Said R. Elai in the name of R. Simeon b. Lakish, R. Meir used to maintain, The tachash of Moses day was a separate species, and the Sages could not decide whether it belonged to the genus of wild beasts or to the genus of domestic animals; and it had one horn in its forehead, and it came to Moses' hand [providentially] just for the occasion, and he made the [covering of the] Tabernacle, and then it was hidden.
Talmud, Shabbat 28b
This week, beginning in Parashat Terumah, the Torah turns its attention to the construction of a portable sanctuary called the 'Mishkan' or Tabernacle. The remainder of the book of Exodus is filled with detailed description, yet, even with these lengthy lists of materials and architectural instructions, the text is not always clear nor can we fully appreciate what is meant. Some of the materials may be no longer available, and some of the technical terms are not understood. For example, several different measurements are referred to as 'cubits' and the identification of many of the gems listed next week is disputed.
The instructions for building the Mishkan begin with a list of materials: "And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver and copper, blue, purple and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats' hair, tanned ram skins, tachash skins, and acacia wood" (Ex. 25:3-5). What is 'tachash?' Modern scholarship believes that tachash refers to leather prepared or tanned in a specific way, (the Egyptian root t-ch-s means "soft-dressed skin") and several translations follow this approach. The Five Books of Moses, translated by Everett Fox reads: tanned leather. The Birnbaum Chumash has 'fine leather.' Tachash would then describe a specific tanning or dyeing procedure, and an adjective modifying the word 'skin' (or leather) as in: 'fine goatskin leather', as the New Living Translation suggests. It may refer to an orange-yellow color of the tanned leather, although one sage thought it to be skin dyed purple.
Older translations and commentators, though, believed that tachash referred to an actual animal (living or extinct) that furnished a protective, waterproof skin. What animal would it be? Some scholars have suggested a kosher animal with fur, such as the okapi, a kind of African antelope with attractive stripes, taking tachash from 'hish' (fleet). In the Talmud, its identity is disputed.
Rabbi Yehudah said: It was a huge kosher animal in the desert, and it had one horn in its forehead, and its hide had six colors from which they made the curtains of the Tabernacle.
Rabbi Nehemiah said: It was a miraculous beast that was hidden away after it was used in the Tabernacle. Why was it necessary to create such a beast? It is written that the curtains of the Tabernacle were thirty cubits long. And it is written that the skins of the Tachash that were used for the curtains were also 30 cubits long. What animal hides are 30 cubits long? Rather it was a momentary miracle that was hidden away soon after it happened.
According to Rabbi Yehudah, it was a kosher animal, and there is one (fanciful) identification that fits the Talmud's description. Can you guess what large, wild, kosher animal (i.e. with split hooves), has an attractive multi-coloured coat, and a horn in the middle of its head? Saadia Gaon identifies it with the 'zemer' in the list of kosher animals in Deuteronomy 14:5 (although usually translated as mountain sheep). It's the giraffe. (Yes, the giraffe is a kosher animal, with a beautiful skin, and the reticulated giraffe has a 'horn' or bony protuberance in the middle of its head!).
The Rabbis struggled to identity the mysterious creature and the majority opinion is that is was a unique (and not kosher) animal that did not exist at the time of creation! One Midrash says it was an ermine; Rashi, quoting Onkelos, believed that it was a beautiful, multi-coloured beast. The modern commentator, Rav Menachem Kasher translates the Aramaic "sas" as 'worm', and "gavna" to mean colour. This animal radiated many colours (like a caterpillar, or colourful worms). Rabbi Nehemiah believed it was a miraculous (mythical or now extinct) animal that God made specifically for Moses. For example, some identify it with the 'keresh,' a large rainbow coloured unicorn. (The unicorn more likely is the re'em of the Bible, most probably the Arabian Oryx. From a distance, its thin, long, straight horns appear to be one). I have always imagined the tachash to be a narwhal, (Monodon monoceros, a real-life version of the unicorn), a sea mammal that has one 'horn' (actually a tooth that grows into a long 'tusk').
The uncertainty around the identity of the tachash is seen by comparing several translations: "And these are the gifts ... dolphin skins, and acacia wood." Dolphins?! The Jewish Publication Society Translation admits: Hebrew uncertain; dolphin is a reasonable guess! The identification with sealskin (The Hertz Pentateuch), and badgers' skins (King James Version), is incorrect and according to the Encyclopedia Judaica has no basis in fact. Other guesses include: porpoise skins (New American Standard Bible) and sea cows, that is, dugongs, an animal similar to the manatee (New International Version). Why dolphins? A number of sea mammals are found in the Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean, and are occasionally found in the Red Sea. Tachash may be related to the Arabic 'tukhas' which means dolphin or dugong, but recent opinion favours identification with the sea cow, a species now extinct. In addition to the materials used for the building of the Mishkan, the word appears in Ezekiel: "I clothed you with embroidered garments, and gave you sandals of tachash to wear..." (16:10). Even though we associate the Bedouin with desert life, they have been known to make footwear out of the skins of sea mammals that appear on the shores of the Sinai. Contemporary scholarship may be correct that tachash refers to tanned skins and not an animal at all, but it seems much more fun to imagine that the tachash could be a giraffe, a narwhal, or a mythical unicorn.
Now we should be surprised by the rabbi's imagining a non-kosher animal: how could the Mishkan be constructed with skins of a non-kosher animal?! This is a good point - but remember that tekhelet, the purple-blue dye was used for tzitzit also comes from a non-kosher mollusc. The first chief Rabbi of Israel, Harav Kook, also asked what would it mean that the Mishkan, the holiest structure built, included the skins of a non-kosher animal:
The Mishkan in particular contained the beauty of the entire universal order, and the Divine purpose of elevating all of creation. The Mishkan of the desert was not a matter of individual morality for a certain time, but encompassed the expanse of all times and all things. It was therefore possible that its outermost covering was made from an impure animal. The 'tachash', with its many hues and colors, represented the ultimate value of the many forces in the world, in all their variations. Its inclusion in the Mishkan, albeit in its outermost layer, enabled the expression of the intellectual recognition of God's essential unity, that nothing exists outside of Him, and that all was created in His Glory.
Some sages suggest that the Mishkan is even a metaphor, and that each element is a clue to how we should live our lives. What is the significance of the Mishkan and how it was built, and the 'ingredients' used to build it? The rabbis learn a lot of lessons: from the attitude of the gifts that were brought to the purity of the materials used. Harav Kook seems to be saying the multi-hued tachash is a metaphor that represents the desire to include as many talents and gifts as possible. And this even includes acknowledging the beauty and wisdom of the non-Jewish world. How do we incorporate this 'non-kosher' world around us into our Jewish world?
Lessons for Today
We tend to divide the world into good and evil, kosher and not kosher, and for most purposes, these are useful distinctions. I am always amused that ultra-Orthodox Chasidim who dress in distinctive (not modern) clothing have cell phones and up to date websites. Obviously, there are parts of the 'outside' world that are acceptable even for that community.
I remember a school project that used a plain, white 'build-it-yourself' cupboard and transformed it into a beautiful 'Aron Kodesh' (a Torah Ark) for the classroom. I was astounded by the image that the thousands of cupboards that sat in that warehouse all had the potential to be transformed into holy objects. The generation of the desert were able to understand that all of God's creation has holiness. Instead of closing ourselves off from the world, the Mishkan invites us to create a holy space by remembering that even things that we are not part of our familiar 'Jewish world' have holiness.