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15.02.2021 04:55    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  shemot  parashah  terumah  

“The locks of your head are like purple”

Argaman, or purple, is mentioned in Scripture numerous times as referring to dye, or to raw wool or garments colored with this dye, alongside other precious dyed items:  techelet (blue) and tola`at shani (crimson).[1] These colors appear in combination in various woven items pertaining to the Tabernacle and its furnishings, as detailed in this week’s reading.  For example,“…bring Me gifts…gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair” (Ex. 25:2-4).

The use of purple is considered a mark of royalty:  Mordechai went out, dressed in royal garments that included “a mantle of fine linen and purple wool” (Esther 8:15).  The status of purple was akin to that of gold.  Of King Solomon it is said that his couch was made of gold and the place where he sat of purple:  “Its back of gold, its seat of purple wool” (Song 3:10).

In Scripture the origin of argaman is hinted at in connection with the places where it was traded and where the expert dyers were, along the coast of the northern part of the land of Israel.  Its Aramaic name appears in the account of Solomon’s request to Huram, king of Tyre, that he send expert craftsmen to build the Temple and its furnishings:  “Now send me a craftsman to work in gold, silver, bronze, and iron, and in purple (argevan), crimson, and blue yarn” (II Chron. 2:6).

Later on, Tyre is mentioned as a center of production and trade in precious textiles:  “Aram traded with you because of your wealth of merchandise, dealing with you in turquoise, purple stuff, embroidery, fine linen” (Ezek. 27:16).  Some of these goods were imported from one of the Greek isles (Elishah), apparently Cyprus:  “Of blue and purple from the coasts of Elishah were your awnings” (Ezek. 27:7).  Thus there can be no doubt that we are dealing with one of the expensive dyes of the ancient world, used by the very highest classes.

Argaman is not identified in Scripture, but in the Greek translations—the Septuagint and Aquila's—it is rendered as purpura, and in the Latin Vulgate, as purpura, a dye that was obtained from a kind of mollusk.  This is also what Philo and Josephus said.  The descriptions of purpura in Greco-Roman literature on the natural world and in the writings of Aristotle and Pliny[2] leave no doubt that we are dealing with the genus of Murex mollusks, from which a reddish-purple dye was derived.

Three candidates hold a reasonably high probability for the identity of this mollusk.  Identification is based on matching the descriptions in the sources with the varieties that were found in large accumulations at archaeological sites, and also according to the species of Murex common along the shores of the Mediterranean today and from which dye can be derived in significant quantity.  The primary definitive finding appears to be the remains of purpuradye found in ancient dying factories in close proximity to the shells of Murexmollusks, and whose chemical analysis proved the source of the dye to be the same mollusks.  The confluence of these data reduces the possibilities to the following species:  Murex brandarisHexaplex trunculus, and Murex haemastoma.

As for Scriptural sources, let us pause to consider the imagery of the beloved woman and her lover in Song of Songs, a work replete with imagery that has sophisticated dual and even triple meaning, as would befit the “Song” of “Songs”:  “The head upon you is like crimson wool (Carmel), the locks of your head are like purple—a king is held captive in the tresses” (Song 7:6).

Some have interpreted carmel as the reddish-orange color of the woman’s hair, as in carmil (the Aramaic word for the Hebrew tola`at shani, rendered here as “crimson yarn”),[3] which parallels the color argaman, purple.[4] The imagery, “the locks (Heb. dalah) of your head are like purple,” is taken from the weaver’s craft and apparently refers to the woman’s long plait, likened to the warp of purple threads connected to the upper beam of the loom.[5] The same use of dalah also occurs in this verse:  “My life is rolled up like a web (ka-oreg, something woven) and cut from the thrum (dalah)” (Isa. 38:12).  Moreover, in our verse, the word argaman carries a double meaning:  woven (arig­-man), as well as purple.

“A king held captive in the tresses” might be a way of referring to the “argaman mollusks,”[6] grown in ponds along the Carmel coast or kept alive there after having been hunted, until the dye could be removed from them.  Thus the verse begins by describing the woman’s hair, the color of carmil,[7] then continues with an image of her plait resembling a purple woven fabric, and concludes with the double meaning of king:  the king himself, who is captivated by the woman’s beauty, and the king as a way of referring to the color argaman, the color of royalty.[8]

On another level, the verse from Song of Songs places the woman geographically.  It begins with her head held high as Mount Carmel (“The head upon you is like the Carmel”),[9] whose rolling hills descend to the sea (dalat roshekh ke-argaman, or “the locks of your head are like purple”),[10] reaching the coastline with its ponds and installations for keeping the argaman mollusks, from which the dye was derived (“a king held captive in the tresses”).  Archaeological evidence of a purple dye industry was found in this region, in Shikmona from biblical times,[11] and in references to Haifa from the Mishnaic and Talmudic eras.[12] Several Greek sources also refer to a place called Porphyron in the same vicinity, Porphyron also being a name for Murexmollusks.[13] For our purposes, the important finding are the pools hewn in the Calcareous sandstone along the Carmel coast, as at Dor and Shikmona, and connected with the purple dye industry.[14]

Imagery embedded in the verse

Roshekh alayikh ka-karmel

Ve-dalat roshekh ka-argaman

Melekh asur ba-rehatim

The head upon you is like crimson wool

the locks of your head are like purple

a king is held captive in the tresses

The woman’s head

The woman’s hair

The king

The color carmil, reddish-orange (or perhaps caramel?)

The color argaman, or the threads of a woven fabric (arig-man)

The mollusk producing purple dye

Mount Carmel

The slopes of the Carmel mountains

The pools hewn into the rocks at the coast


In the light of the interpretation that ascribes to King Solomon control over the purple dye industry along the Carmel coast, apparently in the district of Dor (see I Kings 4:11),[15] it is not clear why King Solomon turned to Huram, King of Tyre, requesting him to help provide craftsmen who were expert, inter alia, in purple dye (II Chron. 2:6).

Perhaps the amount of purple dye extracted in the region under Israelite control did not suffice for all the needs of the Temple, nor were there in the area sufficient top experts in extracting the dye.  Perhaps there was also some preference for Tyrian purple, which was considered the finest and most precious in the ancient world.[16] Another explanation might be that the purple dye industry along the Acre and Carmel coasts were de facto controlled at that time by Tyrians and foreign elements from the Aegean Sea (the “Sea Peoples”),[17] as emerges from archaeological findings.[18] One tradition explicitly attributes the founding of Dor to the Phoenicians, who discovered there a wealth of Murex mollusks.[19]

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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