The Gemara on today’s daf (=page) describes a lion of mythical proportions – the lion of Be-Ilai’i – and continues by relating the following story.
The Emperor once said to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah, ‘Your God is likened to a lion, for it is written:
‘The lion hath roared, who will not fear? The Lord God hath spoken, who can but prophesy?’ (Amos 3:8). But what is the greatness of this? A horseman can kill the lion’! He replied: ‘He has not been likened to the ordinary lion, but to the lion of Be-Ilai’i!’ ‘I desire’, said the Emperor, ‘that you show it to me’. He replied: ‘You cannot behold it.’ ‘Indeed,’ said the Emperor, ‘I will see it.’ Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah prayed and the lion set out from its place. When it was four hundred parasangs distant it roared once, and all pregnant women miscarried and the walls of Rome fell. When it was three hundred parasangs distant it roared again and all the molars and incisors of man fell out; even the Emperor himself fell from his throne to the ground. ‘I beseech you,’ he implored, ‘pray that it return to its place.’ He prayed and it returned to its place.
In his Torat Hayyim, Rabbi Avraham Hayyim Schor suggests that this story, as well as the ones that follow it in the Gemara, points to suggestions made by the Roman Emperor that biblical verses show that God is limited in a variety of different ways. The Maharal mi-Prague argues that the Emperor believed that God’s power is connected with other forces of the world and that He is only one of the forces involved, as indicated by the verses that compare Him to a lion and so forth. The awe and fear that struck the Emperor clarified to him that, in fact, God transcends all boundaries and limitations. The Maharal continues by clarifying that the story told above – as well as similar stories found in the followingaggadot – are not to be understood literally. Rather, Rabbi Yehoshua’s arguments were so well illustrated and expressed that it opened the Emperor’s mind to the realization that his comprehension of God was undeveloped and limited.