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Leviathan & the Seven Serpents

‘Destruction of Leviathan’ by Gustav Doré

In this week’s parasha, Va’era, we read about Moses’ first confrontation with Pharaoh and the famous battle of their serpentine staffs. Interestingly, in last week’s parasha when Moses’ staff first turned into a serpent (Exodus 4:3), the word used was nachash, while this time it says tanin (7:9-10)! The former term certainly means a “snake”, but the latter is more general and can be any serpent, reptile, or even crocodile. Mystical texts see this as an allusion to the greatest of the taninim, created by God on the Fifth Day of Creation, the great sea dragon called Leviathan. The Zohar (II, 27b) comments here that the Leviathan was red like a rose, with iron-like scales, wing-like fins, a powerfully-thrashing tail, and fire coming out of its mouth. It has long migrations in the deep seas lasting seventy years.

Commenting on the words hataninim hagedolim, “the great sea monsters”, in Genesis 1:21, Rashi says that God originally created a pair of Leviathans, but they were so terrible that He slew the female so that the couple wouldn’t reproduce. God then “salted” its flesh and preserved it for the righteous in the World to Come, who are said to enjoy it at the “Feast of Leviathan” in the End of Days. Rashi is quoting the Talmud here (Bava Batra 74b-75a), which adds that God will make a sukkah for the tzadikim from the skin of the Leviathan. The leftover skin will be draped over “the walls of Jerusalem” and will shine and glow to wow the entire world. Perhaps that means the Kotel will have a miraculous new look in the near future, which is quite fitting since it will no longer be a “wailing” wall.

We read here in the Talmud that God castrated the male Leviathan, too, and provides a Scriptural source for it all in Isaiah 27:1, that “He will slay the Serpent that is in the sea…” The Sages ask: why did God slay the female and not the male? One answer is that the female could have still laid eggs without the male. Indeed, we know scientifically that there is a phenomenon called parthenogenesis where female fish are able to reproduce even without fertilization by a male. The Talmud then gives another answer based on Psalms 104:26, which says “There is Leviathan, whom You have formed to sport with.” God created the Leviathan just to “sport with”, and it wouldn’t be appropriate to sport with a female Leviathan, so he left the male only. (It seems gender segregation in sports is not a new issue!)

There is a way to interpret all of this metaphorically, too, and the Talmud goes on to say that the Jordan River flows into the “mouth of Leviathan”, while the ancient Seder Rabbah d’Beresheet says the entire planet “rests” on one of the fins of Leviathan. Even the Zohar has an interesting interpretation of the taninim gedolim of Creation, saying they are actually referring to the “Seventy Princes”, the Heavenly angels overseeing the seventy nations of the world. Leviathan is chief among them. From other sources, we learn that the chief of all the Seventy Princes is the angel Metatron (ie. Enoch), so we find here a link between the great Metatron and Leviathan. (This is further appropriate because the earliest known reference to a “Feast of Leviathan” is actually the apocryphal Book of Enoch!)

Mystical texts say the spirit of Metatron is found within Mashiach (see, for instance, Kol haTor), and Mashiach is destined to slay the remaining Leviathan at the End of Days, ushering in the final Kingdom of God on Earth. This, too, might be a metaphor for Mashiach subduing all seventy nations and unifying them under one God, as we read in Zechariah 14:9 that “Hashem shall be king over the entire Earth; on that day Hashem will be one and His name will be one.” In fact, the numerical value of “Leviathan” (לויתן) is 496, equal to Malkhut (מלכות), “Kingdom”. Leviathan thus corresponds to the last of the Sefirot. (We explored in the past how the changing astronomical constellations in the sky above us are shifting now to reveal this very process.) Intriguingly, we find six other terms for serpents throughout the Tanakh, and they neatly parallel the six other “lower” Sefirot from Chessed to Yesod.

The Seven (Eight?) Serpents

The most common term for a serpent is, of course, nachash. This snake corresponds to the central Sefirah of Tiferet. Tiferet is the spiritual root of all Israel, and of Mashiach in particular. This is another reason why the values of nachash (נחש) and “Mashiach” (משיח) are equal, both being 358. When Jacob blessed his son Dan, he saw a vision of Mashiach and said “I await Your salvation, Hashem!” (Genesis 49:18) Before that, Jacob fittingly described Mashiach (while seemingly speaking of Dan) as a nachash ‘alei derekh, a “snake upon the road”.

He then used another serpentine term, saying that Mashiach should also be a shfifon ‘alei orach, typically translated as a “viper upon the path”. The Maharal (Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague, c. 1512-1609) in Gur Aryeh connects this mysterious term with several roots, including the humbling shofef, as well as neshef, meaning an “exhale” or a “relaxation” or even a happy gathering of some sort. The shfifon (שפיפן) has positive energy, and corresponds to the loving Sefirah of Chessed. Jacob was possibly alluding to Mashiach’s role to bring all of Israel together and reconnect them spiritually through various “paths”.

On the opposite side of the Sefirotic tree we have the fiery and judging Gevurah. This corresponds to the Torah’s saraph (שרף), a “burning” venomous snake that God used to punish the people in the Wilderness for their rebelliousness (Numbers 21). To heal the people, Moses then made a nachash nechoshet, a copper serpentine rod. Now we can understand why it had to be specifically a nachash because, as we saw above, that one corresponds to Tiferet, which is said to be the source of healing and shares a root with refuah!  Mashiach, too, is said to carry a serpentine staff. In fact, the Midrash and Zohar state that a woman called “Heftzibah” will bring it to him, finding it somewhere in Tiberias where Eliyahu hid it. She is also known as Mevaseret Tzion, the “Herald of Zion”, as per Isaiah 40:9 (see Sefer Zerubbabel and Zohar III, 173b).

Next, we have the “twin” Sefirot of Netzach and Hod, corresponding to the legs. They are always referred to as being the source of prophecy. In Psalm 91 we read “You will tread on lion cubs and phethen…” The phethen (פתן) is none other than the python. It is worth noting that in ancient Greece, the python was associated with prophecy, and their prophetic Oracle at Delphi was called Pythia. In the famous messianic prophecy of Isaiah, we read of another serpent paralleling the python: “A babe shall play over the hole of a phethen, and an infant pass its hand over the den of a tzif’oni.” (11:8) The word used for a “den” here is me’urat, which can be read as m’orat, ie. “from the light [or fire] of the tzif’oni”. The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush Wisser, 1809-1879) reads it this way, saying the “fiery” poison of the tzif’oni (צפעוני) will no longer harm a child in the Messianic Age. This gives us a clue that the tzif’oni corresponds to Hod, lying beneath the fiery Sefirah of Gevurah, and tempering its judgement. More significantly, we can learn from this Isaiah verse that in the Messianic Age, even a child will be able to connect to Netzach and Hod and attain the light of prophecy.

The 72 Names of God (For the origin of these Names, see here.)

Finally, the last word for a serpent in Tanakh is ef’eh (אפעה), as we read in the Book of Job that “He sucks the head of a viper; the tongue of the ef’eh kills him.” (20:16) This one parallels the Sefirah of Yesod, the domain of sexual purity. In fact, the Kabbalists teach that of the 72 Names of God, the one that links to Yesod and through which one can atone for sexual sins is חב״ו. In the Amidah, there is a kavanah to insert during the kibbutz galuyot blessing to purify one of wasted seed and other sexual issues and it quotes a well-known phrase chayil bala’a vayakienu, mibitno yorishenu El, “The riches that he swallowed he vomits; God empties it out of his innards.” The letters of the first three words (חַיִל בָּלַע וַיְקִאֶנּוּ מִבִּטְנוֹ יֹרִשֶׁנּוּ אֵל) spell חב״ו. And where does this powerful verse come from? The preceding one in Job! (20:15) Thus, we have a clear Scriptural link between the ef’eh and Yesod.

Text of the blessing, with kavanah, both highlighting the חב״ו name.

And what of the Mochin, the upper three Sefirot? Perhaps we can link them to serpentine terms outside of Scripture. For instance, there’s the Teli (תלי) of Sefer Yetzirah (6:1-2), typically understood as the dragon constellation Draco. Recall that Sefer Yetzirah is an exposition of the Lamed-Bet Netivot Chokhmah, 32 Paths of Wisdom, so the Teli is directly linked to the Sefirah of Chokhmah. Then there’s the Talmud’s Aramaic hiviya (חויא), the root of which is said to come from Eve (חוה), and her encounter with the Snake. This would parallel the “motherly” Sefirah of Binah (also called Ima). And Keter on top, the origin of all the others, would be the generic term Tanin (תנין) with which we started, referring to any of the serpents below and often used interchangeably with them, as in this week’s parasha. Altogether, we have the following array of links between mystical Sefirot and mystical serpents:

Mashiach’s Ancestry

In this week’s parasha, Vayechi, we read how Jacob gives a final blessing to his children before his passing. In concluding Dan’s blessing, Jacob says that he is eagerly awaiting God’s salvation, liyeshuatkha kiviti Hashem (Genesis 49:18). What is this referring to? We would think that the salvation will come through Judah, progenitor of David and Mashiach, not through Dan! Indeed, when Jacob blesses Judah (49:10), he says that the royal scepter will remain in his hands all the way until the coming of Shiloh, traditionally interpreted as a name for Mashiach.

On Dan’s blessing, Rashi comments that Jacob foresaw the rise of Samson—from the tribe of Dan—and was praying that Samson would be successful. In fact, as we’ve discussed before, Samson was the potential Mashiach of his generation. (This is first brought down in the Midrash, Beresheet Rabbah 98:14.) Upon closer examination, there is actually a profound connection between the tribes of Judah and Dan.

Our Sages taught that Judah was the most illustrious of the tribes, while Dan was the lowliest. In the Wilderness, the tribe of Judah led the way, while Dan was at the back of the camp. Dan was tasked with being the “lost and found”, and picking up all the things left behind by the other tribes ahead of them. This brought them tremendous merit. On a mystical level, Dan’s role is really symbolic of our mission in “finding” and restoring the lost sparks of Creation to rectify the cosmos. Although people saw Judah as the greatest and Dan as the lowliest, God saw them both as equal, and declared that He will bring representatives from the two together to build His house (Shemot Rabbah 40:4).

As such, God chose Betzalel from the tribe of Judah, and Oholiav from the tribe of Dan to build the Mishkan. The same happened with the Temple in Jerusalem, built by King Solomon from the tribe of Judah, by using resources and labour from King Hiram, whose mother was from the tribe of Dan! (Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tisa 13) And finally, in the same vein, Mashiach will come from the tribe of Judah paternally, but from the tribe of Dan through his maternal line. (Interestingly, it is possible that King David himself had this lineage, since some hold that his mother, Nitzevet bat Ada’el, was from the tribe of Dan, too.) The root of Yehudah is lehodot, to “thank” and be “grateful”, which is partly an aspect of Chessed, the right pole of “kindness”. The root of Dan is din, “judgement”, representing Gevurah, the left side of “severity”. It is fitting that we need both aspects, right and left, in balance to bring about rectification in the universe. Mashiach is an embodiment of that balance.

Jerusalem’s Coat of Arms

Another Midrash ties this to the reason why both Judah and Dan are described in the Torah as gur aryeh, a “lion cub”, the lion being the symbol of David and of Jerusalem. In Jacob’s finally blessing in this week’s parasha, it is Judah who is called gur aryeh, but in Moses’ final blessing (Deuteronomy 33), it is Dan who is the gur aryeh. The Midrash concludes that Mashiach will come from these two tribes, “his father from Judah and his mother from Dan” (Yalkut Shimoni I, 160). There is also an allusion to it in last week’s parasha, where we read the names of the 70 members of Jacob’s family that came down to Egypt. The only progeny of Dan is Chushim (חשים), an exact anagram of “Mashiach” (משיח)! According to a well-known tradition, it was Chushim who finally put an end to Esau, and so too will Mashiach put an end to the oppression of Edom.

While Dan is called a “lion” by Moses, in this week’s parasha he is called a “snake” by Jacob. This is because the lion was the symbol of the Davidic dynasty, but more specifically, the symbol of Mashiach himself is a snake (as explored in depth here). The famous gematria of “snake” (נחש) is equal to “Mashiach” (משיח), both being 358. This really goes all the way back to Eden, where the Serpent caused man’s downfall, and so it will be the “serpentine” Mashiach who reverses that event. In Kabbalistic sources, this is the meaning of Isaiah’s description of the great final battle between the nachash bariach and the nachash ‘akalaton, the “straight serpent” and the “twisted serpent” (Isaiah 27:1). The former is Mashiach, and the latter is the embodiment of evil that will be destroyed at the End of Days.

Mashiach’s Complex Lineage

When it comes to the specific lineage of Mashiach, we know that he is a direct descendant of King David, but do we have more exact information about his lineage? The pre-Davidic lineage is somewhat clear. It begins with Abraham, from whom there are 14 generations up to David (alluded to by the value of “David”, דוד, being 14!) The key figures in between are Judah, Peretz, and Boaz. Meanwhile, Abraham’s nephew Lot plays a big role, too. Following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot ended up being seduced by his own daughters—who assumed the whole world was destroyed and they had to repopulate the planet—giving birth to Moab and Ben-Ammi, the progenitors of the Moabite and Ammonite nations. From Moab came forth the princess Ruth, wife of Boaz and great-grandmother of King David. From Ammon came Na’amah, wife of King Solomon and mother of Rehoboam, who continued the Davidic dynasty in its third generation.

While we would assume that Mashiach is a direct descendant of David through his son Solomon, there is actually another opinion. The Zohar (III, 173b), for instance, notes that Mashiach might actually come not from Solomon, but from David and Batsheva’s third son, Nathan. (It appears that the Christians wanted to satisfy both rabbinic opinions when providing two different, contradictory genealogies for Jesus in the New Testament: one going through Solomon and one going through Nathan! The irony, of course, is that Christians think Jesus is the literal son of God, so what use is a human lineage anyway?) The dilemma gets more puzzling:

The Zohar says Nathan’s wife was called Heftzibah, and their son was Menachem ben Amiel, an epithet for Mashiach. The problem is that we also know King Hezekiah’s wife was named Heftzibah. Hezekiah was the most righteous king since his forefather David, and is certainly a progenitor in the line of Mashiach. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b) states that Hezekiah himself should have been Mashiach, and despite being totally righteous, had one missing quality (for more, see ‘Who is Mashiach?’). The son of Hezekiah and Heftzibah was Menashe, Judah’s longest-serving monarch. Menashe had the potential to be Mashiach, too (and did merit the longest royal reign) but fell to idolatry and wickedness. King Menashe was yet another failed messiah. Some have argued that Menachem ben Amiel and Menashe must be referring to the same person (at least spiritually). Yet Menashe comes from Solomon, and Menachem is supposed to come from Nathan. How do we solve this dilemma?

Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer comes in and, at first glance, complicates the problem further. It states (in Ch. 19) that Menachem ben Amiel is a descendant of Joseph, so he is more likely Mashiach ben Yosef, not Mashiach ben David. We might therefore conclude two things: That both Mashiach ben David and Mashiach ben Yosef are actually descendants of King David, the former through Solomon and the latter through Nathan. And, perhaps, just as the former is maternally descended from the tribe of Dan, the latter is maternally descended from the tribe of Joseph. (Maybe Heftzibah the wife of Nathan was a descendant of Joseph?)

The reality is that a person can be a direct descendant of multiple figures, especially after so many generations and so many marriages in between. Today, all Jews are Yehudim, and by default “Judeans”—even Kohanim and Levi’im are Yehudim! So, there is no reason why Mashiach ben Yosef cannot be a descendant both of Joseph and of David. He would undoubtedly be a Yehudi after all! Intriguingly, even David is called an Efrati, apparently with Ephraimite lineage in his past (see I Samuel 17:12, which begins וְדָוִד בֶּן־אִישׁ אֶפְרָתִי).

As it stands today, all the tribes have long thoroughly intermixed, and the exact lineage is no longer of significance (nor is it even traceable). What’s important are the key qualities that Mashiach must possess, and the ability for inspiring leadership and for dignified kingship, as well as, most significantly, to accomplish the tasks set out in the Tanakh (and as codified by the Rambam in Hilkhot Melakhim).

When Mashiach does come, he will merit to wield the serpentine Staff of Moses—that special tool fashioned by God at the twilight of the Sixth Day of Creation (Avot 5:6). And who will provide him with that staff? None other than the returning Heftzibah, the Mevaseret Tzion, and a fierce warrior in her own right who has the power to “slay kings”, as described in the little-known ancient Sefer Zerubavel:

“…the staff of Aaron and Moses and David king of Israel, the staff which flowered in the Tent of Meeting, and brought forth blossoms and produced almonds. And Eliyahu son of Elazar hid it in Raqat [in the territory of Naftali], which is Tiberias, and there was hidden Mashiach ben Ephraim.”

And Zerubavel ben She’altiel said to Michael [the angel]: “If it please my Lord, when will come the light of Israel? And what will be after all this?” And he said to me: “Mashiach ben Yosef will come five years after Heftzibah, and will gather all Israel as one man, and then the king of Persia will come up against Israel and there will be great distress in Israel. And Heftzibah the wife of the prophet Nathan will go out with the staff which the Lord will give her, and the Lord will make a spirit of confusion enter them, and they will slay one another, and there the wicked will die…”

Liyeshuatkha kiviti Hashem!

Where in the Torah is Chanukah?

Chanukah is the only major Jewish holiday that is not found in the Tanakh. This is mainly because the events of Chanukah took place in the 2nd century BCE, while according to tradition the Tanakh was already compiled and codified long before by the Great Assembly at the start of the Second Temple era. In fact, historians date the earliest Greek translations of Biblical books to the 3rd century BCE. Historical records agree with the Talmud that it was King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-247 BCE) who first commissioned the translation of the Torah into Greek, probably for his Great Library in Alexandria. How much of Scripture was translated at that point is not clear.

Although we see that the Sages continued to debate which holy books should be included in the definitive Tanakh nearly into the Talmudic period, the Book of Maccabees was never on the table. One reason is because the Book of Maccabees is not, and does not even claim to be, a prophetic work. It is simply a historical text and, contrary to popular belief, the Tanakh is not at all a history textbook. While it does record historical events—along with laws, ethics, prophecies, and more—its purpose is far greater. The Zohar (III, 152a) goes so far as to say that a person who views the Torah as a history book which simply relates “historical narratives” and “simple tales” has no share in the World to Come! “Every word in the Written Torah is a supernal word containing lofty secrets” it says, and “the narratives of the Written Torah are only the outer garments…”

Of course, it is a fundamental principle of Judaism that the Torah is an encrypted work that contains within it allusions to everything. As such, we should be able to find encoded references to Chanukah. And we do. Where did Moses hide clues to the future events of the Hashmonean Maccabees and the Chanukah festival?

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