Torah from Israel 6 - Matan - The Sadie Rennert
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Torah from Israel 6

Shulie Mishkin

This week’s Torah portion talks about the offerings that Bnei Yisrael brought to make the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Among them were various colorful fabrics: techelet, argaman and tolaat shani. How were items dyed in the ancient world? That’s what this post is about.


Dyeing is an ancient craft and was often a family business, with the trade secrets passed down from father to son. Jews were dyers in the time of the Mishna and continued in the trade through the Middle Ages and even into pre-modern times. When Benjamin of Tudela writes in the 12th century about visiting Jewish communities all over the world, he often talks about the Jewish dyers. He tells us there were dyers in Jerusalem and the Ramban, a century later, mentions the same fact. Even today, you can meet people with the family name of Sabag, which means dyer צבעי .


What were the dyes made of? The most popular (and least expensive) dyes were made of plants. The Mishnah in Shviit 7:1-3 lists some of the most important ones. There isאסטיס or Isatis tinctorum, popularly known as woad. This is a plant that makes a blue color. Then there is פואה , rubia tinctorum or madder, which produces red.


Other plants, as well as peels and shells of fruit, made yellow, black and purple. The indigo plant, קלע אילן , produced a deep blue that Hazal worried would be mistaken for techelet.


This brings us to animal-based dyes. The most well-known are those from the murex snail חילזון ,used for the blue techelet color, and the crimson worm, תולעת שני , used to make red. These animal dyes were very expensive and only used by royalty or very wealthy individuals. That is part of the idea of techelet – all Jewish males are considered sons of kings בני מלכים, and therefore need to wear a royal addition on their garment.


The names of two dyes are the names of two sons of Yissachar: תולע and פו(א)ה. Perhaps Yissachar was a dye maker.


The important fact about dyeing is that it is an expensive process. Two thousand kilo of Isatis leaves produce four kilo of dye. Twelve thousand murex snails make less than two kilo of purple dye. When Bnei Yisrael bring colored fabrics as their Mishkan donation, that is a very generous act and it shows how the Mishkan is supposed to be the most prestigious site in the camp.


Today archaeology is helping us understand even more about these precious colors. Just recently, Professor Naama Sukenik analyzed fabric remnants from the Wadi Murabaat caves in the Judean Desert. These are caves that Bar Kokhba rebels hid in almost two thousand years ago. According to her analysis, these fabrics were colored with dyes of techelet, argaman and tolaat shani, indicating that the cave housed VIP refugees.

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin

is a licensed tour guide and lectures and leads the tours in Matan’s Learn & Tour programs. She has an M.A. in Jewish History from Columbia University and is a graduate of the Matan Scholars Program.