Friday, June 22, 2007


In which The Back of the Hill (that is I!) gets sidetracked upon reading about the Para Adumah

Possook 19:3 “zot chukat ha tora asher tsiva Adonai lemor daber el bnei Yisrael ve yikchu eleicha ‘para aduma’ temima asher ein ba mum, asher lo ala aleiha ol” (This is the statute of the law which the Lord commanded, saying ‘Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring to you a red heifer, complete (perfect), which has no blemish, and which was never yoked.).

Then follow instructions: kill the heifer, flick her blood with a finger seven times towards the front of the tent of meeting, burn the beast (skin, flesh, blood, and faeces) with cedar, hyssop and sheni tolaat. Following which the head-priest takes a bath and is unclean till evening.

So far so good.

But instead of trying to figgure out what any of this means, I got distracted by the sheni tolaat.
[If you've read my blog, this does not surprise you.]

Sheni tolaat is oak bug red, Mediterranean cochineal. The name is descriptive: tolaat is a worm or larva (here actually indicating a product of the creature), sheni is an intense dye stuff. As the animal (Coccus Ilicis) is minute, and was usually traded dried and finely ground, it was not apparent at that time that this was in fact utterly shrotzich.

While the cedar can be easily understood as a precious aromatic (see mention of kedar libnan in the Shir Ha Shirim), that is not the reason why hyssop (eizov) and sheni tolaat are added. Hyssop can be considered purifying, and sheni tolaat precious.

Additionally, the transformation of the red dye stuff to white ashes by the fire is symbolic of the cleansing of sin - which possibly explains the inclusion. Tzarich iyun.

Sheni tolaat is also called kermes, from which the word crimson derives, though originally kermes was the name of type of oak on which it lived. Kermes was traded extensively, and was known by variations of that name throughout the Middle East and Central Asia (crimson is the English spelling of kirmizan = Perso-Arabic for scarlet-like, scarlet-hued).

Note that American cochineal (from a bug native to Mexico, not the same as the Mediterranean oak bug) is still often used as a food colouring (both intense orange and fiery red), rendering tamei mamesh everything of which it is part. Read the label on that refreshing beverage carefully!
Annato (Bixa Orellana) seeds yield a kosher substitute food coloring, which has minor health-giving properties (antioxidants) besides.

A term related to kermes, kermil, gives the word carmine, and the reputed verminous origin of the colouring matter yields the word vermillion, which is actually cinnabar (mercury sulfide and mercury oxide), used by the Chinese as ink for signature seal impressions and as a magical ingredient in potions for longevity (strongly disadvised - several emperors shortened their lives and lost their minds because of such potions).

Mercury oxide was also used topically for chancres and certain lesions. Sometimes the cure is worse than the ailment.

It should be further noted that red, particularly in Chinese culture, is considered the colour of celebration and good fortune, and is in China and VietNam worn on auspicious occasions and at weddings, especially by the bride, who is garbed entirely in red. The groom may wear a big poofy crimson cluster-bow (rather like a huge carnation) in the centre of his chest, or, especially among Chinese Muslims in Yunnan and Shaanxi, a festive red turban.

And of course all of this reminds me of those blue threads made with sea-snail dye.........

A gittn shabbes, y'all.


Wherever I am, my blog turns towards Eretz Yisrael


YMedad said...

One tree was the tallest, the other fauna, a bush, was the lowest. Does that help?

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

i like the idea of the fire burning the red dye into white ash... never heard of that before, but it fits; same thing possibly with the reddish cow herself? although a biblical studies professor i had once claimed that אדום in Biblical Hebrew covered all shades of red *and brown*, so not quite as hard to come across as you might think...

Tzipporah said...

And of course all I could think through the second half of the post was, "but Kermit is GREEN..."

Nice work, BoTH.

Anonymous said...

In their liquid form these ingredients would be dye or ink. The iron in the blood would be the cohesive (iron gall aka vitriol). In the powdered form the ingredients would be "lampblack". Just add wine to reconstitute into dye or ink.

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