Sunday, June 24, 2018

Who is Playing with Leviathan?

The other day I came across a fascinating example of how historical context can shed light on rabbinic scholarship. And I'm pretty sure that nobody has ever noticed it before.

Barchi Nafshi, my favorite chapter of Tehillim, is a paean to the great wonder of the natural world, from the smallest creature to the largest. It includes the following account of the ocean:
 מָה רַבּוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ יְדֹוָד כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָה עָשִׂיתָ מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ קִנְיָנֶךָ: זֶה הַיָּם גָּדוֹל וּרְחַב יָדָיִם שָׁם רֶמֶשׂ וְאֵין מִסְפָּר חַיּוֹת קְטַנּוֹת עִם גְּדֹלוֹת: שָׁם אֳנִיּוֹת יְהַלֵּכוּן לִוְיָתָן זֶה יָצַרְתָּ לְשַׂחֶק בּוֹ: (תהילים קד:כד-כו) 
“How manifold are Your works, O God! In wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of Your creations. Here is this great and wide sea, where there are innumerable creeping things, creatures small with great. There go the ships; and Leviathan which You have made to play in it.” (Psalms 104:24-26) 
I photographed this humpback whale in Alaska
Now, there is actually some ambiguity regarding the meaning of this verse. The Hebrew phrase לְשַׂחֶק בּוֹ “to play in it,” can be translated in different ways. Who exactly is doing the playing? And what is Leviathan, anyway?

Simply speaking, the verse is referring refers to God having Leviathan to play in the sea. This is indeed how most of the commentaries explain it. And while Midrashic accounts of a titanic leviathan have been interpreted by some as referring to an actual creature of stupendous proportions, and by others as an allegorical concept (and this is one of the topics of the Maimonidean controversies), the leviathan of Psalms can straightforwardly be explained as the whale. Sperm whales, fin whales, and other species are found in the Mediterranean, while a blue whale was recently seen in Eilat, for the first time in recorded history!

Rashi, however, following an Aggadic portion of the Talmud, gives a different explanation. He explains it to mean that God created the Leviathan for Him to play with. Accordingly, it would mean that even the mighty Leviathan is nothing more than God’s plaything. (Furthermore, according to Rashi, the verse does not refer to whales, but rather to the singular titanic Leviathan, of which there is only one in the world.)

Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim (1809-1879), on the other hand, gives a third explanation. He states that it means that the aforementioned ships are playing with leviathan. Accordingly, it refers to whaling ships engaged in the "sport" of hunting whales.

It is fascinating that Malbim seeks to provide an entirely new explanation of this verse. But is it a plausible explanation of what the Psalmist could have been referring to, or is it anachronistic? Although tribal peoples, with no easy sources of food, have hunted whales for millennia, it does not appear that this was done with the great whales in the Mediterranean in Biblical times. There is no archeological or archeozoological evidence for ancient whaling in the Mediterranean, although this is a case where absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. A recent paper that performs an initial exploration of this topic, "Ancient Whale Exploitation in the Mediterranean," further suggests that if the Mediterranean whale community in antiquity was similar to that of today - i.e., species that only live in deep water - "it is unlikely that organized forms of whaling would have developed, as the presence of whales close to the coastline would have been rare and unpredictable."

ZooRabbi Junior, a.k.a. Batman, with a
small piece of baleen, currently on display at
The Biblical Museum of Natural History
Given the unlikelihood that the verse is speaking about whaling, why would Malbim explain it that way? The answer is that Malbim lived in the nineteenth century. In the nineteenth century, ships and whaling techniques had developed to the stage where it was viable to hunt whales on the high seas of the Atlantic. And there was enormous demand for whale oil, which was used for lamps, along with baleen (whalebone) which was used for everything from buggy whips to corsets. In Malbim’s lifetime, whaling was a very big business. Thus, it makes perfect sense that Malbim would explain the verse in this way.

I am available in NY/NJ as scholar-in-residence for Shabbos of October 13th (parashas Noach!) and October 20, as well as for weekday presentations between the two. If you're interested, please contact me via email, (I am also available on the West Coast for Shabbos of August 11th.)


  1. Yonah ben ShlomoJune 25, 2018 at 5:21 AM

    You and the Malbim both take the fun out of this verse, that's for sure! Yes it is true that "bo" most likely refers to the ocean (yam hagadol), and that one can alternatively refer to the playing of the ships with the whales, through hunting. But best of all is what Chazal say, and what we may adapt with the Malbim: that Hashem and we alike in our ships both play with the whales. Not in hunting them, chas v'shalom -- as you know, the sperm whale was hunted to extinction-- but rather in engaging in the "game" that all students and lovers of G-d's Creation must engage in: in chasing and getting a glimpse and then in losing sight of some small piece of the natural kingdom. This too is a sort of hunting, but it is rarely violent! As R. Natan knows well from safaris and from the rainforest, it takes great patience to track down animals in their natural habitat -- and the same goes for sessile creatures like plants and fungi, due to a million mysteries of their preferred habitats and seasonal blooms.

    One could move from this mode of ours, our natural שחוק, to God's שחוק, and say that just as we revel in the hunt for encountering and understanding these natural beings, so too God, having endowed them with independent being, enjoys playing the game of "hunting them" as their genetic programming manifests in natural history, in evolution over diverse landscapes, and in various ecosystems including those with humans.

    1. Fortunately, the sperm whale is *not* extinct- it came close and it's still vulnerable, but it's still out there. Few if any whales were (yet) hunted to extinction, at least in modern times, not for lack of trying, unfortunately.

      What saved the whales was not some environmental "save the whales" campaign but something far more prosaic and unintentional: The discovery and use of petroleum products. So next time you hear that fossil fuels are bad for the environment, well, yes, they may be, but they actually helped prevent another catastophe. Hopefully the next solution to out problems will have less downsides, but that's usually the way it is.

    2. One minor point, sperm whales are not extinct...

    3. Extinction of sperm whales is not a positive thing. However it is hardly a catastrophe on a cosmic scale.

    4. עד ולא עד בכלל :-)

    5. Yonah ben ShlomoJune 26, 2018 at 7:18 AM

      Thanks for the limmud zchus, Raymond. If only I could find more people to treat me like a Tanna and assume everything I write is correct! ;)

    6. Not even the destruction of our entire galaxy would be a "catastophe on a cosmic scale." But the extinction of whales would certainly be a catastophe for *them,* would probably have far-reaching effects on the oceanic ecosystem, and would be a tragedy by any standard.

  2. Rav SR Hirsch interprets the Leviathan allegorically -it is not an actual sea creature at all. From its root 'lvi' he writes that it is symbolic of the messianic time when all nations will be united. A true United Nations.

  3. Your first sentence is very playful. שיחקת בו. Yishar Koach.

  4. Rabbi Slifkin, I fear this post is an example of something that happens all too often on this blog, namely taking valid points of Rationalism a stage or two too far.

    It is one thing to say of the Rishonim that they lacked a chareidi-ideology-inspired kind of divine inspiration that would allow them to know things about the natural world that they had never seen (such as the size of an olive), and perhaps one could even say such things about the sages of the Talmud (eg. regarding the sun's path at night), although this is more debatable. But it is another kettle of fish entirely to say the same of Dovid Hamelech!

    Surely you agree that the books of the Bible are divinely inspired prophecy, and as such your constant mention of the Mediterranean is beside the point. Barchi Nafshi is not necessarily confined to the Middle East, but is a divinely inspired poem praising Hashem for the various creations and their purposes that He created throughout the entire world. You yourself wrote that people have been hunting whales for millennia (see also the wikipedia article on the history of whaling), and as such the Malbim is perfectly entitled to explain the verse as pertaining to the sport of whaling even though Dovid Hamelech's knowledge of it could not have been naturally acquired.

    1. You are mistaken. There is every reason to believe that the Neviim only spoke about the animals that they were familiar with. In fact Rambam says that Yechezkel had scientific errors in his vision because he perceived it within the framework of his own knowledge of the natural world. And you won't find penguins or kangaroos in Tanach.

    2. Tehillim is in Ketuvim and hence was not written with nevuah but with ruach hakodesh.

      And even books written with nevuah- and even the Torah itself- are written for their audience, that is, Jewish people in Israel 3,000 years ago.

  5. Romans practiced whale fishing.


    Mediterranean (Western) is mentioned too.

  6. There are 20 million video clips of whales literally playing in their big tub. Why complicate things?!?!

  7. The great leviathan is Hashem’s own display

    That His wonderful world has built-in time to play

    G-d says “Stop! Take a moment to look all around

    Just follow My lead, what I show you is sound.”

    Don’t be dull, be alive

    Time for play makes you thrive

    So much good to enjoy

    So much joy to employ

    Use time well , weighty matters will fill up your day

    Leviathan says “Just save time to come out and play”

  8. In the Malbim’s lifetime, whaling was a business for Jews too! Indeed, whaling is the use case that reinvigorated discussions of the halachic implications of the international dateline and midnight sun, as dealt with by renown 19th century rabbis such as Tiferes Yisrael (see commentary at end of Berachos) and Ben Ish Chai (Teshuvos Rav Pa’alim – Sod Yesharim 2:4). Given its consideration by Malbim’s contemporaries, it’s not entirely surprising that this was the most immediate p’shat for a person who frequently infused his commentary with 19th century scientific and other thinking.

  9. Rashi is pretty close to the likely truth on this one. In Ancient Near East literature Leviathan type creature is in battle with one god or another who then vanquishes it. So to does the 'Lord'. ACJA

  10. I have a pretty rudimentary understanding of Hebrew, so please let me apologize in advance.

    Doesn't Hebrew distinguish quite strongly between "to play (alone)" and "to play (with others)"?

    לְשַׂחֶק - to play alone
    משַׂחֶק - to play with others

  11. "Unlike the other whale species still present in the Mediterranean today (e.g. fin whales, sperm whales), calving and/or migrating right whales and grey whales would have been found reliably close to the shore at predictable seasons, and could thus have formed the basis of a coastal whaling industry"

  12. Barchi Nafshi, my favorite chapter of Tehillim

    I was using the Brinbaum siddur this Rosh Chodesh. He comments "It has been declared that it is worthwhile studying the Hebrew language for 10 years in order to read Psalm 104 in the original". He doesn't say who declared it, but a quick Google says that it was the Johann Gottfried Herder.


  14. See Rashi to Iyov 40:30, sure sounds like whaling.

  15. If you want a Malbim incorporating modernity, see Iyov 41:10. You won't find Rishonim mentioning electricity.


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