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The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered

The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered

by Baruch Sterman

For centuries, dyed fabrics ranked among the most expensive objects of the ancient Mediterranean world, fetching up to 20 times their weight in gold. Huge fortunes were made from and lost to them, and battles were fought over control of the industry. The few who knew the dyes' complex secrets carefully guarded the valuable knowledge. The Rarest Blue tells the


For centuries, dyed fabrics ranked among the most expensive objects of the ancient Mediterranean world, fetching up to 20 times their weight in gold. Huge fortunes were made from and lost to them, and battles were fought over control of the industry. The few who knew the dyes' complex secrets carefully guarded the valuable knowledge. The Rarest Blue tells the amazing story of tekhelet, or hyacinth blue, the elusive sky-blue dye mentioned 50 times in the Hebrew Bible. The Minoans discovered it; the Phoenicians stole the technique; Cleopatra adored it; and Jews—obeying a Biblical commandment to affix a single thread of the radiant color to the corner of their garments—risked their lives for it. But with the fall of the Roman Empire, the technique was lost to the ages. Then, in the nineteenth century, a marine biologist saw a fisherman smearing his shirt with snail guts, marveling as the yellow stains turned sky blue. But what was the secret? At the same time, a Hasidic master obsessed with reviving the ancient tradition posited that the source wasn't a snail at all but a squid. Bitter fighting ensued until another rabbi discovered that one of them was wrong—but had an unscrupulous chemist deliberately deceived him? Baruch Sterman brilliantly recounts the complete, amazing story of this sacred dye that changed the color of history.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Winner of the Jewish Journal Book Award"The making of a memorable book requires the skills of an alchemist. Every author starts with the raw material of his or her own experience and expertise, but it can take a certain secret ingredient—passion, vision, inspiration—to transform the dross into gold. That is a fair description of what Baruch Sterman and Judy Taubes Sterman have accomplished. ... With alchemical genius ... the pair demonstrate a thoroughly modern sensibility when they show how the sciences of archaeology and chemistry were used to crack the secret of the ancient dye. Along the way, they allow the reader to see Jewish history and tradition in a new way, as they tell a rich and, literally, colorful story. ... A real page-turner ... and a book worthy of attention both for its literary merit and for its Jewish interest."—Jewish Journal Book Award announcement"You'll love this Indiana Jones–style chemistry adventure: an enlightening hunt for the lost source of history's most valuable dye."—Mental Floss magazine"An adventure ... a fascinating journey that takes the reader back in time, offering an exciting and thorough overview into the ancient world of dyeing ... this book offers something for everyone. ... From Crete to Masada and from Galileo to Gandhi, no stone is left unturned in presenting the glorious past of the blue dye. The key players are beautifully presented along with their biographies and the historical context in which they lived and were influenced. Readers will even learn how Aristotle and Pliny affected the search for the murex snail. The Rarest Blue is simply delightful."—Jewish Press"A mystery, a travelogue, an adventure story, and a work of scholarship ... The authors explain in fascinating detail how colors were deployed throughout the ancient world as status symbols, expressions of political iconography, and repositories of the sacred. ... The story ends on a note of triumph that can be understood variously as an affirmation of piety or as the success of a scientific enterprise, or perhaps both."—Jewish Journal book review"A rare treat ... The scientific and historical material is easily understandable [and] quite witty. ... A rare book, both erudite and enjoyable. ... It's perfect for a long Friday night or Shabbat afternoon. The time will be well spent."—Segula magazine"A page-turner. ... The author found a way to make it all captivating and make you feel as if you are part of the adventure, as if you are there alongside him making the discoveries. ... Fascinating ... This book is one you should definitely read. ... Buy The Rarest Blue. You won't be sorry."—Life in Israel"Remarkable ... A fascinating combination of detective story, history lesson, and scientific explanation." —JWeekly.com"The Rarest Blue defies categorization. ... While it refuses to be measured by traditional yardsticks, it excels in the unconventional category it carves out for itself. With terrific prose and an inviting tone, the book appeals in both content and presentation to readers of all backgrounds and interests. ... The descriptions are tailored to non-scientists and explain many of the challenges involved in murex-dyeing. ... The subtleties and complexities of the procedure not only stimulate appreciation for the ancient dyers' craft, but also clarify many challenging technical descriptions found in the Talmud and non-religious sources. ... The Rarest Blue presents a powerful proof for the authenticity of the current tekhelet ... and delivers a historical and scientific account of the murex tekhelet that can be appreciated by any audience, a valuable contribution to the public understanding of this important mitsvah."—Kol Hamevaser, the Jewish Thought Magazine of the Yeshiva University Student Body"You'll never look at the color of the sky the same way after reading The Rarest Blue."—Jewish Standard"Sterman's expansive and fascinating microhistory covers the historical importance of the dye, the closely guarded manufacturing process, controversies over fraudulent versions of the color, the chemistry behind the dye molecule, the events leading to the rediscovery of the dye process, and even the physics explaining the rarity of the color in nature. Although Sterman tackles a broad range of topics, his emphasis on Jewish traditions and ancient practices keeps it centered and illuminating."—Booklist"The Stermans' dedication is admirable and their research comprehensive … Ambitious."—Kirkus Reviews"An amazing tale of historical sleuthing told by a true storyteller who captures both the drama and the magic of the quest for Biblical blue."—Simcha Jacobovici, Emmy Award–winning journalist, director, and author"A story of science and religion, of craft and history, and told in such an engaging way. The Rarest Blue is spellbinding, each page a revelation. In lovely, engaging prose, the Stermans reveal the rediscovery of snail indigo—a detective story with cultural origins and a spiritual ending. A wonderful book."—Roald Hoffmann, winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry"Following in the footsteps of my grandfather, the Stermans leave no stone unturned in uncovering the secrets of the ancient, long sought after, biblical blue. History, archeology, religion, chemistry, and biology are skillfully woven together in a fascinating book that will appeal to a wide range of readers."—Yitzhak Herzog, member of Israel's Knesset and former minister of Social Affairs"The Rarest Blue is truly a multidisciplinary story. At its most basic, it represents and employs a genuine fusion of Torah and science, accessible and useful to both scholar and layman. But beyond that, it spans a rich spectrum of disciplines in the realms of science and the humanities as it tracks a historical saga across many generations. The Stermans have done a masterful job in relating this captivating tale."—Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky, Interdisciplinary Program for Brain Science, Bar-Ilan University"According to tradition, as described beautifully in The Rarest Blue, white symbolizes purity, and blue, the color of the heavens, represents holiness. The white combined with the blue tekhelet conveys the message that a mortal can indeed achieve a state of holiness, and the tekhelet string points the direction to a truly spiritual life."—Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.
Kirkus Reviews
With his wife, dye expert Sterman delivers a history of a blue dye mentioned in ancient texts but only recently recreated in the modern era. The Stermans trace the history of tekhelet, a blue dye derived from the glands of certain types of snails that they describe as the "sacred, rarest blue." The Talmud and other texts of Judaism mention tekhelet; the Book of Numbers in the Bible, for example, requires Jewish people to tie a tekhelet-dyed thread to the corners of their clothing. Tradition specifically dictated that the tekhelet had to be "sky blue," write the authors, and the use of other blue dyes, such as indigo, was prohibited. But tekhelet was expensive, difficult to make and even illegal during the era of the Roman Empire. As a result, the tradition waned, and many details of the tekhelet-making process were lost for hundreds of years. The Stermans delve into Jewish history, showing how doctrinal skirmishes erupted over the use of the dye and how figures such as the first chief rabbi of Israel and other researchers explored tekhelet's mysteries. The authors also recount their efforts to mass-produce authentic tekhelet-dyed strings, with the authors traveling to far-off places to collect the snails required. While their dedication is admirable and their research comprehensive, the prose simply isn't engaging enough to bring an entire book about an obscure blue dye to life. The latter sections, especially, which include technical descriptions of snails' physical processes and multiple molecular diagrams, may be tough going for casual readers. That said, the book may hold some appeal for aficionados of either religious history or the study of mollusks--surely one of the few books for which that may be said. An ambitious but overlong history.

Product Details

Gefen Publishing House
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.20(d)

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Meet the Author

Baruch Sterman is a physicist who helped develop the modern techniques for dyeing tekhelet authentically. Cofounder of the Ptil Tekhelet Association, he has written numerous articles on the subject and is considered a world expert on snail dyeing. He works with high-tech communications companies in the United States and Israel, where he lives with his wife and coauthor, Judy Taubes Sterman.

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