Dvar Torah: On Dolphin Skins

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 12 February 2016

We’ve had the magical drama of the Exodus; the extraordinary foundational Jewish moment, revelation at Sinai; the formative stages of a legal structure which will come to define Jewish life.
And now?
Now, in the book of Exodus, we get the flat pack parashiyot, the descriptions of the building of the Tabernacle:  “Place joint a in hole b, secure with hook c, overlay with dolphin skins”

What now?
Overlay with dolphin skins?

In tomorrow’s portion, where we read the instructions for the building of the Tabernacle, it says – according to the JPS Translation at least – that Moses should collect from the people and use as a covering in the Sanctuary, dolphin skins.

It is one of those odd places where we see the challenge, and the creative possibility of engaging with an ancient text.  Because no one really knows what the bible means when it says “orot t’chashim” which the JPS translates in that way.  No-one knows what a tachash was.

It is sometimes translated as dolphin skins, probably, because of a related Arabic word which does refer to a sea animal. Hence it is sometimes translated dolphin, or porpoise, or seal, or sea cow.  And this allows people to huff and puff and say that the whole story must be nonsense because where would the Israelites have got dolphin skin in the desert (even though, of course, they had been walking down the coast of what is now the Gulf of Suez, which is not without its sea life).

But dolphin skin is not the only possible translation. Alternatively, it is understood as goat skin, as fine leather, as dyed skin.  One awful nineteenth century English translation has it as badger skin.
But, in truth no one knows

Nor, for what it’s worth, did the rabbis.  Often we can understand a word like this through their reading of it.  But in this case, they can’t agree either.  The Jerusalem Talmud gives a few options: a blue coloured goatskin, or two things which actually make it more complicated, by saying a tachash is something else we don’t understand – the Galaksinon (probably ermine). Or maybe the Keresh (which, unbelievably was possibly a giraffe).

Elsewhere, fantastically, Rashi says that tachash was a kind of multi-coloured animal that “only existed during that time”.  And the Babylonian Talmud states that it was a unique creature that only existed at that time, which “had a single horn in its forehead and presented itself to Moses when it was needed”  So, not dolphin skin, but unicorn skin!

The rabbinic understanding is not only a bit more fun, but also gives us an insight into how they read the Torah.  For them, this is not a mere Ikea instruction booklet.  The rabbis were not seeking to know what a tachash really is.  They read this from within the world of myth, retaining the sense of magic that we find elsewhere in Exodus.  In their reading of “orot tachashim” we can see that we are not asked by Torah to suddenly skip to realism after chapters of miracles – and nor therefore can this text be undermined by rationality and mistranslation.

To the rabbis, the parashiyot that we will read over the next few weeks are no less magical and dramatic than the exodus, no less extraordinary than Sinai and no less foundational than the law.