he quotes Rabbeinu Yonah’s approach approvingly.[35]

It is noteworthy that this dispute between the Rosh and Rabbeinu Yonah appears to be identical to a disagreement between the Rambam and the Raavad[36] in determining the source of the mor, one of the ingredients burnt as part of the fragrant ketores offering in the Beis HaMikdash.[37] The Rambam rules that mor is musk, which he describes as “the blood of a well-known undomesticated (in Hebrew, chayah)[38] Indian species of animal.” (Although the Rambam calls it blood, he probably means a body fluid.) The Raavad disagrees, objecting that the blood of a chayah would not be used in the construction of the Beis HaMikdash, even if it were to be derived from a kosher species, certainly from a non-kosher one. In explaining the Rambam’s position, Kesef Mishneh contends that once musk is reduced to a powder that bears no resemblance to its origin, it is kosher. Thus, the disagreement between the Rambam and the Raavad as to whether a major change of physical appearance changes the halachos of a substance may be identical to the dispute between Rabbeinu Yonah and the Rosh. It turns out that the Radak, who implies that tola’as shani derives from non-kosher invertebrates, may also accept the approach of Rabbeinu Yonah.

Some authorities have a different approach that would explain how tola’as shani may be acceptable for Beis HaMikdash use, even if it derives from a non-kosher source. They contend that the rule prohibiting the use of non-kosher items applies only to tefillin and other mitzvos that utilize kisvei hakodesh, holy writings, but does not apply to most mitzvos or to items used in the Beis HaMikdash.[39] This approach requires some explanation.

The Gemara states that tefillin may be manufactured only from kosher substances, deriving this halacha from the following verse: Lemaan tihyeh toras Hashem b’ficha, in order that the law of Hashem should always be in your mouth;[40] i.e., whatever is used for the Torah of Hashem must be from kosher items that one may place into one’s mouth. In order to resolve a certain question that results from the Gemara’s discussion, some authorities explain that this halacha refers only to items that have words of the Torah or Hashem’s name in them, such as tefillin, mezuzos or a sefer torah, but does not include the garments worn by the kohen hedyot in the Beis HaMikdash, which do not contain Hashem’s name.[41] (The halacha requiring kosher substances would still apply to the tzitz and the choshen, garments of the kohen gadol, both of which carry Hashem’s name.)


The next material or shade we need to identify, the techeiles, is also a factor in the wearing of our daily tzitzis. Indeed, the Torah requires us to wear techeiles threads as part of this mitzvah. Nevertheless, Jews stopped wearing techeiles about 1300 to 1500 years ago, and with time, its source has been forgotten. Although the Gemara[42] mentions a creature called chilazon, whose blood is the source of techeiles, and even discusses how to manufacture the dye, the use of techeiles ended some time after the period of the Gemara. The Midrash states that “now we have only white tzitzis, since the techeiles was concealed,[43] which implies that Hashem hid the source for the techeiles. Indeed some poskim interpret the writings of the Arizal as saying that techeiles should not be worn until moshiach comes.[44]

Attempts to identify the techeiles

In 5647 (1887), the Radziner Rebbe, Rav Gershon Henoch Leiner, zt”l, published a small sefer, Sefunei Temunei Chol, which concluded that the mitzvah of wearing techeiles applies even today. In his opinion, the Midrash quoted above means that techeiles will become unavailable, but we are both permitted and required to wear it. Based on his analysis of every place the Gemara mentions the word chilazon, the Radziner drew up a list of eleven requirements whereby one could identify the chilazon, and concluded that if one locates a marine animal that meets all these requirements, one may assume that it is the chilazon. He then traveled to Naples, Italy, to study marine animals that might fit all the descriptions of techeiles, and concluded that a squid-like creature called the cuttlefish, which in many languages is called the inkfish, is indeed the chilazon from which one produces techeiles. The Radziner then published his second volume on the subject, Pesil Techeiles, in which he announced his discovery of the chilazon and his proofs as to how the cuttlefish can be identified as the chilazon. Subsequently, the Radziner published a third volume, Ayn HaTecheiles, to refute those who disagreed with him.

The Radziner attempted to convince the great poskim of his generation to accept his thesis, 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), the Maharil Diskin (who had been Rav of Brisk and was living in Yerushalayim), and Rav Shmuel Salant (the Rav of Yerushalayim). None of these rabbonim accepted the Radziner’s proposal, although the Maharsham, the posek hador of the time in Galicia, felt that the Radziner’s approach had merit and wore a talis with the Radziner’s techeiles, although apparently only in private. Nowadays, only Radziner Hasidim and some Breslever Hasidim wear the techeiles that the Radziner introduced.

Some later authorities have attempted to identify the techeiles as being one of several varieties of sea snail, although the objections raised by the generation of poskim of the Radziner’s own time apply to these species as well. Many today feel that Murex trunculus is the source of the techeiles. Several years ago, I discussed their position and the position of their opponents.[45] We should also note that Rashi’s understanding of the chilazon that is the source of the techeiles cannot possibly describe any variety of sea snail since Rashi describes the process of extracting the techeiles as involving squeezing out its blood by hand.[46] One cannot squeeze the shell of a sea snail to extract its dye component – one must smash or drill through the shell to reach it.

Among the many objections to both of these identifications of the chilazon is the contention that neither the cuttlefish nor a snail could possibly be the source of the techeiles, since they are not kosher. In addition to the reasons I mentioned above, the Radziner presents a novel approach to explain why techeiles may derive from a non-kosher source. He contends that although the flesh of a non-kosher fish is forbidden min haTorah, the blood of non-kosher fish is forbidden only miderabbanan. Since min haTorah one may eat this blood, it is permitted as a source for a kosher dye.

It is noteworthy that a prominent nineteenth century posek, Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalisher, contended that the garments of the kohen do not require chilazon as the dye source, only the color of techeiles. In his opinion, chilazon dye is only necessary for tzitzis.[47] In Rav Kalisher’s opinion, it is sufficient to dye the threads of the avneit the correct techeiles color in order to perform the service in the Beis HaMikdash. However, not all poskim accept this interpretation, but require the specific dye source of chilazon to dye the vestments.[48]

In review, what we know for certain is that the regular kohen (kohen hedyot) wears four garments when performing service in the Beis HaMikdash, including the avneit, or belt, which the Rambam rules includes threads of techeiles, argaman, and tola’as shani. In identifying these materials, however, we have several disputes: the first, as to whether the techeiles must be derived from chilazon for offering korbanos, or if merely dyeing clothes the appropriate color is sufficient; a second dispute, whether the chilazon has been hidden until moshiach comes, and a third dispute whether the chilazon must be kosher or not. In identifying the argaman, we are faced with a dispute between rishonim whether its color is red or a mix of different colors. And in identifying the tola’as shani, we face a dispute as to whether its source is a berry that “worms” eat or a worm of some type. All these questions will need to be resolved before we can again manufacture kosher bigdei kehunah, either by having Eliyahu Hanavi teach us how the bigdei kehunah were made, or by having the poskim of klal Yisrael determine what the halacha is.

Several earlier poskim devoted much time and energy to clarifying the correct procedures for offering korbanos, because of their intense desire to bring sacrificial offerings. Do we, too, have such a burning desire to see the Beis HaMikdash rebuilt speedily in our days? May we soon merit seeing the kohanim offering the korbanos in the Beis HaMikdash in purity and sanctity. Amen.

[1] Vol. 1, page 101 in the 5757 edition

[2] Shemos 29:9

[3] Zevachim 17b

[4] Yoma 6a, 12a, 69a

[5] Hilchos Klei HaMikdash 8:2; cf. Rashi, Pesachim 26a s.v. Kesheirim

[6] Naso 12:4

[7] Hilchos Klei HaMikdash 8:13

[8] II, 2:6

[9] See also Daniel 5:7; Rashi on Divrei HaYamim II, 2:6

[10] See Ibn Ezra on Shemos 25:4

[11] Parshas Naso

[12] Divrei HaYamim II, 2:6

[13] Shemos 25:3

[14] Shemos 25:4

[15] Rambam, Hilchos Klei HaMikdash 8:13; Rashi, Shemos 25:4; 26:1; Rashbam, Shemos 25:4

[16] Shemos 25:3

[17] Shabbos 28a

[18] Hilchos Klei HaMikdash 8:13

[19] Bamidbar 19:6

[20] Vayikra 14:4, 49

[21] See Yeshaya 1:18

[22] Divrei HaYamim II 2:6

[23] See Radak on Divrei HaYamim II 2:6

[24] II 3:14

[25] Rashi ad loc.

[26] 2:13

[27] See Radak on Divrei HaYamim II 2:6

[28] Shabbos 28a

[29] Hilchos Parah Adumah 3:2; see Rashi on Yeshaya 1:18 who explains it in a similar way.

[30] Shu’t Noda Bi’Yehudah II, Orach Chayim #3

[31] See Shu’t Minchas Yitzchak 3:96:2

[32] Pesil Techeiles, pg. 48 in the 1990 edition

[33] Berachos 6:35

[34] Shu’t HaRosh 24:6

[35] We should note that the Rosh’s descendents contend that their father wrote the Halachos after he wrote his Teshuvos, and that therefore the Halachos should be considered most authoritative. See Tur, Choshen Mishpat, at the end of Chapter 72, and the Beis Yosef, Yoreh Deah Chapter 341, quoting Rabbeinu Yehudah, the son of the Tur. However, the Perisha, Choshen Mishpat 72:35, notes that this rule is not absolute, and that some of the Rosh’s responsa were written after he wrote the Halachos.

[36] Hilchos Klei HaMikdash 1:3

[37] See Shemos 30:23

[38] As I explained in a different article, on identifying what is a beheimah and what is a chayah, translating the word chayah as an “undomesticated species” is not really accurate. The halachic difference between chayah and beheimah is highly complicated and also obscure, and is certainly not dependent on whether the species can be domesticated. For example, the reindeer qualifies as a chayah notwithstanding its ability to be domesticated. In the above quoted article, I discussed whether the American bison is halachically a chayah or a beheimah. For simplicity’s sake, I used the more common and inaccurate translation here.

[39] Shu’t Noda Bi’Yehudah 2, Orach Chayim #3; cf. Magen Avraham 586:13

[40] Shemos 13:9

[41] Shu’t Noda Bi’Yehudah II, Orach Chayim #3

[42] See Menachos 42b

[43] Midrash Tanchuma, Shelach 15; Midrash Rabbah, Shelach 17:5

[44] Shu’t Yeshuos Malko #1-3

[45] This article can be read at

[46] Rashi, Shabbos 75a s.v. HaPotzo

[47] He based this approach on the wording of the Rambam in Hilchos Tzitzis 2:1-2.

[48] Likutei Halachos, Zevachim Chapter 13, pg. 67a in the original edition


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