Question: What colors were used on the tallit during Roman times?
Dear Rabbi Lerner,
In a discussion about colors and styles between ancient and modern tallitot, a friend told me that she learned that around the time of the Roman occupation, tallitot were died crimson. Is this true? I have only understood them to be natural lamb's wool with the blue thread in the tzitzit from die made of a specific crushed snail shell.
Thank you, Deborah
Answer: Dear Deborah,
To the best of my knowledge, the color of the threads in the fringes were blue or a bluish-purple (tekheet), derived from the a snail or purple mollusk (hilazon) that was very rare in that time and place.
The tallit itself was not dyed crimson (tola'at shani) or blue or purple as these colors were unusually expensive. Such a requirement would have placed the tallit beyond the reach of most people.
Argaman is a purple that we would probably identify with the royal house or Senate of Rome, the familiar stripes on the toga.
Remember that "fringes" (tzitzit) referred to the four-cornered cloths that they wore as garments, not just prayer shawls for worship, which were probably not the white tallit with black or blue stripes with which we are familiar today.