Unicorns and Mermaids – Parshat Terumah

Unicorns and Mermaids – Parshat Terumah

It all started with dolphins.

I’m reading this week’s parsha, Terumah, which – let’s be honest – might be the least exciting read in the whole Torah.  I mean, on the one hand, it’s all about building a structure for God to dwell on earth – an awesome undertaking. But on the other hand, it reads a bit like an IKEA furniture assembly instruction manual. For example:

The length of each plank shall be ten cubits and width of each plank a cubit and a half.  Each plank shall have two tenons, parallel to each other; do the same with all planks of the Tabernacle. (Exodus 26:16-17)

טז עֶשֶׂר אַמּוֹת, אֹרֶךְ הַקָּרֶשׁ; וְאַמָּה וַחֲצִי הָאַמָּה, רֹחַב הַקֶּרֶשׁ הָאֶחָד.  יז שְׁתֵּי יָדוֹת, לַקֶּרֶשׁ הָאֶחָדמְשֻׁלָּבֹת, אִשָּׁה אֶלאֲחֹתָהּ; כֵּן תַּעֲשֶׂה, לְכֹל קַרְשֵׁי הַמִּשְׁכָּן.

And on and on, paragraph after paragraph – lots more like that.  On the heels of the splitting of the Red Sea and the revelation at Mount Sinai, this stuff can be, well… a little bit of a buzzkill.

But in fact, I had one of the most psychedelic, surreal, other-worldly experiences while reading this parsha. For in it, I came across some of the strangest stuff the Torah has to offer. And it all started with dolphins.

At the beginning of the parsha, we’re told that all the people are supposed to bring donations for the construction of the Tabernacle. And again, if you’re feeling cynical, you might say this reads a bit like a laundry-list:

These are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hairs; tanned rams skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood. (Exodus 25:3-5)

ג וְזֹאת, הַתְּרוּמָה, אֲשֶׁר תִּקְחוּ, מֵאִתָּם:  זָהָב וָכֶסֶף, וּנְחֹשֶׁת.  ד וּתְכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי, וְשֵׁשׁ וְעִזִּים. ה וְעֹרֹת אֵילִם מְאָדָּמִים וְעֹרֹת תְּחָשִׁים, וַעֲצֵי שִׁטִּים.

WAIT, STOP, WHAT?? Dolphin skins?! Did the Torah really just tell me that the Children of Israel, in the middle of the Sinai desert, are carrying around dolphins?

Well, this is just the English translation from the JPS Tanakh. So let’s take a look at the word in Hebrew: תחשים, techashim. It’s an unusual word; we haven’t seen it before.  So what does it mean? What is a tachash?

Let’s look at Rashi first, as we always do. He says:

This was a kind of animal that only existed for a short time, and it had many colors…

מין חיה, ולא היתה אלא לשעה והרבה גוונים היו לה

The second of the great commentators, the Ibn Ezra, says something similar, but he adds a cross-reference:

This was a kind of animal that was known in those days, as we see from what is written in Ezekiel (16:10), ‘I gave you sandals made of tachash.’

מין חיה היתה ידועה בימים ההם. כי כן כתוב ואנעלך תחש.

Okay, so now we know there’s another place in the Hebrew Bible where the word is used. But what does it mean there? We may be imagining sandals of dolphin-leather. But remember, neither Rashi nor the Ibn Ezra actually mention dolphins. So how did we get there?

Aryeh Kaplan, in his translation of the Torah, ends up going with the awkward phrase, “blue-processed skins,” but he does a great job of giving a summary of all the animals that have been attributed to the word tachash over the years, and it makes for quite a list:

weasel – squirrel – badger – wild ram – antelope – okape – giraffe –  seal – sea cow – dugong

Wow, it might be even crazier to transport a giraffe across the desert than a dolphin!  And what the heck is an okape or a dugong, anyway?

But the most fantastic explanation of the tachash comes from the Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat 28b:

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 only existed for Moses for that moment, and he made the Tabernacle with it, and then it was hidden.

תחש שהיה בימי משה בריה בפני עצמה היה ולא הכריעו בה חכמים אם מין חיה הוא אם מין בהמה הוא וקרן אחת היתה לו במצחו ולפי שעה נזדמן לו למשה ועשה ממנו משכן ונגנז

Whoa!  A horn in the middle of its head? And it only existed for a moment and then was hidden forever? Well, Kaplan says that this might refer to a narwhal, the only animal we know whose tusk makes it look like it has a single horn.

But I think you know what else this magical one-horned creature sounds a lot like…

That’s right: A UNICORN!

Now, I’m not really suggesting the tachash is secretly the Jewish legend of the unicorn. But it is remarkable that here in our tradition we have this mysterious, ephemeral animal that shares so many features with that other classic mythical beast.

But, wait – that’s not all! Tracking down the dolphin brought me to other strange creatures before the hunt was over.  A friend pointed out to me that dolphins are actually mentioned explicitly in the Talmud, in Tractate Bechorot 8a:

Dolphins are fruitful and multiply like human beings.  And what is a dolphin? Rabbi Judah said: they are creatures of the sea.

הדולפנין פרין ורבין כבני אדם מאי דולפנין אמר רב יהודה בני ימא

Now that’s all fine and well. But what gets really crazy is that all the major commentators – Rashi, Tosafot, and the Shita Mekubetzet – all seem to follow a different manuscript that reads: “Dolphins are fruitful and multiply from human beings.”  FROM human beings!

Rashi explains this as follows:

When human beings mate with them, they become pregnant…  Then there are creatures of the sea which have half human form and half fish form…

הג הדולפנין פרים ורבים מבני אדםשאם בא אדם עליהם מתעברות הימנו. בני ימאדגים יש בים שחציין צורת אדם וחציין צורת דג

Well now this sounds a lot like… MERMAIDS!

But the point is, the rabbis of the Talmud did know about dolphins, or at least, had heard of them.  And they were such unusual creatures that they sparked in the rabbinic imagination tales of strange cohabitation and hybrid offspring – the stuff of fantasy and legend.

Now to return to our original question, this mention of dolphins in the Talmud suggests that the tachash of the bible wasn’t actually a dolphin. Because it never seemed to occur to the rabbis to connect the two creatures.

But the tachash did serve the same role as the dolphin did for them.  It was a creature of such mystery and wonder that it suggested magical possibilities. It was shadowy figure upon which they could project the wildest visions from their dreamscapes: a beast of shimmering colors, thick skins and a horn, coupling with people on the seashores and then vanishing into the night – maybe vanishing forever.

If this is what a tachash symbolizes, then it truly does belong among the things that go into building the Tabernacle.  For think about what else is on that list: strong wood and precious metals, fine cloth dyed in regal colors, oils and spices, and an assortment of sparkling stones.  Animal, vegetable, mineral.  Every treasure and wonder that can be found on the earth or beneath it.  Everything.

Jorge Luis Borges has a great short story describing an Empire in which, “the art of cartography attained such perfection,” that they eventually drew up a map of the Empire so detailed that it actually grew to be size of the Empire. There was no longer any difference between the map of the world and the world itself.

The Tabernacle is like that. It aspires to contain God, after all. So it must start by containing the world itself.  It must be constructed of pieces of everything in the world. The trees, and the rocks, and the animals will all be embedded in it. And we will be in it. It will hold our prayers and our sins and our best intentions.  And more.  It will hold our dreams and our nightmares, our wildest fantasies and strangest visions. Unicorns and mermaids, the cherubs and the Leviathan.  Everything, everything, everything.


About Rabbi David Kasher

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