What Was the Tachash Covering in the Tabernacle?
Exotic Animals in the Wilderness?
Exodus describes how the Israelites in the wilderness were instructed to make contributions toward the construction a tabernacle (משכן, mishkan), within which the Glory (כבוד) of God was to dwell. In addition to the precious metals gold, silver, copper, they brought, as commanded:
שמות לה:ו וּתְכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי וְשֵׁשׁ וְעִזִּים: לה:ז וְעֹרֹת אֵילִם מְאָדָּמִים וְעֹרֹת תְּחָשִׁים וַעֲצֵי שִׁטִּים:
Exod. 35:6 Blue, purple and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair, 35:7 tanned ram skins, teḥashim skins and acacia wood.
What are Tachash skins?
Meanings of Tachash in the Bible
The word תחש occurs in three different contexts in Tanakh.
- Personal name – Tachash it is the name of a son of Nahor’s concubine, Reumah (Genesis 22:24).
- Cover – It is used as a covering for the mishkan and its objects (Exod. 25:5, 26:14, 35:7, 23 36:19, 39:34; Num. 4:6, 8, 10, 11, 12,14, 25).
- Material for shoes – In a parable, Ezekiel (16:10) has the husband (God) say that he made his wife (Israel) high-end shoes, after finding her abandoned in the wilderness:
וָאַלְבִּישֵׁךְ רִקְמָה וָאֶנְעֲלֵךְ תָּחַשׁ וָאֶחְבְּשֵׁךְ בַּשֵּׁשׁ וַאֲכַסֵּךְ מֶשִׁי.
I clothed you with embroidered garments, and gave you sandals of Tachash to wear, and wound fine linen about your head, and dressed you in silks.
Whatever Tachash is, it must be suitable for covering the mishkan and its objects, as well as a material for quality shoes
LXX and Josephus – Hyacinth Blue
Our earliest source for interpretation of the word Tachash is the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Torah. (The Pentateuch translation dates back to the third century BCE.) Throughout Exodus and Numbers, and in Ezekiel, the Septuagint consistently translates Tachash by derivatives of hyacinth (huakinthos). עורות תחשים is rendered “hyacinth skins” (δέρματα ὑακίνθινα; dermata huakinthina) i.e., hides, presumably of goats or sheep, dyed the color of hyacinths. Tachash, then, is not an animal but a dye. Josephus, too, lists among the materials provided for the Tabernacle “goats’ hair and sheepskins, some dyed blue (huakinthos)” (Antiquities 3:102).
The Color of Hyacinths
Hyacinths are native to the Eastern Mediterranean, and the wild stock, unlike our modern cultivars, is rarely red or white, but ranges in color from violet blue to bluish purple. “Hyacinth blue” was a well-known ancient dye made, not from the flower, but from a substance extracted from molluscs, and which was processed to produce the same color. No doubt for generations Jews in Alexandria and elsewhere in the diaspora, wherever the Torah was read in Greek, were nurtured by this translation to imagine hyacinth-blue sheets of leather covering the mishkan and being used by the Levites to wrap its utensils for transport.
Techelet is also Hyacinth
One problem with the LXX’s translation is that it also uses huakinthos as a translation for techelet (תכלת) – the blue-dyed thread in the mishkan, in the clothes of the kohanim (priests), and most notably on the fringes (ציצית) on the corners of men’s garments. If the mishkan covers and other parts of the mishkan were to have been dyed with the identical dye, why use two different terms?
Rabbinic Interpretations: The Introduction of Animals
The Talmudic Rabbis offered a number of interpretations for tachash. Yerushalmi Shabbat 2:3 (4c) discusses the problem of tachash in the context of discussing a question of tent purity:
רבי אלעזר שאל מהו לעשות אוהל מעור בהמה טמאה.
R. Eleazar asked: “May one make a tent out of the hide of an unclean animal?” (i.e., would it convey and be subject to impurity like a normal tent?)
והכתיב ועורות תחשים.
Is it not written (Exod. 36:19), “Skins of techashim?”
As is well known, טומאה (impurity) may be conveyed to a person or object by simply being under the same אהל (“tent,” i.e. covering) with the source of the impurity. R. Eleazar’s questions whether a “tent” made from the hide of an impure animal would itself render everything beneath it impure. The Talmud attempts to settle the question by referencing the use of tachash skins in covering the tent of meeting. If “tents” made from the skin of impure animals would really have that effect, would that not render the entire miskhan impure?
The Talmud then offers three answers:
ר’ יהודא אומר טיינין לשם צובעו נקרא.
R. Judah says: “[It was] ianthinon (violet), and named for its dye.”
ור’ נחמיה אמר גלקטינין.
R. Nehemiah said: “[It was the fur of] the [ermine] weasel imported by the Axeinoi (γαλῆ Ἀξεινῶν).”
ורבנן אמרין מין חיה טהורה. וגדילה במדבר.
The [other] Rabbis said: “It was a clean animal, and it lived in the wilderness.”
R. Judah’s opinion agrees with the LXX and Josephus, that tachash is a dye, and the skins being dyed were from a kosher animal. R. Nehemiah’s answer is puzzling. Ermine – the pure white winter coat of the stoat – is certainly not from a kosher animal, and thus doesn’t seem to answer the question. Thus, it seems that he must be partially agreeing with R. Judah, but claiming that the (kosher) animal skins were not died violet, but were dyed to look like ermine. The third position solves the problem by positing, or more likely inventing, a kosher animal that lives in the wilderness.
From Mythic Creatures to the Unicorn
The Talmud then connects this final view with descriptions of mythic creatures:
ותיי כיי דמר ר’ לעזר בי ר’ יוסי ר’ אבהו בשם רבי שמעון בן לקיש בשם ר’ מאיר כמין חיה טהורה ברא הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה במדבר כיון שעשה בה מלאכת המשכן נגנזה.
This fits with that which R. Eleazar b. Yosé stated, R. Abbahu in the name of R. Simeon b. Laqish in the name of R. Meir: The Holy One, blessed be He, created a clean animal for Moses in the wilderness. Once [Moses] had constructed the mishkan with it, it was hidden away.
ר’ אבון אמר קרש היה שמה.
R. Abun said, It was called קרש (qeresh).
תני רבי הושעיה דחדא קרן [תהלים סט לב] ותיטב לה’ משור פר מַקְרִן ומפריס. מקרן כתב רחמנא.
R. Hoshaya taught, It had [only] one horn. “It shall please the Lord better than a bullock with horn and hoof” (Psalm 69:32) –and מַקְרִן (a hiphil participle) is written defective (i.e., without a yod between the resh and the final nun, suggesting the singular noun קֶרֶן, “horn”).
The Talmud moves from speculation, i.e., some unknown kosher animal that lives in the wilderness, to a miraculous creature, created specifically for this purpose, and finally to the legendary unicorn. The Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 28a) comes to a similar conclusion, though it prefers a multi-colored creature to the unicorn.
Badgers, Seals, and Dolphins
The animal interpretation continued to develop. I have lost count of how many times, when we have read the Tabernacle Torah portions in the synagogue, people have questioned me about the תחש tachash. Depending on the translation they use, they want to know what were badgers (KJV translation), seals (JPS 1915), or dolphins (NJPS 1985) doing in the wilderness.
In the Renaissance period, many scholars believed that the original human language was Hebrew, and that other languages retained elements of it, if corrupted (after all, gamal and camel are the same word, denoting the same animal). Someone noticed that the consonants T, Ḥ, Š of tachash resemble D, CH, S in German Dachs (‘badger’). Accordingly, Martin Luther, possibly on the advice of his friend and supporter, the humanist Georg Spalatin, translated tachash as Dachsfelle (“badger skins”) (Dalley 2000, 1). Luther’s German translation appeared in 1534, and influenced translations into other European languages including English.
The German scholar Gesenius, the first edition of whose Hebrew Lexicon appeared in 1812, offered “seal” as a possible translation, on the basis of Arabic تُخَسْ tuḥash “porpoise,” explaining that the ancient Hebrews would have used this term as a catch-all for many different creatures that “they neither knew nor distinguished with accuracy.” In 1907, Oxford’s Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament suggested “porpoise.” Nevertheless, in keeping with Genesius’ suggestion that the Hebrews were merely “approximating” with this term, “porpoise” has been modified by subsequent translators of the Bible to assorted aquatic mammals—not only Gesenius’ “seals” but “dolphins” (a kind of porpoise at least) and even “dugongs.”
Beaded Leather – A Luxury Product
Stephanie Dalley, an Assyriologist at Oxford University, argues that duchsu, and by analogy tachash, refers neither to an animal nor to a specific material, but to the profession of attaching faience (ceramic) beads to leather. Thus, William C. Propp, in his Anchor Bible commentary on Exodus, translates tachash as “beaded leather.”
The Making of Duhsu Leather in the ANE
Archaeologists have shown that the making of faience beads and their use in decorating leather was already an ancient skill by the time Exodus was written. Faience is “a composite material consisting of a sintered quartz body and a glaze,” and such beads have been found in Mesopotamia dating back to the fourth millennium BCE.
Dalley cites cuneiform texts on the uses of duhsu-leather:
The leather was used for sandals in the craft texts from Isin of the early second millennium BCE, and in Old Babylonian texts from Mari … In the Isin craft archive it was particularly interesting that the word was found in connection with goat or sheep hide (not ox-hide) and is often listed together with madder-red-dyed hides, especially ox-hide This is the same combination as we find for the covering of the tabernacle in Exodus, and the covering of the table of offerings in Numbers. This similarity, together with the use for sandals, gives substance to the idea of reviving a link between the two words (pp. 10-11).
All this seems very far from the Septuagint’s translations of tachash as hyacinth, but Dalley observes that the hyacinth is somewhat variable in color, and suggests that,
[If we think of] the surface effect of the hyacinth flower rather than its colour, it is evident that it resembles a beaded surface. It is most commonly blue, varying in shade, but can also be white or pink. Huakinthinos in other Greek texts is used of fringes, selvedges and coats of mail, giving a range of context similar to that of Akkadian duhsu (p. 12).
This is likely the meaning of the name Nahor’s son, Tachash (Gen 22:24), i.e., “bead maker” or “embroiderer of leather with beads.” (This fits with his brother’s name, Tebaḥ, meaning butcher.) It would be nice to think that our father Abraham had a nephew who was skilled in an art which would one day adorn the Tabernacle, but that must remain in the realm of midrash.
Dalley further reports a striking archaeological finding:
Dr Gillian Eastwood-Vogelsang in Leiden, working on the clothing in the tomb of Tutankhamun, has identified specific items imported from western Asia, by certain features of design. One of those items consists of beaded sandals which she describes as ’embellished with an intricate design of gold bosses and beadwork in carnelian, turquoise and possibly lapis lazuli’.
In the Amarna letter EA 22 the Mittanian king sent to Akhenaten one pair of duhsu-shoes, studded with ornaments of gold, of hiliba stone, etc. If duhsu here means some kind of beadwork, the description would match not only Tutankhamun’s sandals but also certain beaded objects which have been found intact on excavations in Mesopotamia. (Dalley 2000, 12)
This find ties up beautifully with Ezekiel’s “I provided you with shoes of tachash” (ואנעלך תחש). Pseudo-Jonathan (Ezekiel 16:10) translates מסן דיקר, “precious shoes.” If Dalley is indeed correct, and I believe she is, Ezekiel is telling us that God shod Israel with shoes worthy of an Egyptian king.
Evidence Coming Together
Dalley sums up:
Hebrew tahas is cognate with Hurrian / Akkadian / Sumerian duhsu. It denotes beading and attaching pendants, and inlaying in stone, metal, faience and glass, and is usually made on leather but sometimes also wool or linen, or as cloisonné in precious metals, timber, etc.
The profession which manufactured them was not involved in dyeing leather, but was a refiner of frit, faience and glass, who shaped beads and inlays, and designed the iconography of ceremonial armour and harness, awnings for royal boats, ceremonial necklaces and headdresses, luxury sandals and royal headrests. His status was far higher than that of a mere dyer of leather, and the range of his expertise accounts for his high rank at the neo-Assyrian court…
Both the colour and the surface effect of beading are taken up in the Greek translation of the Hebrew as huakinthinos. The covering for the tabernacle in the Pentateuch with its underlay of red, madder-dyed leather has its precise counterpart in craft materials from Isin and Mari around 2000-1800 BCE. The sandals in Ezekiel have their counterpart in the Amarna letters and in the grave goods from Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Therefore it is not simply a matter of proposing a new cognate, as has been done in the past, but of gathering together a range of evidence which confirms the proposal. (pp. 16-17)
A Worthy Material to Cover the Tabernacle
Beaded hides are, from many points of view, the ideal material with which to cover a Tabernacle; they are aesthetically pleasing, fit for royalty, strong, and resist sun, rain, dust and probably arrows too.
It has taken a couple of thousand years to unravel the mystery, but the answer appears to be that no badgers, seals, dolphins or unicorns were necessary to construct the mishkan. Rather like many of the elements in mishkan account, it was a standard luxury product of the ANE.
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January 24, 2017
January 19, 2020
Dr. Rabbi Norman Solomon was a Fellow (retired) in Modern Jewish Thought at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He remains a member of Wolfson College and the Oxford University Teaching and Research Unit in Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was ordained at Jews’ College and did his Ph.D. at the University of Manchester. Solomon has served as rabbi to a number of Orthodox Congregations in England and is a Past President of the British Association for Jewish Studies. He is the author of Torah from Heaven.
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