Nobel Prize Winner and Cornell Professor Roald Hoffmann to Speak About Rediscovery of Tekhelet, November 9 at Cornell

04 Nov 2014
Nobel Prize Winner and Cornell Professor Roald Hoffmann

Nobel Prize Laureate Dr. Roald Hoffmann will be the featured speaker as the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Cornell and the Ptil Tekhelet Association present: “Science And Judaism: A Synergistic Bond – The Rediscovery of Biblical Blue as an Example of Fruitful Synthesis of Disciplines.” The event will take place in the One World Room of Anabel Taylor Hall on Sunday, November 9 at 7 p.m. Dr. Hoffmann is the 1981 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry and the Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters, Emeritus, at the university.

Professor Hoffmann will be speaking on: “Indigo: A Story of a Craft, Religion, History, Science and Culture,” followed by Ptil Tekhelet’s co-founder, Dr. Baruch Sterman, on: “It Is Absurd for Us to Determine Anything Concerning the Infinite (Descartes) – Does the Torah Agree?” Professor David Zax, associate professor of Chemistry at Cornell, will deliver introductory remarks. Rabbi Chaim Finson of JLIC at Cornell will be the master of ceremonies.

Led by Rabbi Finson and his wife, Shira, the Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) at Cornell is a program of the Orthodox Union in partnership with Cornell Hillel.

Ptil Tekhelet, The Association for the Promotion and Distribution of Tekhelet, is a non-profit organization based in Israel that encourages the application and production of tekhelet.

The lecture will discuss the analysis of the origins of tekhelet, the colored dye of the aforementioned  biblical blue, used for tzitzit, the fringes attached to the corners of four-cornered garments worn by males. The mitzvah of tzitzit is derived from the third paragraph of Shema, where it speaks of a blue thread which is an essential component of tzitzit. The blue dye is procured from a creature known as the chilazon. For many centuries the dye was not available because the tradition as to the identity of the organism was forgotten, leading observant Jews to abandon the commandment.

In the 19th century, Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner of Radzin identified the creature as a type of squid. His followers, known as the Radziner Chassidim, dye one thread of the tzitzit with a dye extracted from this squid, to this day.

Rabbi Chaim Halevi Herzog, the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, wrote his doctoral dissertation on the subject of the identity of the chilazon. He disproved the squid hypothesis and instead identified it as a specific type of snail, Murex trunculus. His dissertation set in motion a flood of further research, corroborating and confirming his opinion.

Several decades ago a group in Israel began to make blue-dyed tzitzit available commercially with their factory in Kfar Adumim in the Judean desert. Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University and halachic authority of OU Kosher, is among the prominent contemporary Orthodox rabbinic leaders who wear this tekhelet on their tzitzit.

The Ptil Tekhelet website includes a section called the “Chemistry of Tekhelet.” Cornell Professor Hoffmann is a supporter of Ptil Tekhelet and a source of information and expertise for all of its chemistry-related questions. Since 1965 he has been at Cornell University and has received many of the honors of his profession. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1981 was awarded jointly to Kenichi Fukui and Dr. Hoffmann “for their theories, developed independently, concerning the course of chemical reactions.”

Dr. Sterman, co-founder of the Ptil Tekhelet Association, was instrumental in developing the modern techniques for dyeing tekhelet used by the organization today. He has published numerous articles on the scientific and halachic aspects of tekhelet, and writes extensively on the topic of science and Torah.

Rabbi Chaim Finson of Cornell JLIC explained, “The event is being promoted as a discussion about the relationship between Torah and science, as many people in the audience probably have not heard of or know very much about tekhelet. Cornell University places an emphasis on the sciences, and many Jewish students are heavily involved in scientific research and study. The intersection of Judaism and science is a topic of great interest to many people who are Jewish in their identity while also being immersed in science; this kind of event gives them a glimpse of the more Jewish side of their studies.”

“In addition, the event is open to the greater Ithaca Jewish community, many of whom are faculty members of the sciences and take an interest in these topics,” said Rabbi Finson. Sponsors of the program also include the Cornell Hillel and the Ithaca Area Jewish Community.

Shira Finson concluded, “The message that we feel is very important to give over at this event and others is the relevance of the Torah. The realization of what Judaism has to say can be applied to many diverse areas of thought, from the ethical to the technological. With this message we hope that the event will promote a greater interest and involvement in Jewish life.”