(Editor’s Note: The famous allegoric stories of Rabba Bar Bar Chana and other of our Gedolim are enveloped in clouds of figurative speech. Undoubtedly, the great and eminent Rabba was trying to picture Israel’s trials during the long and bitter exile. The ship of Israel had sailed many a time over terribly stormy oceans and in many instances suffered shipwreck. On the other hand, Bnei Yisrael enjoyed the light of freedom in many countries. But that proved still more disastrous to them because the nation was either almost swallowed up by the fish (nations) wherein it made its abode, or at the end it drank the bitter cup of inquisition, significant in the overturn of the fish mentioned in Rabba’s proverbs.
In the following parables, Rabba pictures Bnei Yisrael’s exiled life. He could not have dared to speak openly on account of the strict censorship of the Roman government. He therefore chose the figurative manner in order to give vent to his pent-up feelings, escaping, at the same time, the shrewd eyes of the government.
The allegoric contents of these stories are ingenious. Many of our gaonim, such as the Maharsha, offer various interpretations. Take the story of when he was on a boat and saw an island. He settled on the island and lit a fire. The island turned out to be a fish, which reacted very fiercely to the fire. Had the ship not been so near, he would have drowned.
The Maharsha explains that Bnei Yisrael’s ship, traveling in the ocean of exile, reached a new land and the people thought they had finally reached salvation. They intermixed with the natives and then, lo and behold, the country (the fish) throws them over and they are driven out. Were it not for their heritage, their Torah, they would have become extinct. The reader is invited to test his intelligence and to fathom the deeper and hidden meaning of these stories, which appear in the Talmud in Baba Basra 73.)
The Tremendous Waves
Rabba Bar Bar Chana related the following, “Sailors told me that once they were threatened with gigantic waves that could have sunk their ships. These waves appeared with a ray of whitish light at their crest and when they struck it with clubs engraved with the words ‘I will be what I will be, L-rd G-d, King of Hosts, Amen, Amen, Selah,’ the waves subsided.”
Rabba Bar Bar Chana continued, “The sailors related to me that the distance between one wave and the other was 300 parasangs (a Persian mile, about 4,000 yards) and the height of each wave lifted them so high that they saw the resting place of the smallest star. There was a flash as it shot 40 arrows of iron. If it had lifted them any higher they would have been burned by its heat.
“They also heard the following conversation between two waves, ‘My friend,’ one wave called to the other, ‘have you left anything in the world that you didn’t wash away and flood? I will go and destroy it.’ The other replied, ‘Go and see the power of the Master by whose command I must not pass the sand of the shore even as much as the breadth of a thread. It is this sand line that separates the sea from the land and yet I could not step over it.’
Rabba Bar Bar Chana went on, “I saw an antelope, one-day-old, that was as big as Mount Rabor, which measures four parasangs. The length of its neck was three parasangs and the resting place of its head was one parasang and a half.
“I saw a frog the size of the Fort of Hagronia (a fortified town in Babylon) that contained 60 houses. A snake came along and swallowed the frog and then a large raven came and swallowed the snake. The raven then ascended the tree and perched on one of its limbs. Imagine the strength of that tree.”
Rabbi Papa ben Samuel said, “Had I not been there I would not have believed it,” and added, “Once, while we were traveling on board a ship I saw a gigantic fish in whose gills I saw a parasite, the mudeater worm. It entered and killed the fish. Thereupon the sea cast up the fish and threw it upon the shore. Sixty towns were destroyed thereby and 60 coast towns consumed its flesh and 60 other coast towns salted the flesh that was left for future use. From one of its eyeballs 300 kegs of oil were filled. On returning there after 12 months, I saw its bones being sawed into boards as to restore the streets that were destroyed by it.”
Rabbi Sholom Klass