Friday, February 6, 2009

saved by a plank


Rabban Gamliel saw a ship that was wrecked
and mourned for Aqiba who’d drowned,
he’s mistakenly thought, feeling very abject,
till he landed and—miracle!—found
that Aqiba was teaching, unharmed and quite well,
and he asked him: “How did you survive?”
He replied: “I hung onto a plank, though the swell
would cover my head, I’m alive.”
If they tell you you’re drowning, grab hold of a plank
hanging on till you land on a shore:
and do not expect a discredited bank
to lend you a hand any more.

Inspired by the current collapse of the banking system and a story that is reported in bYebamot 121a:

Rabban Gamliel said: Once, while traveling on shipboard, I saw another ship wrecked and grieved greatly for a disciple of the wise was on it. (Who was he? Rabbi Akiba) After I landed, there was Rabbi Aqiba, who sat down before me and held forth on decisions in halakhah. I asked him: Who brought you here? He said: A ship's plank came my way and as each wave came toward me I dipped my head under it. (B. Yebamot 121a)
It should be noted that in a different version of the story Rabbi Aqiba sees Rabi Meir drowning. Shamma Friedman discusses the duplication in “A Good Story Deserves retelling—unfolding of the Akiva Legend,” JSIJ 3 (2004): 55-93).

The story in bYebamot 121a suggested to Linda that R. Aqiba had street smarts. “Street smarts on the ocean?” I asked, and Linda responded by suggesting that the ocean was what in Beowulf is called hwæl-weġ, a kenning that means “whale-way.” According to Linda R. Aqiba may have been saved by a dolphin. This applies even more to Jonah. Which inspired another poem, “Saved by a Whale”.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 2/6/09


  1. While holding that plank think of the Jews,
    Stick your head under each wave.
    Keep all of us out of the news
    If not, things will just get more grave.

  2. One can't complain about being bored with this poem

  3. Wonderful way you bring in Talmud and taxes, planks and kerplonks. A poem to keep thinking about. I like the title too!