A huge lion

January 22, 2021 in Rabbi Fabián Werbin

It happens very frequently that when I study Talmud I discover legends, stories, tales and fables that leave me with my jaw dropped.

Some weeks ago, I found this incredible story in the Tractate of Chulin. (By the way, this tractate deals with the animals that are permitted to be eaten, the parts of those animals, dairy and meat rules, slaughtering rules, and the like. The story I am sharing is found in the middle of all these rules.)

Babylonian Talmud, Chulin 59B

“R. Kahana said: There is a distance of nine cubits from one ear to the other ear of the lion of Be-Ila’I (The name of a forest).

…The Emperor once said to R. Joshua b. Hananiah, ‘Your God is likened to a lion, for it is written: The lion hath roared, who will not fear? The Lord God hath spoken, who can but prophesy? (Amos 3:8) But what is the greatness of this? A horseman can kill the lion’!

He replied: ‘He has not been likened to the ordinary lion, but to the lion of Be-Ilai’I!’

‘I desire’, said the Emperor, ‘that you show it to me’.

He replied: ‘You cannot behold it’. ‘Indeed’, said the Emperor, ‘I will see it’.

He [R. Joshua b. Hananiah] prayed and the lion set out from its place. When the lion was four hundred parasangs distant it roared once, and the walls of Rome fell. When it was three hundred parasangs distant it roared again, and all the molars and incisors of man fell out; even the Emperor himself fell from his throne to the ground.

‘I beseech you’, he implored, ‘pray that it returns to its place’. He prayed and it returned to its place.”

 

It is difficult to read this story literally. There is a reason why this story is in the Talmud and we need to discover it. There are many lessons that can be derived from this legend in the Talmud.  Here are some I would like to share with you.

  • The Roman emperor knew a lot of Torah; he was well versed in the book of Amos.
  • There were good relationships between the emperor and the rabbis.
  • Attempts to compare God with anything/anyone don’t end up well.
  • In the time of the Talmud there were mythical creatures (the line that precedes this story tells us about a unicorn that lived in the same forest).
  • We know the name of the rabbis, the name of the beast and the name of the forest, we do not know the name of the emperor.
  • Rome was a walled city at some point in history (maybe the Servian or the Aurelian walls).
  • The emperor who challenges the rabbi ends up begging the rabbi for help.
  • There is power in prayer.
  • Finally, there are ways to return the threat to where it belongs.

I am sure there are many more lessons that can be learned. Please, add them to the comments so we all can continue learning from each other.