Monday, December 6, 2021

Battle Elephants by Beit Shemesh

When you've been blessed with a religious upbringing, it can be difficult to get excited about things that you've known all your life. But sometimes all it takes is a small new insight to make you realize the profundity or power of something.

Two thousand years ago, Judah Maccabee crushed the numerically superior Greeks and restored the Temple in Jerusalem. The Seleucid Greeks decided to counter with an army that included thirty war elephants. The war elephants were terrifying, bearing towers filled with archers and lance-throwers. But Judah’s younger brother Eleazar decided to show his fellow men that the elephants were vulnerable. He charged towards a large elephant wearing the royal seal, cast himself under it and thrust his sword into its soft belly. The elephant died — but in collapsing, it crushed Eleazar, killing him.

That's the story I knew since childhood. But the new aspect that I learned this year was where exactly this happened.

The Maccabees went out to battle the Greeks at Beth-Zechariah. That's in the Elah Valley, right next to Beit Shemesh, where I am currently typing these words. In fact, from my office window, I can see the Elah valley. If I had the technology to be able to see the view from my window two thousand years ago, I'd see war elephants charging past, and a brave Jew running out to spear one of them.

How many people in the world can look out of their window and see a place where their ancestors, two thousand years ago, were involved in extraordinary events, making history and changing the world?

I find this an overwhelmingly powerful thought. 

Happy Chanukah!


(Next year, I'd like to dress up our elephant at the Biblical Museum of Natural History in battle armor!) 

(P.S. If you're flying from NY/NJ to Israel and can bring something for the museum, please contact me. We are happy to pay for an extra bag.)

32 comments:

  1. Wonderful, refreshing way of looking at it. Thank you

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  2. I have a friend who can also claim to have grown up, being able to "look out of their window and see a place where their ancestors, thousands of years ago, were involved in extraordinary events, making history and changing the world." Perhaps you know Nachliel Selavan? Here he is, giving a little tour of a historical area in the Rova, near his childhood home:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XeQ40Sw9624

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  3. I thought that the Battle took place in Gush Etzion, in fact the Yishuv Elezar is named after Elezar HaMaccabi as this believed to be the the site of the battle where Elezar fell

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    Replies
    1. I live in Elazar and that is what we were told, too. In fact I designed our original logo with an elephant on it!

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    2. 100%. The village of Hirbet Beit Zakariya (archaeologically proven to sit on 2nd Temple era settlement) is just the other side of Derech HaAvot! Totally fits both the typographical description in the source text (Maccabees) and the wider geographical context.

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  4. The story, as recounted in Megillas Yevonis, is slightly different to the version that you were taught in school:

    (ס״ב) ואלעזר היה מתעסק להמית את הפילים ויטבע בפרש הפילים וכאשר שבו בקשוהו ולא מצאוהו, ואח״כ מצאוהו אשר טבע בפרש הפילים:

    JoeH

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    Replies
    1. You mean Megillat Antiochut, which was written perhaps a thousand years later.

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  5. The battle was near Beirut Zechariah. Identified as Zachariah between alon shvut, rosh tzurim and elazar. On the derech avot from bet tzur heading north to Jerusalem.

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  6. Prof. Henry Abramson talked about this battle a few days ago, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrrruoeApig.

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  7. Not sure what is Derech HaAvot, but looking into the valley known now as Emek ha-Ella I don't see anything close to Gush Etzion. There is a range of hilltops eastern than east end of the valley.

    https://www.google.co.il/maps/place/Valley+of+Elah+(Terebinths)/@31.6576417,35.0594692,15224m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m9!1m2!2m1!1z16LXntenINeU15DXnNeU!3m5!1s0x1502c188f1e40fef:0xe4d97e4f0c3ac2ae!8m2!3d31.6806252!4d34.9891247!15sCg_Xotee16cg15TXkNec15RaESIP16LXntenINeU15DXnNeUkgETYXJjaGFlb2xvZ2ljYWxfc2l0ZZoBJENoZERTVWhOTUc5blMwVkpRMEZuU1VSdk5VMUlXRE5CUlJBQg?hl=en

    But frankly I expected something different from the author, for example a discovery that elephant belly cannot be penetrated by a spear :-)

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  8. Elephants in those days were tanks. Eleazar Maccabee took on a tank!

    It is a privilege that you live and work near an historical site as this!

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  9. I definitely look forward to seeing your elephants dress up in battle armor!

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  10. I am pretty sure the Greeks got the elephants from Africa. They may have gotten them from India since Alexander the Great tried to conquer India. Did you know Indian elephants are and lot smaller and I think their smarter too compared to African elephants.

    I’m pretty sure they weren’t the first people to do that, to use war elephants. Elephants were never good as a mount. They can't be trained as horses. How did they ever get those elephants to do that?

    37 elephants. Is that all? They didn’t have many of them. They couldn’t stop those elephants without Eleazar. Isn’t that something? He killed those elephants with spheres. They turned and ran. He changed history.

    If you do dress up your elephant in battle armor, I’m going to clap for those elephants.

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  11. And what about the poor elephant? What did he do to deserve such a vicious fate. Have you no soul, sir

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    Replies
    1. February 3, 2003

      Yasser Arafat, President
      Palestinian National Authority
      Ramallah, West Bank
      Palestinian Authority

      1 page via facsimile: 972 7 282 2365

      Your Excellency:

      I am writing from an organization dedicated to fighting animal abuse around the world. We have received many calls and letters from people shocked at the bombing in Jerusalem on January 26 in which a donkey, laden with explosives, was intentionally blown up.

      All nations behave abominably in many ways when they are fighting their enemies, and animals are always caught in the crossfire. The U.S. Army abandoned thousands of loyal service dogs in Vietnam. Al-Qaeda and the British government have both used animals in hideously cruel biological weaponry tests. We watched on television as stray cats in your own compound fled as best they could from the Israeli bulldozers.

      Animals claim no nation. They are in perpetual involuntary servitude to all humankind, and although they pose no threat and own no weapons, human beings always win in the undeclared war against them. For animals, there is no Geneva Convention and no peace treaty--just our mercy.

      If you have the opportunity, will you please add to your burdens my request that you appeal to all those who listen to you to leave the animals out of this conflict?

      We send you sincere wishes of peace.

      Very truly yours,

      Ingrid Newkirk
      President, PETA

      Delete
  12. Im genuinely curious how effective a battle tool elephants were. Seems pretty impractical; feeding them, driving distances, control etc.

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    1. I once heard a historian explain how the Greeks did use elephants as a war machine but they aren't so effective in hilly country so really we shouldn't get so excited about the maccabi victories over elephants..

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    2. The fighting tactics of the time emphasised a centre of tightly packed phalanxes armed with pole weapons. The shock impact of elephants could break up these dense, mutually supportive formations. They were also useful in breaking up massed charges on horseback for much the same reason.

      Due to the logistical challenges of feeding an elephant, training it for war, and preventing them stampeding through their own ranks of infantry (this happened to the Seleucids during the battle of Rafah with the Ptolemaids), elephants were only useful during set piece battles, and would have been a liability in a guerilla war. Yehuda HaMaccabi, however, flush from taking control of the Beis Hamikdash and much of Yerushalayim, chose to fight a set piece battles along the road North to Jerusalem, taking advantage of a narrow pass through high ground. It would appear that his blocking phalanxes were unable to withstand the shock of contact with elephants, individual heroics notwithstanding.

      Elephants were important to the Carthaginian and Hellenistic warfare of the period (200-100 years BCE), but due to the inherent cost, inflexibility, and unreliability, they fell out of favour, with the shock assault role being carried by increasingly heavily armoured horse riders.

      Delete
  13. Two things confuse me about this post:

    1. How can you see Emek HaElah from your office window?

    2. The battle really happened right next to Alon Shvut and you should be able to see the water tower of Alon Shvut from your window.

    So the point of the post remains correct...

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  14. Site of battle of Dovid and Goliath.

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  15. Interesting how you believe what you want to believe. In this post you state as a matter of fact how Eliezar thrust his sword in the animals belly. You know its true so you don't quote the source (Macabees 6:46). After all would you need to cite a source that the sun rises in the east.
    Yet in your previous post you cite "the Bavli's account of the miracle with the oil"
    One doesn't need to be phycologist to see how you have revealed something very disturbing within yourself

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    Replies
    1. "One doesn't need to be phycologist to see how you have revealed something very disturbing within yourself"

      He's got an algae infection?

      Delete
    2. The First Book of Maccabees was written about fifty years after the events it describes, in Jerusalem, by someone close to the Hasmonean government.

      The Bavli was written over *six hundred* years after that and a thousand kilometers away.

      You see the problem?

      Delete
    3. @Sam, can you define ad hominem?

      @Ephraim, spot on.

      Delete
  16. "How many people in the world can look out of their window and see a place where their ancestors, two thousand years ago, were involved in extraordinary events, making history and changing the world?" Most likely Iranians, Indians, Chinese, Mongolians, Italians, Greeks I daresay.

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  17. This battle send to have happened during the second Seleucid campaign, ostensibly after the Hasmoneans had retaken Jerusalem and rededicated the Beis Hamikdash.

    The Hasmoneans, who tried conventual field tactics and stood their ground, lost the battle. Jerusalem was beseiged.

    The campaign ended due to internal Seleucid rivalries and politics, rather than Hasmonean military success.

    From this we learn the tremendous value of politicised history and confirmation bias, and so ends the homily for today.

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    Replies
    1. Within two generations the Hasmoneans (re)adopted Hellenized social modes (albeit within a Jewish theological framework) - something that seems to not be overly focused on.

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    2. The five brothers had Greek names from the start.

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  18. Wasn’t Eliezer Judah’s eldest brother?

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    Replies
    1. The order given in Maccabees (although it doesn't explicitly say it's by age) is Yochanan, Shimon, Yehudah, Elazar, Yonatan.

      Delete
  19. Fun fact: The original form of chess had foot soldiers (pawns), chariots (rooks), cavalry (knights), and...elephants (bishops). Plus a king and a prime minister.

    ReplyDelete

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