Sunday, November 22, 2020

Weekend Review: The Rarest Blue

The Rarest Blue / Baruch Sterman & Judy Taubes Sterman
Guildford, CT: Lyons Press, c2012
305 p.

This book is a mix of ancient history tracing the path of Murex dyes across the centuries, a scientific treatise of dye and colour perception, and specific tiny points of Jewish law and history. It works, to a point.

It looks at the search for tekhelet, a specific sky blue dye that is required in Jewish law to dye threads to attach to one's prayer shawl. Sterman goes into what the dye was, why it was important to Hasidic Jews, how it was made in ancient days (discovered by the Minoans, traded by Phoenicians, worn by Roman elites, used in Jewish religious tradition), and the effort by Hasidic rabbis over the last two centuries to recover the secrets of how this dye was made. 

The search for how Murex dyeing works was fascinating, even though it's also quite disturbing, being dependent on mutilating live snails and discarding them after the one precious gland is harvested. There was no real discussion about the ethics of this practice or any moves toward a more sustainable method of harvesting the important chemical -- but when religion gets involved in things, other considerations often get tossed out the window. That is my own observation, not something that is discussed in this book.

The history of blue and purple dyes is interesting and exciting; I recall Lydia, the seller of purple, in the bible and how that mention always intrigued me as a child. And of course the history of Minoan and Phoenician culture is always fascinating, at least to me. The details of how the dye is made is both compelling and disgusting -- who knew that the smell was so bad that a woman whose husband became a dyer after they were married was entitled to a divorce if she wanted one! I found these parts great reading and very informative. 

However, there didn't seem to be strong organization in this book, it talks about a lot of different things and sometimes themes and timelines get mixed up, at least for this reader. It also feels like it goes on a little too long; the chapter on the physics of colour perception could have easily been dropped without being missed. 

If you are interested in dyes and their cultural relevance, this is a good read. Keep in mind that the authors are also head of the Ptil Tekhelet Association, an organization dedicated to selling this rediscovered tekhelet dye and the threads required by this obscure biblical directive, so they might not be as objective about its importance as another person would. But they do know what they're talking about when it comes to how this dye was recovered from the mists of history and put back into production. 

This was an unusual find and one that I learned quite a lot from. Pretty interesting that I was reading this while making my latest super blue dress!


  1. Hi Melanie! I love your book reviews and have read some you suggested. Regarding this one, I would like to comment on your opinion that " when it comes to religion, other things (implying ethics) get tossed...." I must beg to strongly differ with you in this case. First,snails die quickly out of water, so they were not being mutilated alive as you state. Judaisn has a very strong sense of ethics and morality towards animal life as well as human life. There are many examples of this in the bible (five books of Moses) as well as the Talmud, which functions as both a legal and ethica/moral guide for life.. The laws of kosher slaughter exist specifically so the animal will not suffer, as opposed to non kosher slaughter. Many of the guidelines and situations described in the Torah (5 books of Moses +Talmud) discuss many situations involving animals and how to behave appropriately and ethically. Eating oysters, which are actually ALIVE, and boiling lobsters alive, are definitely not part of judaism! Nothing in Judaism 'gets tossed' for the religion's sake.On the contrary, routine acts of daily living and interaction with other people both personal and business are guided by a strict sense of ethics and morals. They are not arbitrary rules, but guided by moral principles, always.

    1. I see your point, but I do feel that religious principles often outweigh other considerations in many cases, not only this particular one, or only in Judaism. This is my own opinion from my own experiences.

      I certainly do not mean to imply that ethics are not a key part of religious systems, but that sometimes viewpoints are in conflict around areas like this.

      Thank you for sharing your views and the information on animal ethics throughout Judaism. I feel strongly about this as I've been a vegetarian and animal rights supporter for nearly 30 years, so perhaps can be a little reactive in this area.

    2. I definitely agree. (Why do we eat one animal and make others pets!?) I don't know all the details of other religions, so I can only speak for my own. Actually my family also has recently given up eating meat! So much happier. The first chief rabbi of the State of Israel was vegetarian,and many feel that vegetarianism is the higher level one should try to attain.
      You should read the book "Eating Animals" recommended to me, not read yet. ��

    3. Thanks for the book recommendation, I always like to find new reading!

  2. Sorry, I think I commented in the wrong section....see above
    Be well! Love your sewing creations also (here in Thornhill Ont!)


Share your comments, ideas or suggestions here -- I am always interested in hearing from readers. It's nice to have a conversation!