Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Mysterious "Tachash" - Animal, Color or Type of Leather?

In the first paragraph of this week's parsha, Terumah (Exodus 25:1 - 27:19), Hashem announces the “fundraising campaign” for the mishkan (Tabernacle) and gives Moses a long list of items the Israelites are to donate for the building of God's sanctuary: 

And these are the gifts you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns . . . and tachash skins and acacia wood. (Exodus 25:5)
 What are these  “tachash skins”? And, how should we translate the phrase "וְעֹרֹת תְּחָשִׁים"?  

Indeed, the “tachash” is such a mystery that we have divergent explanations about the nature of this animal, and even whether it's an animal, a type of color, or a method of processing skins! 

The word appears 14 times in the Bible, almost exclusively in the context of the Tabernacle. In all but two occurrences, it appears in construct with the word עור (hide, skin) suggesting it relates to animal skin, and this skin was used in making the Tabernacle. In the Book of Ezekiel (16:10), it appears with reference to sandals:
וָאַלְבִּישֵׁךְ רִקְמָה, וָאֶנְעֲלֵךְ תָּחַשׁ

I clothed you with embroidered garments, and gave you sandals of tachash.

Clashing Commentators

In Midrash Tanhuma, we find a machloket (dispute) between Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Nechemiah. 

Rabbi Yehudah says it was a large desert animal with a single horn on its forehead, and its skin contained six different hues. 

Rabbi Nechemia, on the other hand, provides us with the most mysterious explanation: It was a miraculous animal, which came into being only for the purpose of lending its skin to the construction of the mishkan, and then ceased to exist. 

In the Jerusalem Talmud, however, we find a completely different approach, suggesting that tachash is a type of color. It quotes Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Nechemiah as arguing on what type of color it was (Tractate Shabbat 2:3).   
Rabbi Saadia Gaon, the prominent rabbi and philosopher of the Geonic Period from the 1st century, translated tachash into Arabic as "darsh", meaning "black," suggesting that tachash skins simply means a special way of processing skins causing them to blacken. 

Moving on to the classical Torah commentators, we find Rashi who adopts the mythological approach, saying it was the multi-colored  unicorn, and quoting Onkelos's translation “sas-gona” meaning “boasting about its colors.” 

Ibn Ezra comments that it was a type of thick skin, made from an animal such as an ox. 

Ralbag (Gersonides, 14th century, France) takes a look at the context, specifically at the words preceding tachash"tanned ram skins, and tachash skins" and suggests it was an animal with thicker and better quality skin than the ram's skin, concluding that it was a goat! 

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century, Germany) thinks the word "tachash" comes from the root (ח.ו.ש) meaning  "fast," suggesting it was an animal which could run fast. 

Differing Translations

Just as Biblical commentators argued over the meaning of the word, so did the translators differ in their translations. 

The Septuagint (Greek) and the Vulgate (Latin)  translated tachash as a color, dark red or dark blue. 

Martin Luther (German) translated tachash as a badger, and this appears in several famous translations (King James Version and the New King James Version). He based his translation on the assumption that Latin and German descended from Hebrew. In order to translate the Hebrew תחש, Luther looked for the phonologically corresponding form in German; hence, he arrived at Dachs, "badger"! But one cannot translate an unknown Hebrew word with a similar-sounding alleged "cognate" in the target language. Thus, the translation "badger" is most probably incorrect. 

Several Hebrew lexicographers argued that tachash means "dugong,"  a large marine animal similar to the manatee, or "dolphin."  They based their translation on the Arabic tuhas, "dugong, dolphin." This explanation has found its way into many of today's English translations, such as New International Version (NIV) and the New Jewish Publication Society (NJPS). 

But how would the Israelites have access to dugong or dolphin skins in the Sinai desert?! And why would they be used as materials for the Tabernacle? 

Egyptian-type Leather

The most reasonable etymology is that tachash is derived from the Egyptian ths, a verb used with reference to leather. As researcher Benjamin Noonan has shown, most commonly, it refers to the process of stretching leather across a wooden frame for oil-curing. The ancient Egyptians used oil to cure their leather. This was done by dipping the hide in oil, stretching it across a wooden frame, and scraping the hide with a stone or other tool. Additionally, the Egyptian word ths appears in conjunction with tbw ("sandal") denoting the process of stretching leather for making sandals. This fits well with the appearance of the word tachash in Ezekiel where it means "sandal." 

Noonan shows that a good number of Egyptian loanwords found their way into wilderness wandering narratives, precisely the context in which the Hebrew תחש appears. It is significant that tachash appears in conjunction with several other Egyptian loanwords: 

שִׁטִּים - acacia wood
שֵׁשׁ -  linen

Thus, a form of the Egyptian ths referring to leather was adopted by the Hebrew speakers as tachash. This fits nicely with the frequent association of תחש with  עור as well as the usage of תחש with sandals, strongly suggesting a particular type of leather. Leather would have served as a durable and resilient outer covering for the Tabernacle, and the material of choice for making sandals. 

The New Revised Standard Version adopts this explanation: 
tanned rams’ skins, fine leather, acacia wood. 
Has the mystery of the tachash been solved? I am convinced by Noonan's thorough analysis, but there are "seventy facets to the Torah" and the multitude of opinions enriches the study of Torah and makes it so much more interesting.  

What is your preferred explanation?

1 comment:

  1. A new monk arrives at the monastery. He is assigned to help the other monks in copying the old texts by hand. He notices, however, that they are copying copies, and not the original books.

    So, the new monk goes to the head monk to ask him about this. He points out that if there was an error in the first copy, that error would be continued in all of the other copies. The head monk says, "We have been copying from the copies for centuries, but you make a good point, my son."

    So, he goes down into the cellar with one of the copies to check it against the original. Hours later, nobody has seen him. So, one of the monks goes downstairs to look for him. He hears sobbing coming from the back of the cellar and finds the old monk leaning over one of the original books crying. He asks what's wrong.

    "The word is celebrate not celibate," says the old monk with tears in his eyes