The Lost Unicorn

In Parshat Vayakhel, there are three mentions of the “tachash skins” which are used to make the “ohel”, the covering of the Mishkan (Tabernacle).

In Parshat Trumah, the ‘tachash skins’ are on the list of materials that God tells Moshe to request from B’nai Yisrael to be donated for the Mishkan (Shmot 25:5):  “…Red dyed ram skins, ‘tachash’ skins and acacia wood...” In God’s instructions of how to make the Mishkan (Shmot 26:14) we read: “Make a covering for the ‘ohel’ out of red dyed ram’s skins, and a covering of ‘tachash’ skins above that.”

In Parshat Vayakhel, Moshe passes on God’s message to B’nai Yisrael (Shmot 35:5-7) “Collect from among yourselves a trumah offering to God…and red dyed ram’s skins, ‘tachash skins’ and acacia wood.” The generosity of B’nai Yisrael to donate materials to the Mishkan is evident (Shmot 35:23) “Every man (or woman) who had tchelet (greenish blue wool), argaman (dark red wool) tola’at shani (crimson wool) fine linen, goat’s hair, red dyed rams’ skins and ‘tachash skins’ brought them.” Once they had enough materials, the Mishkan was constructed (Shmot 36:19) “He made a covering for the ‘ohel’ out of red dyed ram’s skins, and a covering of ‘tachash’ skins above that.”

Where do the “tachash skins” come from?

Rashi (Shmot 25:5), based on Rav Yosef’s opinion in the Talmud, Shabbat 28a explains that “tachashim” is a species of animal which only existed at the time of Moshe. It had many (possibly six or sixty) colors and Onkelos translated it Sasgona (Sas=rejoice, Gavna=color) because it rejoices and is proud with its multi-colors.

The Talmud, Shabbat 28b continues the explanation of the “tachash”:

Rabbi Illa said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: Rabbi Mayer used to say: The “tachash” that existed in the days of Moshe was a unique creature for the sages could not decide whether it was a type of beheimah (domesticated animal such as cattle, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys) or a type of chayah (non-domesticated animal such as deer antelope, canines, felines) and it had a single horn on its forehead. It presented itself to Moshe according to the need of the hour. He made of it a cover for the Mishkan. And then the species was hidden.

Since Rabbi Meir said that the “tachash” had a single horn in its forehead, it is likely that it was a kosher animal since animals with horns and split hooves are kosher.

On the other hand, since the keresh (a chayah with a single horn) exists, it can be said that the ‘tachash’ is actually a type of chayah and not a beheimah.

What is the keresh?

According to Rashi it is a single horned deer. Aruch says that it is a unicorn, a giant beast whose horn has many medicinal properties.

The Talmud is inconclusive as to whether the ‘tachash’ was kosher or not. What we do learn is that it was a very colorful animal with one horn and only appeared for a short period of time, which leads us to believe that it was a unicorn.

Where else in the Tanach do we hear about the tachash?

The only reference to the ‘tachash’ in the Prophets is in Yechezkel 16:10 which speaks of God’s care for B’nai Yisrael: “And I clothed you in embroidered garments and shod you in ‘tachash’, bound you with linen and covered you with silk.”

Targum explains that God gave them precious shoes made from ‘tachash’ skins.

Mizrachi asks: How did they have the leather of the ‘tachash’ for shoes if the animal was extinct?One possible answer was that its temporary existence lasted throughout the forty years that B’nai Yisrael wandered in the desert.

It looks like the unicorn is not just a legendary creature after all.