Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Oliphants and Unicorns

As the season of the shofar starts again, I am pleased to announce the release of an updated and expanded edition of my monograph Exotic Shofars: Halachic Considerations. You can download it for free at This latest edition includes a much-improved understanding of the identity of the Biblical re'em, translated as "unicorn" in some Bibles, as well as a discussion of oliphants - horns made out of the tusks of elephants. Please share it with whoever you think may be interested!

For those in LA - I am speaking this Shabbat at YINBH (details will be posted at, and next Shabbat at Sefardic Magen David.


  1. I really enjoyed reading your article in the latest issue of Jewish Action. Very informative.

  2. May I use this space to ask you something about - and call readers' attention to - your excellent article about Hawking in the current Jewish Action?

    In the article you cite an anti-semitic cartoon about a certain R. Isaac, depicting him as a three-headed demon. How do you, or Lior Jacobi, know this was a picture of this R. Isaac?

    Thank you. The article was very interesting and enjoyable to read.

  3. Huh. It never occurred to me that the obsolete spelling of "elephant" might have been retained for another purpose. Incidentally, some people think that the word "elephant" (otherwise obscure) is Semitic, and related to "aleph", an ox.

    Here's a wild speculation: the word was originally "aleph Punt", "the ox from the kingdom of Punt". Punt was an archaic kingdom that traded with ancient Egypt; not much is known beyond that, but if Phoenician traders brought ivory to ancient Greece they must have had a word for it ...

  4. Considering kudu are a kind of bovine, and look sort of like skinny cows with big horns, I wonder in Rav Qafih wasn't far off. Is there any possibility their horns are actually considered keranot?

  5. And on the "lighter" side of the news a brand new baby elephant was born at the Ramat Gan Zoo! Estimated weight...200 pounds!!/photo.php?fbid=476877242410017&set=a.172989996132078.35033.138533429577735&type=1&theater

  6. According to Merriam Webster, the first attestation of "elephant" dates only from the 14th century. Here is the full citation:

    "Origin of ELEPHANT

    Middle English, from Anglo-French & Latin; Anglo-French olifant, elefant, from L. elephantus, from Greek elephant-, elephas
    First Known Use: 14th century"

    Now, it is possible that the Greek "elephas" is a form of the Semitic "a-l-p," meaning, as "Joe in Australia" said, "bull, ox," but I'd have to pursue this further, since the Greeks probably had their own word for "bull, ox."

    Glad you had an excellent trip!
    M. Singer


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