Where does the word for "elephants" come from?

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  • #3432

    QUESTION: My husband says the elephant is known as the “keter” (crown) of all animals. Can you tell me where its Hebrew name “פיל” comes from?

    ANSWER: Samuel Goldstein provided the רמז found in Chazal, namely in ברכות נו:, נז:, and the word is related to פלא – “wondrous(ly big)”.

    But I’ve always suspected that there might be a connection to the rare word נפילים (Gen. 6:4, Num. 13:33) used in Tanach to describe giants. After checking, I see that some contemporary commentators have indeed suggested this (אוצר הידיעות, דף ת”נ, דעה את ה’, דף 245). Moreover, a number of early commentators (first and foremost, R’ Yosef Bechor Shor) explain that the word נפילים itself derives from פלא, that is, all who saw them stood in “awe” and “wonder” at their sheer size. If this is so, it would reinforce the logical connection between פיל and נפיל, as well as the connection between both of them and פלא.

    In Gen. Rabbah 26:7 the Midrash relates נפילים to נפל, i.e. they “knocked down the (inhabitants of the) world” (see there for other explanations, all related to נפל). This interpretation can also be easily connected to the mighty elephant.

    I’m not sure if I understand the word כתר in this context, but if the intention is “top” (as a crown tops the head), it certainly fits, because elephants can grow to be quite tall.

    Rabbi Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg

    #3433

    Once we’re talking about elephants, I thought I would chime in with my own two cents. The word פיל is how Chazal refer to “elephants”. But what is the word “elephant” in Tanach? In two places (I Kgs. 10:22, II Chron. 9:21), the Bible mentions that King Solomon had ships coming from Tarshish (Tarsus?) that brought all sorts of goodies including something called שנהבים. The Targumim to those two instances translate שנהבים as שן דפיל – literally, “the tooth of an elephant” or what we nowadays called ivory. This explanation is followed by all the standard commentaries (i.e. the Radak and Metzudos both in Kings and Chronicles, as well as Rashi, R. Yosef Kara and Ralbag to Kings). However, pseudo-Rashi (that is, the commentary printed under Rashi’s name to Chronicles which was probably not written by him) writes that the word שנהב not only refers to an elephant’s tusk, but also to the elephant itself. So there you have it, the Biblical Hebrew word for “elephant” is שנהב.
    If you will, I’d like to take this a step further. R. Yonah Ibn Janach in his lexicon of shorashim in the Hebrew Language suggests that perhaps the word שנהב is a compound word derived from two words stuck together. He doesn’t explain himself, but I would say that he means the perhaps the word שנהב is derived from שן (“tooth”) and הב (“gives”) which would refer to the beast who “gives” away really long “tooth” (i.e. ivory) that can be used for various purposes. If that’s what he means, then it would seem that שנהב does not just refer to the tusks of the elephant, but to elephant itself. So if anybody ever asks you what the Hebrew word for “elephant” is, it could be פיל and it could שנהב. Don’t forget, because an elephant never forgets…

    Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

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