What Is Tekhelet (Techelet)?

In ancient times, the tallit would have two kinds of threads attached to the corners, white wool (or whatever the garment was made of) and blue wool. This blue wool, known as tekhelet, was the hallmark of nobility, and in line with the tallit’s purpose of reminding the Jew that he is a member of G‑d’s “kingdom of priests.”

We read in the Torah:1 “Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes (tzitzit) on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and that they shall affix a thread of tekhelet on the fringe of each corner.”

The verse contains two requirements. One is to affix (white) fringes on the corners of a four-cornered garment, and the other is to add a thread of tekhelet to each corner. These two requirements are independent of each other. When tekhelet is available, we are enjoined to add a tekhelet fringe to the tzitzit; when unavailable, we fulfill the mitzvah with plain white fringes.

The unique blue dye was made from a byproduct of a sea creature known as the chilazon, which lives in the Mediterranean Sea.

So why is it not so common today to have a tekhelet fringe on the tallit or tzitzit?

At a certain point in history, approximately 1000 years ago, the chilazon, which was always hard to come by—to the extent that the Talmud2 tells us that it surfaced only once every seventy years—became unavailable altogether. After a while, its exact identity became unknown.

The Quest for Tekhelet

 Rabbi Y.I. Herzog (Mihael Almagor/Wiki)
Rabbi Y.I. Herzog (Mihael Almagor/Wiki)

There have been many who have tried to rediscover the identity of the chilazon. Most notable among them were the Radziner rebbe, Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner (1839–1891), and Israeli Chief Rabbi Y. I. Herzog (1888–1959).

Rabbi Leiner maintained that the cuttlefish was the lost chilazon, and proceeded to produce and distribute dye produced from this fish.

Recently, the marine snail Murex trunculus has been identified as possibly being the elusive chilazon, and many use its dye.

A murex snail (Credit: H. Krisp/Wiki)
A murex snail (Credit: H. Krisp/Wiki)

Many, however, view the findings of these groups as uncertain. In addition, the kabbalists write that our current lack of tekhelet is consistent with our diminished spiritual state.3 As such, most continue to wear only white fringes, awaiting the coming of Moshiach, when Elijah himself will guide us in uncovering the identity of the chilazon.

This was the position of Rabbi Sholom DovBer, the fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch, who maintained that tekhelet will not return until the coming of the Messiah.4