Psalms 104, Barchi Nafshi, is a hymn to the great variety 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 creatures. So 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)
While Midrashic accounts of a titanic leviathan have been interpreted by many as an allegorical concept, the leviathan of Psalms is the whale. Sperm whales, fin whales, and other species are found in the Mediterranean, while a blue whale was recently seen in Eilat. Fin whales can reach eighty-five feet in length, while blue whales can reach a hundred feet and two hundred tons!
If we look at the verse, there is actually some ambiguity regarding its meaning. The Hebrew phrase לְשַׂחֶק בּוֹ “to play in it, ” can be translated in different ways. It could be referring to God having created Leviathan to play in the sea. Alternately, it could 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.
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, and that it refers to whaling ships engaged in the hunting of whales. While a fascinating explanation of the verse, this does not seem likely; although tribal people have hunted whales for millennia, it does not appear that this was done with the great whales in the Mediterranean in Biblical times. However, in Malbim’s lifetime, whaling was a very big business – there was enormous demand for whale oil, which was used for lamps. Thus, it makes sense that Malbim would explain the verse in this way.
On exhibit at the Biblical Museum of Natural History is a baleen plate from a whale. This extraordinary organ is one of the several hundred baleen plates that the great whales have in their mouths, which can measure up to fourteen feet in length, and which they use to sift out plankton from the water. It was acquired in Alaska from a native Alaskan—the only people who are legally allowed to hunt whales.