The Colors of Joseph's Coat
And every skillful woman spun with her hands, and they all brought what they had spun in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. all the women whose hearts stirred them to use their skill spun the goats' hair.
In the Biblical Garden this summer, an area has been set aside to grow and display some of the common plants that may have been used to make the dyes that adorned the Tabernacle and Joseph's magnificent coat. Their roots, leaves and blossoms would have made colorful indeed the skilled and willing hands of the women, who dipped and dyed and spun and wove their offerings of beautiful textiles for the sacred space where God met the Israelites in the desert.
Dyer's madder (scarlet), dyer's bugloss (red), henna (orange), tansy, inula and safflower (yellow): all may have been used by Israelite women to dye the linens and wool yarns needed for sacred garments and hangings in the Tabernacle. Most dyestuffs were plant-based, although certain scale insects and sea snails were also used.
Blue, from the indigo plant or from woad, was widely available, but not considered "kosher" for tzitzit, the fringes of a tallit, or for use in the Tabernacle. (Tekhelet, the blue color used in the clothing of the High Priest, the tapestries in the Tabernacle, and in tzitzit, was sourced from marine snails.) The technologies varied whether working with linen or wool, and usually involved the addition of mordants – metallic salts which fixed the color into the yarn and added richness to the result. Wool was commonly dyed "in the fleece," before being spun into yarn. Dyeing of linen fiber was more challenging, as Rashi commented "it is more difficult for linen to receive the color than for wool," thus very few ancient dyed linen textiles have been excavated in Israel.
Michael Schlesinger is Temple Sinai’s Biblical Gardener. Mike has been gardening since he was eight years old. He used to grow grape vines and make wine when he lived in California. He now tends to our garden, continuing the traditions started by Catherine Walters.