Fringes and Snails

When David spared Saul's life, he took away evidence that he had him in his power: "Then David arose and stealthily cut off the skirt (hem) of Saul's robe" (1 Sam. 24:4). Why did David do this, and why did his conscience smite him for having done it? Was there some special significance in what he had done? In fact the act of cutting off the hem (fringe) of Saul's robe was of very great significance, which Saul was not slow to recognize. When the shouting began next day Saul said: "Now, behold, I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand" (1 Sam. 24:10). David had robbed Saul of his status symbol, the fringe of his robe that identified him as king.


Status Symbol

The hem of a Jew's garment was not, as in modern clothes, a simple fold of the cloth, sewn down to prevent the edge from fraying. It was a decorative feature which made a statement about the status and importance of the wearer. The people of other nearby nations also had this custom. In texts found in Mesopotamia, references indicate that the removal of the fringe of a man's garment was the equivalent of removing part of his personality . To cut off the hem of a wife's garment was regarded as divorcing her. Tablets have been found with the impression of a fringe as the mark of the individual, a personal seal or signature.

Thus the hem or fringe of a garment indicated the rank or personality of the wearer. It will be remembered that Jesus castigated the Pharisees for enlarging their fringes (Matt. 23:5), the inference being that they were thereby trying to magnify their importance. The tassels on the fringes were formed by the threads decorating the fringe being brought together at the corners of the garment and knotted. The original purpose of the fringe and tassels as stated in the law became obscured in course of time, becoming a mere tradition.

The first mention of fringes and tassels in Scripture occurs in Numbers, where the people were instructed to include a special feature in their tassels - cord of blue. This was to remind the wearer (and the observer) to "recall all the commandments of the LORD and observe them" (15:37-41). Thus all Israel were to bear in their tassels this reminder of their obligation to be a holy people, to be heavenlike in their thoughts and ways, to be representatives of their God, "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exod. 19:6). The tassels were to be four in number at the corners of the garment (Deut. 22:12).

Even though the blue they used was of a violet shade, it was to represent the people's connection with God in heaven, the heavenly instructions they had received and the law of the LORD. Why was there to be only one cord of blue? Why not all blue? The reason is simple and practical. The blue dye was exceedingly expensive and hard to acquire. Blue cloth could only be afforded by the very rich and by kings. Lesser mortals would even find it difficult to acquire a cubit or two of the blue cord. The reason will be made plain later.


Ancient Illustrations

The fringes and tassels on the garments of this period are illustrated on murals and inscriptions found in Egypt and elsewhere. For example, in the mortuary temple at Thebes, built by Rameses III, on a wall relief depicting a procession of captives, the distinctive robe with fringe and tassels is being worn by both Semitic and Philistine prisoners. These and other ancient pictures confirm to us that the wearing of a garment decorated with a fringe and bearing a number of tassels was commonplace in Israel and in neighbouring countries.

If it should be thought that this practice was obscure and short-lived, it will be enlightening to look at other Scriptures that clearly have a bearing on this subject. For example, in that delightful account of Ruth and Boaz, it was obviously significant that Ruth said to Boaz, when he discovered her at his feet in the morning, "I am Ruth, your maidservant, spread your skirt over your maidservant, for you are next of kin" (Ruth 3:9). The skirt of Boaz would doubtless be edged with the fringe and tassels that indicated his status. This request by Ruth was for his protection and his care as symbolized by his personal fringe - his status symbol. It is interesting to note that a similar custom still prevails at an orthodox Jewish wedding, when the bridegroom covers his bride with his tallit, his prayer shawl, with its tassels at each corner, signifying that he is taking her into his care.


The Skirt of a Jew

When the prophet Zechariah foretold that ten men will take hold of the skirt of a Jew and say "we will go with you" (Zech. 8:23), why should they take hold of his skirt? Why not his hands? Because the fringe of the skirt would indicate clearly that the Jew was a man of God. The Jew had a status that the ten Gentiles had not, and they knew it. This prophecy is not really as strange as it seems to be at first sight, once we realism the symbolism of the fringe.

One of the best known miracles of healing that Jesus performed was the occasion when "a woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment" (Matt. 9:20). Why should she stoop to touch the fringe? Why not his arm, or his feet? Surely it must have been because the fringe had some special significance as the emblem of Jesus' status and authority, even though it was not enlarged like those of Scribes and Pharisees.

That this was the opinion of many other people is revealed by the crowd who sought his healing powers, "that they might only touch the fringe of his garment, and as many as touched were made whole" (Matt. 14:36). Thus there was a common understanding that the fringe of a man's garment had a special significance. Could it be that the blue cord was a reminder to them of heaven, and that they could appreciate that Jesus' power was divine power? We have no other information about the garment that Jesus wore, until his death, when it was revealed as a seamless garment, specially woven with great skill.


Ancient Dyes

In Biblical times, the distinction between colors was not as definite as it is today, when we can even choose between various shades of white for decorating our homes! The blue color that Moses described for the cloths that were to cover the Tabernacle furniture before it could be removed to a new site (Num. 4:6,7) was almost certainly what we would call violet, or bluish-purple, while the purple used for the embroidery would be a reddish-purple, and the scarlet a true bright red. These three basic colors as used for the priest's garments and the hangings of the Tabernacle were all extremely expensive, and were all obtained from small living creatures.

The blue was only obtained from the hypobranchial gland of a Murex marine snail that only lives in deep water in the Mediterranean. The purple was obtained from another variety of Murex snail that could be gathered in shallow coastal waters of the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas.

The scarlet was produced from a tiny insect that infested oak trees, the Kermes, something like the cochineal insect of the Americas. These had to be collected by hand, dried and ground to a paste to produce the scarlet dye. The production of all these dyes was labor intensive. They were all found in very limited localities and were thus highly prized and highly priced. It has been calculated that it would take 10,000 snails to produce one gram of the blue dye. The purple dye was more readily obtained, but still very limited. Traders traveled hundreds of miles by sea and by land, to obtain or sell these limited supplies.


Phoenician Involvement

That the Phoenician traders of Tyre were at the centre of the international exchange of dyes and dyed cloth is brought out clearly in Ezekiel's farranging survey of the extent of Middle Eastern trade. "Blue and purple from the coasts of Elishah" (Ezek. 27:7); "clothes of blue and embroidered work" (v. 24), and "white wool" traded from Damascus (v. 18). Was the white wool to be dyed at Tyre? The Phoenician involvement in this trade in colors seemed to have been maintained for many centuries. It would include supplying the kings of many nations with these rare blue and purple cloths. Ships going west, and caravans going east or south, could easily carry this very valuable light-weight cargo. It seems probable that Israel in the wilderness would obtain either the dye, or ready dyed yarn and cloth from caravans that traversed Sinai en route perhaps to Egypt, or to Sheba. It seems unlikely that the escaping slaves would have brought such rare items with them. But they did carry gold that would enable them to purchase the blue and purple and scarlet from merchants.

The normal clothing of the people of Israel was of undyed linen, woven from the fibers of the flax plant. Cotton was not yet known. Wool they could obtain from their own flocks of sheep. When the people were asked to offer their precious possessions for the construction of the Tabernacle, a distinction was made between the coloured material and the fine twined linen (Exod. 25:4). It seems most likely that this distinction was between dyed woollen yarn and undyed linen. Thus, it seems probable that the embroidery work was of dyed woollen yarn worked upon plain linen cloth. This seems to be confirmed by recent studies which suggest that these dyes could only be made permanent in wool and were not fast in linen. It has been objected that to use dyed wool upon a linen cloth would have contravened the law that forbade the mixing of linen and wool (Lev. 19:19; Deut. 22:11). This taught a divine lesson. Just as a Jew was not to marry a Gentile, an ass and an ox were not to be yoked together, so linen and wool were not to be mingled in the weaving of cloth. The lesson was to be a continual reminder to Israel of their need to remain a separate people, holy to their God. It was a form of moral visual aid.

This question has been a matter of learned debate among Jewish scholars for many centuries. Only quite recently light has been shed upon the subject by an unexpected archaeological discovery. In the Bar Kochba caves by the Dead Sea, tassels have been found which were sufficiently well preserved to reveal that they were composed of linen threads with a cord of blue wool. It is now realised that the prohibition of mixing linen and wool only applied to the weaving process, and not to the added embroidery of the fringe and the tassels. The Hebrew word used in Deuteronomy 22:11 is shaatnez which means literally "mixed cloth". The dyed woollen embroidery may therefore be symbolic of the need for a divine infusion of holiness (blue) and royalty (purple) into the prosaic human stock of Israel.


Modern Research

The production of blue yarn and cloth dyed in the traditional way ceased many centuries ago, when the supply of snails appeared to become extinct. Jews have never been willing to accept any other kind of blue dye, so that to this day they have no blue cord in their fringes and tassels. Imagine therefore the excitement in orthodox Jewry, when, a year or so ago, it was announced that the Murex snails were not extinct after all, and it might be possible to resume production of the traditional blue dye. The Roman historian Pliny described in some detail how these dyes were manufactured in his day, and attempts to follow his method have been tried by a scientific group in the Lebanon. The flurry of excitement among those Jews anxious to be able to comply with the requirements of the Law and once again have a blue cord in their fringe and tassels may speed the efforts of those engaged in this enterprise. Some Jews have even gone so far as to see the revival of the heavenly blue as a sure sign of the advent of their Messiah.

John V. Collyer