Dye Plants

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The dye materials that were used in ancient times were many and varied and were obtained from various mineral, plant, and animal sources. The last gave fast and beautiful colors, but these were so costly that only the wealthy could afford them. Of these the most famous were the "blue and purple and scarlet" mentioned frequently in the Bible in connection with the construction of the Sanctuary and the Temple (see *Crimson, *Tekhelet). In mishnaic times cheaper dyes were obtained from such common plants as the carob and the sumac (og; Tosef. Shev. 5:7). Green walnut and pomegranate shells were used to produce a brown-black dye (Shev. 7:3).

In the Bible three plants are mentioned from which dye was obtained: karkom (*saffron), kofer (*henna), and pu'ah (madder). The saffron provided an orange dye, the henna a reddish orange one, and the madder a red-colored dye. Tola (crimson) and puvah (or puah) are mentioned in the Bible as proper names (Gen. 46:13; i Chron. 7:1; Judg. 10:1). These names, which were borne by the sons of Issachar, suggest that this tribe was skilled in the production of these dyes or in using them for dyeing cloth. Madder is obtained from the plant Rubia tinctorum which was grown in large quantities before the discovery of synthetic dyes. It is indigenous to Edom, and many species grow wild in Israel. The plant was cultivated in the mishnaic period and there is a discussion on the methods to be employed in uprooting it in a sabbatical year (Shev. 5:4).

Other dyestuffs are mentioned in rabbinic literature. Isalis, koẓah, and rikhpah are mentioned together (Shev. 7:1). Isalis is obtained from a plant, Isalis tinctoria, from whose leaves a blue dye was extracted. It grew in abundance until the end of the 19th century; some 2,000 kg. (about 4,400 lbs.) of leaves per dunam were harvested, from which four kg. (about 8¾ lbs.) of dyestuff was produced. Koẓah is the Carthamus tinctorius whose top leaves provide a dye of a reddish orange shade. The seeds of this plant served both as a food and as a source of dye. In the Mishnah it has the additional name ḥari'a (Kil. 2:8; Uk. 5:3). In the Talmud it is also called morika, kurtemei (i.e., carthamus), and dardara. The latter means a thistle, hence its mishnaic name koẓah as it is a thorny plant of the family Compositae. Rikhpah is dyer's reseda, the Reseda luteola that grows wild in the arid areas of Ereẓ Israel. Its leaves and flower provide a yellow dye. Leshishit (turnsole, Chrozophora tinctoria) grows wild among the summer crops in many parts of the country. The various parts of the plant produce a blue dye which is used for dyeing textiles and is used in Europe for coloring food to this day. This plant is mentioned in the Tosefta (Shev. 5:6). Kalilan (indigo, indigotin) was imported from India during Roman times, and a dye of bluish shade was obtained from it. It was not easy to distinguish it from the true blue (see *Tekhelet) permitted for the ritual fringes, and the rabbis therefore warned against the use of ritual fringes dyed with it.


Loew, Flora, 1 (1924), 394ff., 493ff., 595ff.; 4 (1934), 117f.; B. Ẓizik, Oẓar ha-Ẓemaḥim (1944), 329–34; J. Feliks, Olam ha-Ẓome'aḥ ha-Mikra'i (1957), 301–2; idem, Kilei Zera'im ve-Harkavah (1967), 225ff., 259ff.

[Jehuda Feliks]