The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo is celebrating a new simcha.
Eli, a South African giraffe, was born to mother Linda and father Rio last month, after Linda’s 15-month pregnancy. The baby giraffe is the ninth of its species in the zoo’s African yard – also home to zebras, ostriches, ibexes, and a rhinoceros.
Zookeepers reported the calf stood up quickly after its birth (most giraffes can walk an hour after they are born) and will be fed with its mother’s milk for one year.
“In her first days, the cub stayed with her mother in the giraffe house,” the zoo spokesperson says. “She has since joined the other members of the group in the courtyard.”
Eli, who came into the world at a height of 1.80 meters and weighing 60 kilos, can count on a growth spurt. She will likely be around 3.65 m. tall by the end of her first year. Her father, comparatively, stands close to 5.5 m. tall.
In the yard, Eli has a still demeanor. She stays close to her mother at times, but not if Linda strays too far. While the rest of the giraffes roam the yard, Eli stays in the same spot, observing.
But this hasn’t made her any less popular with zoogoers. Even on a slow Monday afternoon, with protest-related traffic making it almost impossible to get to the zoo, Eli has quite a few visitors.
“There she is, how little!” a visitor marvels in Hebrew to her young child.
Rushdi Alian, one of Eli’s keepers, says she is adapting well to her surroundings.
“Eli is breastfeeding and developing very well,” Alian enthuses. “Her happy mother takes good care of her, and she has been out in the yard with the others and fits in nicely.”
The zoo and the Bible
First established by Israeli entomologist Prof. Aharon Shulov in 1940 at his home on Rav Kook St., and relocated in 1941 to Shmuel HaNavi St., the Biblical Zoo was moved to an area of land on Har Hatzofim (Mount Scopus) in 1947. The Biblical Zoo’s original purpose was to create a space where the people of Israel could meet animals from the Torah up close. Currently also known as the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens, the zoo has expanded over time and now has animals of all backgrounds, but there remains an emphasis on biblical animals.
Giraffes are not explicitly mentioned by name in the Torah, yet some commentators suggest they are meant to be one of the kosher animals listed in the Book of Deuteronomy. In chapter 14 of Devarim, Moses speaks on behalf of God when he proclaims “You shall not eat anything abominable,” before listing 10 animals that are permissible to eat, starting with the ox, sheep, and goat. Rounding out the list are the English translations of Hebrew animal names listed as “the deer, the gazelle, the roebuck, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope, the mountain sheep.” But as prominent 11th-century commentator Ibn Ezra notes, only the Hebrew biblical names for deer, ayal, and gazelle, tzvi, are certain. For the other five, he says: “We need tradition” to determine the meaning.
Zemer, the last of the 10 animals mentioned, is translated as “mountain sheep,” but to refer to this translation as disputed would be an understatement.
Many rabbinical commentators, including Rav Saadia Gaon, Radak, and Rabbeinu Yonah, identify “giraffe” as the legitimate translation of the word “zemer.” This is because the Septuagint, the first Greek translation of the Torah from its original Hebrew, renders zemer as camelopardalis, the ancient Greek name for giraffe. The ancients viewed the giraffe as a cross between camelus (“camel”) and pardalis (“leopard”) due to its long, camel-like neck and brown, leopard-like spots.
As evidenced by this translation, Eli and all other giraffes that have come before her are biblical animals. This, according to the aforementioned scholars, would also suffice as evidence for the giraffe as a kosher animal. However, giraffes are already acknowledged as a kosher species due to their meeting both requirements listed in the Torah for kashrut: chewing their cud and having split hooves.
A common misconception, though, is that giraffes are not slaughtered because it is not known where on the neck to perform the shechita (ritual slaughter). In truth, they have not made it to your mangal (BBQ) because they are expensive, and they belong to a dwindling population of animals.
Eli is a rare breed, “belonging to a South African subspecies that is in danger due to biome destruction,” says the zoo spokesperson. “The wildlife reserves in Southern Africa are getting smaller and smaller due to human poaching,” she laments.
AS THE day winds down, only a handful of families remain at the zoo. Some are waiting for the ideal time to head home. Near the African yard, two children laugh and point at Eli. Their parents, a few steps back, bear grim expressions on their faces. The reasonableness bill has passed, the first of many proposed judicial reform measures. Also, they aren’t sure how they’ll get home from the zoo. Protests are blocking the roads.
As the country’s political tension increases, it’s impossible to know when the demonstrations will end. For those who do manage to overcome the traffic, Eli’s calm, still demeanor is an escape from the disorder and uncertainty of regular life – her unbothered, innocent presence a symbol of tranquility. ❖