“Out of the Blue” Exhibit Opens for a Year at Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem

by Sybil Kaplan July 26, 2018


woolen-fleeces-dyed-in-different-shades-of-blue-with-dye-from-murex-snailsDid you ever wonder about the origin of the blue thread on the corner of a talit or tzitzit (the four-corned garment worn by religious Jewish men daily)?  What about the origin of the blue stripes on the Israeli flag? Could it be that a color so important had been lost? Why did it take so long for the information about the colors to surface?

These questions are answered in a new exhibition, “Out of the Blue,” which opened June 1 and runs for a year. In honor of Israel’s 70th anniversary, the exhibit reveals the secrets of the tekhelet, the precious blue color, and the argaman, the purple color, known thousands of years ago.

Jewish sources attributed great importance to the tekhelet blue. The Israelites were commanded to cover the Ark of the Covenant and Tabernacle utensils with the blue-dyed cloth (Exodus 25); the robe of the High Priest was pure blue; and Israelites were commanded to tie threads of blue to the corners of their garments as a reminder of G-d and his commandments (Numbers 15:37).

When the Romans took over in the 7th century, ownership of the dyes was even a crime punishable by death, according to Dr. Baruch Sterman, a physicist who helped develop the modern techniques for dyeing.

With the decline of the blue and purple dye industry, the skill required to produce these dyes was lost and forgotten.

In recent years, the origins were traced to murex snails indigenous to the Mediterranean Sea.

Members of the foreign press were recently invited to an amazing tour of the exhibition led by the three curators. In addition, the press watched a demonstration by Dr. Baruch Sterman, co-founder in 1991 of  Ptil Yekhelet, located in KfarAdumim, to promote and produce tekhelet strings for tzitzit. The company also provides educational programming and resources pertaining to tekhelet. During the press conference, Dr. Sterman gave the history of the dyes produced 4,000 years ago used on the garments of the High Priest and then commanded to be on the garments of others.

In front of our eyes, he showed how the crushed glands of the murex snails were placed in a beaker of boiling water but did not dissolve until chemicals were added. When cotton was placed in the beaker and the beaker placed into the sun, the yellow color soon turned to blue providing an amazing chemistry.

Dr. Sterman and his wife, Judy Taubes Sterman, have written “the remarkable story of an ancient color lost to history and rediscovered,” in their book, The Rarest Blue, published by Lyons Press and subsequently published by Ptil Tekhelet.

Curators Yehuda Kaplan, Oree Meiri and Yigal Bloch guided journalists through the exhibition.

One panel states that “the earliest archaeological evidence for the purple dye industry is the 15th century BCE. This industry flourished on the coast of Lebanon and also spread to the coast of Israel.

Another exhibit shows the murex snails (each journalist was given a banded murex snail in a tiny net bag). It takes 1,000 to 10,000 snails to produce one kilo (2.2 pounds) of blue wool.

Among the amazing more contemporary exhibits with the blue used in Israeli flags are: the Israeli flag placed aboard the Apollo space craft in 1975 and the flag raised at the United Nations when Israel was declared a state in 1948.

Anyone coming to Jerusalem in the next year should be sure to visit this fascinating exhibition. The Museum is located opposite the Israel Museum and is open Sunday through Thursday. Go to blmj.org/en for information.


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