Animals of the Mishkan

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Parsha Halacha / Parshat Terumah

The Chilazon and the Tola’at HaShani

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The Torah portion of Terumah discusses the materials that the Jewish people donated to the Mishkan. [1] Among the fifteen items mentioned, five of them involved animals.

  • The techeilet (blue wool) was colored with dye made from the blood of the chilazon[2](see below). This techeilet was used in the tapestries as well as in the clothing of the Kohen Gadol.[3]
  • The tola’at shani (scarlet wool) was made from the product of a worm (see below). Like the techeilet, the tola’at shani was used in the tapestries as well as in the clothing of the Kohen Gadol.
  • Goat hair was used to make the second layer of tapestries that covered the Mishkan.[4]
  • The skins of rams were used to make the third layer of tapestries that covered the Mishkan.
  • Lastly, the skins of the tachash (see below) were used to make the top layer of tapestries that covered the Mishkan.[5]

This article will discuss the identity of the first two of these animals, the chilazon and the worm, and the question whether it was permissible to use non-kosher products for the Mishkan.

The Chilazon

The Talmud says,[6] “The chilazon resembles the sea in its color while in shape it resembles a fish; it appears once in seventy years, and with its blood one dyes the blue thread (techeilet). Therefore [due to the rarity of this creature] it is so expensive.

There has been much discussion among the Rabbis of the 19th and 20th centuries about the identity of this sea creature. The context of this discussion was that some Rabbis wanted to renew the practice of wearing a blue techeilet string in the tzitzit as per the commandment in Numbers 16:38.

Based on those discussions, here are some of the opinions as to the identity of this animal:

·          After extensive research, Rabbi Gershon Chanoch Heinech Leiner, the third Radziner Rebbe (1838-1890), announced that he had discovered the identity of the chilazon and that it was the common cuttlefish.[7]

·          Rabbi Isaac HaLevi Herzog, the first chief rabbi of the state of Israel[8] (1888 – 1959), advanced a theory that the chilazon is the janthina, commonly known as the purple snail.[9]

·         Based on recent archeological finds, many believe that the chilazon is the murex trunculus (a medium-sized sea snail).[10]

·         Many authorities say that we cannot identify the chilazon with certainty at this time and that only Moshiach will reveal its true identity.[11]

Tola’at Shani

The Jerusalem Talmud says[12] that the word tola’at shani was made from a live animal – a worm.[13] Thus, tola’at shani should be translated as the scarlet worm. A dye was extracted from this worm which was used to color the wool. The wool was also called tola’at shani.[14]

Some identify this “worm” with the kermesidae, a family of scale insects that infest oak trees. A red dye, also called kermes (crimson), can be obtained from this insect.[15]

Silk and Silkworm

The Abarbanel says the tola’at shani was a silkworm and that the material used in the Mishkan was silk.

Only Kosher Animals

Rabeinu Bachaye rejects this opinion based on the fact that the silkworm is not kosher and that the product of a non-kosher animal would not be used in the Mishkan as the Talmud says,[16] “Only the skins of kosher animals are acceptable for Divine service.” (The Talmud speaks about skins because it is referring to the tachash the skins of which were used as a covering of the Mishkan [see above]. But the same should apply to all animal products.)

Rabeinu Bachaye therefore says that the tola’at shani is wool dyed scarlet (as explained above), but the dye was not obtained from the worm but from the seeds in which these worms reside.[17]

This is also the opinion of the Rambam who writes, “Tola’at refers to very red berries that resemble carob seeds. They are like sumach berries. There is a bug, like a gnat, in every berry.”[18]

Understanding the Jerusalem Talmud

There are several explanations given in defense of the Jerusalem Talmud according to which the blood of a worm was used to make the tola’at shani.

  • Dye May be Non-Kosher

Rav Ovadiah Yosef explains[19] that using dye made from a non-kosher animal does not contradict the rule that only kosher products were used in the Mishkan because dye is only a color and not the main product (which is the wool). This also explains why it was acceptable to use the blood of the chilazon (see above) to produce blue dye for the techeilet.

  • The Blood of the Worm was Dried

The Maharam Chaviv (cited in the Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez) explains the process of making the tola’at shani dye as follows:

“There are trees that do not produce fruit. What grows on them are small, fruit- like, ‘lentils.’ In each of these there are approximately 100 worms that are full of blood. They are pressed together and do not move from their place. If one splits open this ‘lentil’ when it is fresh, his hand will immediately become full of the blood that comes from their small shells. If one were to squeeze these creatures, they would look like blackberry soup. The traders buy these ‘lentils’ and dry them in the summer months. As a result of the heat of the sun, the worms die and the ‘lentils’ are dried and sold. The ‘lentils’ are later soaked in water which becomes red. This dye is called carmine and is used to color clothing and objects…”

He continues to explain, “This is not considered a forbidden matter, being that it is made from a worm, since it was dried and became like dust as we explained… There is no moisture left in it, so the prohibition (against consuming it) has gone.”

  • Not Produced by the Jewish People

The Chida[20] explains that the Jewish people did not produce this dye. Rather they purchased wool that had already been dyed scarlet. Similarly, they did not themselves produce the dye from the chilazon (with which to dye the techeliet, the blue wool,) but purchased wool that was already colored by that particular dye. Since by the time the item was brought to the Mishkan there were no non-kosher edible items, this is considered acceptable.

Applying this to the Chilazon

Several of the explanations given above for the tola’at shani also answer the question of how the blood of the chilazon could be used in the Mishkan. As explained, according to Rabbi Yosef, it was only a dye and not the main product while according to the Chida, the Jewish people did not produce it themselves.[21]

There are two additional explanations offered regarding the chilazon:

Is the Chilazon a Kosher Fish?

The Chida suggests[22] that the chilazon may have, in fact, been a kosher fish. He bases this on a comment he found in the responsa called Besamim Rosh (Siman 244). As the Chida himself writes, this work was discredited and, in fact, turned out to be a forgery.[23]

Pseudo Techeilet

Some say[24] that, although the techeilet for the tzitzit had to be made from the chilazon, which was not kosher, the techeilet for the Mishkan could be made from other natural materials and not necessarily from the chilazon.

This is based on the Rambam who writes, “The term techeilet mentioned throughout the Torahrefers to wool dyed light blue – i.e., the color of the sky which appears opposite the sun when there is a clear sky.

“The term techeilet when used regarding tzitzit refers to a specific dye that remains beautiful without changing. If the techeilet is not dyed with this dye, it is unfit to be used as tzitzit even though it is sky-blue in color… How is the techeilet of tzitzit dyed? Wool is taken and soaked in lime… A chilazon is a fish whose color is like the color of the sea and whose blood is black like ink…The blood is placed in a pot together with herbs – e.g., chamomile – as is the dyers’ practice. It is boiled and then the wool is inserted. It is left there until it becomes sky-blue. This is the manner in which the techeilet of tzitzit is made.”

The wording of the Rambam indicates that it was only necessary to use the chilazon for tzitzit but not when making techeilet for other mitzvot, i.e. the Mishkan.[25]

The Bait Yosef writes (in O.C. 32) that for a mitzvah where the Torah does not specifically proscribe the use of an animal product, if one chooses to use the product of a non-kosher animal, it is allowed.

This explains how it was permissible to use the chilazon for the blue wool in the Mishkan. Since it was acceptable to produce the same dye from plant materials, it was permissible to use non-kosher products if they so chose.

May we soon merit to once again use these materials in the building of the Third Bait HaMikdash, speedily in our time!

[1] Exodus 25:1-9

[2] Rashi on verse 4 based on Menachot 44a and Tosefta Menachot, 9:6

[3] See Exodus, 28

[4] See ibid 26:7-13

[5] See ibid verse 14

[6] Menachot ibid

[7] See Petil Techeilet (Lublin 1904) and Ein HaTecheilet (Jerusalem 1963) by Rabbi Gershon Chaonch Leiner


[8] Rabbi Avrohom Isaac HaKohen Kook was the chief rabbi of Palestine, but he passed away in 1935.

[9] See “The Royal Purple and the Biblical Blue,” published by Keter Publishing House, 1987


[10] See Kelil Techeilet, (Jerusalem 19993) by Rabbi Eliyahu Tavgar


[11] See Igrot Kodesh of the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, letter # 158

[12] Kilayim, 9:1

[13] In fact, the Jerusalem Talmud says that just as the tola’at shani was made from an animal, the same is true of the other species. Thus, according to the Jerusalem Talmud, the argaman (purple wool) was also made from an animal product (explanation of Rash Sirirlio on the Jerusalem Talmud). See Petil Techeilet (by Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner, page 67a) who cites the Pirush Hamishnayot of the Rambam who writes that argaman is “laka.” The Talmud (Chullin 28a and Rashi) says that “laka” is made from the blood of an animal.  

[14] Penei Moshe and Mahara Fulda in explanation of the Jerusalem Talmud

[15] Professor Zohar Amar of Bar Ilan University in Be’ikvot Tola’at HaShani, Jerusalem 2007


[16] Shabbat 28a

[17] I’m not sure how the Rabbeinu Bachaye would explain the fact that the techeilet dye comes from the chilazon. Perhaps he is of the opinion that the chilazon is a kosher fish.

[18] Hilchot Parah Adumah, 3:2

[19] Yabi’a Omer, Vo. 1 O.C. 1:9

[20] In Nachal Kedumim on the verse

[21] The Talmud (Shabbat 74b) states that the reason that tying and untying is counted at two of the 39 melachot is that, when trapping the chilazon, they would tie knots in the nets and sometimes they would have to untie those knots. The Chida explains that, although this work was done by gentiles, because it was necessary for the building of the Mishkan, it is still included in the 39 melachot. But the Chida also cites the Radvaz (Siman 685) who says that it was the Jewish people who themselves trapped the chilazon in the Sea of Reeds.

[22] In Nachal Kedumim, ibid and in Tov Ayin, Siman 9, ot 12

[24] Avnei Nezer,  O.C. 15:8-9

[25] This opinion of the Rambam seems to be contradicted by the Jerusalem Talmud (cited above) that indicates that just as the tola’at shani was made with an animal, so too, the techeilet and argaman was made with an animal.

Wishing you a Chodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom Umevoach!

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