3 STL elephants turned 50, so what’s so Jewish about elephants?

Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer

As we wind down 2021, the St. Louis Zoo alerted us all that three of their elephants turned 50 this year. That made us wonder, ‘What’s so Jewish about elephants,’ if anything? Turns out, there is plenty.

Pearl, Donna, and Ellie are the three elderly Asian elephants that call the Zoo home. What’s remarkable is that the average life expectancy for Asian elephant females under human care is 47.5 years old. At 50 years old, our “Golden Girls” now require medical care specialized for their dynamic and individual needs beyond primary care as they get older.

The Golden Girls 

Pearl was the first female elephant to give birth at the Zoo. She is the mother of our bull elephant Raja and grandmother to Maliha, Jade, and Priya. A good problem solver, she loves challenging puzzle feeders filled with special treats.

what's so Jewish about elephants

Donna has distinctive, flappy ears that are always moving. She is conversational and enjoys making sounds with her trunk on various objects. A fantastic auntie, she used to spar with a much younger Raja. Nowadays, she helps teach Raja’s kids manners, such as sharing food and respecting elders.

what's so Jewish about elephants

Ellie is a doting mother of three, a grandmother, and the zoo’s tallest female. She has a calm demeanor and does life on her own schedule. She enjoys pruning the trees and chilling in one of the pools under the waterfall.

what's so Jewish about elephants
Ellie with Daughter Priya

What’s So Jewish About Elephants?

In the Biblical period from the early Hebrew settlements to the powerful kingdom of Solomon, Jewish scholar Israel Abramov wrote that after the monarchy was established in Canaan, ivory becomes an important trade commodity. The Bible has numerous references to ivory—or shen.

“The passages describe Solomon’s imports from Tarshish: “once every three years came the ships of Tarshish bringing gold and silver, ivory and apes and peacocks.” writes Abramov. Centuries later, nearing the Hellenistic period, Abramov describes Jewish garrisons assigned to protect one of the ivory trade routes into Egypt from the Sudan. The garrison was the Jewish community, complete with own temple, at Yeb (cf. abhi above) or Elephantine, as the Greeks called it.

Elephants And The Talmud

According to Rabbi Dr. Laura Duhan-Kaplan, a scholar and spiritual teacher living in Vancouver, Canada, elephants appear literally and as a metaphor in Jewish literature, and more specifically in the Talmud.

“Chazal, our Talmudic sages, had three strong opinions about elephants. Elephants are really smart, really large, and really strange.” writes Duhan-Kaplan.

Smart Elephants

The sages recognized that an elephant is smart enough to serve as a courier. So they asked if elephants could be trained to deliver an item of symbolic significance?

“Some say that a reliable elephant can be trusted to find its destination,” writes Duhan-Kaplan. “But others explain that when the elephant arrives, it will not be able to explain the meaning of the item.”

So Chazel conclude, if the sender has let the recipient know in advance what he or she is receiving, the item may be delivered by an elephant.

“Meaning: an elephant may be amazingly smart, but it is not part of our society, it does not speak Hebrew or Aramaic, and it does not think in our symbol system,” writes the Rabbi.

Tall Elephants

Chazal recognize that an elephant is tall enough to serve as the wall of a sukkah. So they ask, “Can you use an elephant for the wall of your sukkah?

“No, they answer, because it might walk away,” writes Duhan-Kaplan. “But what if you tie it up, or tie it down? Well, no. It won’t walk away, but it might die. Meaning: An elephant may be amazingly tall, and thus it may be useful for all kinds of odd jobs. But we do not get to use the elephant, because it has not consented to be part of our project,” writes the Rabbi.

Elephants And The First Book of Maccabees

Rabbi Duhan-Kaplan says elephants appear prominently in the book of Maccabees, representing faith and hope. The Judean soldiers saw how difficult it was to challenge Alexander the Great’s ‘living tanks,’ and they ran away in fear. But later, when they gathered to debrief the battle, they analyzed the symbolic power of the elephants said, “God, you introduce change! We do have the courage to continue.”

The Hebrew word for elephant is pil. Chazal said, “If you see a pil, an elephant, in your dream, then pela’aot, wonders, will manifest in your life,” writes the Rabbi. “And that’s what happened to the Maccabees. In the crazy, chaotic, nightmare of battle they saw elephants. At first, the elephants seemed to be a terrible symbol – and in the end, they announced a pelah, a wonder, and a nes, a miracle.”