Forward Thinking

My Search for the Perfect Biblical Blue

By Jeffrey K. Salkin

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A few of the author’s many blue inks on paper. / Jeffrey K. Salkin

It’s time for me to confess my hobby. I collect and use fountain pens. I have no memory of how I first got into this particular way of writing. No, it has nothing to do with the fabled “Today I am a fountain pen” bar mitzvah speech (though, having gone to many vintage pen shows, I can attest to the fact that many a bar mitzvah gift has wound up on the sales tables).

As a fountain pen user, I use bottled ink and/or ink cartridges. I use a lot of blue inks. Probably too many. It’s because I’ve been searching for the perfect blue ink — the precisely right shade. I am not alone; this is a common theme among pen lovers.

People actually argue about this stuff. Part of those arguments include kaddishes for some beloved blue inks that are no longer available — except to Ebay prowlers, perhaps. Parker Penman, for example, is a cult favorite. It is in ink heaven somewhere — hopefully being used by the Holy One Blessed Be He to write the names of the righteous in the Book of Life.

What’s the deal with this incessant — one might even say obsessive — search for that perfect shade of blue? (It’s not limited to ink enthusiasts, either; have you ever seen people go crazy over the different versions of blue in the Benjamin Morris paint chart?) Recently it’s occurred to me that my search for the “perfect” blue is just a modern, secular version of Judaism’s frustrated and frustrating search for the “real” and historically accurate shade of the biblical tekhelet, mentioned in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah.

I am well aware that entire scholarly volumes have been written, debating the source and the true shade of tekhelet, which at least makes me feel a bit better about my, well, thing.

Why don’t we know what tekhelet really looked like? For one thing, we just don’t know what its source was. Tekhelet comes from a dye that is made from the blood of a shellfish called chilazon. It lived in the Mediterranean Sea. But the chilazon is lost — like a pile of other Jewish things, including the pronunciation of the four-letter name of God.

Okay, so the chilazon is a non-starter. Still, tekhelet must have been a beautiful color. After all, princes and nobles wore garments of tekhelet (Ezek. 23:6) and it was used for the expensive fabrics in the royal palace (Esth. 1:6).

So, what did it look like? Some say that tekhelet resembled the color of the sea. Fine — except haven’t you noticed that different seas have different colors? Long Island Sound; the Caribbean; the Gulf of Mexico: Some of those “seas” are more grey than anything else. So, some ancient sages say that tekhelet is somewhere between green and blue (Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 1:5, 3a).

Some say that tekhelet was a sky blue. Fine — but which sky? Early morning? Afternoon? Dusk? Was tekhelet a “real” blue, or a purplish blue? Purple is, after all, the color of royalty. Around Tyre and Ras-Shamra — the site of ancient Ugarit — large quantities of shells of a snail that excreted a purple dye have been found.

The Midrash notes that “nowadays we only possess white tzizit, the tekhelet having been concealed” (Bemidbar Rabba 17:5). Nevertheless, in 1888, Gershon Hanokh Leiner, the Hasidic rabbi of Radzin, proposed the re-introduction of the mitzvah of tekhelet. He went so far as to identify the chilazon as the cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis (vulgaris), which has a gland in its body that secretes a blue-black dye. That is why some Jews wear tallitot adorned with a fringe of (what the weaver thinks is) tekhelet.

Every so often, someone will announce that he/she has found the tekhelet. It happened again just a few weeks ago. A headline in Haaretz proclaimed: “Fragment containing ancient ‘tekhelet’ dye discovered near Dead Sea.” It resembles blue denim.

I don’t know. Of course, how could I know? How could anyone know?

Maybe that’s precisely the point. First, isn’t it a little presumptuous to think you’ve found the tekhelet? And second, isn’t there a small (or not so small) measure of delight in knowing that this is one of those impenetrable mysteries of Jewish history? Like the name of Noah’s wife, or the accurate pronunciation of the name of God, or the location of the ten tribes…all mysteries, and all part of the way that we imagine ourselves as Jews.

As for me, I cannot believe that I just went and bought another bottle of blue ink. This one, I tell myself, is it. The true blue I’ve been searching for.

Yeah, right. Stop me before I buy another one.

Jeffrey K. Salkin is a prominent author and lecturer whose books have been published by Jewish Lights Publishing and the Jewish Publication Society. He serves as the rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, New Jersey.


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