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Tekhelet (Hebrew: תכלת, "turquoise" or "blue"; alternate spellings include tekelet, t'chelet, techelet and techeiles) is a blue dye mentioned 49 times in the Hebrew Bible/Tanakh. It was used in the clothing of the High Priest, the tapestries in the Tabernacle, and the tassels (Hebrew: ציצית, tzitzit [tsiˈtsit], pl. tzitziot) affixed to the corners of one's four-cornered garment, such as the tallit (garment worn during prayer).
According to the Talmud, the dye of tekhelet was produced from a marine creature known as the ḥillazon (also spelled chilazon). According to the Tosefta (Men. 9:6), the hillazon is the exclusive source of the dye.
After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans, the sole use of the tekhelet (blue) dye was in tzitzit. A tzitzit is made of four strands, a number of which be tekhelet. There are three opinions as to how many are to be blue: 2 strings; 1 string; 1 half string. These strands are then threaded and hang down, appearing to be eight. The four strands are passed through a hole 25 to 50 mm away from the corners of the four-cornered cloth.
Tekhelet is mentioned in the third paragraph of the daily prayers known as the Sh'ma Yisrael (Hebrew: שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל; "Hear, [O] Israel"), citing Bamidbar – Parshas Shelach (Book of Numbers 15:37–41).
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Of the 49 (or 48 ) uses in the Masoretic Text, one refers to the whole nation of Israel (Numbers 15:37–41), 44 refer to the priesthood or temple. The remaining 6 in Esther, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are secular uses; such as when Mordechai puts on "blue and white" "royal clothing" in Esther. The colour could be used in combination with other colours such as 2 Chronicles 3:14 where the veil of Solomon's Temple is made of blue (tekhelet), purple (Hebrew: אַרְגָּמָן argaman) and crimson (Hebrew: כַּרְמִיל karmiyl). Ezekiel 27:7 may indicate the source of the shellfish to have been the Aegean region.
At some point following the Roman exile of the Jews from the Land of Israel, the actual identity of the source of the dye was lost. Since that time, a period spanning over 1,300 years, Jews have only worn plain white tassles (tzitzit).
The stripes on prayer shawls, often black, but also blue or purple, are believed to symbolize the lost tekhelet which is referred to by various sources as being "black as midnight", "blue as the midday sky", and even purple. These stripes of tekhelet inspired the design of the flag of Israel.
Various shellfish have been suggested for the source of the dye.
According to Zvi Koren, a professor of chemistry, tekhelet was close in color to midnight blue. This conclusion was reached based on the chemical analysis of a 2000-year old patch of dyed fabric recovered from Masada in the 1960s. The sample, shown to have been dyed with Murex snail extraction, is a midnight blue with a purplish hue. On the other hand, in 2013, Na'ama Sukenik of the Israel Antiquities Authority verified a 1st century CE-dated fragment of blue-dyed fabric to have used M. trunculus as the source of its pure blue color.
Three types of mollusks have been proposed as the lost ḥillazon. None have been universally accepted, though the Murex, Murex trunculus, known by the modern name Hexaplex trunculus is currently thought to be the most likely source of the biblical blue dye.
In 1887, Grand Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner, the Radziner Rebbe, researched the subject and concluded that the Sepia officinalis (common cuttlefish) met many of the criteria. Within a year, Radziner chassidim began wearing tzitzit dyed with a colorant produced from this cephalopod. Some Breslov Hasidim also adopted this custom due to Rebbi Nachman of Breslov's pronouncement on the great importance of wearing tekhelet and in emulation of Rabbi Avraham ben Nachram of Tulchyn, a prominent Breslov teacher who accepted the view of his contemporary, the Radziner Rebbe.
Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog (1889–1959) obtained a sample of this dye and had it chemically analyzed. The chemists concluded that it was a well-known synthetic dye "Prussian blue" made by reacting Iron(II) sulfate with an organic material. In this case, the cuttlefish only supplied the organic material which could have as easily been supplied from a vast array of organic sources (e.g., ox blood). R. Herzog thus rejected the cuttlefish as the ḥillazon and some suggest that had the Grand Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner known this fact, he too would have rejected it based on his explicit criterion that the blue color must come from the animal and that all other additives are permitted solely to aid the color in adhering to the wool.
Within his doctoral research on the subject of tekhelet, Herzog placed great hopes on demonstrating that the Murex trunculus was the genuine snail ḥillazon. However, having failed to consistently achieve blue dye from the Murex trunculus, he wrote: “If for the present all hope is to be abandoned of rediscovering the ḥillazon shel tekhelet in some species of the genera Murex and Purpura we could do worse than suggest the Janthina as a not improbable identification”. Although blue dye has indeed been obtained from the Murex trunculus snail, in 2002 Dr. S. W. Kaplan of Rehovot, Israel, sought to investigate Herzog's suggestion that tekhelet came from the extract of Janthina. After fifteen years of research he concluded that the Janthina was not the ancient source of the blue dye.
In his doctoral thesis (London, 1913) on the subject, Rabbi Herzog named Murex trunculus as the most likely candidate for the dye's source. Though M. trunculus fulfilled many of the Talmudic criteria, Rabbi Herzog's inability to consistently obtain blue dye (sometimes the dye was purple) from the snail precluded him from declaring it to be the dye source. In the 1980s, Otto Elsner, a chemist from the Shenkar College of Fibers in Israel, discovered that if a solution of the dye was exposed to sunlight, blue instead of purple was consistently produced. In 1988, Rabbi Eliyahu Tavger dyed tekhelet from M. trunculus for the mitzvah (commandment) of tzitzit for the first time in recent history. Based on his work, four years later, the Ptil Tekhelet Organization was founded to educate about the dye production process and to make the dye available for all who desire to use it. The television show The Naked Archaeologist interviews an Israeli scientist who also makes the claim that this mollusk is the correct animal. A demonstration of the production of the blue dye using ultraviolet sunlight to produce the blue color is shown. Another verification of M. trunculus being the source of the dye source occurred in 2013, as Naama Sukenik of the Israel Antiquities Authority verified a 1st century CE-dated fragment of blue-dyed fabric to have used the M. trunculus sourced blue dye.