Crimson Worm

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CRIMSON WORM , biblical tola'at shani (Heb. תּוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי), which yields a dye, called in the Bible shani, tola, karmil, and in rabbinic literature zehorit, which was extracted from the body of the "crimson worm" (carmine), the Kermes biblicus. A brilliant, beautiful, and fast red dye, it was used for dyeing the curtains of the Tabernacle (Ex. 26:1) and the garments of the high priests (ibid., 39:2); in the purification rites of a leper (Lev. 14:4–6) and of a house affected by leprosy (ibid., 51–52); and it was added to the ashes of the red heifer (Num. 19:6). Crimson-dyed clothes were costly (Lam. 4:5). The Tyrians were experts in the art of crimson dyeing (ii Chron. 2:6). Neither the Bible nor rabbinic literature describes the insect from which the crimson dye was extracted. The Tosefta (Men. 9:16) merely states that the best kind of crimson comes from "a mountain worm." Its color is "neither red nor yellow … it is crimson" (pdrk 98). According to Josephus, crimson symbolizes fire (Ant., 3:183; Wars, 5:213). The "crimson worm" is the "shield louse" which generally lives on a species of oak Quercus coccifera. In Israel, where this tree does not grow, the shield louse is found on the branches of the oak Quercus ithaburensis. There are two species of the insect, Kermes nahalali and Kermes greeni. In the early spring, when the females filled with red eggs and became pea-shaped, the red dye was squeezed out of them. The use of crimson dye was widespread in Ereẓ Israel until the cactus from Mexico was introduced at the end of the 17th century. The coccus, which lives on this plant, yields a red dye in larger quantities. Up to the end of the 19th century crimson dye was still used, but with the invention of synthetic dyes, it became obsolete.


S. Bodenheimer, Ha-Ḥai be-Arẓot ha-Mikra, 2 (1956), 310–3; J. Feliks, in: Sinai, 38 (1955), 94–99.

[Jehuda Feliks]