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Eternal Blue

Baruch Sterman

Here I was, digging in the sand along the Mexican shores of Huatulco overlooking the endless ocean. This was no vacation, though. I was on a mission to search out a particular snail

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

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SNAIL TALE We all know that the mitzvah of tzitzis is comprised of white and techeiles strings. If techeiles is available and one neglects wearing it, he has neglected a mitzvah d’Oraisa. But is the Murex trunculus snail the correct source of techeiles? (Photos: Nestor Diaz Diego)

J ust spit at it,” Delia told me.

“What did you say?” I asked, assuming I had heard wrong.

“You have to irritate it,” she explained, “and nothing irritates a snail more than someone spitting at it.”

I did what I was told.

After all, Delia was a marine biologist, our expedition’s resident expert on all things malacological. Sure enough, from underneath the operculum, the hard fingernail-like covering the snail uses to seal itself in its shell, a yellow slime began to ooze. It turned out to be quite an amount, maybe two milliliters or so, and certainly more than I had imagined such a tiny creature could produce. Small bubbles formed around the perimeter of the snail’s aperture as it filled with the precious liquid.

Habacuc (pronounced Habakuk) waggled his finger, as if warning me to be careful. I didn’t understand then, but later I came to appreciate his wisdom and experience. It turns out that sometimes when you spit at a snail, it might just spit back. The things you can learn from a Mixtec Indian with the name of a navi…

I should have heeded his warning. At 75, Habacuc Avendaño was the oldest and certainly the most experienced of the Mixtec dyers. His ancestors have been coming to these rocky shores of Huatulco, in the Oaxaca region of southwest Mexico, for countless centuries. Habacuc has been dyeing his entire life and knows the snails intimately, their characteristics and habits, their environment, their likes and dislikes. He is also very conscious of the precarious situation they now face as modern developers, who have discovered the beauty (and lucrative potential) of the Pacific beaches, threaten their habitat and resources.

What brought me, an Orthodox Jew, all the way from Israel to Huatulco? It wasn’t the luxury apartment boom. It wasn’t tourism either, which is the main draw of this sleepy little town with its gorgeous natural coves and lagoons, and its magnificent cliffs overlooking the endless ocean. I was on a mission, traveling literally around the globe, to study the Plicopurpura pansa snail and test if its yellow secretion could be used in the service of Hashem to fulfill the mitzvah of techeiles, that precious blue thread the Torah commands us to wear on our tzitzis (Bamidbar 15:37).

For the past 25 years, as cofounder of Ptil Tekhelet (along with my close friends Joel Guberman and Ari Greenspan, and our mentor Rav Eliyahu Tavger), I have been blessed with the zechus to be involved in the renewal of the mitzvah of techeiles, the only mitzvah in the Torah to have been completely lost — and then, in our opinion, revived.

“V’nasnu al tzitzis hakanaf psil techeiles — And they shall put on the corner fringe a thread of techeiles,” is read every day in the Shema. Yet for the past 1,300 years, the mitzvah of techeiles was lost, and the identity of the marine creature that produced the dye, the chilazon, as it is called in the Gemara, as well as the methods of obtaining and processing its fluid, fell into obscurity.

Habacuc’s family has been dyeing beautiful purple fabrics for generations. When I manipulated the dye with sunlight and my fabric turned blue, he was sure it was some kind of chemical trick

It was only very recently that the convergence of renewed study of the relevant Torah sources, chance archaeological finds, and serendipitous discoveries in marine biology and dye chemistry, has led many to the conclusion that the source of the ancient techeiles was the Mediterranean sea-snail Murex trunculus. Although most Jews continue to wear the traditional tzitzis with white strings, there is a greater interest today in techeiles strings in many Jewish communities.

But this growth in demand and production has left us with a sense of concern and a feeling of deep responsibility. We at Ptil Tekhelet want to ensure that techeiles will be affordable and available to every Jew who chooses to wear it, now and for future generations. It was this sentiment that brought me to Huatulco in Mexico.

Snail Suppliers

The Gemara contains many interesting descriptions and statements regarding the chilazon, including how and where it is caught, and how the dyeing process was carried out. The writings of contemporary Greek and Roman naturalists augment the Talmudic accounts. Like today, in ancient times the snails were caught in baited nets and the dye was extracted by breaking open the shells and removing a tiny gland covered with mucus — what the Gemara calls dam chilazon, the blood or secretion of the snail. This must be done while the snail is still alive because, as the Gemara states (Shabbos 75a), the dyer “prefers that it should be alive, so that the dye should be clearer.”

The chilazon was found throughout the Mediterranean, “from the cliffs of Tyre to Haifa” (along the northern coast of Israel and into Lebanon), and as far as the Isles of Elisha (probably Cyprus, Crete, Greece, or Italy).

Over the years, we have obtained our snails from a number of places. At one point, we were importing them from southern Spain, but then an oil spill off the coast of Gibraltar led to a complete ban on fishing in that region, thus shutting off our supply for nearly two years. This event taught us caution as well as the importance of stockpiling reserves of dye to ensure uninterrupted production of techeiles regardless of man-made or natural disasters. Though our supply of snails is currently abundant and stable, we are constantly looking for additional sources.

That is why I was intrigued when I received an e-mail from Kathy, a school teacher in Chicago, who had read my book The Rarest Blue, which tells the story of the loss and rediscovery of techeiles. Kathy traced her family roots back 500 years to Marranos who fled Spain and the Inquisition to the promise of safety in the New World. They settled in the hills of Oaxaca, Mexico, in the small town of Pinotepa de Don Luis, which happened to be home to a large population of Mixtec Indians, an indigenous people who had been living in that region for thousands of years.

One of the most noteworthy features of Mixtec culture is their use of sea snails to dye beautiful purple fabrics for commercial as well as ritual purposes. Kathy’s family still lived in Oaxaca, and she asked if I would be interested in joining her on her next visit to meet the Mixtec dyers and to learn about their methods. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 655)

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