Part one — Should We Wear T’chailes? Who’s a true-blue Jew ?


Rabbi Shlomo Cohen



Mazel Tov! After thirteen hundred years of being unable to perform a Mitzva in the best way possible, the special dye required for the blue string on the Tzitzis has been rediscovered…. Or has it?  Whether it is the real McCoy or not has some interesting ramifications in Halacha.

From the time of Moshe until well into the Babylonian exile, T’chailes, the blue dye used to color the strings of Tzitzis was well known, somewhat available and used for a variety of purposes. Disruptions in the Middle East (nothing new about that) eventually caused the dye industry in the area to fall apart. For the following seventeen hundred years this dye has been unavailable and the Mitzva of Tzitzis has been performed without it. According to She’ailos U’Tshovos Yeshuos Malko the use of T’chailes ended in the time of Ravina, circa 4234. (474 CE).

100 years ago a Chasidic Rebbe undertook the daunting task of re-identifying the Chilazon, the source of T’chailes, as well as the process of manufacturing the dye. His purpose was no less than availing Jews the world over with a Mitzva that was only remembered in the breach.

Rabbi Leiner, the Radzyner Rebbe, traveled to the Mediterranean coast in Italy to search for the Chilazon. Ultimately, he identified a certain squid as being the source of T’chailes.  However, he was unable to produce a blue dye from the squid’s black ink. He turned to an Italian chemist who found that the addition of several colorless chemicals produced the coveted blue. In a very short time thousands of the Rebbe’s followers were wearing this color on their Tzitzis.

Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog, destined to become the Chief Rabbi of Israel, was the Chief Rabbi of Ireland. In 1913 he wrote a doctoral dissertation on the subject of purple dye. He sent Rabbi Leiner’s dye to experts for analysis. The results determined that the chemist he used had probably misled Rabbi Leiner.  The addition of several chemicals caused a reaction with the squid ink, as it would with any organic fluid, to form Prussian Blue, an inorganic synthetic dye.

In 1858, French zoologist Henri de Lacaze-Duthiers discovered that three mollusks in the Mediterranean Sea produced purple-blue dyes. One of them, Murex Trunculus, was thought, by him and others, to be the ancient source of T’chailes.

Rav Herzog, aware of this research, identified two problems with the dye. First it appeared purplish-blue as opposed to the pure blue required by Halacha. Secondly, the shell of the Murex did not match the description of our sources.

Further research has recently shown that the dye is actually pure blue in direct sunlight and only shows purple hues on cloudy days or indoors.  Furthermore, in its natural habitat the shell does match the description in Jewish sources.

Recent archaeological digs in the ancient dye centers of the Middle East, as in Tyre, have uncovered mounds of these shells alongside vats that still have the remnants of the dye absorbed in them. Chemical analysis of these remnants shows that this particular dye is chemically similar to that produced from Murex today.

On the surface it would seem that T’chailes is with us once again. Wherein lays the problem?

The digs are proof that a dye was produced. Many dyes were produced. Finding archaeological evidence begs the question, “evidence of what?” The chemical analysis results in circular reasoning.

What is the Chilazon?

The Gemora (Menachos 44a) tells us that the Chilazon appears once in 70 years. Rashi there says that it come from the ground. Elsewhere, (Shabbos 74b) Rashi states that T’chailes comes from a fish, not a snail, found in the Dead Sea, not the Mediterranean, which surfaces only once in seventy years, not found plentifully. Rashi comments on Chilazon in Megila 6a, Sanhedrin 91a. Yerushalmi Shabbos (Perek 1 Halacha 3) states that the Chilazon has neither sinews nor bones. See also Mishna B’choros, Perek 6 Mishna 2 and Shabbos 26a.

Rambam (Hilchos Tzitzis Perek 2 Halacha) states that, “the blood of the Chilazon is used. It is a fish whose eyes are the color of the T’chailes, its blood is black as ink and it is found in the ‘SaltSea’ [Yam HaMelech].”  The Torah Temima (Bamidbar 15 in sif katan 118) discusses this Rambam where he shows that Rambam refers to the Mediterranean Sea as Yam HaMelech.

Several sources tell us that Chilazon was covered with a shell. Medrash Shir HaShirim (Perek 4:11) says,” As long as the Chilazon grows, its shell grows with it.” (See also Medrash Tehilim Perek 23: P’sikta D’Rav Cahana Perek 10: Aruch on Chilazon)

Where is the Chilazon Found?

It would appear from the Gemora and Rashi that the Chilazon was not farmed from the sea, but rather collected on the mountain tops. Even today, under certain wet conditions, many species of snail leave the water ostensibly to mate and are found in vast numbers on land.

Thus we see that the current excitement may be somewhat premature. Evidence is scanty and sources are contradictory. But that’s not all. There is any number of additional Halachic issues.

The Mitzva & its Sources

The Mitzva is located in Parshas Shelach (Bamidbar 15: 37-41). The Gemora discusses Tzitzes in the fourth Perek of Menachos. Rambam lists it among the positive Mitzvos number 14.  Minchas Chinuch lists it as Mitzva number 386. The Smag has it as number 26 in Mitzvos Asay. In Mikraos Gedolos it is Asay 154.

All the Poskim agree that the Mitzva of T’chailes is one with that of Tzitzis. They are not two separate Mitzvos. Lack of T’chailes does not affect the Mitzva at all.

Gemora Sanhedrin 91a

Rambam – Hilchos Tzitzis, Perek one and two. The Rambam refers to T’chailes in Pirush Hamishnayos (Menachos, Perek T’chailes) where he writes that T’chailes is simply not found.  Subsequently, in writing Yad HaChazaka {He began writing the Yad in 4530 and finished it in 4541} the Rambam clearly describes the Chilazon and the process of manufacture. Nonetheless, it is clear from his letter to Chachmei Luneil that he, himself, did not wear T’chailes. Thus, it would appear that his descriptions were meant to be L’Halacha V’lo L’Ma’aseh.

Shulchan Aruch only mentions it in passing in Simen 9 Sif 2.

Where else was T’chailes used?

There are 48 mentions of T’chailes in Tanach. In Chumash alone there are 34 in Shmos and 5 in Bamidbar. Yermiya contains 1 reference, Yechezkel 3 more. K’suvim has 2 mentions in Megilas Esther and 3 in Divrei HaYomim II. Of all these, only one, in Bamidbar (15:38) refers to Tzitzis. Most of the others in Chumash refer to either the uses in the Mishkan or the clothing of the Cohain Gadol. The references in Nach almost all allude to wealth and riches in different contexts.

What Color is T’chailes?

While the assumption generally is that T’chailes is blue, the commentators have a great deal to say on this subject. There appear to be three possibilities.

The Gemora (Chulin 89b) and Yerushalmi Brachos (Perek 1 Mishna 2) tells us that “T’chailes is like the sea, the sea is like the sky, the sky is like a sapphire and the sapphire is like the Throne of Glory.”

Rashi (Bamidbar 15:38 & Brachos 9b) states that T’chailes is green. Elsewhere (Menachos44b & Chulin 89a) Rashi states that T’chailes is the color of the sea. Again, (Sotah 17a) Rashi says that “T’chailes is not comparable to the color of the sky but only slightly resembles the color of the sky.” All of this may stem from the Yerushalmi (Brachos Perek 1, Mishna 5) which says, “T’chailes resembles the sea, the sea resembles grass [asovim] and the grass resembles the sky”.

Rambam, on the other hand, leaves a distinct impression that T’chailes is very dark and is near to black. (See Rambam Hilchos Tzitzis, Perek 2, Halacha 1, 2 & 5). Rashi quotes R’Moshe HaDarshan at the end of Parshas Shelach, to the effect that T’chailes resembles the color of the sky as it darkens near nightfall.

The Tiferes Yisroel (Introduction to Moed) regards T’chailes as purple and cites sources to support his contention.

Green, near to black and purple seem to be the choices. Where does blue come in?  The closest we get is sapphire.

A recent study reported in the November 2002 issue of Psychological Science found that many languages simply have no word for the color blue. Researchers believe that high levels of ultraviolet B exposure damage the eyes of people living near the Equator rendering adults unable to distinguish between green and blue. In areas low in UVB exposure languages tended to have a word for blue while those high in UVB tended not to.

Ancient Hebrew has no word for blue. Seforim struggle with the concept over and over. Three cases in point are the first Perek of Mishna Brachos in discerning between colors, Dom Nidda, and of course, T’cheiles.

The above study, should it really have merit, may explain this problem. Although the Rishonim and Achronim lived in places where UVB was low, they were utilizing prior Meforshim who had no word for blue and may in fact have had a Mesora as to the colors which originated from those who were unable to distinguish between blue and green.

The Number of Dyed Strings

The Rambam states that one who wears T’chailes fashions the four strings of the Tzitzis by folding them over. This would form eight strings. The Rambam states that one is blue and seven are white. The Rayvid writes that this is a mistake in the Rambam and what he means to say is two blue and six white. The Kesef Mishna brings Chachmei Luneil and a Sifrei to show that he Rambam actually meant that only one-half of one string was dyed blue. (Rambam, Hilchos Tzitzis, Perek 1 Halacha six and Kesef Mishna)  The Tur (Simen 11) requires two blue and two white strings. The Bais Yosef lists Rashi, Tosfos, the Rosh and Mordechai as all requiring two blue and two white strings. The Smag writes that one may have either two blue and two white, or one blue and three white, or perhaps, a la the Rambam three and one-half white and a half blue. Rashi (Menachos 38a) writes that one may make all four white or all four blue and fulfill the Mitzva since neither color affects the other.

Some Rishonim maintain that the Mitzva Min HaMuvchar is with a white woolen (or possibly, cotton) garment and white strings with 1/2, one or two blue strings on each corner. Most discuss the Halacha vis-à-vis the Shatnez implications.

Many Rishonim maintain that one may dye the Tzitzis almost any color as long as the entire Beged is all the same color. The Beged and Tzitzis may not be dyed black or a non-T’chailes blue. Some maintain that these Tzitzis are Pasul if it resembles T’chailes but is not (Rambam Hilchos Tzitzis Perek 2 Halacha 1 and 8).

Those who maintain that non-T’chailes blue is Pasul means that today, of the two groups, using totally different blue dyes, only one can possibly be correct. The other group may simply not be fulfilling the Mitzva of Tzitzis. Even more frightening is the possibility that both groups are wrong and neither is fulfilling the Mitzva.

Should Minhag and Mesora be considered?

The first one to deal with the subject of the contemporary use of T’chailes was She’ailos U’Tshuvos B’samim Rosh (Simen 244). When asked if a particular dye could be used he responded that we may only use the Chilazon when there has been a Kabala from person to person through the ages. Furthermore, the dye may not even be used as a reminder of the Mitzva lest future generations claim that they have a real Kabala as to the identification of the Chilazon.

We, furthermore, have a clear precedent for abjuring the use of something once the Mesora has been lost. Ashkenazim do not eat kosher locusts even though the Sephardim have a clear Mesora as to which are Kosher. The same people who wear T’chailes without any Mesora would not dream of even using a Sephardi’s  utensils in which Kosher locusts had been cooked even though they have a clear Mesora.

The identity of the non-kosher birds enumerated in the Torah has been lost. For this reason, some people do not eat turkey since we never really had a Mesora on its Kashrus at all, as it is a new-world bird and were unknown to Chazal.

In America the entire back portion of the cow is not sold as Kosher since the butchers in America do not have a Mesora on the removal of the Gid HaNashe (although butchers in Israel do remove the Gid). There is a different Mesora between Yerushalmi and European Poskim over the identification of certain Chailev (fat) and whether it needs to be removed or not.

Everyone is aware of the difference of opinion regarding the shape of the Menorah in the Bais HaMikdash.  There are countless other questions about the Bais HaMikdash and Korbonos for which we have no Mesora. The Mishna in Middos reports that after the destruction there were rooms in the Bais HaMikdash whose purpose had been forgotten.

The Din of Metzora is listed in the Minchas Chinuch as applying today. Unfortunately, there is no Mesora, from Rebbe to Talmid, hence we don’t have the ability to Poskin on any question of Tzora’as. This Mesora was lost with the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash.

The Gemora informs us of a number of issues of lost Mesora of the very words and verses in the Sefer Torah.

Even the proper pronunciation of Lashon Kodesh is lost to us. There is some question over whether an Ashkenazi can fulfill a Mitzva hearing the Yemeni pronunciation of Hashem’s Name.

We have lost the ability to Poskin on Zav and Zava.

Each of these issues has serious ramifications in Halacha. Any subject which depends upon vision may not merely be learned from Seforim. They require Shimush [instruction and practice] with a Rebbe. Nobody would be willing to eat meat, which had been slaughtered by one who claimed to have learned his craft from Shulchan Aruch with no certificate from a Rav.  (See Part Two)

Safek D’orysa L’Chumra or S’fek S’faika?

Given the general principle that a doubt in a Torah law requires us to operate in the stricter application we are left with a problem in this situation. We are in doubt as to the identity of the Chilazon as well as in doubt as to the process of manufacturing the dye itself. Were we able to develop a S’fek S’faika ourselves this would certainly be one, in which case Safaik D’orysa never becomes operative.

Nonetheless, should we utilize Safaik D’orysa, would not these doubts be overcome by the above principle? Shouldn’t we all wear T’chailes to remove us from the shadow of the doubt?

First of all Poskim are divided on the principles under which Safaik D’orysa would cause us to do the action out of doubt. Some feel that if there is a question of M’tziyus [reality] the rule does not apply. Others maintain that the rule does not apply in cases where there is Chisaron Yidiah [lost knowledge]. The Sdei Chemed (Vol.9 pg, 49) indicates that where there is a question of M’tziyus and Chisaron Yidiah Safek D’orysa is obviated. Thus, it would seem that neither of these two principles is operative in regard to T’chailes.

Other Concerns

Aside from Minhag Avoseinu B’Yadeinu and the possibility that they are not fulfilling the Mitzva there is an additional possibility of Mechzei K’Yuhara (the appearance of arrogance). It is also true that T’chailes is creating additional divisiveness within the Frum world, as if there weren’t already enough. The Gemora tells us that Rav Abahu decreed that the entire world should blow extra Shofar blasts on Rosh HaShana, as a result of a different customs as to the nature of a Truah, simply to remove the possibility of an observer thinking that this was more than one religion. Rather than viewing itself as an integral part of world Jewry with only minor regional differences in local custom, each group today is bent on distinguishing itself from all others to the utmost. Each Chassidic group garbs itself as identifiably different from all others. The Yeshiva world has turned more ‘black’ and more devoted to Chumra with each passing year. The “modern” orthodox have separated themselves in modes of dress, Kippa Seruga and now T’chailes.

There is a joke that mirrors this unfortunate state of affairs. Moshiach finally comes. He walks into the nearest shul to announce himself and is promptly hooted out because he looks like a Sefardi and inadvertently walked into a Chassidic Shteible. Thinking that he needs to look more like contemporary Jews, he dresses as a Chassid and goes on to the next Shul where he is hooted out since he had now walked into a ConservativeTemple. So he dresses like them and tries the next Shul down the block, a ‘black hat’ Yeshiva. You can imagine their reaction. Next, with a black hat on, he goes into a ‘modern orthodox’ shul where his claim is ignored. So, now in a Kippa Sruga and a pair of shorts and sandals he walks into a ReformTemple after which he realizes we’re just not ready for him at all. .

What are the prohibitions?

Many Rishonim make a very strong point of prohibiting the T’chailes as Pasul even when it is available for several other reasons.

1-     Had anyone tested the dye by dipping a sample cloth into the vat, as opposed to removing a small quantity and discarding it after the test, the entire vat is rendered unfit. This is also true if the small quantity was poured back into the vat after testing. [It is interesting to note that the kit purchased to dye your own Tzitzis actually suggests testing the dye without mentioning this Halacha. Thus anyone following instructions is actually not wearing Tzitzis at all.]

2-     This dye must only be purchased from a known person who is utterly reliable. {Today’s marketing procedures often remove the consumer several steps away from the producer with room for unscrupulous, or ignorant, middlemen.}

3-      The Tzitzis must be dyed L’Shaim Mitzva. If not they are Pasul. [The instructions in the kit did mention this Halacha.]

4-    If it is tested, and found to be some other dye, it is Pasul. The Rambam (Hilchos Tzitzis Perek 2 Halacha 5) gives therecipe used to test for true T’chailes. There are very real Halachic concerns regarding the use of scientific tests in lieu of the processes given by Chazal. Therefor, any chemical tests, even if they were to be conclusive, may carry no weight vis-à-vis fulfilling a Halachic obligation.

5-    Rambam refers to “known” spices, which were added to the recipe, but does not enumerate them. There is no indication of whether these additional ingredients are necessary to the Mitzva. Should they be, we cannot use T’chailes as is.

Do the numbers work?

It would appear that even in ancient times few people wore T’chailes. According to the Institute that now provides T’chailes, it takes 40 snails to produce the dye for four strands which are sold as a set (for $40). Not only would the price have been prohibitive for the average person, think about the population. Based on Josephus, and other sources, estimating a population, then, of 10 million people is not far-fetched. Assume 1/2 to be men, and subtracting boys under Bar Mitzva, would give us a population of four million people requiring T’chailes. Let us further assume that their Tzitzis lasted four years, after all, they were worn outside on garments worn by people involved in manual labor. Simple arithmetic shows that 40 million snails were needed each year. Given the Gemora that the Chilazon population spiked once every 70 years means that 2,800,000,000 snails had to be collected in one year. That’s just for Tzitzis. It does not account for all the other uses in the Bais HaMikdash, royalties’ needs and the needs of the wealthy. Clearly this did not happen.  Thus, the Mishna that the blue and white strings do not have any effect on each other. Most people did not have T’chailes, hence, the ruling that the Mitzva may been done with or without T’chailes.


The Mesora has been lost,

In addition, there is no Kabala from person to person,

In addition, although the Rambam appears to have known the identity and process, he abjured the use of T’chailes,

And the Ari z”l seems to indicate that T’chailes should not be worn due to the Churban,

And the principle of Safek D’orysa L’chumra may not be operative here,

And there is some question over the identification of the Chilazon,

And there is some doubt on the manufacturing process of the dye itself,

And there is a disagreement on the color,

And there is disagreement on the number of strings to dye,

And the process given in the Gemora to check T’chailes is lost to us,

And there are Rishonim who Pasul Tzitzis made of non-T’chailes blue,

And the majority of the world’s greatest Talmidei Chachomim do not wear it, there seems to be a problem for those who do.

All in all, the nature of the problems associated with T’chailes would lead me to believe that until Eliyahu HaNavi comes and positively identifies the true blue, one is, perhaps, better off being a true Jew without the blue.

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