Jun 122012

The Ptil Tekhelet Association was founded 20 years ago. To make their first batch of ten they spent a year hard at work. Today over 100,000 people around the world put Ptil Tekhelet on their tallit or tallit katan.

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According to Baruch Sterman, during Talmudic times there was a false techelet that was cheap to make. It was so similar to the real thing that “only God could differentiate between them,” notes the Gemara. Called kala ilan, this fake techelet is identified by the Rambam as the indigo plant. Both the murex-derived indigo and kala ilan-derived indigo have almost the same molecular composition, which explains why the Talmud says only God could discern the difference.

Archeological evidence supporting Ptil Tekhelet

Inexpensive Ptil Tekhelet

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In the 1960s Yigal Yadin found a scrap of dyed woolen cloth at Masada in an area known as the Room of the Scrolls. An analysis by Prof. Zvi Koren showed that the dark blue embroidery, dating from the Mishnaic period, contained dibromoindigo — a clear indication the Murex trunculus snail used to make Ptil Tekhelet was the source of the dye. The rich hue retains its deep color and luster over 2000 years later. (The New York Times published a report on Koren’s findings and Ptil Tekhelet.)

Similarly Sergei Rudenko discovered an exquisitely preserved piece of fabric in the Altai Mountains buried with a Scythian prince.

A saddlecloth excavated in Siberia and dated to the time of the First Temple Destruction has a pattern of purple and a sky-blue border – both of which have been conclusively identified to derive from Mediterranean murex snails.

Dozens of actual Murex trunculus shells were found in digs on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion, dating from the Second Temple Period, in a section thought to be the homes of kohanim.

These finds demonstrate unambiguously that ancient dyers had developed techniques to control the shades of the murex dyes to produce a sky-blue color, that murex-dyed wool was available in Israel in the Mishnaic period, and that the Murex trunculus snail was well known in Jerusalem during the Second Temple Period.

Despite the strong archaelogical evidence we cannot say with absolute certainty that Ptil Tekhelet is made from the real chilazon, but the dye also fits the historical, Talmudic, halachic and bio-chemical descriptions.

What do rabbanim say about Ptil Tekhelet?

According to Rabbi Yaakov Klass, writing in The Jewish Press, today, within the halachic community, there are three stances on Ptil Tekhelet. Some rabbanim view Ptil Tekhelet positively, encouraging their followers to wear it — and in some cases even ruling that they must wear it.

Rabbi Yisroel Belsky's approbation for a book on techeiles

Approbation by Rabbi Yisoel Belsky, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas and a leading Orthodox Union rabbi

Other rabbanim remain unpursuaded that Ptil Tekhelet is made of the true chilazon and advise against wearing it. Generally these rabbanim hold that archeological, historical or scientific evidence is inadmissible in the court of halacha, and therefore the debate must rest on authentic halachic material exclusively.

A third school of thought admits that Ptil Tekhelet may well be made from the chilazon used during the Talmudic Era, but rejects the use of Ptil Tekhelet, arguing that once the chain of tradition for a certain mitzvah has been severed, that mitzvah is suspended indefinitely.

Who wears Ptil Tekhelet?

Some notable figures who wear Ptil Tekhelet include Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, Rabbi Avraham Dov Auerbach, Rabbi Shlomo Dichovsky, Rabbi Amram Opman, Rabbi Simcha Kook, Rabbi Hershel Schachter and Dr. Rabbi Abraham Twerski. Many others wear it privately.

In a recent approbation for Levush Ha’aron, a book that promotes the use of the Murex trunculus used by the Ptil Tekhelet Association, Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, a prominent posek in the U.S. and a leading figure in the OU, writes that he read the book carefully from cover to cover and looked into the various proofs presented. The book is “worthy to be disseminated among Torah scholars and it seems that it can also be relied upon in practice,” he concludes. Preempting the skeptics within the ultra-Orthodox community, where techelet has been slow to gain traction, Rabbi Belsky adds that the book should “not be lightly dismissed and those who would like to look into the matter should study the text carefully.”

Further reading on Ptil Tekhelet
The Rarest Blue by Baruch Sterman
Ptil Tekhelet on Radzyn techelet by Mois Navon


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