In the beginning of the book of Numbers, a.k.a. Bamidbar, we find the Israelites on the cusp of the desert, 2 years after Mt. Sinai and the start of the sacrificial services in the Mishkan, the temporary Tabernacle in the desert. This Temple was essentially a large tent surrounded by a courtyard, and as we see here, just as it could be assembled, it also would need to be disassembled and carried through the desert. This week, G-d gives Aaron the instructions on how he and his sons will wrap up all the holy relics -- the Ark, the Menorah, and so on -- put the poles through their attached loops, and hoist them to carry them along.
In Chapter 4, we find the list of things that had to be covered. The Torah says that every item in the Tabernacle had to be covered with the skin of the Tachash before it could be transported on the shoulders of the Kohanim through the desert.
I'm in the Etz Chayim, page 783. Numbers, chapter 4, verse 4.
In the following verses, one after another, the Torah lists the holy items of the Tabernacle, saying that each had to be covered with the skin of the Tachash.
The Etz Chayim chumash was published by JPS in 1999. The translation was updated from the famous modern English translation of the great Dr. Harry Orlinsky. While Dr. Orlinsky noted, as he often did, that, in regards to translating the word tachash, "the origin of the Hebrew is unclear."
So how is the word tachash translated here?
So, was it a dolphin? Of course not. I'll give you two clear reasons why. First off, when we're talking about the Temple service, all the sacrificial animals had to be both pure -- kosher -- and perfect with no defects or markings. But more than that, you couldn't bring any non-kosher animals onto the Temple grounds. And while we usually don't consider it, this also means that any animal-based materials used in construction and preservation of the Tabernacle or Temple had to be derived from a kosher animal.
And dolphins aren't kosher. No scales, no kosher.
There is another issue. To use a dolphin, you'd need to catch a dolphin. So whatever the tachash was, as an ocean-based creature, the Israelites trudging through the desert probably wouldn't find one.
As it turns out, the rabbis of the Talmud tried desperately to figure out what in the world this creature was. In the section on Shabbat, page 28, the scholars argue whether, if someone dies while they're in a tent, and the tent's made of animal skin, does that make the tent impure? Someone jumps in and asks, well, some tents are made of non-kosher animal skin, which basically can't be made pure no matter what you do. In the end, the rabbis kind of drop the subject with no clear resolution.
But it does give them an excuse to talk about the greatest of all animal-skin-covered tents, namely the Tent of Meeting which was the core of the Tabernacle.
So after reading this, what do we know about the tachash?
First off, the rabbis didn't know if it was wild or domesticated. It's possible that the Rabbis saw that all the kosher animals used for Temple sacrifice were domesticated animals. So if the tachash is a domesticated animal, it would've been allowed in the Temple.
By the way, if the tachash is a beast of burden, it's a land animal and, again, nowhere near being a dolphin.
And the favorite question, where can we find one today? The Talmud says that, since the time of Moses, the Tachash is "nignaz"...similar to the word "g'nizah", in modern Hebrew this word means that the animal has been "archived" or "shelved." Think of the end of Citizen Kane or for my generation Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the Ark is placed in a generic wooden crate and hidden away in a warehouse full of similar crates.
So if the rabbis had never seen one of these before, how did they know it had a horn? Remember the two issues we needed to resolve: the tachash had to be a land animal: that's the assumption of the Talmud. But it also had to be a kosher animal worthy of being offered up to G-d. The Talmud says, well, if it has a horn, it must be a kosher animal.
So when the first human wanted to bring an offering to G-d, and had only a small knowledge of Torah, he knew enough that the animal had to be a kosher one. So at the very least, Adam knew that an animal with a horn would be acceptable to G-d, i.e. if the tachash had a horn, that would make it a kosher animal.
So the Talmud implies that this animal was a land animal. So why is it that so many translations today still say that the tachash was a dolphin? What was it about this creature's skin that made it so special that it should be used to cover everything, every holy item in the Tabernacle?
And the most important question we've avoided until now: if the tachash is so rare, so elusive, how in the world did the Israelites catch one?
For the answer, we go now to 13th century Barcelona, where Nachmanides, the Rambán, had his own interpretation of things.
So then, why did the Ark need 3 coverings: the curtain and the blue blanket and the tachash skin? Ramban said the skin was there to keep out the rain. The skin was therefore waterproof, weather-resistant, perfect for wrapping up your holy things for a long journey in the desert elements.
So why couldn't the tachash be a sea creature?
Well, we said before, there are no sea creatures in the desert. But think: the creature, or at least its skin, appears in the Torah after the revelation at Mt. Sinai. So that would mean that somewhere between the Exodus from Egypt and the arrival at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites would've encountered a body of water.
Which body of water did they encounter after they ran from Egypt?
Of course...the Red Sea. But then this would still imply that, when the Red Sea was split and the Israelites were traveling across, some folks went fishing while simultaneously running for their lives from the Pharaoh's chariots. Let's see what the Torah says.
I saw this verse this week and immediately recalled an old legend I'd heard in day school. When the children of Israel were crossing the Red Sea on dry ground, there were fruit trees that suddenly sprang up before them, giving them sustenance and provisions that they picked and gathered to bring with them into the desert. In my research, I looked online and found plenty of people who mentioned the same story.
But I couldn't find source. I couldn't find any commentator, ancient or otherwise, who told this story. There is a similar story going back to the 2nd century C.E. that seems to be the source of the fruit tree incident. In the Midrash Rabbah, the great collection of Biblical legends and explanations, we find the following in relation to the verse above.
Note: this passage refers to Rabbi Nehorai, an early Mishnaic Rabbi of the 2nd century C.E., who appears three times in the Talmud, possibly the same person as R. Nechemiah]
Rabbi Nehorai continues, saying this story is a reflection of a verse in Deuteronomy chapter 2, near the start of Moses' farewell speech to the nation. Moses reminds them that G-d omitted nothing from them, provided them everything they'd needed throughout their journey through the desert. Nehorai insists that these provisions began all the way to when they crossed the Red Sea, that even at that point, G-d was looking out for them. And, indeed, the story of the woman and her child reflects not simply that G-d provided food -- like picking fruit from a tree -- but even more so, provided mercy to the people, and comfort to the children.
By the way, the story doesn't say anything about trees. Rabbi Nehorai says that, as the people passed through the Red Sea, and there was a wall of water to their left and a wall of water to their right, the woman would simply reach her hand into the water to retrieve a piece of fruit for the child. I saw this and suddenly remembered another family of legends, that as folks crossed the Sea, they could peer into the walls of water like an aquarium...and if they saw a fish, they'd simply reach in and grab it.
From this story, the tachash we now understand could have been swimming happily in the Red Sea only to find itself caught in the greatest miracle ever witnessed, where a determined woman would simply reach her hand into the water, grab it by the horn, and retrieve it for her crying child. The animal in this scenario is wild, water-borne, waterproof, kosher, and easily caught on the way to Mt. Sinai.
And so we've solved our problem!
But wait! There's one more thing.
You see, the wording in the Talmud we read indicates that the rabbis believed the tachash to be unlike any other creature. But when they say it existed "b'pnei atzmah", this doesn't just imply that it was unique in the animal kingdom. This implies that it was the only one of its kind. The animal was so rare and so elusive because there was only ever one tachash.
This means that one animal would've supplied all the animal skin necessary for the construction and preservation of the Tabernacle.
And as the primary need for the skin of the tachash was to cover the entire Tent of Meeting, please note that the length of the tent was 30 cubits -- which is about 45 feet.
BUT, but as we find in this Torah portion, the skin not only had to cover the entire Tent of Meeting, but the Levites still needed remnants of the skin to cover all of the items kept inside the great Tent, including the incense altar, the bread table, the eternal lamp, the menorah, the cups and spoons and pokers and shovels and tongs, and of course, the Ark of the Covenant.
Here's some quick math for you, assuming a cubit to equal about a foot and a half. Calculating the total surface area needed to be covered, they'd need an animal skin whose surface totals approximately 692.625 square feet. But as this only accounts for the items for which we're given the measurements by Torah and tradition and not the other items and vessels and utensils of the Tabernacle, we can probably up the ante to well over 700 square feet.
So if you see a parent pulling along a crying child, simply look to the Torah, and the Talmud, and the Midrash. Remember the pious woman crossing the Red Sea, with the crying kid tugging on her arm, and imagine that woman, with the Egyptians hot on her tail and her patience with the child at an end, reaching blindly into the wall of water at her side, and pulling out a beautiful, miraculous, single-horned, smooth-skinned creature, 10 feet wide and 17 feet long, and handing that to her child to calm him down.
And believe me, if it really worked and the kid in the Red Sea story stopped making a scene, then the tachash truly was a miraculous creature.