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The Murex Expedition
Today is my thirty-sixth birthday (please, no "happy birthday" wishes in the comments), and I celebrated in true "Zoo Torah" fashion - by going snorkeling to search for Murex trunculus, the sea-dwelling snail from which techeles is made. With my friends Victor Ofstein and Rafi Goldmeier (of Life in Israel fame) we went to Chof Dor, near Zichron Yaakov.
Sure enough, it did not take long before we found some -- or so we thought. Upon closer inspections, we saw that the shells were from snails that were dead, and the empty shells had been taken over by hermit crabs. But eventually, I managed to find some that were still inhabited by the snails from which the techeles dye is made.
I have not yet studied all the vast amount of literature on techeles. However, I have read a fair amount from both advocates and opponents of Murex trunculus. And although I do not wear techeles (for reasons that I will explain in a future post), I am convinced that Murex trunculus is indeed the chilazon of old. Beyond weighing up the individual clues and pieces of evidence regarding Murex trunculus, I have two different reasons for believing this to be the case.
One is that I see this as being similar to the case of the shafan. The hyrax is not as perfect a candidate for the shafan as many would like, due to its not being a true ruminant. Some people therefore claim that the shafan is an unknown, extinct animal. But in my book The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax I devoted an entire chapter to explaining why positing the existence of an extinct and unknown animal that is small and yet a true ruminant, and which lacks split hooves but is not a camelid, and which lived in the Middle East in the last 4000 years yet disappeared without trace, is entirely implausible, from the perspective of animal physiology and from the perspectives of zooarcheology and paleontology. Whatever difficulties may exist with the hyrax are vastly less than the difficulty in proposing that the shafan is an unknown creature.
With the chilazon, those who oppose its identification as Murex trunculus are not proposing a more viable candidate. But it has to be something. We know that Murex trunculus was harvested for its dye in ancient times. Positing that the chilazon is an unknown creature raises far more difficulties than positing that it is the Murex trunculus.
The second factor involved in my conclusion is that it appears that those objecting to the Murex trunculus argue that it does not match the criteria for the chilazon as explained by various Rishonim. But there is no reason to believe that the Rishonim were familiar with the chilazon!
It was a great thrill to find the Murex trunculus in its natural habitat. I was also thrilled to discover the rotting carcass of a gigantic sea-turtle (although, strangely, my companions were not as thrilled at that discovery). I brought back the jawbone as a souvenir; I figured that if Samson used the jawbone of an ass to kill a thousand Philistines, then the jawbone of a sea-turtle might also come in useful.
All in all, with the exception of the jellyfish stings (pictured right is an elderly Sabra who kindly poured vinegar on them), it was a terrific birthday expedition. I couldn't have wished for a better gift - although some things on my Amazon wishlist come close!