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 (19191936), 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.

Baruch received his doc­tor­ate in physics at the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty, and is a lead­ing tech­nol­o­gist in the Israeli high-tech sec­tor. He is co-founder of the Ptil Tekhelet Asso­ci­a­tion, which has restored the ancient bib­li­cal blue dye. Orig­i­nal­ly from New Jer­sey, he lives in Efrat with his wife Judy (co-author of The Rarest Blue) and their sev­en children.