Tachash: Protected Species

Tachash: Protected Species
Manatee, one possible interpretation of the biblical animal tachash

Tachash. The mystery animal in this week’s Torah reading. Could it be from an extinct species?

Meet the Tachash

Here’s the verse. It’s part of a call to donate raw materials for building the mishkan. That’s the traveling wilderness tabernacle tent. And a place where God can dwell among the people. So, artists will create it from people’s donations.

Thus, Moses says, “People, here’s the list of what we need; it includes

וְעֹרֹת אֵילִם מְאָדָּמִים וְעֹרֹת תְּחָשִׁים וַעֲצֵי שִׁטִּים׃

reddened ram skins, tachash skins, and acacia wood” (Exodus 25:5).

What is the tachash? Theories abound!

It’s an ermine, dolphin, dugong, narwhal, zebra, badger, okapi, seal, antelope, giraffe, unicorn, and a rainbow-skinned something-or-other.

If you believe Rabbi Nehemiah, we’ll never know for sure. The tachash, he said, was a miraculous creature. God popped it into existence just in time to build the mishkan. And then popped it back out. (Midrash Tanchuma, Terumah 6)

What a delightful magical tale! But if I set the magic aside, the tale seems less delightful. And much more ordinary. Maybe even cautionary.

Tachash: A cautionary tale

In real life, how does an animal species pop out of existence? Sometimes, it goes extinct. And, sometimes, human negligence is to blame.

For example, a human community discovers an animal herd. Then, the community realizes the animal’s body is useful. Maybe it’s good to eat. Its fur makes a good blanket. Or its hooves, ground to a powder, help human skin heal. So, the humans kill and use so many animals, the herd cannot sustain itself.

Or, maybe the animal isn’t useful for much. So, there’s no real profit in keeping its habitat up. Maybe modern human transportation systems—cars or boats—tear up the habitat. Or anthropogenic climate change disturbs its ecosystems. So the animal can’t find food that is safe to eat. And its families die off.

Manatees: The Florida Tachash

This is the story of the Florida manatee. Now, the tachash is probably not a Florida manatee. But it might be a relative, the dugong, a Red Sea animal. Dugong live in marine waters, and manatees prefer fresh water. But both are grass-eating aquatic mammals, who love to graze in shallow waters. So, my mind can’t help but turn towards the manatees.

Images of two similar aquatic mammals: manatee (L) and dugong (R) side by side
Left: Manatee. Right: Dugong

Florida manatees—there are about 7,000 of them—have had a hard time in recent years. Many die in boating accidents. Manatees use high-pitched sounds to communicate. But they can’t easily hear the low-frequency hum of speedboats. So, they don’t move to safety in time. In some manatee rivers, pollution has destroyed the food source, sea grass. So, manatees have starved. In other areas, changing water temperatures caused blooms of toxic algae. Thus, in the last three years alone, about 1,000 manatees died.

Of course, Florida’s conservation groups are alarmed and also active. Many people love these gentle creatures. So they donate to keep the manatees alive.

“Build the mishkan” in your region

When I think of the tachash, I think of the manatee. And of how Torah suggests we give it a place in the mishkan, God’s dwelling. Of course the mishkan isn’t just a tent with a courtyard. Classical midrash says it’s a microcosm of the entire created world. In that world, manatees have a place. Especially if we do our part to build it up.

If you live in Florida, or love manatees, check out this Save the Manatee website. Wherever you live, find out what endangered species you can help protect. Find out what you can do. And do it, in honour of our ancestral story of “building the mishkan.”

  1. Interesting, Laura! So what is Tachash? What’s role its skin may have played in the Mishkan? As a cover for walls, floor, roof? Against sand, insects, rain?

    We actually know for sure only about one animal that disappeared – the wooly mammoth! But then Exodus happened somewhere in the Arctic, at the Russian North. A historical fact – eventually Jews did arrive in Russia, first in the Kievan Rus, then into the Russian Empire.

    1. Great comments, Ari! It is generally thought that Tachash skins were used as an outer covering against the elements, but I am not sure which commentator introduced this idea. The interpretation that makes most sense to me is Tachash as the skin of a dugong. That would certainly be waterproof—and environmental research suggests that the Sinai desert in 1200 BCE was a grassland. So it would have gotten about 30 inches (76 cm) of rain a year.

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