The ProsenPeople

Transforming the Magical

Thursday, February 28, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Baruch and Judy Sterman wrote about their obsession with blue. They have been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

We were sitting in an upscale café in Northern Tel Aviv waiting to meet with Knesset member Yitzchak “Bougie” Herzog. As number two in the Israeli Labor party, he was in the middle of campaigning for the upcoming elections, and we were grateful to have a few minutes of his time. The purpose of our meeting was to present him with a copy of our book, The Rarest Blue, and to thank him for the information he had provided while we were preparing it. The dedication that we had inscribed in the book included our desire “to express our inestimable appreciation for the work of your namesake, your grandfather the great Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, whose contributions to the study of tekhelet were unparalleled.”

Tekhelet, the precious blue that, in accordance with the biblical commandment, colored one string of the tzitzit worn by Jews in ancient times, was the subject of our book and also the theme of Rabbi Herzog’s doctoral dissertation for the University of London almost a century ago. His thesis investigated all aspects of the topic in an attempt to determine why the technology of manufacturing the dye had disappeared from the world, when exactly it had been lost, and what was the mysterious source of the valuable dye. His doctorate was the beginning of a life-long passion whose ultimate goal – the restoration of the forgotten biblical commandment – would not be realized until after Rabbi Herzog’s death.

As our exploration into the Rabbi’s life and work progressed, our admiration for him grew. He was a unique sort of genius: a brilliant Talmudist, he also was thoroughly versed in diverse fields from history to law to chemistry, and was fluent in 12 languages. But Herzog was no scholar in a cloistered library. He was a man of action who felt a burning responsibility for his people. Chief Rabbi, first of Ireland (1919-1936), then of Palestine, and eventually of the State of Israel (a position he held until his death in 1959), his tenure was one that coincided with the most devastating horrors for the Jewish people as well as their greatest moments of triumph.

Rabbi Herzog’s scholarly work radically transformed the traditional Jewish perception of tekhelet. Before him, many if not most religious Jews believed that the hillazon, the sea animal that, according to the Talmud, produced the precious dye, was some kind of magical, mythical creature akin to the shamir – the legendary worm capable of boring through any material and used to hew the stone for the altar in the Temple, or the Leviathan on which it is said the righteous will feast in the World to Come. Tekhelet, most Jews thought, would be restored only when the third temple descended from Heaven, since both belonged to that miraculous realm. But Rabbi Herzog argued that tekhelet was a natural phenomenon and that the hillazon was a physical albeit elusive sea snail that could be rediscovered through intense scientific, historical, and archeological research. And that is exactly what happened. Because of Rabbi Herzog’s paradigm shift, today hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world wear the tekhelet that had been lost for 1,300 years.

The ability to innovate that Rabbi Herzog displayed in his doctorate became a hallmark characteristic of his work throughout his life. His most significant achievements had to do with the application of Jewish law in ingenious and often daring ways in order to achieve a harmony within the complex interplay of values confronting the modern, democratic, religious state of Israel – an entity that had never been conceived of before.

Rabbi Herzog stands as a role model for all, challenging us not only to study as much as we can, not only to take action to realize our dreams, but to stretch the very boundaries of our imagination and create completely novel ways of thinking, and to transform the magical into the practical.

Baruch and Judy Sterman's The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered is now available. Read more about the book here.

Obsession in Blue

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 | Permalink
Baruch and Judy Sterman's The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered is now available. They will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

We admit it, we are obsessed with blue. Also with seashells and snails. Our house is filled with skeins of blue threads, tufts of wool in every shade of blue imaginable, and dozens of shells of different sizes and peculiar shapes. But we weren’t always so infatuated.

We were introduced to the wonderful world of blue quite by chance. Late one Thursday night, around twenty years ago, an old high-school buddy called and asked if I would like to join him the next day to go scuba diving in the Mediterranean. He was going to help a dedicated rabbi collect some sea-snails. Not just any snails, but a particular species that had once been used to produce the fabulously expensive and stunning dye known as biblical blue, or tekhelet. In the ancient world, tekhelet had been a cornerstone commodity worth up to twenty times its weight in gold, but for centuries it had been lost and all but forgotten. Only recently had there been a revival of interest in the ancient dyeing process. I myself had only a faint knowledge of the topic of tekhelet, which is mentioned numerous times in the Bible as the main component of the priestly garments and the decorative curtains of the Temple.

The night my friend called was cold and wintery, and the next day was going to be the same or worse. Joining him would mean that I’d have to wake up before dawn in order to make it from my home in Jerusalem to the Northern coast and back before Shabbat. I had every reason to bow out, but words seemed to come out of my mouth before I could properly think them through: “Sure – see you at four.” Those words were the beginning of an adventure that would start as a curiosity, develop into a passion, and ultimately become the obsession that virtually defines my identity.

We realize, of course, that not everyone sees the world through blue colored glasses, though we are continually surprised by how many people – from rabbis to chemists, from painters and numismatists to scholars specializing in magic and superstition – have in fact devoted their lives to researching all areas relating to this ancient dye. Indeed, hunting for snails and performing micro-surgery to extract a tiny gland in order to obtain a fraction of a gram of dye might appear to be an arcane activity of little relevance to modern sensibilities.

But these lowly snails have a world to teach us. And in many ways, that is itself the most important lesson that we have learned from our involvement in the tekhelet story. We have seen, over and over again, how when you start to dig deeply into a topic, regardless of how small and insignificant it seems at first glance, you soon begin to realize the interconnectivity of all knowledge. One thing leads to another; one aspect of research sheds light on a vastly different area of investigation, and in some cases can lead to new ideas, and even fundamental reevaluation of accepted notions. Dig deep enough into any small region of human endeavor, and you will eventually reach the spring of wisdom below – everything is related, and each well taps into a different part of the underlying whole.

ptsia2The principles of molecular spectroscopy that I had encountered during my studies towards a doctorate in laser physics help explain why the molecule produced by our snails is unique as virtually the only natural occurrence of a lasting blue dye. The power of blue was the motivation behind one German artist’s choice to explore the effects of pressing snail glands onto a canvas to produce mesmerizing swirls of blue, and the psychological effects of blue studied by scientists prompted the Japanese transit authority’s decision to replace all their subway lighting with blue LEDs. (They say the calming effects of the color blue have reduced the spate of suicides in the train stations).

Isaac Newton compared himself to a young child “playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” We are all playing on the shores of the very same endless sea, and sometimes even seemingly insignificant shells may turn out to be, in the Bible’s words, “treasures hidden in the sand.” Uncovering these treasures, one by one, adds to man’s understanding of the world around him. And each person’s passion contributes to our collective knowledge, ever growing and increasing… if only at a snail’s pace.

Check back on Thursday for more from Baruch and Judy Sterman for the Visiting Scribe. Read more about The Rarest Blue here.