Word of the Day Takhash: How an Ancient Word for Leather Gave Animals Their Names

This word has been used to describe everything from dachshunds to manatees.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Before the Great Temple of Jerusalem was erected, the Jewish priests would do the lord’s work in the Tabernacle - a portable temple that ancient Israelites carried with them during the Exodus. The roof of the Tabernacle was made of a leather described as takhash but it is not altogether clear what this was.

The translation of the Bible into Greek, the Septuagint, translated takhash as hyacinth, apparently meaning the leather was the color of the hyacinth flower - a bluish purple. Meanwhile, the Aramaic translations - Onkelos and Jonathan - used the Aramaic word sasgona meaning vermilion.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Yosef bar Hiyya, a 3rd- to 4th-century rabbi from Babylonia wrote that sasgona means sas gevana - literally “happy in its colors” or colorful, giving rise to the Hebrew word sasgoni, which means the same.

On the next page of the Talmud, Rabbi Meir, a 2nd-century rabbi from Palestine, gives his account of the nature of takhash. “The takhash, which existed in the time of Moses, was a beast of its own, and the sages couldn’t decide what kind of animal it was, and it had one horn on its forehead, and it was temporarily afforded to Moses, who made a tabernacle from it and then it disappeared.”

Rashi followed suit, writing that the takhash was a colorful animal that existed temporarily. In commentary on the Book of Ezekiel, however, he writes that takhash, which appears there as a leather used to make shoes, is a badger -- though this is probably a later addition made to agree with translations of the Bible into European languages.

Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, translated takhash into dachs, the German word for badger, apparently because they sound the same. The King James Bible, in turn, influenced by Luther also rendered takhash as badger.

This definition of takhash was carried into Hebrew by Mendele Mocher Sforim in his influential translation of the “Book of Natural History” by Harold Lentz. That is how the dachshund dog breed got its Hebrew name takhash: First it was translated as kelev takhash and then the kelev (dog) part was dropped. When, in 1923, zoologist Yisrael Aharoni gave the badger its current Hebrew name girit (gi-RIT), based on the Arabic, takhash stopped being used for badger but remained the name of the dog breed.

Why did Aharoni decide it necessary to change the badger’s name?

In 1821, Eduard Rüppell set out to explore the Sinai. While traveling the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba, he found that local Bedouin tribes called a variety of local sea mammals dakhas or takhas and that they even used their hides to make shoes as described in Ezekiel. When he returned to Europe he published his findings - the takhash was the sea mammal dugong.

Aharoni was impressed by this finding but instead of the dugong, he believed that the takhash was the narwhal, because of its uni-horn, which matched the Talmudic description, despite the fact that narwhals don’t live anywhere near the Sinai, being Arctic creatures.

In 1963, the Academy of the Hebrew Language decided on a name for dugong -- takhash hamishkan (Tabernacle) -- and in 1972 it gave manatees the Hebrew name takhash hanaharot (rivers).

A Dachshund.Credit: Wikipedia

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