ט״ו במרחשון ה׳תשע״ג (October 31, 2012)

Shabbat 28a-b: The Unique Tahash of the Desert

The discussion of tent impurity and the materials that can become ritually defiled when suspended over a dead body (see yesterday’s daf, leads the Gemara to discuss another famous biblical tent – the Tabernacle of the desert. The Tabernacle was made up of several layers of different types of materials, one of which was made from an animal called a taḥash. In investigating the identity of this animal the Gemara on today’s daf asks:

What is the conclusion reached about this matter of the taḥash that existed in the days of Moses? Rabbi Ela said that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said that Rabbi Meir used to say: The taḥash that existed in the days of Moses was a creature unto itself, and the Sages did not determine whether it was a type of undomesticated animal or a type of domesticated animal. And it had a single horn on its forehead, and this taḥash happened to come to Moses for the moment while the Tabernacle was being built, and he made the covering for the Tabernacle from it. And from then on the taḥash was suppressed and is no longer found.

The identity of the taḥash is a matter of great controversy and was never resolved. Some authorities explain that the taḥash is a monodon or narwhal, a species of whale. Narwhals travel in small groups, especially in northern ocean waters. It can grow to 6 meters in length. Its primary color is light yellow and it is spotted with numerous dark spots, the only cetacean with spots. A twisted tooth, up to 3 m long, grows out of one side of its mouth, to the extent that for many years it was thought to be the horn of the unicorn. It is possible that a group of these creatures approached the Red Sea and were thrown onto the shore or trapped there.

The narwhal’s appearance closely parallels the descriptions here: It is spotted, it has a single horn on its forehead and the Sages were unable to determine its precise nature: domesticated or non-domesticated; kosher or non-kosher.

Prof. Yehuda Feliks, one of the foremost scholars in the field of nature in the Bible, suggests that the taḥash may have been a giraffe, which has many of the characteristics mentioned by Rabbi Meir: A multicolored hide, a horn-like protrusion on its forehead, and some of the signs that determine that an animal is kosher.