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Jewish trivia quiz: Elephants

By Mark D. Zimmerman

Mark D. Zimmerman

MELVILLE, New York — The Trump administration announced that they were ending the ban on importation of elephant hunting trophies, followed the next day by a reversal of this new policy. What is a Jewish connection to elephants?

A. Elephants were introduced into Italy by Hannibal, who famously crossed the Alps with 40 of the huge animals in 213 B.C. One hundred fifty years later, Pompey and his Roman army, including descendants of those elephants, invaded the Kingdom of Judea and destroyed the Temple in 63 B.C. The Arch of Titus in Rome includes reliefs of elephants carrying menorahs and other spoils of the invasion and destruction of the Temple.

B. While elephants are kosher (they chew their cud and have cloven hoofs), as a practical matter nobody is slaughtering elephants in a kosher manner, due to the near-impossibility of severing the trachea and esophagus in a single stroke. In 1997, a shochet (ritual slaughterer) in Mea Shearim announced plans to slaughter an elephant, having developed a precision titanium-steel blade which he claimed could accomplish the task; however, he canceled his plan after huge protests from animal rights activists.

C. Judah Maccabee’s brother Eleazar, mistakenly believing that an approaching elephant carried King Antiochus, bravely killed the beast, thrusting his spear into the animal’s belly. Sadly, however, the elephant’s final act was to collapse on top of Eleazar, killing him.

D. Elephants are not mentioned in the Torah, but they are first referenced indirectly in the Book of Kings, chapter 10, verse 22. “For the king had at sea a navy of Tarshish with the navy of Hiram; once every three years came the navy of Tarshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks.” Based on the reference to ivory, the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem obtained an elephant for display; however, a controversy developed as the zoo had acquired an Indian elephant, whereas the elephants of Tarshish, in what is now Spain, would have been African elephants. The zoo did not get rid of the Indian elephant, but subsequently added an African elephant.

E. The story is told of Paltiel the Gilonite (a tribe of North Africa), a descendent of the family of Bathsheba, mother of King Solomon. Paltiel traveled from his home to the Temple in Jerusalem to pay tribute to his great aunt Bathsheba and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Paltiel brought an elephant to offer as a “korban zevach sh’lamim,” a sacrifice of gratitude and respect for God. As Paltiel and the elephant entered the sanctuary of Solomon’s Temple, the elephant panicked and spun around, his trunk flailing in all directions. The priests frantically grabbed at the ceramic bowls of flour, the olive oil-filled pottery jars, the silver coins and the gold ladles, the jars of fragrant spices and the jewel-encrusted candelabras, not to mention the menagerie of other animals awaiting sacrifice–the he-goats and she-goats, the yearling lambs, the oxen and the rams–desperately trying to protect the items and the sanctity of the room. A 30-cubit holy sanctuary was no place for a 20-cubit 6-ton African elephant. Despite their horror, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, chose not to say anything, lest he offend Paltiel, who had come in peace with good intentions. Said the Kohen Gadol to the other priests, “Al tidabru al ha-pil ba’cheder.” This phrase, which means “Do not speak of the elephant in the room,” has come to refer to situations where something obvious is intentionally left unspoken.

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Zimmerman is the author of the Rashi, Rambam and Ramalamadingdong series of Jewish trivia e-books. Learn more at

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One Response to “Jewish trivia quiz: Elephants”

  1. Steven Fine says:

    Sorry, no elephants carrying the menorah. “Only” Roman soldiers!


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