The Hebrew phrase

תוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי

appears throughout Exodus, and it usually occurs paired with "Shesh Mashzar", but I suppose someone can know the answer to one question without knowing the answer to the other. This is easier to figure out, because the words imply that it is somehow twined twice.

I had a thought that this means knitted work, since knits are twined once to make the thread, then again to knit the thread into a work that can be finely patterned. The whole thing is made by a "Rokem" which I thought might be best translated as an embroiderer.

I am not sure about this translation choice, but I have a little more confidence about this than about Shesh. Is "knit" a reasonable interepretation "tola'at sheni"?

2 Answers 2


Tosefta menahot 9:15 states "shni tola'at - from the worms in the mountains. Bringing from worms not found in the mountains disqualifies."

The later Jewish commentators consistently identify "tola'at shani" as a worm. A literal translation might be "scarlet worm", also translated as such by Bible Tools.

The phrase "tola'at shani" is used in the text as an attributive adjectival phrase with the meaning "dyed with scarlet dye from the scarlet worm".

See this (poor quality) video on collection of what both critical scholars and the religious believe to be the tola'at shani, the female coccus ilicis, from the scrub oaks on which it grows in the hill country of Ephraim in locations above 350 meters. Each worm contains a minute quantity of bright scarlet pigment that was used as a dye. The worm produces no fiber.

The "shani" meaning scarlet is a Hebrew homograph, but not a homophone of "sheni" meaning twice.

  • Huh? How can this be relevant in context? It is obviously a fabric of some kind--- for the tent sides and the clothes. I know the conotation of "worm" for "tola'at", but I assumed it is just a connotation from the wormy shape of the twine you knit.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Apr 9, 2012 at 20:55
  • Oh wait, if this is "shani", and "tola'at" means worm even in that context (I didn't think so, but perhaps), this could be silk (worm product). I don't know if silk was around back then in the region. I thought shesh mashzar was the silk, but it looks much sturdier, maybe it could be satin or something else fancy.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Apr 10, 2012 at 0:03
  • Edited answer to address comments. Commented Apr 10, 2012 at 3:39
  • Ok, I gave you +1, I watched the video, and I accept that I misread it (it should be shani, not sheni) but I can't believe it for the life of me that it is a literal worm, and not a figurative expression for a cloth. It occurs paired with "shesh mashzar" (which is also a cloth), and it is used whenever a cloth is to be weaved (tola'at shani and shesh mashzar and work of a rokem). The 1917 translation gives it as "fine linen cloth" or something along these lines.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Apr 10, 2012 at 3:51
  • I see... so this is a scarlet dyed cloth. Got it. How certain is this identification? Has anyone made such worm-dyed cloth? how many worms per square meter? I'll accept the answer if it gives a confidence interval--- should I be 50%, 20%, 90%, or 99.99% certain of this identification?
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Apr 10, 2012 at 23:31

Could the literal expression shani tola'at and the weaving of cloth referred to by shesh mashzar be figuratively applied? What comes to my mind is a bloodline that's woven. The genealogy of women in the Tanach and Bible do seem to be woven (Tamar, Dinah, Asenath, Daughter of Machir, Abigail, Nitzevet). Men's geneology metaphorically represent the thread, and that of the women's appear to do the weaving. Could this allusion be applied to Joseph's coat?

  • 1
    We generally discourage speculative interpretations, and encourage answers that are supportable by linguistic evidence, references to other passages or books in the bible, references to outside sources, and commentaries or histories by respected scholars. Can you support this answer with any of these?
    – user17080
    Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 11:53

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