The Exodus:5 Project
They shall receive the gold, the blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and the fine linen. Exodus 28:5
In a compact laboratory in a close-in suburb of Tel Aviv, Dr. Zvi Koren has unlocked the mysteries of snail juice. He has identified the science behind Biblical dyes that produced purple and blue colors. Certain snails at certain points in their development with certain exposure to the sun and elements produced the range of colors identified as blue and purple, used ritually to adorn the priests and color the fringes of everyday prayer shawls.
If you visit the Shenkar Institute, Dr. Koren will show you his work (and other things as well). You will understand that the rarity of the colors results from the special skill it takes to know how to produce them.
Today these colors are mostly intellectually interesting. Some observant Jews have used them (and other hues identified as the colors) for prayer shawl fringes, but mostly they exist to illustrate the past. We have no more officiant priests who need to be robed in the vestments of their office. But that doesn’t mean that colored garments are insignificant in our time.
Most obviously, clothing of particular colors identifies the wearer as a member of a team. Sports teams choose a dominant color scheme to identify themselves on the playing field (and to sell merchandise to fans). Teams of military personnel distinguish among their services by the dress and combat uniforms they wear – green, blue, white and otherwise. Gangs – teams of a very different kind – choose particular colors of bandanas, sneakers or hats to declare their authority on the streets. (The classic movie “The Warriors” is especially invested in such attire.)
Colors have other meanings as well. We have assigned meaning to traffic signs and signals – red light stop and green light go (don’t forget that yellow light means slow). Green has acquired an association with environmental responsibility. When you are feeling blue (or singing the blues), there is an ache in your heart. Beige is considered neutral in all sorts of positive and negative ways.
But no two associations with color are more controversial these days than pink and blue. Once universally assumed to distinguish between girls and boys, lots of parents, including some in my own family, have stepped away from the stereotypes that baby clothes and motifs represent and reinforce.
I have no idea if there is a science to such associations with color. My perfect three-year-old granddaughter, raised in an environment of shared parental responsibilities, gender-neutral baby toys and various pastels and primaries across the palette, has a distinct preference for pink and all the frills and froofiness you can think of. She will clamber up a jungle gym and leap off the third step up, but the colors she chooses are shades of pink.
Is there a language to colors that speaks to us in mysterious ways? Gold, blue, purple and crimson yarns are considered rich and royal. Did we imbue those colors with their meaning, or do the shade and depth of colors convey something inherent? Certainly, the priests who were draped in the finest linen dyed with the rarest or most desired hues were identifiable by their garments – not so much what we today would call fashion, but by the adornment with tints that conveyed a message of holiness and chosenness.
Someone reading this column will know if there has ever been a study of what the choice of a favorite color means. Perhaps there has also been a comparison of dominant colors among different cultures. And we have certainly come to understand in real and symbolic ways that the rainbow that contains every shade of visible color puts no greater importance on the reds or the blues; in fact, the spectrum is incomplete without every imaginable shade.
Dr. Koren may have discovered how our ancestors manipulated dyes to create the colors they wanted. In that regard, he is a person of color. But in the end, aren’t we all?