The writings of the Sages speak of the lion in moralistic tones, frequently drawing an analogy between the lion and the righteous individual. In the Mishnah, the lion's courage is invoked as one of the qualities needed to perform God's will: "Be as strong as a leopard, as light as an eagle, as swift as a deer, as brave as a lion to do the will of your Father in heaven.">[1]

In the Talmud, the lion is referred to as "king of the beasts"[2], and is often used figuratively to represent an outstanding scholar. Thus Joshua b. Hananiah refused to invalidate the ruling of Eliezer b. Hyrcanus after the latter's death because "one does not answer a lion after its death"[3]. Hiyya is called "the lion of the brotherhood."[4] A scholar, the son of a scholar, is called "a lion, son of a lion," and a person of undistinguished parentage is called "the lion the son of a jackal."[5] Simeon b. Lakish expressed his admiration for the learning of Kahana, who had come to Eretz Yisrael from Babylon with the words: "A lion has come up from Babylon."[6] And again in the midrash: "Lions are before you, and you inquire of foxes?!"[7]; i.e., instead of asking great authorities, you inquire of minor ones.

In one instance, however, "lion" is used in a pejorative sense. In contrast to the true, sincere proselyte (ger zedek or ger emet), a person who embraces Judaism for selfish personal motives or through fear of punishment, is referred to as a "convert of lions" (ger arayot).[8] This expression derives from the biblical story in which the Samaritans are attacked by lions sent by God, and accept the Lord of Israel out of fear:

The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuttah, Avva, Hamat and Sepharvaim, and he settled them in the towns of Samaria in place of the Israelites; they took possession of Samaria and dwelt in its towns. When they first settled there, they did not worship the Lord; so the Lord sent lions against them which killed some of them. They said to the king of Assyria: "The nations which you deported and resettled in the towns of Samaria do not know the rules of the God of the land; therefore He has let lions loose against them which are killing them.…" The king of Assyria gave an order: "Send there one of the priests whom you have deported; let him go and dwell there, and let him teach them the practices of the God of the land." So one of the priests whom they had exiled from Samaria came up and settled in Bethel; he taught them how to worship the Lord. However, each national continued to make its own gods....[9]

BT Sanhedrin 95:71

In still others sources, the lion is indicative of a powerful empire. In the Book of Daniel, there seems to be a strong association between the lion and the powerful kingdom of Babylonia. In the midrash, this equation reoccurs in reference to the powerful Roman empire.

In the days of Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah the Emperor of Rome issued a decree that the Holy Temple be rebuilt. The Samaritans immediately came forward with the same arguments they had used in the days of Zerubabel. The Emperor's government then issued a decree that the plan must follow the Emperor's measurements, and that the Temple must be built on a new site. The Jews could not consent to the change, and were greatly incensed.

Rabbi Joshua called the people together, and said: "A lion while eating found that a bone had stuck in his throat. He roared out that whosoever would remove the bone would be rewarded. A stork thrust its long bill into the lion's throat and drew forth the bone. The stork then asked for the reward. 'Your reward,' said the lion, 'is that you will be able henceforth to boast that you are the only creature whose head was in the lion's mouth and came out alive.' So it is with us: It is enough that we have emerged without harm from a decree by the Emperor."[10]

And finally, God, Himself is compared to the lion:

A Caesar once said to R. Joshua ben Hananaiah "Your God is likened to a lion, for it is written 'The Lion has roared but who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken, who can but prophesy?' [Amos 3:8] Wherein lies His greatness? Surely a horseman can easily kill a lion!" R. Joshua: "He has been likened not to an ordinary lion but to the lion of [the forest] on high!"

"I desire," said Caesar, "that you show it to me." R. Joshua: "Yo will be unable to look at it." Caesar: "Nevertheless, I insist." So R. Joshua entreated God's mercy, and the lion [of the forest on high] was forced to move from its place. When it was four hundred parasangs distant, it roared once; all the pregnant women miscarried, and the walls of Rome collapsed. When it was three hundred parasangs distant, it roared again; the teeth of men fell out, and Caesar himself fell from his throne to the ground. "I beg of you," he implored, "entreat God's mercy that this lion may return to its place." R. Joshua did entreat God's mercy, and it was returned.[11] [text in Hebrew]

[1] Pirke Avot 5:23 [back]
[2] Hag. 13b [back]
[3] Gittin 83a [back]
[4] Shabbat 111a [back]
[5] Bava Metzia 84b [back]
[6] Bava Kama 117a [back]
[7] Y. Shevi'it, 9:4 [back]
[8] Kiddushin 75b [back]
[9] II Kings 17:25-29 [back]
[10] Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, 64 [back]
[11] BT Hulin 59b [back]
The ring of the cistern and the hungry lion: A rabbinic metaphor

LIONS Table of Contents




Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend