The Lion and the Rabbi

An Old Jewish Folktale

A righteous rabbi once lived in Jerusalem. All of the people in his city were very poor, and so the thoughtful rabbi decided to go to Egypt and collect money for them.

As the rabbi traveled, he met a caravan with camels and asked if he might join the group. Since the leader knew that the rabbi could not travel on the Shabbat (sabbath), he agreed to journey for six days straight and then rest on the seventh day. So the rabbi paid his fare, and they all set out together for Egypt.

At the end of the sixth day of traveling, the rabbi asked the caravan leader to stop and rest as he had promised. “I am sorry, rabbi,” the leader angrily replied, “but I cannot delay everyone else for the sake of just one traveler. We must go on!”

The rabbi could not break the Shabbat, and so he got down from his camel and took his bag with him. Soon the caravan was gone and the rabbi was left all alone in the desert.

As the sun went down, the rabbi began to welcome the holy Shabbat with prayers and songs. As he was singing, a ferocious lion appeared and started walking toward him. The rabbi was frightened, but he continued to sing. Suddenly the lion stopped, lay down, and quietly listened to the rabbi’s songs. Then it fell asleep, and after the rabbi finished his song, he too lay down and went to sleep.

The next morning when the rabbi woke up and looked around, he saw the lion looking at him with gentle eyes. All that day the rabbi prayed and sang, and all that day the lion stayed by his side watching or sleeping.

When evening came and the stars twinkled in the sky, the lion got up and stretched. Then it came closer to the rabbi, wagging its tail and motioning for the rabbi to climb on its back. The rabbi took his bag and climbed up onto the lion’s back, and at once the animal was off on a run.

All night the lion hurried over the desert sands, and by morning the rabbi could see his caravan a short distance ahead.

The other travelers were shocked when they saw the rabbi riding on the back of a lion. They were even more surprised when the lion bent its knees and carefully let the rabbi off its back. Then the lion got up, roared fiercely, shook its mane, and vanished into the desert.

Now the travelers realized that even a lion knew that the rabbi was a very holy man. The leader of the caravan bowed down on his knees before the rabbi and begged his forgiveness.

From that day the people called the rabbi Ariel, because Ari means “lion” and El means “God.”

[illustration] Illustrated by Jim Christensen