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A Rare Treat
A dye lost and found and everything else you could ever want to know about murex snails and their colorful excretions | Elli Fischer
s a yeshiva student twenty years ago, I first became aware of Ptil Tekhelet, an organization producing and selling strings dyed with what it believed to be tekhelet, the sky-blue dye required for the biblical precept of tzitzit, the ritual tassels affixed to four-cornered garments. Though this was not the first claim to have rediscovered the dye that had been lost for centuries Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner, the Radzyner Rebbe, thought hed found it in the late 19th century Ptil Tekhelet seemed different. The Radzyner tekhelet, derived from the squidlike cuttlefish, was quickly discredited, and except in a few Hasidic groups, it never caught on. The old-new dye, extracted from the Murex trunculus snail, gained momentum not from any charismatic rabbis messianic vision, but because it was backed by solid historical, archaeological, scientific, and textual evidence. It rang true, and soon a handful of leading halakhic authorities were sporting blue fringes. The driving force behind this tekhelet initiative was a group of American-born renaissance men living in the Judean town of Efrat. Indeed, the tzitzit sold by Ptil Tekhelet became known as the Efrat tekhelet to distinguish it from the Radzyner version. In addition to the strings, the organizations founders began producing tekhelet study guides and leading scuba-diving expeditions to find murex snails. I procured my first set of tekhelet strings from Baruch Sterman, one of the Efrat polymaths. Sterman and his wife, Judy Taubes Sterman, have written The Rarest Blue, the remarkable story of an ancient color lost to history and

meaning that females display male characteristics. So the Stermans describe how an Australian marine biologist nevertheless distinguished between genders: Determining the sex of the snails [is] an impossible task as long as they remain inside their shells. Somehow they have to come out of their shells and expose themselves. But how do you induce snails to shed their inhibitions and overcome their native modesty? Snails, it turns out, arent that different from humans: plying them with drugs and alcohol seems to do the trick. Adding carefully calibrated amounts of magnesium chloride or ethanol to seawater in experimental tanks worked wonders. Once the snails were slightly drunk and totally relaxed, Benkendorff and her team gently pried them from their shells just far enough to get a peek. It is this humorous style that allows the authors to go well beyond Mediterranean dyeing and address plant- and animalbased dyeing around the world, the psychology and economics that drove the ancient dye industry, the role of color in an often drab world, the relative scarcity of the color blue in nature, and why murex dye smells so bad. Jewish sources are rendered accessible, and the chemistry complete with molecular diagrams is intelligible even to a novice like me. The Stermans pepper the book with biographical and autobiographical anecdotes. Thus, we read about Baruch Stermans search for murex suppliers in Greek and Croat fishing towns, and the backstage
The Jewish Journey through History

The Rarest Blue

Baruch Sterman, with Judy Taubes Sterman
Gefen, 2012, 305 pages

rediscovered. The story is indeed remarkable, encompassing a chronicle of the Mediterranean dyeing industry from its murky origins through its heyday under the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans, and its eradication under Muslim rule; the Radzyner Rebbes revival of interest in tekhelet; Rabbi Isaac Herzogs identification of the murex snail as the likely source of tekhelet but his frustrating inability to produce the right color dye from its ink; Polish-Israeli chemist Otto Elsners chance discovery of the missing ingredient sunlight that makes the dye a colorfast, bright blue; and finally, the efforts of Rabbi Eliyahu Tavger and the Efrat group to resurrect a mitzva unfulfilled for a millennium.

stories of others who helped advance Ptil Tekhelet. The historical contexts of people like Rabbi Herzog, the Radzyner Rebbe, and Eliza Lucas Pinckney the woman who introduced indigo in South Carolina, where it became a cash crop are also illuminated. Aspiring writers are often advised: Write what you know. When it comes to the entrepreneurs of Efrat, that can include almost anything. The Rarest Blue is a rare book, both erudite and enjoyable. At barely two hundred pages of main text (though I recommend the endnotes as well), its perfect for a long Friday night or Shabbat afternoon. The time will be well spent. n

The authors address everything from the psychology and economics of the ancient dyeing industry to why murex dye stinks

Selfish Shellfish
The Stermans fill out the story with an array of expositions, and expositions within expositions, on the dizzying variety of academic disciplines and subdisciplines pertaining to tekhelet. One might expect excursuses on topics like archaeochemistry, malacology (the study of mollusks), and porphyrology (the study of purple a word coined by Rabbi Herzog in his dissertation) to be too arcane and specialized for the average reader, but no. The scientific and historical material is easily understandable, quite witty, and seasoned with thinly veiled pop-cultural references (like Exploring Dora). For instance, chapter 10, The Selfish Shellfish, attempts to explain why snails produce the chemical compounds that yield tekhelet. One clue is the fact that egg-laying females generate more of the relevant chemicals than males do. Yet murex are often pseudohermaphroditic,


September 2013

Tishrei 5774