Chilazon

February 4, 2014

“Chilazon” – The aquatic or semi-aquatic creature that is the source of “Techeilet,” the beautiful sky-blue dye mentioned in the third paragraph of “Kriat Shema,” as the color to apply to at least one thread on each corner of the four-cornered “Tzitzit.” Over the long years of the Exile, the identity of the “Chilazon” was forgotten. But over the last several hundred years, Torah scholars have attempted to put together the various descriptive clues found in the classic Jewish sources to formulate theories as to the identity of that elusive creature.

In the Talmud, in Menachos 44a, we find the following description: “The ‘Chilazon’s’ body has the color of the sea, and its form is that of a fish. It appears only once in seventy years (In Masechet Tzitzit, the probable source of this information, ‘seventy’ is replaced by ‘seven’), and ‘Techeilet’ is made from its blood; therefore it is very expensive.”

Masechet Shabbat 75a discusses the case of one who “smashes” a Chilazon on Shabbat in order to extract its dye. Use of the word “smashes” suggests that the “Chilazon” has some sort of hard shell.

Megillah 6a states that the “Chilazon” can only be found on the shores of the Mediterranean that were part of the portion of the Tribe of Zevulun inEretz Yisrael, “from the cliffs of Tzur (Rosh HaNikrah) to Haifa.” Rambamin “Hilchot Tzitzit” 2:2 follows a different tradition; namely, that the “Chilazon” was actually a fish, and it lived in the Sea of Salt.

In Ketuvot 5b, we find in Tosaphot that the blood of the “Chilazon” pools in a sac, from which it can be easily extracted without killing the creature (although this seems at first glance to contradict the “smashing” source in Shabbat 75a; perhaps there the context was a method of extracting the dye without concern for preserving the life of the “Chilazon”))

Bava Metzia 61b says that the color of the dye made from the “Chilazon” was identical to the color “indigo.” And Menachot 43b says that “Techeilet” was a permanent dye.

Based on the above sources, a number of theories were put forth as to the identity of the “Chilazon:”

1. It is a type of squid. At the end of the nineteenth century, Rabbi Gershom Henoch Leiner, ZT”L, the Radziner Rav, specified the type of squid as the “cuttlefish,” or “pouch fish,” a squid-like sea mollusk that has ten sucker-bearing arms and a hard internal shell. When endangered, some cuttlefish eject a black, ink-like fluid. It is this fluid, according to the Radziner, that is the source of “Techeilet.” The Radziner Rav embraced this theory and went to great lengths to convince the Torah world of its accuracy.

Unfortunately, a number of problems are associated with this theory. First of all, the shade of blue does not quite match indigo. Also, it can be removed from cloth rather easily. It is also uniformly abundant in the seas of the world; there is no preference either for the shores of the Mediterranean along the northern coast of Israel nor for the Sea of Salt. And there is no cycle, seven or seventy-year, for its appearance. Nevertheless, the Radziner Chassidim maintain one of the two factories currently producing “Techeilet” from their version of the “Chilazon” in Eretz Yisrael.

2. It is a snail. The “Yad Ramah” on Sanhedrin 91a says that the word “Chilazon” refers to snails in general, and the “Chilazon” from which “Techeilet” was produced is a particular species within the family of snails. Rabbi Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog, ZT”L, did very extensive research into the subject and in fact wrote his doctoral thesis on the subject of identification of the “Chilazon,” in which he concluded that it was none other than the snail known in scientific circles as the “Janthina Pallida Harvey.” It lives in the Mediterranean, in colonies that experience population explosions approximately every seven years, and inhabits a shell of a beautiful violet-blue color. This theory also has some problems, including the fact that the color it produces as a dye when applied to wool is also not quite indigo, and it washes out rather too easily to be considered “permanent.” Although he had invested much time and energy in his investigations, Rabbi Herzog had the intellectual honesty to concede that his snail did not match well with the specifications.

3. It is the Murex snail. A powerful argument in favor of this creature is that remnants of many dye-producing factories were found along the Mediterranean coastline, in the territory of Zevulun, with piles of shells of the species of snail known as the Murex Trunculus. Even though the dye made from the secretion of the Murex Trunculus is more purplish than blue, when it is exposed to direct sunlight, the color changes to a shade of blue that matches indigo, and indeed its chemical composition at that point in the processing is identical with indigo’s. Rav Herzog himself said that, even though he favored the Jancina snail, logic seemed to dictate that the identity of the “Techeilet Chilazon” was in fact the Murex Trunculus.

There is also a factory in Eretz Yisrael that produces “Techeilet” from this modest creature, this species of snail, as its source for the beautiful dye described in Menachot 43b as resembling the sea, which resembles the sky, that resembles HaShem’s Throne of Glory.