Do you remember the elephant jokes we told when we were little? It is not a joke that there are elephants all over the Gemara. An example of one appears here in Kiddushin:
“And the Rabbis say: Both are acquired by pulling. Rabbi Shimon says: Both are acquired by lifting. Rav Yosef objects to this: If that is so, how can an elephant be acquired, according to Rabbi Shimon?” (Kiddushin 25)
Elephants are not native to the Land of Israel but their existence and the products made from their tusks were familiar to the Jews. In Biblical times we hear not about elephants but about ivory, an expensive, rare and imported material that conveyed status on its owners. King Solomon had ivory brought to him from afar and he had a throne decorated with it (Kings I 10:18). King Ahab of Israel, not to be outdone, had a house of ivory (meaning, many items decorated with it in his palace) (Kings I 22:39). And when the prophet Amos wants to denounce the wealthy and corrupt of Samaria, he pictures them lolling on their ivory beds (Amos 6:4). Ivory was a status symbol both because it was rare and because it had to be imported. The delicate material also had to be worked with intricate designs. In case you thought that the prophets were using hyperbole, we have archaeological evidence of these gorgeous ivory pieces, both from Megiddo and from Samaria:
An ivory decoration from Megiddo
Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Even if people knew of the existence of elephants, most had never seen one, neither in real life nor in pictures. Their size combined with this factor of mystery made them very frightening when actually encountered. The Greeks among others, used this to their advantage and employed the animals for war. The book of Maccabees tells of a dramatic battle scene where the Greek soldiers attacked the Jews with elephants. Elazar, Judah Maccabees’ brother, took on a suicide mission to kill the largest elephant and sow panic among the Greeks. Here is how the elephants are described:
“Moreover they divided the beasts among the armies, and for every elephant they appointed a thousand men, armed with coats of mail, and with helmets of brass on their heads; and beside this, for every beast were ordained five hundred horsemen of the best. . . Wherefore all that heard the noise of their multitude, and the marching of the company, and the rattling of the harness, were moved: for the army was very great and mighty.” (Maccabees I 6: 37, 43)
A 19th century depiction of elephants in battle
Henri-Paul Motte, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Sages of the Gemara mention the elephant, known as a pil (פיל), in numerous places. Mostly they emphasize its enormous size, as in our Gemara, or in a discussion about whether an elephant can be used as one wall of a sukkah:
“In the case where one established a wall with a tied elephant, everyone agrees that the sukka is fit, as even if it dies and falls, its carcass still has a height of ten handbreadths” (Sukkah 23a)
It was certainly considered an unusual and strange animal, one that needed a special blessing upon seeing it:
“The Sages taught: One who sees an elephant, a monkey, or a vulture (Rashi) recites: Blessed…Who makes creatures different.” (Berachot 58b)
And if it was seen in a dream it was considered to be a sign that miraculous things would happen (Berachot 56b)
Elephants were known to have an unusually long gestation period (three years according to Bechorot 8a; in reality an elephant is pregnant for up to two years) as well as for being intelligent and able to be trained, as in the circumstance in Eruvin (31b) where it can carry an eruv from one person to another. It is fascinating to note how much the rabbis knew about this exotic animal.
Back in our Gemara, the elephant is brought as a test case to question Rabbi Shimon’s premise that an animal can only be acquired by lifting. The Amoraim give various answers. Abaye says it can be purchased through a symbolic exchange, a kinyan chalifin, which eliminates the need for lifting. Alternately Abaye says one could rent the space where the elephant is standing and anything in that space now belongs to you, the buyer of the elephant. Rabbi Zeira goes a different route. First he suggests having it stand inside four dishes; if you own the dishes you own what is in them. But his strangest suggestion is the following:
“Alternatively, by using bundles of vines.” (Kiddushin 26a)
How exactly will the vines help us? We have two interpretations. Rashi says that one puts the vines on the ground and leads the elephant to stand on them. This elevates him a minimal amount, three tefachim, and that is considered enough lifting to acquire him. Tosfot is not pleased with this answer. He says that the vines will not be high enough and in any case they are considered like the ground. In addition, if the purpose is to build a platform to raise the elephant, why would you use vines and not wood or stone?
Tosfot then quotes Rabbi Meshullam (ben Nathan of Melun, twelfth century France). He explains that elephants eat vines, as we know from Shabbat 128a. If you place the vines high enough, the elephant will try to reach them and will jump, thereby lifting himself and allowing you to purchase him.
This is a fabulous explanation to the Gemara’s unexplained statement, except for one thing. Elephants are unable to jump. As explained by Rabbi Natan Slifkin in this article (https://static1.squarespace.com/static/54694fa6e4b0eaec4530f99d/t/570130c3c6fc084cc7eefbf1/1459695814400/Slifkin+on+jumping+elephants.pdf), elephants have massive legs to support their heavy weight. They are not flexible and cannot run, let alone jump. In addition, as shown by Dr. Jeremy Brown in his blog Talmudology (https://www.talmudology.com/jeremybrownmdgmailcom/2016/3/30/kiddushin-25b-can-elephants-jump), elephant bones point straight down so they are always standing on tiptoe (think Barbie feet) and that also inhibits their ability to jump. Even if they could, their weight coming down would cause great damage to their feet.
So how can Rabbi Meshullam offer this explanation? As Slifkin explains, if elephants were rare in third century Babylonia and Israel, they were much more rare in medieval Europe. Almost no one would have seen an elephant and even drawings of them tended to be inaccurate since they were based on hearsay and not on actually seeing this strange animal. Rabbi Meshullam assumed that elephants, like most other animals, could jump. A reasonable assumption that today we know to be untrue.
And what about the Amoraim, did they know what elephants really looked like? We have a few mosaics and paintings from synagogues and homes that depict elephants, some are more accurate than others. In the Bet Guvrin caves we have a menagerie from the second century BCE that includes a rather odd elephant:
Ian Scott, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
This one from a wealthy home in third century CE Caesarea is also proportioned rather weirdly:
Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
But the owners of this fabulous home from third century CE Lod either had a better artist or one who actually saw an elephant:
Bukvoed, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Elephants: smart, huge and perennial favorites in literature. Know any good elephant jokes?