We have in the following parables two differing attitudes towards the ruling government on the part of two rabbis who lived in the period following the destruction and the fall of Judah to Rome. R. Akiba (1st-2nd cent.) and R. Hanina (2nd-3rd cent.) each make use of the symbol of the fish to reinforce their point of view.

R. Akiba, who is known to have supported Bar Kochba's revolt against the Romans, rebelled in his own way by defying Roman authority: for R. Akiba, the danger of dying spiritually is a greater threat than that of physical extermination; this is reason enough to defy the laws of the ruling authority.

Our rabbis have taught:
Once the wicked government decreed that Israel should no longer occupy themselves with Torah. Then came Pappos b. Judah and found R. Akiba holding great assemblies and studying Torah. He said to him, "Akiba, are you not afraid of the wicked government?"

R. Akiba replied: "I will tell you a parable. To what is the matter like? To a fox who was walking along the bank of the stream, and saw some fishes gathering together to move from one place to another. He said to them: 'From what are you fleeing?' The fish answered: 'From nets which men are bringing against us." The fox said to them: 'Let it be your pleasure to come up on the dry land, and let us me and you, dwell together, even as my fathers dwelt with your fathers.' The fish replied: "Are you he of whom they tell that you are the shrewdest of animals? You are not clever, but a fool! For if we are afraid in the place which is our life-element, how much more so in a place which is our death-element!'

So also is it with us. If now, while we sit and study Torah, in which it is written, 'For that is thy life, and the length of they days,"[1] we are in such a plight, how much more so if we neglect it."[2]

Unlike R. Akiba, R. Hanina seems to accept foreign sovereignty as the natural order of the world: if it were not one ruler, he says, it would be another. The problem as he saw it was not Rome but the people themselves; Jerusalem was destroyed, he claims in another reference, because of the people's sins, because the people failed to rebuke each other.[3] We need the iron fist of the government, he says, to keep us from destroying one another.

"You make men as the fish of the sea."[4] As it is with the fishes of the sea, the one that is bigger swallows the other up, so with man; were it not for the fear of the government, every one that is greater than his fellow would swallow him up. This is what R. Hanina, the perfect of the priesthood, said: "Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for fear of the government, a man would swallow up his neighbor."[5]


[1] Deut. 30:20 [back]
[2] Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 61b [back]
[3] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 199b [back]
[4] Habakuk 1:14 [back]
[5] Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zara 4a [back]


From A Rabbinic Theology, eds. C.G. Montefiore & H. Loewe. Schocken Books, 1974.

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