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    Lions in Jerusalem – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. Why is there a lion on the emblem of the city of Jerusalem?

    A. Lions were known in Biblical times. The lion had several Hebrew names, especially arieh. In Jacob’s final message to his sons (Gen. 49:9) he calls Judah gur arieh – “a lion’s whelp”.

    The Biblical lion was probably not the great African lion but a smaller variety, though it still symbolised strength, majesty and valour.

    Israel as a whole are compared to a lion (Num. 23, 24). Both David and Solomon are stated as having killed a lion (Judges 14, I Sam. 17). Lions were part of the decoration of the Temple (I Kings 7:29) and golden lions stood on either side of Solomon’s throne and on both sides of its steps (I Kings 10:19-20). A lions’ den plays a major role in the story of Daniel.

    In rabbinic tradition, God’s voice is powerful like the roar of a lion (Ber. 3a), and lions are introduced into many other stories and contexts. The Talmud calls it the king of beasts (Hag. 13b: is this the first time this phrase is used?). The Mishnah urges a person to be as brave as a lion to do the Divine will (Avot 5:20).

    In time the lion became a common motif in Jewish ceremonial art and is usually the only specific creature used in synagogue decoration; it very frequently flanks the Ark curtain, Torah covers and Torah breastplates. Clearly it represents dignity, majesty and strength. But is this the reason for its association with Jerusalem?

    This is a possibility, but it must be pointed out that the Biblical name Ariel used for Jerusalem several times in Isaiah 29 may mean, not “lion of God”, but “altar-hearth of God”.

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