Monday, July 21, 2008

The Tall Tales of Rabbah bar Bar Hana

Complied at the end of the 6th-Century C.E., the Babylonian Talmud is one of the major religious texts used by all practicing Jews today. Making up the Babylonian Talmud is a collection of discussions held by various learned Rabbis over a wide variety of religious, philosophical, ethical, and legal topics that were themselves previously covered in the Mishnah (200 C.E.), another book of rabbinical commentary this time focusing on the Jewish Torah.

Naturally, all of this makes for some very dry reading and not the sort of place you would expect to find some of the most fascinating bits of Jewish myth and folklore. However, as it would turn out, it appears that even the Rabbis doing the commentary in the Babylonian Talmud knew how boring some of this stuff was and so decided to every once in awhile spice things up by veering off topic and telling some really great stories.

One such rabbi is Rabbah bar Bar Hana whose tall tales of giant beasts and strange monsters can be found in Tractate Baba Bathra (73a-77b), a section that initially deals with how to properly sell and or buy a boat.

In Tractate Baba Bathra, bar Bar Hana begins telling about his many travels around the world and the strange and freighting creatures he’s seen. The first beast he speaks about is an antelope who was the size of Mount Tabor and who cast a dung ball so big that it damned up the River Jordan. Next, bar Bar Hana describes how he once saw a frog the size of sixty houses, which was then swallowed by an even bigger sea monster. The sea monster was then plucked out of the ocean by a giant raven which then preached itself on the branch of a massive tree which can still seen by any who wish to look.

Bar Bar Hana then sets in with some lively fish tales, one about the time he saw a fish so large that when it was cast upon the shore it destroyed sixty towns and provided food for another sixty. When the rabbi returned a year later he discovered that the towns’ people were cutting rafters from the giant fishes’ ribs which they were then using to rebuild the towns that had been destroyed.

On another occasion while out at sea, bar Bar Hana said that he encountered a fish so large it took three days and three nights for him and several other men to sail a fast ship from one end of the monster to the other. And in case you doubt it was a fast ship, bar Bar Hana adds that when an archer shot an arrow the ship easily outstripped it.

Then there was the giant fish that had sand and grass growing on its back. When bar Bar Hana and his crew saw the beast they thought it was an island and landed on it. However, when they started cooking their food the fish woke up and rolled over forcing the men to make a mad dash back to their ship in the nick of time.

Bar Bar Hana then rounds out this set of tall tales with two more. One about the Ziz; a giant bird whose head reached the heavens and whose legs were in the sea. Thinking the water were the bird was standing must be shallow the men decided to go for a swim when a ‘voice from heaven’ (Heb. Bath Kol) called out saying; “Do not go down here, for a carpenter’s ax was dropped [into this water] seven years ago and it has not reached the bottom.”

Lastly, bar Bar Hana tells how an Arab merchant once took him to see the Dead of the Wilderness; those Jews who had died in the desert while wandering for forty-years looking for the Promise Land. The Dead of the Wilderness were truly an impressive sight, for bar Bar Hana did not even realize when they had reached them on account of the fact that they were so big he thought they were mountains and even rode his camel under one of their raised knees. Bar Bar Hana also tells his fellow rabbis how he tried to take a piece of the beautiful blue-purple fabric the Dead were wearing as proof of what he had seen but when he cut a piece of the cloth off and tried to ride away he found himself paralyzed. The Arab explained that one can not take anything from the Dead and expect to leave.

Prof. Timothy K. Beal of Case Western Reserve University says in his fascinating book Religion and its Monsters (2002) that stories such as those told by Rabbah bar Bar Hana are intended to inspire fear and awe in both the listener and reader, much the same way that scary stories around a camp fire still do today. The difference here is that since the stories are told in what is considered a religious context, the fear and awe they inspire is that of the infinite mysteries of God and the universe, rather than the dark.

Center: Giant fish, mountain sized bulls and the Ziz (here depicted as a griffin) were just some of the larger than life creatures that appear in Jewish myth and legend. Illuminated manuscript page from Germany circa 1238.

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