Moses and the Unicorn - Shabbat 28
The problem they run into is one of vocabulary – Exodus refers to the skin of a takhash as part of the covering, but later generations don’t really know what that animal is! They assume it was clean (because of course Moses had already been revealed what Rabbi Joseph would recite later). So they draw instead on word of mouth: Elai heard Simon ben Lakish say that Meir said the takhash was a separate species, undetermined as to domestic or wild, with one horn in its forehead. A Unicorn? According to the Talmud, it appeared for Moses to use its skin for the mishkan, and then was hidden again. . .
The connection to Moses is important in a more practical consideration, since Rabbis in Talmudic times were not building a mishkan. What halakha [religious law] did Rabbi Joseph envision for his general statement about using clean animals for holy work? The answer: tefillin [prayer boxes], since the passage that defines partly defines their use in Exodus 13:9 reads “it shall be for a sign to you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes, that YHWH’s Torah may be in your mouth,” or as the Rabbis take it – ‘that Torah may be on something permitted in your mouth!’ The problem here is that some aspects of the tefillin are understood to be Biblical, while others are halakha l’moshe misinai – a law from Moses on Sinai. Or, in other words, a tradition so old we don’t know when it began but something we can’t prove from the Bible itself! And in those days, saying something was old and traditional was enough justification in itself for its continuation – fortunately, bazman ha-zeh [in these days] life is more open to innovation and freedom.
Rabbi Adam Chalom