Parashat Vayakhel

And The Loveliest Of All Was The Unicorn

The many interpretations of the Tachash remind us to look beyond surface appearances for spiritual intensity.

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Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.

As we distance ourselves from the sin of the Golden Calf, we are once again engaged in building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle that will be the focal point for all Divine encounters. The fabrics, gems and precious metals are of many kinds and Israel has been astoundingly generous.

Amid the myriad of materials donated are skins of a certain animal, in Hebrew it is called a "Tachash." The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation of this portion hazards a guess and translates these skins as those of a dolphin with a disclaimer saying that the Hebrew is "uncertain." In Hillel's Bronfman Edition of the Five Books of Moses, Everett Fox translates Tachash as "tanned" skins. Others have offered "sealskins."

The earliest Aramaic translation, the Targum Onkelos, translates the word Tachash with an equally cryptic Aramaic word, "sas-gavna" which later Talmudists endeavor to unpack. Here are some sources for you to ponder:

The Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Shabbat 28a "Sas-gavna," The word "Sas" comes from the Hebrew and means joy, "gavna" means colors. Its rainbow quality brings joy.

Your Talmud Navigator

From this Rav Yosef of the Talmud understands Onkelos as saying that these skins are described as the animal's "coat of many colors," but what kind of animal is it?

A modern commentator, Rav Menachem Kasher, sees the word "sas-gavna" as being of Aramaic origin. A "sas" is a worm, and "gavna" means color. He understands that this animal radiated the many colors that one may see in a caterpillar, or colorful worms. It becomes an adjective describing the colors of the hides.

The following midrash takes us deep into the realm of rabbinic imagination.

Midrash Tanchuma Vi

R. Yehudah and R. Nehemiah disagreed about the nature of the Tachash.

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.

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Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Rabbi Avi Weinstein is the Head of Jewish Studies at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Kansas City.