On Pesachim Daf 109a, while discussing a husband’s obligation to make his household happy on festivals, Rav Yosef teaches בְּבָבֶל בְּבִגְדֵי צִבְעוֹנִין, בְּאֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּבִגְדֵי פִּשְׁתָּן מְגוֹהָצִין. In Babylonia, colored clothes make people happy, and in Eretz Yisrael they prefer pressed linen. Indeed, many historical sources and archaeological finds suggest that the ancient Mesopotamians wore elegant colored woolen garments with colored trim. Sometimes this included purple wool dyed with the valuable Murex snail, which is also used to make techelet. The same Rav Yosef told us in Masechet Shabbat 26a that after the Babylonian exile, Nebuzaradan left some trappers of the hilazon, presumably to make purple dye for Babylonian royalty. Rav Yosef seems to have been very knowledgeable about clothing and textiles.
Mesopotamia is known for its woolen textiles from the third millennium BCE. Women in Mesopotamia were experts at weaving woolen textiles, and many textile-related cuneiform tablets have been discovered. Here’s a website about ancient Mesopotamian clothing with gorgeous pictures! https://world4.eu/ancient-assyrian-culture/.
In the 9th to 7th centuries BCE, Neo-Assyrian kings were very interested in obtaining colored wool as tribute from their subjects. A fascinating text recounting Tiglath-pileser III’s conquests describes his receipt of live sheep whose wool is dyed red/purple. One can only imagine the impact a parade of purple sheep en route to Assyria would have had on observers.
It’s interesting that Rav Yosef says the people in Eretz Yisrael prefer pressed linen clothing, which is the traditional Egyptian fabric, also going back thousands of years. But we want to get away from Egypt! Of course, the Jews had to choose between wool and linen to avoid the issue of shatnez (except in tzitzit, the garments of the Kohen Gadol and the Temple fabrics). It is likely that climatic conditions led the Jews in Israel to wear cool linen, but there is also an aspect of purity associated with light colored linen clothing, both in Egypt and in the Bible. For example, the Kohen Gadol wears linen garments under all of his other ritual clothing.
Today, we can buy clothes from Walmart for 2 dollars a t-shirt, but in ancient times, clothes were all handmade and the process was all-consuming. This certainly contributed to the joy a person had in receiving a new article of clothing for a holiday. Traditionally, clothing was important for functional purposes and as a marker of identity. Textiles were among the most valuable items in antiquity. So here’s a practical suggestion for the upcoming seder: consider adding a colorful accessory to your holiday outfit! A bright head scarf, sari, or cloak can connect us to the way of dressing in ancient times. After all, in Masechet Pesachim we learn that the seder is about remembering the Exodus through actions and telling the story in an experiential way! As Rabbanit Michelle Farber explained, walnuts might not excite children today. But I think children certainly might start asking questions if their parents show up to the seder with purple turbans on their heads. Have a happy and Kosher and colorful Pesach!
Gaspa, Salvatore. 2017. “Garments, Parts of Garments, and Textile Techniques in the Assyrian Terminology: The Neo-Assyrian Textile Lexicon in the 1st-Millennium BC Linguistic Context.” Zea Books. https://doi.org/10.13014/k27s7kxz.
Postgate, Nicholas. 2019. “Wool, Hair and Textiles in Assyria.” In Wool Economy in the Ancient Near East. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvh1djjn.24.