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Why Was Non-Kosher Dye Used to Build the Mishkan?

Why Was Non-Kosher Dye Used to Build the Mishkan?


I was reading how some non-kosher dyes were used in the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). How could they use impure animals for the holiest of places?


It would be awfully tempting to answer this simply by saying that while non-kosher foods may not be eaten, we can use them for other purposes. However, that answer doesn’t work in this case. Here’s why:

The Talmud discusses the mysterious creature called tachash, which Scripture tells us was used for the Mishkan covering. The Talmud asserts that it must have been kosher, since “only the hide of a kosher animal was deemed suitable for heavenly service.”1

Incidentally, the biblical commentator Rabbeinu Bechaya ben Asher (1255-1340) explains that this is why silk (which comes from a non-kosher silkworm) wasn’t used in the building of the Mishkan.2

So what’s up with the dyes?

Tola’at Shani

One of the dyes used for the Mishkan, as well as in the purification processes for lepers and those who came in contact with the dead, was something called tola’at shani. Although usually translated as “crimson wool,” the word tola’at literally means “worm.”

Since worms are not kosher, some explain that the dye does not come from the worm itself, but from a fruit or berry that contains the worm or insect.3

Others, however, are of the opinion that the dye came from the worm or insect itself.4 Indeed, in the ancient world there was a dye that was produced from an insect, Kermes ilices. (The English word “crimson” is actually derived from this Latin name.)

There are a number of explanations as to why this was permissible.

Tefillin and Religious Articles

Some explain that, halachically, the statement “only the hide of a kosher animal was deemed suitable for heavenly service” only applies to tefillin, mezuzot and other ritual items that contain G‑d’s name or verses from Scripture. However, non-kosher components may indeed have been used in the Mishkan or Temple.5 They bolster their argument by noting that the Talmud cites a specific teaching barring the use of non-kosher animals in the construction of tefillin. They maintain that if there were indeed a universal prohibition on using non-kosher materials for “heavenly services,” there would be no need for a specific prohibition regarding tefillin.6

Indeed, we find opinions in the Jerusalem Talmud that the tachash, whose skin was used as a covering for the Mishkan, was a non-kosher animal.7

Converted Substance

Others hold that although the basic material used needs to be kosher, the dye coloring need not be, and therefore there would be no problem using tola’at shani.8

Rabbi Moses Sofer (known as the Chatam Sofer) explains that the prohibition is only for using the non-kosher material in its original state. Once it has been converted into a new substance (e.g., dye), it can be used for “heavenly services.”9

That Is the Mitzvah

Others say that the dye would indeed theoretically be forbidden, since one cannot generally use non-kosher material in the service of heaven. However, the same Torah that generally prohibits this material is specifically telling us to use it in this instance, so that is what we should do.10

Musk and the Mysterious Chilozon

There are a few other items used in the Mishkan that may have come from non-kosher animals. One is the techelet dye (a deep, sky-colored dye), which came from the enigmatic creature the chilozon. Another is the mor, often translated as “musk,” which was one of the ingredients of the anointing oil and ketoret.11 If these items were indeed products of non-kosher animals, then the above explanations would apply to them as well.

But Why?

Although we have explained why it may technically have been permitted to use these non-kosher items, the question remains, why were we commanded to do so in the first place?

Rabbi David ibn Zimra, known as the Radbaz, explains in his Kabbalistic work Magen David that the world cannot exist without the forces of judgment and negativity, through which the wicked are punished and brought to repent. Since the energies for the entire world are channeled through the holiest of places, the Mishkan (and then the Temple), there must be a source for negativity there as well. Thus, the dyes that were made from impure animals serve as the source for these forces.12

However, we await the day when there will be no more a need to punish the wicked, and only good will reign!

Talmud, Shabbat 28a.
Commentary to Exodus 25:3.
See, for example, Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 25:3.
See Radak on II Chronicles 2:6; Rambam, Hilchot Klei Hamikdash 8:13; see also Jerusalem Talmud, Kilayim 9:1.
Responsum Noda B’Yehudah, II Orech Chaim 3; Olat Shabbat 586:1; Sdei Chemed, Asifat Dinim, Chanukah 14.
See Olat Shabbat 586:1.
Jerusalem Talmud 2:3.
See responsum Noda B’Yehudah ibid.
Responsum Chatam Sofer, Orech Chaim 39
Nechmad Lemareh 1 p. 96 quoted in Sdei Chemed, Asifat Dinim, Chanukah 14
See disagreement between the Rambam and Raavad in Hilchot Klei Hamikdash 1:3.
See Rabbi David ibn Zimra, Magen David, beginning of ot zayin.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for's Ask the Rabbi service.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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S. Levy Brazil July 25, 2017

We´ve been told there´s no harm or infringement in holding pork products at home, as long as they´re properly seald up. The harm comes if they´re not packed and contaminate kitchen implements, other foods, etc. AND ALSO if by mischance one eats fom this meat - of course! Reply

Sara Fishman Worcester, MA March 6, 2017

Mei Raglayim on linen? The Mishna states that Mei Raglayim (urine) could not be used to improve (whiten? urine is a whitening agent) the "tziporen" for ketoret because bringing such a substance into the Mikdash was inappropriate. The priestly garments were made of white linen, but raw linen in beige, not white. Linen can be whitened by long exposure to sunlight, but it's a lengthy process. Does anyone know if it was permissible to use urine to whiten the linen? Or was that forbidden as for the ketores? Would it matter if the urine came from a kosher animal? I think these questions are related to the issue of using non-kosher dyes, since both cases involve a change of color. I'm interested in finding out more about the technologies used in ancient times. Reply

S.Levy Brazil July 25, 2017
in response to Sara Fishman :

Kosher(?) Urine Urine contains infinite impurities, it´s the ammonia that bleaches-whitens the material. Also, in a n emergency you can use urine to neutralize the poison from insect or scorpion bites, if you´re in the middle of nowhere, where would you find a pharmacy to help? Reply

Michael Friedman New York March 4, 2017

There is absolutely no problem using clothing ior other items mde from not kosher leather. It is only Mitzvah related items (called Tashmishei Mitzvah and Tashmishei Kedusha) which are a problem to use non kosher animals, a rule called "min haMuter bPicha, from that which is allowed kn your mouth." In fact, this rule only applies to the species of animal, and even Tefillin, Mezuzos and the like can be made from the skin of a kosher species which did not have a proper shechita, even though the meat of such an anomal would in fact be prohibited. As such, there is certainly no problem with your sandals, watch or wallet. Reply

NngmingBongle Bapuohyele Accra, Ghana March 3, 2017

I try to live a Torah-observant life in an environment where there are very few people pursuing my kind of lifestyle around me. I have been very worried for a while now whether it was permissible to wear sandals, straps of wrist watches, carry wallets or suitcases made of leathers from the hides of non-kosher animals! This has led to opting for synthetic products much of the time.

Can you please advise me on what is safe for me to do?? Can I wear sandals made from skins of non-kosher animals?? Reply

Anonymous March 3, 2017

Amen! Thanks for posting! Reply

Natalie Kehr London March 3, 2017

Silk I am puzzled by this comment:- "Incidentally, the biblical commentator Rabbeinu Bechaya ben Asher (1255-1340) explains that this is why silk (which comes from a non-kosher silkworm) wasn’t used in the building of the Mishkan.2" According to Wikipedia, at the time of the building of the Mishkan silk worms existed only in China. If you disagree, perhaps you could gather enough reliable evidence to alter the Wikipedia entry on the history of silk. Reply

Tom Odessa March 2, 2017

Maybe i am wrong, but i thought one could not touch the corpse of an unclean animal either Reply

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