A Desert Tabernacle Covered with Dolphin Skins?!

This sheet on Numbers 4 was written by Marc Bregman for 929 and can also be found here

In our Chapter, the priests are commanded to cover the Ark of the Covenant and other sacred implements with “Tahash skin” (Chapter 4, verses 6, 8, 10, 11 and 12). Among ancient and modern commentators there seems to be no accepted consensus about what exactly is referred to by the Hebrew word Tahash. The most common translation today is “dolphin”, though the narwhal maybe be what is more precisely intended.

Indeed, dolphin and narwhal skins seemed to have been used quite extensively in ancient Near Eastern religions, in the Mediterranean area. Other candidates for identifying the Tahash vary as widely as the badger, the dugong (manatee, sea-cow) and various goats and antelopes. For the Rabbinic Sages, the very obscurity of the word Tahash was an invitation to apply their creative imagination. According to the Talmud (Shabbat 28b) the Tahash that existed in the days of Moses was a unique creature – in our time now extinct. It had a single horn in its forehead (i.e. it was a “unicorn”).

The biblical Tahash made itself available as its skin was needed to cover the Mishkan (Desert Tabernacle). When it was no longer needed for this purpose, it was hidden away until it will reappear in the Messianic Era, as suggested in Ecclesiastes 1:9 “That which has been, is that which shall be” (see Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:28 on this verse).

From ancient to modern times the color of its skin has also been a matter of debate, ranging from purple to orange. According to Midrash Tanhuma (Terumah 6) the Tahash was a miraculous animal whose skin had six different colors. It was also of marvelous size because each sheet of Tahash skin had to extend the entire length of the Mishkan, 30 cubits, about 45 feet (see Exodus 28:8 and 14). Indeed, the biblical Tahash remains an ideal object of contemporary creative imagination.

(יא) וְעַ֣ל ׀ מִזְבַּ֣ח הַזָּהָ֗ב יִפְרְשׂוּ֙ בֶּ֣גֶד תְּכֵ֔לֶת וְכִסּ֣וּ אֹת֔וֹ בְּמִכְסֵ֖ה ע֣וֹר תָּ֑חַשׁ וְשָׂמ֖וּ אֶת־בַּדָּֽיו׃
(11) Next they shall spread a blue cloth over the altar of gold and cover it with a covering of dolphin skin; and they shall put its poles in place.

Marc Bregman is the Herman and Zelda Bernard Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies emeritus, at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro.

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