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!