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    A blessing on an elephant – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. There is a b’rachah to say when I go to the zoo, isn’t there?

    elephantA. I don’t know how many people do, but actually yes: “On seeing an elephant, an ape or a long-tailed monkey, one says, ‘Blessed is He who makes strange creatures'” (Ber. 58b).

    In ancient times the elephant in particular seized the imagination of our ancestors, who were both impressed and frightened to see such a huge creature. Elephants were certainly known in Egypt and Mesopotamia. During the period of the Israelite kings, elephants figured in their trading activities.

    Though the elephant as such does not seem to be mentioned in the Tanach, ivory was certainly known (e.g. I Kings 10:22), and there is a view that there were elephants in Noah’s ark (Bereshit Rabbah 31 – Mat’not K’hunah), though they must have weighed the vessel down.

    After the close of the Biblical period elephants were often used in battle. The Jews of Judea were understandably alarmed by them during the Antiochus campaigns. The Books of Maccabees relate various incidents about elephants, and Judah Maccabee worked out that an elephant could be attacked from the side.

    Whether there were Jews who owned elephants one cannot be certain, but the Talmud does discuss the halachah of acquiring an elephant (Kidd. 25b) and using an elephant as a sukkah wall (Sukk. 23a), and what to do if one has a dream about an elephant (Ber. 56b). People who try impossible intellectual contortions are accused of trying to draw an elephant through the eye of a needle (B.M. 38b).

    It would be interesting to ascertain whether Jews were ever involved in big game hunting of elephants. In the meantime, it would not hurt to say a blessing at the zoo.

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