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Jewish Concepts: The Lion

Called in the Talmud "the king of the beasts" (Ḥag. 13b), the lion has many Hebrew names:

  • אַרְיֵה (aryeh) or אֲרִי (ari), and לָבִיא (lavi) fem. לְבִיאָה (levi'ah), both of which are used for e lion in general,
  • כְּפִיר (kefir), usually a young lion,
  • לַיִשׁ (layish), mostly poetical, and according to some, "an old lion,
  • שַׁחַל (shaḥal), general name for the lion in poetry, though like שַׁחַץ (shaḥaẓ) perhaps the intention is any fierce animal
  • and, גּוּר (gur) almost always meaning "a lion's whelp."

Rashi comments that ari is the large lion, shaḥal the medium-sized one, and kefir the small lion, while the first six are cited in Sanhedrin 95a. Similarly, Kimchi breaks the different terms for lion into categories of size in his comment to Judges 14:5. More likely, though, the different terms with the exception of gur, "cub" (Nah. 2:13), are synonyms employed by the biblical poets. In fact, lavi (= Akkadian lābu), shaḥal, and layish (= Akkadian nēšu; l/n interchange) are attested only in poetry.

In the Bible there are more than 150 references to the lion, many of them descriptive, metaphoric, and allegorical. To the lion were compared the tribes of Judah (Gen. 49:9) and Dan (Deut. 33:22); Balaam said of the Israelites: "Behold a people that riseth up as a lioness (lavi), and as a lion (ari) doth he lift himself up" (Num. 23:24); the mother of the kings of Judah was compared to a lioness and her sons to lion (gureha) cubs (Ezek. 19:2–3). David, of whom it was said that his "heart is as the heart of a lion" (II Sam. 17:10), declared in his lament over Saul and Jonathan that "they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions" (ibid. 1:23). This combination of the lion, the king of the beasts, and the eagle , the king of the birds (the biblical reference is to the vulture ), is very common in later Jewish art, particularly on the Holy Ark, and occurs in Ezekiel's vision of the lion, the ox, the eagle, and the cherub (Ezek. 1:10; 10:14).

In the Temple there were carvings of "lions, oxen, and cherubim" (I Kings 7:29), while a lion with eagle's wings symbolized in the Book of Daniel (7:4) the kingdom of Babylonia. The lion is mentioned several times together with the bear as the most powerful beasts of prey (Lam. 3:10; Prov. 28:15; I Sam. 17:34; et al.). When a lion attacks its prey there is no escape from it, being mentioned in many parables, as when Amos (3:12) declares that a shepherd can rescue out of its jaws no more than "two legs, or a piece of an ear." Nor is a lion in the least frightened even when shepherds gather to chase it away (Isa. 31:4). An encounter between a man and a lion is usually fatal to the former (I Kings 13:24; 20:36), lions having killed new settlers in the cities of Samaria (II Kings 17:25), and having claimed victims, according to Jeremiah (5:6), in the land of Judah. Only in exceptional instances was a lion slain in such a clash, as when encountering a man of great personal courage such as Samson (Judg. 14:6), David (I Sam. 17:34), and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada (II Sam. 23:20). Among the Samaria ivories of the ninth century B.C.E. are two representations of lions (image in IDB 3, 137). From the eighth century is a seal inscribed, "property of Shema, servant of Jeroboam," with an engraving of a lion (Ahituv, 206).

From the Bible it is clear that lions did not permanently inhabit populated areas; their haunts were the mountains of Lebanon (Song 4:8), Bashan (Deut. 33:22), the thickets of the Jordan (Jer. 49:19), and the desert regions of the Negev (Isa. 30:6). From there they invaded populated areas, penetrating deeply and regularly, in particular at times of drought when wild animals, their usual prey, had decreased in number. Lions also multiplied when the country lay destroyed and derelict. In the neighborhood of Ereẓ Israel long- and short-maned lions were to be found. There are evidences that there were lions in the country in mishnaic and talmudic and even in crusader times (in the Negev). The last lions in the Middle East were destroyed in the 19th century.

The lion figures prominently in folklore as a result of two main references to it in the Bible: the appellation of Judah as "a lion's whelp" (Gen. 49:9; Dan is also so called in Deut. 33:22, but the lion is always associated with Judah) and as one of the figures in the divine chariot of Ezekiel (Ezek. 1:10). A secondary motif is connected with the statement of Judah b. Tema (Avot 5:20) "Be as strong as a leopard, light as an eagle, fleet as a hart, and brave as a lion to perform the will of thy Father who is in heaven."

Based on the image of the Lion of Judah in Genesis, the name Aryeh ("lion") became a common Jewish personal name mostly in all combinations with Judah and with Leib (Loeb), its German or Yiddish translation, thus giving the composite names Judah Aryeh, Judah Leib, and Aryeh Leib. The Judah mentioned in the verse, however, is associated not only with the son of Jacob of that name, but with the tribe, and particularly with the House of David (cf. Rashi ad loc.), and as a result the Lion of Judah became one of the most common of Jewish symbols. It is also one of the appellatives of the king of Ethiopia, who according to Ethiopian tradition is descended from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The rampant Lion of Judah is a favorite embellishment of the synagogue ark, the mantle covering the scroll of the Torah, etc. The Lion of the Divine Chariot is one of the four figures of Ezekiel's merkavah (divine chariot) which consisted of a human being, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. Different opinions are expressed in the Talmud as to the permissibility of reproducing these figures, but the general consensus is that the only reproductions wholly forbidden are either the four together or the complete human form (see Art ). On the other hand, almost complete freedom was accorded in the reproduction of the lion, possibly both because of its national association as described above and because of the figures of lions upon the laver in Solomon's Temple (I Kings 7:29) and especially in the steps leading to his throne and on its sides (ibid. 10:20).

Jacob b. Asher opens his Tur Oraḥ Ḥayyim with the above-quoted passage of Judah b. Tema, and the four animals mentioned in it have often been made the subject of paintings. The word lion is often employed figuratively in a laudatory sense, mostly referring to an outstanding scholar. Thus Joshua b. Hananiah refused to controvert the ruling of Eliezer b. Hyrcanus after the latter's death because "one does not answer a lion after its death" (Git. 83a). Ḥiyya is called "the lion of the brotherhood" (Shab. 111a); a scholar, the son of a scholar, is called "a lion, son of a lion," while one of no such distinguished parentage is called "the lion the son of a jackal" (BM 84b); and Simeon b. Lakish expressed his admiration for the learning of Kahana, who had come to Ereẓ Israel from Babylon, in the words "a lion has come up from Babylon" (BK 117a). In one instance, however, it is used in a pejorative sense. Proselytes to Judaism who convert for selfish personal motives are called, in contradistinction to gerei ẓedek, righteous proselytes, "the converts of lions" (e.g., Kid. 75b), the allusion being to the Samaritans who adopted the worship of YHWH only because of their fear of lions (II Kings 17:25–28).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

Lewysohn, Zool, 68–70, no. 114; Y. Aharoni, Zikhronot Zo'olog Ivri, 2 (1946), 222; F.S. Bodenheimer, Animal and Man in Bible Lands (1960), passim. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: W. McCullough and F. Bodenheimer, in: IDB 3, 136–37; S. Ahituv, Handbook of Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions (1992).