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The Leviathan and the Wild Bull

Adapted by Rabbi Yossi Marcus[1]


[Note: The bracketed comments are the explanatory notes of the translator.]

“This Liviyoson (Leviathan) You created with which to play…” (Psalms 104:26)

The Midrash Rabbah on our parsha describes a match that will take place in the Messianic era between the Liviyoson and the “wild bull,” known as the shor habar.

The Midrash describes how the bull will attack and kill the Liviyoson with its horns, while the Liviyoson will attack and kill the bull with its fins.

What is the meaning of all this?

[Our concern with an event that will occur in the future is twofold: Firstly, our knowledge of the events of the future lightens (macht gringer) the burden of exile. Secondly, it is a part of Torah, which is eternally relevant. So the prophecies regarding the future are relevant to our lives today (Liviyoson 5747).]


The Liviyoson and the bull refer to two types of tzadikim (saintly individuals). The first are the hidden type, who serve G-d through the realm of the spirit.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is of this group. For thirteen years he lived in a cave and was certainly unable to fulfill many mitzvos in their physical manifestation. He and his son subsisted on nothing more than carob and water, which were miraculously created for them. Obviously, then, he was not able to fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach or reciting kiddush over wine or using an Esrog or a Sukkah, etc.

[The Talmud (Shabbos 33b) relates that after endangering his life by criticizing the Romans, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, went into hiding. He hid in a cave for 13 years with his son Rabbi Elazar. A miracle occurred and a carob tree and stream of water were created outside their cave for their sustenance.] 

The Arizal, too, was on this level.

[In Maamorei Admur Hazaken (Maamorei Razal p. 145), the Alter Rebbe says that this type of tzadik includes: “…the Arzial and his colleagues in his generation, and the Baal Shem Tov and his colleagues in his generation. And so it is in each generation.”

He also compares these tzadikim to the Patriarchs, who fulfilled the entire Torah even before it was given to Israel at Sinai: “This certainly does not mean that they performed the mitzvos in a physical way. Rather, they achieved whatever is achieved through physical fulfillment of mitzvos with their spiritual meditations, etc., as is known regarding Yitzchak’s digging of wells (see Tauber’s The Inside Story, “Redigging the Wells of Love”) and Yaakov’s actions with the sticks.” (Leviyoson 5571)]

Their “spiritual” service also consists of outer body experiences such as described in connection with prophecy, or as Arizal said, “If I would expound for eighty years…”

[The Alter Rebbe apparently is referring to the following story: As the Arizal slept one Shabbos afternoon, his student Rabbi Avraham Halevi noticed him whispering. Rabbi Avraham bent down to hear what the Arizal was saying, and the Arizal awoke. Rabbi Avraham explained that he had wished to hear the words that his teacher was whispering. The Arizal said, “Whenever I sleep, my soul ascends heavenward through certain paths known to me. The angels bring my soul before Matatron, the Minister of Interior, who asks me which yeshiva I wish to attend. At the yeshiva, they transmit to me the secrets of the Torah that have never been revealed and were not known even in the days of the Tannaim [sages of the Mishnah].”

When Rabbi Avraham begged the Arizal to reveal just one secret to him, the Arizal laughed and replied, “I testify by heaven and earth: if I were to live eighty consecutive years, without exaggeration, and relate what I learned this time on the subject of Balaam’s donkey, I would not be able to say it all. So how can I reveal one of the secrets to you, since they are all inseparable….” (Shivchei HaAri, chapter 2.)]

These tzadikim are called “creatures of the sea.” Just as fish are completely enveloped and concealed by the sea so these tzadikim are fully enveloped in Divinity—they are of the world of concealment (alma d’isgalya). [They are beyond self-awareness and existentially null (bittul bimitzius) (see 5571 p. 41). On the difference between land and sea creatures see our essay on Beshalach.]

(There are actually three types of beings: 1) Fish; 2) Amphibians; and 3) Land animals. “Fish” are the angels, whose Divine service is entirely spiritual. “Amphibians,” who live both on land and sea, are the tzadikim such as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Arizal, whose Divine service was fulfilled in both the spiritual and physical realms. The “land animals” are the tzadikim whose focus is entirely upon the physical manifestation of the mitzvos. Gloss of the Tzemach Tzedek)

These tzadikim, the “creatures of the sea,” unite the worlds with the Infinite Light.

They are therefore called “Leviyoson,” which connotes “joining.” After Leah gives birth to hers and Jacob’s third child, she calls him Levi, since “now my husband will be joined (yilaveh) to me.”

[The union signified by Levi is one of great sublimity, since it comes after and is thus beyond the level of Reuven and Shimon, which connote “seeing” and “hearing” of Divinity respectively. See our essay on Vayechi. (Liviyoson 5747)]

And like the fish of the sea, who glide smoothly from one end to the other with one movement (mit ein shvim), so too these tzadikim traverse their spiritual paths with one, unswerving thrust. Theirs is a path free of gaps and inconsistencies. It is one and smooth.

They ascend very high yet without agitation (“hitlahavut”) and the “boiling of the blood.” They ascend with “cool blood” and calmly. This cannot be explained in words—how and what it is.

Wild Bull

The second type of tzadik is one who serves G-d in the revealed sense, within the physical realm. This tzadik fulfills mitzvos on the physical plane, such as the mitzvah of rejoicing on a festival, which is fulfilled through the eating of meat and drinking wine. Indeed the spiritual light of each festival is drawn forth through the fulfillment of the physical mitzvos associated with that festival—matzah on Pesach, Lulav on Sukkos, etc.

(During his stay in the cave, however, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai drew forth this light through spiritual acts.)

This tzadik is called shor habar (wild bull), which can also mean “purified bull.” In other words, this tzadik is involved with the physical—represented by the bull—which becomes purified through his Divine service. In contrast to the cool and tranquil service of the “Liviyoson tzadik,” this tzadik’s service is filled with fire and excitement.

Nevertheless, this tzadik’s service is a “small thing” in comparison with the wondrous path of the “Liviyoson tzadik.” The Liviyoson will therefore “slaughter,” i.e., raise up the shor habar. It will do this with its fins, since it is with its fins that the Liviyoson glides smoothly through the water. The fins therefore represent the propeller of the tzadik’s lofty ascent.

On the other hand, there is an advantage to the “shor habar tzadikim,” since it is they who fulfill the mission of making the physical world an abode for G-d. Thus the shor habar will “slaughter” the Liviyoson and elevate it as well—each one imbuing the other with the virtue that it lacks.

[The Liviyoson and shor habar are also present within the Divine service of each person: 1) Our efforts to “attach” ourselves to G-d (Liviyoson); 2) The elevation of the physical world (shor habar) (Liviyoson 5747).]  

[Adapted and summarized by Rabbi Yosef Marcus from Likutei Torah.]

[1] From a discourse of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, "the Alter Rebbe."

Rabbi Yossi Marcus is director of Chabad outreach activities in S. Mateo, California. He is also the editor of the Q&A database at AskMoses.com and is one of the translators at Kehot Publication Society.


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