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The Gemara says: Rabba bar bar Chana recounted: "One time, we were traveling by ship, and we saw a giant fish with a type of parasite (kilbis) in its nostrils. The sea cast the fish ashore, and it destroyed sixty towns, provided fresh fish meat for another sixty towns, provided salted fish meat for yet another sixty towns, and 300 barrels of oil were filled from just one of its eyes. When we returned twelve months later, we saw that they were crafting beams from its skeleton, and they began to rebuild those destroyed towns." (Bava Basra 73b)

What exactly is the meaning of this midrash and what does each number symbolize?

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  • judaism.stackexchange.com/q/100032/6592
    – shmosel
    Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 4:14
  • Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz has described Rabba bar bar Chana as "The Jewish Paul Bunyan." And if I recall correctly, a large section of The Juggler and the King goes through the Vilna Gaon's explanation of the Rabba bar bar Chana tales. (Not an answer, but at least a reference ...)
    – Shalom
    Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 7:03

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Artscroll brings in an explanation from Olelos Efrayim (§547)

The "ship" is the person in his passage through this world (as above, 73a note 21 (Ch. 51). Rabbah states that during his sojourn in this world he took note of the effect the death of tzaddikim had on people. Ecclesiastes compares the death of a person to a fish being caught, as it is written (Ecclesiastes 9:12): For a man does not even know his hour; like fish caught in a bad net. Thus, the death of the fish in our story represents the death of a person.

God is very particular with righteous people; they sometimes die on account of a very small misdeed. A sin contaminates a person and is therefore compared to a creeping thing which is a source of contamination (see Leviticus 11:43). Thus, Rabbah said that a small creeping thing settled in the nostrils of the tzaddik and took away from him the breath of life.

How do people react to the death of a righteous person? There are three classes of people. The first class reacts with extreme abstinence. They see that even the righteous die on account of a minor sin and they therefore decide to live a life of self-denial and abstain from all worldly activities. Their lives are thereby devastated. That is not the way God intended the world. They are the cities that are destroyed by the dead fish.

The second class reacts just the opposite way. Seeing that even the righteous perish they perceive death as the ultimate end of all activity and disregard the after-life. They therefore say to themselves: For the time being let us eat and drink and make merry, for tomorrow we will die (see Isaiah 22:13). Death teaches them to indulge in worldly pleasures. They are the cities that eat from the dead fish.

The third class adopts a sensible attitude. Death teaches them that one has to collect as many merits as possible while still alive so that their reward should be preserved for the next world. They are the cities that salt the dead fish to preserve it for later.

The barrels of oil are an allusion to the reward of the World to Come, as the Gemara (Taanis 25a) relates that R' Elazar ben Pedas dreamt of rivers of balsam oil which represented his reward in the World to Come. In our story, the oil came from the pupil of one eye, meaning that the reward is a result of God's surveillance, as it is written (Psalms 33:18): Behold God's eye is on those who fear Him.

[A year later, Rabbah saw them rebuilding the destroyed cities. The effects of even the most traumatic experiences wear off with time. According to the Gemara (Berachos 58b) a person forgets a deceased one after twelve months. Thus, in our story, even those who were most moved by the death of the fish, to the extent that their lives were shattered, could be seen a year later rebuilding their lives, totally oblivious to the former events.]

This story teaches that upon the death of a righteous person, one should be stirred to performance of mitzvos with extra zeal. Furthermore, one should be aware of the fact that the inspiration derived from any event wears off with time.

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