After the story of Akeidat Yitzchak, the Torah mentions that Avraham received a report of his brother Nachor’s progeny. The sixth son on the list is Pildash (Genesis 22:22).
The etymology of this name is somewhat unclear. Some linguists explain that it’s a portmanteau of “pladot” (torches) and “eish” (fire), which appear side by side in Nahum 2:4. Rabbeinu Efrayaim b. Shimshon (to Genesis 22:22) explains that Pildash is a contraction of “pil” (elephant) and “dash” (threshes), an allusion to Pildash’s superlative height that allowed him to thresh over others.
“Pil” actually doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible. Biblical Hebrew seems to have a different word for elephant, “shenhav,” which appears twice in the Bible, both times in verses that list the items King Solomon imported from overseas: “gold and silver, shenhabim, monkeys and parrots (I Kings 10:22 and II Chronicles 9:21). The first two items on this are precious materials, while the last two items are exotic animals.
In order to determine the true meaning of “shenhabim,” we must determine whether it belongs to the first or second half of this list. The cantillation of the list suggest that “shenhabim” is connected to the second part. Thus, it would seem that “shenhabim” denotes a species of exotic animals.
The Targumim, however render “shenhabim” into Aramaic as “shen d’pil” (literally, the tooth of an elephant) – i.e. ivory. Apparently, they connect “shenhabim” to the first part. Most of the standard commentators (i.e., the Radak, Metzudos in Rashi, R. Yosef Kara, and Ralbag) are in agreement. The Abarbanel (to King 10:22) writes that Christian commentators interpret “shenhabim” as pearls – again, explaining it as something more akin to gold and silver than to monkeys and parrots.
However, pseudo-Rashi (that is, the commentary printed under Rashi’s name to Chronicles that Rashi did not actually write) explains that “shenhavnot” refers to elephant tusks and elephants. He thus links “shenhabim” to both the first and second halves of the list.
Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (990-1055) in his Sefer HaShorashim suggests that “shenhavis” is a compound word. Although he does not explain himself, it’s safe to assume he means that “shenhavis” is derived from “shen” (tooth) and “hav” (gives). If so, “shenhav” is a beast that gives away teeth (i.e., tusks of ivory) that can be used for various purposes.
Accordingly, he too seems to understand “shenhav,” not as ivory, but as an elephant. In an unpublished piyut for Yom Kippur, HaKallir uses “shenhavim” to describe animals of exceptional height, evidently elephants. The 14th century Yemenite sage Rabbi Avraham b. Shlomo (in his commentary to Kings) also writes that “shenhabim” means elephants and not ivory.
Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899-1983) and others parse “shenhav” differently. They agree that “shen” means tooth, but maintain that “hav” is related to the ancient Egyptian word “yev,” which means elephant (the island of Elephantine in the Nile River is also known as Yev/Yebu). Rabbi Dr. Klein even notes that the English “ivory” is ultimately derived from “yev” (by way of the Latin word for ivory, “ebur”).
Although “pil” never appears in the Bible, it is a fairly common word in post-Biblical Hebrew. The word appears once in the Mishnah (Kilyaim 8:6) and it (or its Aramaic equivalent “pila”) also appears multiple times in the Talmud.
For example, when asserting that somebody never sees something in a dream that he hasn’t seen in real life or thought about, the Talmud gives the example of an elephant (“pila”) entering the eye of a needle (Brachos 55b). It even has a discussion on whether seeing elephants in a dream is a good or bad omen (see Brachos 56b-57a). If a person sees an elephant in real life, he’s supposed to recite a special blessing (see Brachos 58b).
Rabbi Dr. Klein writes that the Mishnaic “pil” is related to the Persian “pil,” the Arabic “fil,” and the Akkadian “piru”/“pilu.” Dr. Chaim Tawil similarly points out that the Biblical “shenhabim” is a semantic cognate of the Akkadian term “sinni piri,” which means elephant tusk.
Parenthetically, “alfil” is the name of the original chess piece that eventually came to be known as a bishop. This piece was in the shape of an elephant. Like the modern-day bishop, the alfil moved diagonally (but unlike the bishop, the alfil could only move two squares at a time and could jump over pieces).
Rabbi Yehoshua Steinberg of the Veromemanu Foundation notes that the Talmud (Berachos 56b, 57b) seems to associate “pil” with “pele” (wonder) as elephants are wondrously big. Rabbi Yechiel Michel Stern (rav of the Ezras Torah neighborhood of Jerusalem) connects “pil” to “nefilim” (giants), explaining that both elephants and giants cause fear to fall (nofel) upon those who behold them (see Bereishis Rabbah 26:7). Rabbi Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor (to Genesis 6:4 and Numbers 14:33) also connects “nefilim” to “pele.”
I would like to humbly suggest another explanation. The root peh-lammed is often associated with death, as “neifel” (Job 3:16, Psalms 58:9) denotes a stillborn baby and the act of “nefilah”/“hapalah” (falling) in the Bible is commonly a euphemistic way of referring to death (see Exodus 19:21, Deuteronomy 21:1, and Judges 3:25 and 4:22).
Now, Rabbi Menashe ben Israel (1604-1657) writes that when elephants kill a person, they stand by the corpse until they can bury it. In fact, researchers have noted that elephants bury all sorts of dead animals they encounter and seem to otherwise take a special interest in death. A BBC World News headline from 2014 even reads: “Kenya elephant buries its victims.” It thus makes sense that the Hebrew word for elephant would be related to death.