This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Relevance of the Elephants*

The Torah forbids the cross-breeding of animals. For purposes of applying this prohibition a tractate in the Mishnah (Kila’im) is devoted largely to the topic of biological classification, defining which creatures belong to different species (and hence are forbidden to interbreed) and which are merely subsets of the same species.

Another distinction that has relevance for defining zoological categories is that between domestic and wild animals. As examples of wild beasts the Mishnah mentions the elephant and the monkey.

This particular detail was troubling to Rabbi Solomon Adeni (1567–1625), the Yemenite-born author of the important Mishnah commentary Melekhet Shelomo. He found it incomprehensible that the Mishnah would take the trouble to teach us the trivially obvious fact that monkeys and elephants are wild animals. What else would they be?

By way of answering this question, Rabbi Adeni cited an observation he had heard from a person whom he identified as “the kabbalist sage Rabbi Meshullam of blessed memory.” Rabbi Meshullam had in fact been referring to a passage elsewhere in the Talmud, one that enumerates the blessings that should be recited upon observing various unusual sights and marvels of creation. The list of creatures who inspire such blessings includes elephants, monkeys and “kippuf”s (an obscure term that has been identified tentatively as a kind of owl or chimp). Upon encountering one of these exotic species one should say: “Blessed are you, Lord, who creates such diverse creatures.”

Like the Melekhet Shelomo’s author, Rabbi Meshullam was puzzled why these particular beasts were singled out from among all the wondrous denizens that populate our world. After all, he reasoned, if the blessing is meant to extol the diversity of nature, as implied by its wording, then doesn’t every species possess a uniqueness that distinguishes it from the others?

The kabbalist sage resolved this difficulty by citing a rabbinic exposition related to the story of Noah’s flood. According to that source, the Almighty transformed sinners of that generation into monkeys and elephants. I have been unable to locate such a statement in the standard rabbinic corpus, though the Talmud does in fact relate something similar in connection with the tower of Babel. Rabbi Jeremiah bar Eleazar declared that the tower’s builders were impelled by a variety of differing motives, and hence each faction was punished in a different manner. One misguided group planned to use the tower to storm Heaven and defeat God in battle. Those sinners were transformed into monkeys, demons and “lilin,” night spirits—and that Hebrew word could conceivably have got confused with “pilim,” elephants, which is graphically very similar.

As it happens, there was a Hebrew text available to Rabbi Meshullam that spoke of the builders of the tower of Babel being mutated into monkeys and “ivories” [Hebrew: shinhabim]. In this version the punishment was meted out to the faction who wanted to use the tower as a shrine to worship their idols. The source of this quote was a work titled “Sefer HaYashar,” a compendium devoted to expounding and embellishing the narratives of the Bible. Sefer HaYashar was first printed in 1625 in Naples. Its editor claimed that he was copying the text from an old manuscript, but it is considered probable that he composed the work himself. The book supplements the scriptural narratives with numerous imaginative legends taken from rabbinic midrash and other Jewish and non-Jewish sources.

At any rate, this legend inspired the kabbalistic sage to ponder the distinctive status of monkeys and elephants. He observed that those two species are not just your garden-variety of exotic animals, but possess a special ranking in the natural order, in that they bear the closest resemblances to human beings. As regards the apes, this fact is quite obvious from their human-like appearance. But Rabbi Meshullam insisted that it is valid as well for the elephants in that “they understand human language.”

This insight, he argued, could explain why the Mishnah deemed it necessary to state explicitly that apes are to be classified as beasts for purposes of Jewish religious law. With regard to the severe impurity generated by human corpses, or the law that forbids harnessing two species to pull a plough, it might not be entirely obvious that monkeys should be categorized as animals rather than as humans. Rabbinic literature speaks of savage humanoids (or perhaps even human-like plants) that are classified by some sages as human, so it would be important to make it clear that apes do not share that status.

All this might make some sense when applied to monkeys—but what about those wise elephants that Rabbi Meshullam mentioned? Where are such literate beasts mentioned in Jewish tradition?

Well, I haven’t yet found any classic Hebrew texts that speak about linguistically astute pachyderms. There were however a number of distinguished Greek authors and naturalists who did make claims to that effect. A famous example occurred in 55 B.C.E. when Pompey dedicated his monumental new theatre by staging a resplendent public exhibition in which the elephants played a starring role. The beasts were able to effectively stir up the sympathies of the crowd for their pathetic predicament as trapped animals.The audience actually turned on Pompey and cursed him. Cicero, who was present at the event, recalled his impression “that the monsters had something human about them.”

Pliny the Elder composed a lengthy scientific discourse about the elephant in which he argued that of all creatures it come closest to humans in intelligence. It understands the language of its country, it obeys commands and it remembers all the duties which it has been taught. He went so far as to ascribe to elephants values like love, glory, honesty, modesty and fairness. He believed that the animals observed a religion that embraced veneration of the sun and moon as well as advocating moral virtues and ritual purity. The second-century C.E. philosopher Celsus presented a similar picture, adding that the elephants’ knowledge of God made them scrupulous about keeping oaths.

In his description of Pompey’s theatrical fiasco, the historian Dio Cassius related that the elephants raised their trunks toward heaven, creating the impression that they were crying out for divine vengeance against their captors for violating an oath. Evidently, while in Africa they had negotiated a guarantee of safe treatment before they would consent to board the ships to Italy. The rhetorician Aelian testified that he had personally observed an elephant writing fine Latin characters with his trunk, albeit with close human guidance.

Recent scientific studies have confirmed that elephants possess a vast range of sophisticated communication abilities and a nuanced body language that allows them to transmit information and express feelings among themselves, whether in proximity or over long distances. Much of this fascinating phenomenon remains unexplained.

We can therefore appreciate Rabbi Meshullam’s claim that the elephant is not your average wild beast, and that some authorities might be tempted to place it next to humans in the biological hierarchy. (Frankly, homo sapiens seems to be working hard these days to place itself on a lower rung than that noble and sympathetic creature.)

As one of the great elephants of literature once declared:

I meant what I said, and I said what I meant.

An elephant's faithful, one hundred per cent!

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, November 8, 2019, p. 7.
  • For further reading:
    • Dan, Joseph, ed. Sefer Ha-Yashar. Sifriyat “Dorot” 56. Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1986. [Hebrew]
    • Feintuch, Israel Zvi. “The Melekhet Shelomoh of R. Solomon Adeni.” In Versions and Traditions in the Talmud, by Israel Zvi Feintuch, 179–86. edited by Daniel Sperber. Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1985. [Hebrew]
    • Feliks, Yehuda. Plants & Animals of the Mishna. Marʼot ha-Mishnah. Jerusalem: ha-Makhon le-ḥeḳer ha-Mishnah, 743.
    • Ginzberg, Louis. The Legends of the Jews. Translated by Henrietta Szold. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1909.
    • Gowers, William. “African Elephants and Ancient Authors.” African Affairs 47, no. 188 (1948): 173–80.
    • Langbauer, W. R. “Elephant Communication.” Zoo Biology 19, no. 5 (2000): 425–45.
    • Lewysohn, L. Die Zoologie des Talmuds. Frankfurt am Main: Author and Joseph Baer, 1858.
    • Mader, Gottfried. “Triumphal Elephants and Political Circus at Plutarch, ‘Pomp.’ 14.6.” The Classical World99, no. 4 (2006): 397–403.
    • Nousek, Debra L. “Turning Points in Roman History: The Case of Caesar’s Elephant Denarius.” Phoenix 62, no. 3/4 (2008): 290–307.
    • Ratzaby, Y. “R. Shelomoh ‘Adeni ve-Ḥibburo ‘Melekhet Shelomoh.’” Sinai 106 (1990): 243–51. [Hebrew]
    • Scullard, Howard Hayes. The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World. Aspects of Greek and Roman Life. London: Thames and Hudson, 1974.
    • Segal, Eliezer. Beasts That Teach, Birds That Tell: Animal Language in Rabbinic and Classical Literatures. Alberta Judaic Studies, 2019.