Sunday, February 21, 2021

Encountering Leviathan

This morning, I had a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was reported that a young whale had washed up dead on a beach - an extremely rare event in Israel. I couldn't possibly miss the opportunity to see it, so off I went!


The whale was a fin whale, also known as a finback whale. This is the second-largest species of whale in the world, after the blue whale. Fin whales can reach ninety feet (27 meters) in length, and weigh up to around 110 tons. This one was a juvenile, at around fifty feet (17 meters) long and an estimated weight of only 25 tons. The cause of its death was unclear, but there has recently been terrible pollution off the coast of Israel, with a tar spill that has killed turtles and countless other wildlife. It was very sad that such a magnificent creature should have died at a young age.

I had hoped to be able to cut out one of its baleen plates, to complement the various whale parts that are on exhibit at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. Alas, the saw that I brought for the task just wasn't up to the job. The scientists there were also struggling with their tools as they tried to cut open the enormous carcass. Eventually they brought a generator and power tools, with which they were able to make progress, but by that point the stench was so overwhelming that I just couldn't bear to stay any longer. But I did manage to film some videos, which we will be editing and posting. (In the interim, we have a brief video clip on the museum's Facebook page.)

Whales are, of course, mentioned in Tanach. Barchi Nafshi, my favorite chapter of Tehillim, is a paean to the great wonder of the natural world, including animals such as hyraxes, ibex and storks. It includes the following account of the ocean:

 מָה רַבּוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ יְהוָה 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

As I explained in a post a few years ago, 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, discussed in my book Sacred Monsters), the leviathan of Psalms can straightforwardly be explained as the whale. 

Rashi, however, following an Aggadic portion of the Talmud, gives a different explanation. He explains it to mean not that Leviathan is playing in the sea, but rather 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 archaeozoological 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, with a small piece
of baleen, currently on display at
The Biblical Museum of Natural History
Although it is unlikely that the verse is speaking about whaling, we can certainly understand why Malbim would explain it that way. Malbim lived in the nineteenth century, when 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.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to see various parts of whales, along with a live colony of hyraxes and mounted specimens of the other animals in Barchi Nafshi, then come visit the Biblical Museum of Natural History - which just re-opened today! Due to Covid, tours must be booked in advance; write to office@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org to book your tour. Live online tours are still available for groups unable to physically visit; see www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org/live for details.

 

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22 comments:

  1. A paean to Hashem who creates and maintains the great wonder of the natural world. A paean to "nature" would nausiate David's soul.

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  2. Is Leviathan our version of the Kraken, an immense sea monster?

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    1. A bunch of ancient cultures had a deity slaying the sea monster. ACJA

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    2. The giant squid episode (Kraken) is probably more myth than fact. I don't think a Kraken ever attacked a ship in the 1800s.

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    3. There may have been sightings of whale-squid battles though. Probably very rare, regardless.

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  3. A breath of fresh air! I really enjoyed this essay. It's nice for a change. The ocean looks very nice in Israel and not at all like winter!

    I agree with the author. Malbim is probably incorrect about whaling, although it is an interesting and possible interpretation. I think the plain meaning of the text says what it says: G-d created the sea for whales to play in. I'll leave my comment with current societal issues. We need to stop pollution. Climate change is killing all the wheels. Save the whales.

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  4. From an Haaretz article: "Ancient Romans May Have Hunted Whales to Oblivion in the Mediterranean
    Maybe Jonah’s Leviathan meant whale after all: Gray and right whales used to calve in Mediterranean Sea, scientists deduce, after identifying whale bones in Roman salting factories."

    Share in Facebook

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  5. You translated "lesachek bo" to play "in it". "Bo" can also legitimately mean "with it". Hence, the midrashic explanation is actually quite literal and is rooted in the words themselves

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  6. I thought you would say Rav Hayim Kanievsky killed him

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  7. I love the Midrash that in the world to come Gd will serve the righteous a tasty dish: poached Leviathan.
    You know how this will go down: not very good.
    "Under whose hechsher is this restaurant?" the righteous will ask.
    "Umm....Gd is the mashgiach up here," the angel will reply, holding back his laughter as best as possible.
    "Yes, well....I'll have the fruit plate, then," they'll say.

    But seriously.... how is the Leviathan a kosher item?

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    1. Who said the leviathan doesn't have fins n scales!?

      More likely, though, as most midrashim go, it is not meant to be taken literally, but figuratively or allegorically or to teach a lesson. What that is in this case, is not for me to speculate

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    2. RNS identifies the Leviathan as a whale and whales aren't kosher. Unless He says it is!

      I heard a midrash say we enjoy a meal in heaven. Whatever it is, I agree with anonymous that midrash teaches lessons.

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    3. תניא ר' יוסי בן דורמסקית אומר לויתן דג טהור הוא שנאמר (איוב מא, ז) גאוה אפיקי מגנים (איוב מא, כב) תחתיו חדודי חרש אפיקי מגנים אלו קשקשים שבו תחתיו חדודי חרש אלו סנפירין שפורח בהן:
      חולין ס״ז ב-

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  8. RNS, Is there any place in the Torah or Chazal where the word Livyasan definitely does refers to a whale, or for that matter is there any other word in the Torah or Chazal which means whale?
    Thanks

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  9. Handy tip: on expeditions like this carry a Military Surplus gas mask. My Evolutionarily Biology prof studied cetaceans and gathered samples at all the beachings. Gas mask. Disposable coverall. Gloves. Shoe covers.dispose of them before going inside.

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  10. That smell must have been horrendous

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  11. That is sad, but such an amazing picture. Hard to believe how large it is. Can anyone get there, or do you need some sort of credentials?

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  12. RDNS i'm not sure I understand. "Malbim seeks to provide an entirely new explanation of this verse. But is it a plausible explanation...or is it anachronistic? ...it does not appear that this was done with the great whales in the Mediterranean in Biblical times. There is no archeological or archaeozoological evidence for ancient whaling in the Mediterranean"
    1.Anachronistic, why? Couldn't Dovid Hamelech have known through nevuah,ruach hakodesh, or people from foreign lands, that whaling existed?
    2. You leave out the fact that the Malbim is specifically not referring to the ocean around Eretz Yisrael, rather the polar regions: "ובתוכם ילכו אניות לים הקרח לצוד את הלויתן", yet you cite papers and make it seem the Malbim assumed there was whaling in the ocean surrounding Eretz Yisrael, why?
    3. The Malbim references Iyov 40:24-31 which describes whaling: Can he be taken by his eyes? Can his nose be pierced by hooks? Can you draw out Leviathan by a fishhook? Can you press down his tongue by a rope? Can you put a ring through his nose, Or pierce his jaw with a barb? Will he plead with you at length? Will he speak soft words to you? Will he make an agreement with you To be taken as your lifelong slave? Will you play with him like a bird, And tie him down for your girls? Shall traders traffic in him? Will he be divided up among merchants? Can you fill his skin with darts or his head with fish-spears? Iyov was written by Moshe Rabbeinu, is that also anachronistic?

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    1. These questions have merit. Here are some ideas to try to answer some of them:

      1&2) The Torah/Tanach, while valid for all time and meaningful even to our day, was still initially written for the people alive at that time (exceptions could be made for obvious End-of-Days sections though even those can be minimized). The people hearing, reading, and reciting Tehillim 104 need to know what it's talking about. Some vague future activity is irrelevant to them and therefore meaningless. Geography similarly: if it is not an activity that was local to Eretz Yisrael in some way, it would again be meaningless.

      3) I agree that this is a good question. (Side issue: Is it unanimous that Moshe wrote Iyov? I know there is a machlokes about when Iyov lived, or if he did exist at all - and so according to those opinions that he existed AFTER Moshe, who is considered the author of the book? Of course, that is irrelevant to the point that it certainly is still anachronistic to 18th century whaling.) But to offer an answer: Could it be talking about fishing and not whaling? I do not know what the Biblical word for "harpoon" would be. Piercing jaws with barbs and using hooks is standard fishing, no? One could argue that this passuk SUPPORTS the idea that there was no whaling around then since it incredulously offers the option of using an ordinary fishing hook to catch a livyasan instead of a team of men on a boat with spears.

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    2. 1&2) It would appear that the Malbim may not agree with this, as I mentioned in my question: the Malbim is specifically not referring to the ocean around Eretz Yisrael, rather the polar regions : "ובתוכם ילכו אניות לים הקרח לצוד את הלויתן" I am not sure why RDNS and yourself ignore this.
      Interestingly the Radak "bavorns" the issue: Levyasan- This is the giant fish spoken of in sefer Iyov regarding its strength and might, and he says this even though no man has seen it, since it is known from the pesukim (in Iyov).

      3) You write "I do not know what the Biblical word for "harpoon" would be."
      Maybe its the word we currently use צִלצָל as in הַֽתְמַלֵּ֣א בְשֻׂכּ֣וֹת עוֹר֑וֹ וּבְצִלְצַ֖ל דָּגִ֣ים רֹאשֽׁוֹ׃ a pasuk in Iyov 40:31 I quoted above.

      4) RDNS says the Malbim's pshat is not plausible since a paper: "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."
      This is where the approach you and I presume RDNS follow gets tricky "if it is not an activity that was local to Eretz Yisrael in some way, it would again be meaningless"
      The paper RDNS cites to invalidate the Malbim's pshat was published in 2016. Subsequently in 2018 two of its authors, Ana S. L. Rodrigues and Anne Charpentier, along with others published
      Forgotten Mediterranean calving grounds of grey and North Atlantic right whales: evidence from Roman archaeological records in which it states "The evidence that these two coastal and highly accessible species were present along the shores of the Roman Empire raises the hypothesis that they may have formed the basis of a forgotten whaling industry."

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  13. Speaking of stench, not so easy to get rid of the source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPuaSY0cMK8&ab_channel=KATUClassic

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