Kiddushin 25b ~ Can Elephants Jump?

In a discussion of how one acquires ownership of an animal, Rabbi Shimon rules that they must be lifted - literally, lifted.  And then the Talmud jumps right in with the kind of question you and I would ask:

קידושין כה, ב 

אלא מעתה פיל לרבי שמעון במה יקנה אמר ליה אביי בחליפין אי נמי בשוכר את מקומו רבי זירא אמר מביא ארבעה כלים ומניחן תחת רגליו

If so, how would one acquire an elephant according to Rabbi Shimon?  Abaye said to him - by means of chalifin [a token exchange of a utensil or piece of clothing to finalize the transaction]. Rebbi Zeira says, the buyer brings in four vessels and places them under the elephant's feet [demonstrating that the elephant has now entered the buyer's domain]. (Kiddushin 25b)

A.H Atwell, National Geographic.

A.H Atwell, National Geographic.

Now leaving aside why the Talmud jumped to ask a question about elephants when one could ask the same thing about say, a cow or a horse, and leaving aside the question of just how Rebbi Zeira would go about getting his elephant to stand with each leg on a pot, the reader surely wants to know if there is um, an easier way to acquire an elephant. And yes, there is. The Talmud offers another helpful way to gain possession of your very own Dumbo. אי נמי בחבילי זמורות - "An alternative is to use bundles of vines." Rashi offers an explanation: the vines are three tefachim [about 30 cm.] heigh, and the elephant is led to stand on them, "and any lifting that is above three tefachim is called lifting [for the purposes of the transfer of ownership]."

Elephants at the circus in Washington DC. two days ago. They demonstrated - just in time  - that Rebbi Zeira's suggestion was indeed workable. So long as you have a full time elephant trainer...

Elephants at the circus in Washington DC. two days ago. They demonstrated - just in time  - that Rebbi Zeira's suggestion was indeed workable. So long as you have a full time elephant trainer...

Tosafot's Solution - jumping elephants

Tosafot, a collection of medieval commentaries on the Talmud, is dissatisfied with Rashi for a number of reasons. First, if the Talmud had meant to suggest that a platform three tefachim in height be built, it would have said so, and not concocted some contraption using grape vines. Second, the grape vines, being grape vines, are legally considered to be part of the ground itself, so the elephant standing on them would not be separate from the ground, which is precisely what is needed to effect a legal transfer of ownership.    

In light of these objections, Rav Meshulam offers his own explanation of what the Talmud meant when it suggested using vines.  (Fun fact: Meshulam may be the same as Meshulam ben Natan who was Rashi's son-in-law, having married Miriam, Rashi's second daughter.) 

אי נמי בחבילי זמורות. פי' בקונטרס משכחת לה להגבהת פיל בחבילי זמורות הגבוהים מן הארץ שלשה ומעלהו עליהן דהגבהת ג' הגבהה היא דנפיק לה מתורת לבוד ולפירושו בכלים לא מצי למימר דליקני מדין הגבהה שיניח כלים תחת רגליו דסתמייהו אין בעוביין שלשה טפחים ולפי' ר"ת דמפרש דהגבהה בטפח קני צ"ל סתם כלים אין בעוביין טפח וקשה אמאי נקט חבילי זמורות לנקוט אבנים או עצים ומפרש הרב משולם דלהכי נקט חבילי זמורות לפי שהן מאכל פיל כדאמרינן פרק מפנין (שבת דף קכח.) מטלטלין חבילי זמורות בשבת מפני שהן מאכל לפילין ומגביהין לפיל חבילי זמורות למעלה והוא קופץ ומגביה את עצמו מן הארץ ואוכלן ואין לתמוה אי חשיבא הגבהה בהכי דכה"ג אשכחן בפרק שילוח הקן (חולין דף קמב.) כי היכי דליגבינהו ולקנינהו

...Rav Meshulam therefore explained that the Talmud offered the explanation of vines because elephants eat them...and we lift up the vines in front of the elephant , which will jump up to eat them, thereby lifting itself off of the ground... 
Elephants stand on tip toe. From here.

Elephants stand on tip toe. From here.

There is one small problem with Rav Meshulam's explanation: elephants can't jump. Here is Tony Barthel, curator of Elephant Trails at the National Zoo in Washington DC.  "If you were to look at an elephant’s skeleton, you’ll see that they’re standing on their tippy toes...All the bones are pointed straight down.” This means that they cannot jump, even if they wanted to.  Elephants cannot jump, and they cannot technically even run, since that requires all four legs to be off the ground at once. Why then did Rav Meshulam suggest this explanation, one which is not biologically possible?  Here is Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin's answer, from his recently published Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom:

 The answer is that he had no reason to believe otherwise. There were no zoos in medieval Europe, and very few elephants.The emperor Charlemagne, king of the Franks,received an elephant as a gift in 797.Frederick II used an elephant in his capture of Cremona in 1214. King Henry III of England received an elephant from Israel in 1254. Alfonso V of Portugal gave an elephant to Renew d'Anjou in 1477. The Vatican was given an elephant in 1514. But the average person in those times never saw an elephant. Illustrations from that era show that artists, basing themselves on stories,were very unsure about how to depict elephants.They were often portrayed as possessing a body like those of horses or deer, sometimes even with split hooves. Of particular relevance to us is that they are sometimes drawn with the hindlimb structure of lions or dogs, poised with elastic energy. Rav Meshullam ben Nathan, who was born in Provence in 1120 and passed away in Melun in 1180, never saw either a live elephant or an accurate drawing of one. He thus had every reason to believe that, like other animals elephants can jump.

So there you have it.  Don't suggest biological explanations if you've not studied biology. Even if you are Rashi's son-in-law.

From here, the thirteenth century Book of the Marvels of the World (Livre des Merveilles du Monde).  Note the bent hind legs of the elephant, which suggest the ability to jump.

From here, the thirteenth century Book of the Marvels of the World (Livre des Merveilles du Monde).  Note the bent hind legs of the elephant, which suggest the ability to jump.

[An expanded version of Rabbi Dr. Slifkin's essay can be found here.]