A pachydermatous mammal of the family of the Elephantidæ. It is now commonly agreed that the elephant (Elephas indicus) is indirectly mentioned in a passage of the Hebrew Bible. In I Kings x. 22 (II Chron. ix. 21), namely, it is said that Solomon had a navy which every three years brought gold, silver, ivory ("shenhabbim"), apes, and peacocks. The word "shenhabbim" is evidently a compound word, the first part of which is well known as meaning a tooth or ivory (I Kings x. 18; Cant. v. 14, vii. 14). The second element has long been a puzzle to etymologists; but now it is well-nigh certain (see, however, Ebony) that it means "elephant," and is probably derived from the Assyrian "alap," with the assimilation of the lamed, "app" = "abb" (see Hommel, "Namen der Säugethiere," p. 324, note 1).
How and when the Hebrews became acquainted with ivory can not be determined. In the Targums of Jonathan and of Jerusalem it is said that the sons of Jacob laid their father in a coffin inlaid with "shendephin" (Gen. l. 1)—probably a substitute for "shendephil," the accepted word for ivory in the East, "pil" meaning "elephant."
The presence of the elephant in Palestine is not recorded before the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, who used the animals in the war against the Jews (I Macc. i. 16, 17; vi. 30). These elephants carried each a wooden turret strapped to its back, and holding a guard of from three to five men (I Macc. ii. 37, "thirty-two men" being certainly a wrong number) and a guide, called the "Indian." A special officer, the elephantarch, was in command of this branch of the military service (II Macc. xiv. 12). Before battle the animals were given intoxicating drinks to make them furious and thus more dangerous, as they were intended to carry confusion into the ranks of the enemy (II Macc. xv. 20; III Macc. v. 2).
The Talmudic and Neo-Hebrew name for elephant is ; plural, (Ber. 55b, 56b), which is the common name also in Syriac and Arabic, and is the Assyrian "pîru" (see Lewy, "Griech. Fremdwörter," p. 5). The elephant's favorite food is the vine-leaf, for which reason Noah laid in a large supply of vine branches (Gen. R. xxxi.; Yer. Shab. xviii. 16c, middle; Shab. 128a).
The time of gestation is given as three years (Bek. 8a). To see an elephant in one's dream was not a good omen (Ber. 57b); but a proverb expressive of impossible things says: "None is shown in his dream a golden date-tree, nor an elephant that goes through a needle's eye" (Ber. 55b). In other contrasts, too, the elephant appears as the extreme in size (see examples given in "Zeitschrift für Alttestamentliches Wissenschaft," xvi. 205; e.g. = "from the gnat to the elephant"; compare in Shab. 77b: = "the gnat is the terror of the elephant"; and in Maimonides, Introduction to Zera'im: = "from the elephants to the worms").
- Tristram, Natural History of the Bible, London, 1889;
- J. G. Woods, Bible Animals, Philadelphia, 1872;
- A. Pictet, Sur les Origines de Quelques Noms de l'Eléphant, in Jour. Asiatique, Sept.-Oct., 1843;
- Lewysohn, Zoologie des Talmuds, pp. 148, 228, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1858;
- Bochart, Hierozoicon.