What is the Leviathan?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

God created the great sea monsters, and all the living creatures of every kind that creep, which the waters brought forth in swarms, and all the winged birds of every kind. And God saw that this was good (Gen. 1:21).

Rashi comments:

According to the statement of the Agada (Bava Batra 74b) it means here the Leviathan and its mate which He created male and female. He, however, killed the female and preserved it in salt for the benefit of the righteous in the time to come (afterlife). For had they been permitted to be fruitful and to multiply, the world could not have endured because of them.  

King David said “God created he Leviathan to sport with” (Psalms 104:26). What is “sport” in relation to God? Sport refers to a mode of interaction. But as God created everything perfectly, His interaction with creation is unnecessary. All creations perfectly follow natural law without deviation…all but one: man. Man has free will and many times his deviation from God’s intended life of Torah requires God to “step in” and assist him, protect him, save him, or redirect him. 

If we understand the Leviathan as a truly physical beast, it makes no sense that the mate can exist in the world to come, which is not physical. Furthermore, why is it only the righteous who will enjoy the Leviathan? Evidently there is a direct relationship between righteousness and the Leviathan: one who is righteous will eventually “enjoy a meal of the Leviathan.” But as the Leviathan is not physical, what exactly are the righteous souls enjoying? 

This is a metaphor. It teaches that those who are righteous, who conquer their great powerful instincts (their “Leviathan”), will in the afterlife enjoy the benefits of conquering their instincts. Enjoying the Leviathan’s mate in the afterlife means they will enjoy the “counterpart” of their good actions: their ultimate reward. This is why it is only the righteous who enjoy that counterpart. 

The midrash also says that God prevented the “Leviathans’ reproduction,” which would have lead to ultimate destruction of the world. But this means that God initially created the instincts with great power. However, knowing their potential damage, what do we derive from God first making instinctual drives so powerful, and only subsequently diminishing their strength? 

This means it is preferable that man's instinctual drives are unlimited in power. For if man could direct them towards performing only the good, his good would also be unlimited. But Adam and Eve sinned, demanding God alter their psyches’ design to save them from further sin and destruction. “Separating the two Leviathans” means God diminished the strength of the instincts. This is alluded to when God made the snake crawl on its stomach, and also eat dirt (Gen. 3:14). As some interpret the snake to also represent Eve’s instincts (the snake never addressed Adam: Maimonides) God’s punishment of the snake refers to diminishing its power over Eve, and her offspring. The instincts now “moved slower” (crawling), and found less satisfaction in their desired object of sin (eating dirt). Separating the two Leviathans and punishing the snake are two different allegories, explaining the same phenomena of God diminishing human instinctual strength.

God making sport with the Leviathan refers to God interacting with man in his battle with his instincts. Many times God stepped into history to save man from destruction, save Jews and the Jewish nation. This interaction is called “sporting with the Leviathan”, or interacting with man’s great instinctual drives that lead him astray.  

We also appreciate the Agadic lesson derived from God’s creation of man’s instincts placed in Gen. 1:21, not addressing God’s creation of man, as instincts are not part of man’s essence, his soul. For in man’s ultimate state in the afterlife, the instincts no longer form part of him. The name Leviathan in Hebrew means to “accompany.” That is, the instincts accompany man, but are not essential to man’s true nature, his soul.