Elephants and the Jews

Although there are only two well known historical events involving elephant versus Jew, these animals actually played a crucial role in Jewish history for several centuries when they served as the most powerful battle-wagons of the Middle East. Finding yourself at the wrong side of a war-elephant charge was no fun experience, especially when the elephant was mounted by a tower packed with aggressive archers and spearmen.

But this is what many soldiers had to undergo in the Day of the Elephant when these thick-leather pachyderms were the old-time equivalent of the battle-tank. As the Roman historian, Plutarch, records of one battle, elephants were the shock troops of those days, pushing their way through by terror and brute force:

“The greatest havoc was wrought by the furious strength of the elephants, since the valour of the Romans was of no avail in fi ghting them, but they felt that they must yield before them as before an onrushing billow or a crashing earthquake, and not stand their ground only to die in vain, or suffer all that is most grievous without doing any good at all.”

On the other hand, elephants had the distinct disadvantage that once they panicked, they were as great a danger to their own army as to the enemy. The Roman historian, Livy, describes how elephants panicked and rampaged back to their lines during a battle between Carthage and Rome:

“…These animals cannot be depended upon. Not only the men who first attacked them, but every soldier within reach hurled his javelin at them as they galloped back into the Carthaginian ranks, where they caused much more destruction than they had caused amongst the enemy. They dashed about much more recklessly and did far greater damage when driven by their fears, than when directed by their drivers. Where the line was broken by their charge, the Roman standards at once advanced, and the broken and demoralized enemy was put to rout without much fighting.”

Despite these disadvantages, elephants were the Middle East’s most lethal weapon during the centuries before and after the Chanukah revolution when Elazar, youngest of the Chashmonai brothers, single-handedly killed an elephant during the fifth major battle of the Chanukah campaign.

Where were the elephants hiding before and after these centuries? Didn’t Klal Yisroel fight plenty of battles against Egypt, Ashur, Bavel and Rome? Why didn’t these enemies too use the biological battle-tanks of their times? To answer this question requires an excursion into the world of the battle elephant to find out when they were first used as military adjuncts and why their popularity eventually waned.

A little investigation reveals that Egypt, Ashur and Bavel never brought in elephants to crush the Jews and each other not out of squeamishness, but simply because elephants were in short supply in the Middle East during those times, yet further east in India and China they were used practically since the time of the Avos.

By the time Alexander the Great marched into history, King Daryavesh (Darius) of Persia (modern day Iran) had a small stock of war elephants with which he unsuccessfully tried to halt Alexander’s triumphant march eastwards. Things got tougher after Alexander reached west India (modern day Pakistan) as King Porsus was waiting for him with an army stiffened by 200 war elephants. Although Alexander beat Porsus in the ensuing Battle of Hydaspes, his troops refused to advance further after learning that the Maghada Empire further east had a striking force of about 6,000 elephants. Impressed by the elephants’ fighting spirit, Alexander brought back many elephants with him and the Day of the Middle East Elephant began.

After Alexander the Great’s death, four of his generals sliced his empire into four kingdoms. Eretz Yisroel was lodged firmly between two of them, the Egyptian kingdom in the south ruled over by a series of kings named Ptolemy (Talmai), and the Syrian kingdom in the north ruled over by a succession of kings generally titled Seleuius, Demetrius or Antiochus. Now, for the first time, elephant wars raged in the vicinity of Eretz Yisroel.

The first major elephant battle took place about twenty years after Alexander’s death. This was the Battle of Gaza between Ptolemy of Egypt and Demetrius of Syria where Demetrius stiffened his forces with a backbone of 43 elephants. Ptolemy’s troops spooked the massive beasts by placing anti-elephant metal spikes in their path to puncture their tender feet.

The second major elephant war took place less than a century after the Gaza Battle, during 3544/217 BCE, when the southern kingdom locked horns with the north kingdom in the Battle of Raphia. In this battle, Ptolemy IV of Egypt had 73 elephants ranged against the 103 elephants of Antiochus III the Great (not the Antiochus of Chanukah).

Ptolemy’s subsequent victory led to the Jews’ first close-up experience with ferocious elephants (recorded in Sefer Makkabim, chapter 3). Ptolemy decided to make a tour of nearby towns and bring gifts to their temples. During his visit to Yerushalayim, he stunned the kohanim by demanding permission to enter the Kodesh Kodoshim until he miraculously suffered a paralysis and backed off. Back in Egypt, he decided to take revenge for his indignity by demanding that the Egyptian Jews convert to idolatry, and when most of them refused he locked them up in a hippodrome (stadium) and ordered Hermon, his chief elephant keeper, to have the Jews trampled by 500 elephants the next morning.

The Jews were saved by a series of miracles. On the first morning the king overslept and failed to give Hermon the necessary go ahead, the second day the king mysteriously forgot all about the matter and didn’t know what Hermon was talking about, and on the third day two angels panicked the elephants that were supposed to kill the Jews and they trampled their enemies instead.

The Chanukah story began nineteen years later when Antiochus IV (of Chanukah infamy) clashed against Ptolemy V of Egypt in the Battle of Panium in 3563/198 BCE. Antiochus won the fight and seized Eretz Yisroel and Syria from Egypt, setting the tableau for the Chanukah story that would erupt in 3621/140 BCE. The famous fight between Elazar and the elephant took place at the Battle of Beis Tzur, a place located between Chevron and Yerushalayim. Sefer Hamakabim (chapter 6) reports that in this fifth of the nine major battles between the Greeks and the Chashmonaim, Antiochus’ general, Lysias, had brought along 32 war elephants to crush Jewish resistance:

“The number of his army was 100,000 footmen, 20,000 horsemen, and 32 elephants, all of them learned in war…. For every elephant they appointed a thousand men armed with coats of mail and brass helmets on their heads, in addition to five hundred of the best horsemen for every beast. And on the back of each elephant was fastened a tower of wood for shelter, and in the tower were 32 warriors besides an Indian that controlled the beast.

“…Elazar the Chorani saw that one of the beasts was armored more than the others and taller than the others and said in his heart, ‘Indeed the king is on it.’ He risked his life in order to save his people and make himself an eternal name in the land. He ran to it courageously through the regiments of the enemy… and he came to the elephant and bent between its knees and pierced it. The elephant fell on him and died, and when it fell it killed him as well.”

This leads to a final question. Why is the Chanukah battle the last recorded case of Jew versus elephant? Why didn’t the Romans use elephants during their sieges against Yerushalayim and Beitar?

Actually, the Romans did use battle elephants for several centuries, shipping African Forest Elephants (not the larger Savanna Elephants further south) up to Europe from below the Sahara desert. However, as the elephants got killed in battle, the Romans kept resupplying them so many times that their natural population crashed. This happened soon after the Battle of Thapsus of 3715/46 BCE, when Julius Caesar conquered an opposing Roman army that included 60 elephants in its ranks. So by the time the Jews rebelled against Rome, the Day of the Middle East Elephant was over.

After the invention of cannon and artillery, the huge, cumbersome elephant became a liability even in India, and the last major elephant battle was the third Battle of Panipat of 5521/1761 between Hindu and Moslem forces. After that, war elephants were demoted to serve the role of biological truck and bulldozer behind the battle lines, until the advent of the mechanical truck and bulldozer made them obsolete.

Nowadays, besides being used as work animals in India and neighboring countries, elephants inspire us by their amazing size and design. Their very name denotes wonderment as the Gemara says, “If someone sees an elephant (pil) in a dream, wonders (pelaim) will happen to him. If he sees several elephants, wonder of wonders will happen to him.”

Among the many wonders of the elephant is its massive size and Hashems brilliant engineering that goes into that massive size. Consider a cube of 2x2x2 inches that contains 8 cubic inches. Double the cube’s size to 4 by 4 by 4 inches and you get a cube of not 16 cubic inches, but a staggering 64 cubic inches. In other words, by doubling the cube’s size, you increase its volume eight-old! This is why the tiny mouse has thin, spindly legs while the mighty, large elephant requires massive, pillar like legs to hold up its exponentially greater bulk. Enlarge a mouse to elephant size and it wouldn’t be able to lift its belly off the floor!

Then there is the elephant trunk, a blend of the nose and upper lip, which the elephant maneuvers so delicately with about 80,000 precision made muscles that it can do anything from closing a faucet to ripping up a small tree. Thus it no surprise that in Perek Shira the elephant is chosen to sing, “Gadol Hashem umehulal meod,” “Hashem is great and very praiseworthy!”

No doubt, the peaceful elephant prefers inspiring and entertaining people in the wild and in zoos than running amok on ancient battlefields.

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