The third-century Babylonian Jewish scholar known as Rabbah bar bar Ḥana used to travel back and forth between his native land and the land of Israel, serving as a conduit for the transmission of teachings of the foremost sages of the holy land to the Babylonian academies. Dozens of his teachings spanning a wide range of religious law fill the pages of the Talmud.
In spite of his respectable scholarly accomplishments, Rabbah is probably best known to posterity for a unique series of stories that were ascribed to him—and which the Talmud appended to a technical discussion about the laws for purchasing boats. In those tales Rabbah related fantastic sights and exploits that he experienced in the course of his travels to exotic places on land and sea. Some of those stories link to episodes from the Bible, while others have no obvious purpose other than (so it seems) to hold us spellbound by their astounding details.
Included among those tall tales is the following episode: “Once, as we were voyaging in a ship, we observed a certain fish. Its back was coated with sand out of which grass had sprouted. Assuming that it was dry land, we climbed up on its back, and set about baking and cooking. But when its back got hotter it turned over—and had our ship not been lying nearby, we would have drowned.”
Whatever we might think about the veracity of the rabbi’s report, we should note that similar legends about sailors who were confounded by island-sized fish were in wide circulation in the ancient world, among the Greeks and the Romans as well as in Iranian myths that could have been familiar to Jews in Babylonia. The pioneering Latin naturalist Pliny the Elder collected numerous reports—of varying degrees of scientific credibility—about giant sea creatures and monsters such as the “Physeter” and the “Pistris” that made a powerful impression on the imaginations of his readers. The satirist Lucian of Samosata, in a parody of the genre of fanciful travel memoirs, included an episode in which the narrator’s ship was swallowed up by a sea-creature so immense that its insides were populated by a thriving urban community.
A very similar tale was included in a Christian work known as the “Physiologus.” Scholarly opinions about the date of its original Greek text range from the second to the fourth centuries, after which it enjoyed immense popularity in translations to Latin, Ethiopic and numerous other languages. It took its name (which was apparently not its original title) from the fictitious premise that it was a scientific lexicon based on the teachings of a learned naturalist. The work is in reality a fanciful bestiary of mythical and actual creatures; it identifies traits of those creatures that lend themselves to moral or allegorical expositions.
The passage from the Physiologus that concerns us provides far more extensive detail than the Talmud’s terse story, as it describes a sea monster that is known in Greek as the “aspidochelone” [meaning: “asp-turtle”]. This beast is a giant whale and its skin has the appearance of a sandy beach like that on a seashore. For that reason, when it swims with its back floating above the surface of the water, sailors mistake it for an island and are enticed into parking their vessels and venturing ashore to enjoy a respite from their sea voyages. Convinced that they are on terra firma, they affix wooden pegs on which to moor their ships, and then go about lighting fires to cook their meals.
One of the most popular versions of this legend appears in the Arabic Thousand and One Nights, in the first of the seven voyages of the intrepid seafarer Sinbad. As Sinbad tells it, his crew had sailed seven days on their journey from Basra in Iraq, when they espied a small, sunlit island that was as fair as the garden of Eden, adorned with lush vegetation. Securing his vessel at a safe distance from the island, Sinbad ventured by himself in a flimsy dingy to pick some herbs which he planned to blend into a luscious recipe (also containing hashish). While he was occupied with that task, he heard an alarmed yell from the mother ship alerting him that he was in imminent peril and must return forthwith to the craft, since what lay beneath his feet was not an island but a gigantic fish. At that very moment the creature leapt up making terrifying noises. Our hero tried to escape in his frail dingy, but it was quickly blown out of the waters. Unlike Rabbah bar bar Ḥana, the crew of Sinbad’s ship did not hasten to his rescue, but fled in panic, leaving him to swim off to harrowingly dangerous and thrilling new adventures.
Now some of us might be perfectly satisfied to enjoy such captivating yarns enhanced by spectacular special effects. For the most part, however, students of the Talmud approached Rabba bar bar Ḥana’s adventures from a more austere religious perspective, and insisted that they must contain some edifying message. Some commentators, like Rabbi Yom Tov ben Abraham Ishbili (Ritva), strove to justify them on the grounds that, outlandish though they might appear, the reports are based on actual wonders of the natural world, so that they serve to enhance our appreciation of the all-powerful creator who fashioned them all. Alternatively, the fearsome beasts might also originate in inspired dreams that were intended to teach us profound truths.
The great homilist Rabbi Ephraim Solomon Luntshits offered an allegorical explanation of the episode: the ship represents the human soul destined to navigate the stormy seas of life. The person who strives to be perfectly righteous must take special care to avoid associating with the wicked—who are symbolized in the tale by the alluring (but thorny) foliage on the “island.” At first it is friendly and accommodating, but after it has succeeded in garnering your trust, it reverts to its true character and tries to attack and destroy you. In this way, the sinister sea monster fooled Rabbah bar bar Ḥana and his companions into thinking it was a secure, lifeless tract of dry land—but then it heated up and pounced on them. Were it not for the divine assistance that is vouchsafed to us (represented metaphorically as the boat waiting nearby ready to come to the rescue), all of us mortals would be defenseless victims of the evil powers.
Indeed, Rabbi Luntshits’ approach is in line with Christian readings of the Aspidochelon passage in the Physiologus. That beast was understood to symbolize the deceptions of the devil who causes unwary mortals to be enticed by hunger, thirst and sinful desires until they are drawn to eternal torment.
Other classic commentators, including Ritva and Rabbi Samuel Edels (Maharsha), interpreted the story not as a lesson about the moral fate of the individual, but as a paradigm for Jewish national survival. Thus, the deceptively hospitable island exemplifies the situation of the Jews in Persia and Media at the time of the Purim story—and one presumes, the feelings of some of the commentators’ contemporaries. Those Jews were convinced that they had been comfortably assimilated into their current environments and exempted from the curses normally associated with Jewish life in the diaspora. However, they would soon be reminded that they were still subject to the bitter perils of exile. Salvation could only be achieved through repentance and by acknowledging that the ultimate redemption had not yet arrived.
And I suppose that this is surprisingly apt advice for us all to heed, as humans and as Jews. We should take care to prepare ourselves for the eventuality that the calm surfaces on which we are treading might suddenly plunge into the depths and leave us thrashing.
But of course, such mishaps only happen in fanciful legends from bygone ages.