Talmud pages

Yoma 38

Big fish.

When Herod rebuilt the Second Temple — first by creating a retaining wall so that he could extend the top of the mountain on which the Temple stood into a platform of some 37 acres — what he constructed was extraordinary: a complex to rival the storied structures of Rome. But the imposing marble edifice was not the only thing remarkable about the Temple; wealthy individuals contributed any number of beautiful and practical objects as the Talmud describes: golden handles for vessels, a basin with twelve spigots so that priests could purify their hands and feet in groups, a bespoke mechanism for sinking the purifying basin into water (so it would remain pure), and a golden chandelier that caught the early morning light and threw sparks everywhere, letting those present know it was time to recite Shema.

But perhaps the most storied gift of all came from a man named Nicanor. According to legend, as recorded in the Tosefta (a collection of rabbinic teachings that parallels the Mishnah) and retold on today’s daf, he contributed two extraordinary doors for one of the Temple’s eastern gates:

When Nicanor went to bring copper doors for the eastern gate of the Temple from Alexandria in Egypt (famous for its craftsmanship) on his return a storm arose in the sea and threatened to drown him. The ship’s passengers took one of the doors and cast it into the sea. And still the sea did not rest from its rage.

⁦They sought to cast the other door into the sea, but Nicanor stood and embraced it and said to them: Cast me into the sea with it! Immediately, the sea rested from its rage. Thereafter, he regretted the fate of the other door that he allowed them to cast into the sea. 

When they arrived at the port of Akko, the door that was thrown into the sea was found poking out under the sides of the ship. And some say a sea creature swallowed it and spewed it onto the land.

This story has unmistakable echoes of another that we read on Yom Kippur afternoon: the Book of Jonah. Jonah the prophet is sent by God ⁦to proclaim judgement on the evil city of Nineveh. Rather than following God’s instructions, Jonah flees on a ship headed in the opposite direction. God sends a storm, threatening the ship and when it’s discovered that Jonah is responsible for the danger, he reluctantly asks his shipmates to throw him overboard to appease God and save the ship. Jonah is swallowed by a big fish that eventually spits him up on the shore. Ultimately, he fulfills his task, the people of Nineveh repent and the city is saved.

Unlike Jonah, Nicanor boards a ship in service of God. But like Jonah, when a storm threatens the ship, Nicanor asks to be tossed into the sea. Nicanor’s declaration saves both the ship and, ultimately, the doors. Miraculously, when they arrive, the other door is discovered bobbing in the water next to the ship — either because it was trapped under the hull of the boat or, in Jonah-like fashion, because it was scooped from the sea by a big fish and spit out on the shore.

The story of the doors and their miraculous passage gives them special status. According to the Talmud, when all the gates in the Temple were refurbished in gold, the copper doors of Nicanor’s gate were preserved. While some say this was because their copper was brightly-colored and high quality, others hold to the more elaborate fish tale. And, let’s be honest, the second reason is a much better one. If you were a Temple tour guide, which one would you tell the tourists?

Tim Burton’s marvelous film Big Fish(how appropriate is that name for today’s story?) tells the story of a son coming to terms with the truth  embedded in his father’s outlandish fish tales. It also has a lot to say about confronting the canonical stories of an inherited tradition. As one of the characters, Ed Bloom, Sr., explains: “Most [people], they’ll tell you a story straight through. It won’t be complicated, but it won’t be interesting either.”

Read all of Yoma 38 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 19th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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