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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Dovid Campbell

Introduction to the Perek Shira Project - Part I

Updated: May 9, 2023

What is a lion? The answer may depend on whom you ask. An ecologist will be inclined to view it as a unique component of an ecosystem, while a geneticist might prefer to highlight its distinct sequences of DNA. Neither approach is exclusively correct–they both provide a way to distinguish a lion from its environment, and they do this by emphasizing those qualities which reflect the interests of their respective disciplines. We could get more definitions by asking the same question to a chemist, a psychologist, and a literary scholar. Each answer will be informative, and each will teach us as much about the special interests of its discipline as about the unique essence of a lion.

It is for this reason that so much can be gained by exploring the Torah’s lens on the natural world. In a published essay [1], we explored the idea that a major purpose of the mitzvos is to guide our exploration of reality, directing us to profound philosophical and ethical insights that find expression in lived experience. In this essay, we will come from the other direction and explore the question of whether the Torah articulates a program of nature study that occurs prior to–or parallel with–the guidance of the mitzvos. Such a program would presuppose an innate human ability to derive such insights from our environment. It would require us to perceive a natural order, grounded not in taxonomy but in values. Beginning with a fascinating statement of Rebbe Yochanan in the Gemara and working our way through later commentators, particularly the profound ideas of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin and the rich exegetical tradition surrounding the Perek Shira, we will encounter just such a program within the classical sources of Judaism.

The Modesty of Cats

The Torah is saturated with references to what we commonly call nature [2], whether in its account of the Creation, the evocative descriptions of Tehillim, or the complex laws regulating our many interactions with plants and animals. But the Gemara in Eruvin 100b offers us a particularly informative starting point in that it highlights an ethical value to nature study that is apparent and accessible even before we receive the Torah’s guidance:

אמר רבי יוחנן אילמלא לא ניתנה תורה היינו למידין צניעות מחתול וגזל מנמלה ועריות מיונה דרך ארץ מתרנגול שמפייס ואחר כך בועל.
Rebbe Yochanan said: If the Torah had not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, [the wrongness of] theft from the ant, [the wrongness of] illicit relations from the dove, and proper conduct from the rooster, which appeases and then mates.

Rebbe Yochanan’s teaching indicates that mankind possesses an intrinsic ability to perceive ethical lessons directly through the medium of nature. And yet, it is unclear what value he ascribes to this practice after the giving of the Torah. Rebbe Yochanan could be read as limiting this practice to the pre-Torah era (or some hypothetical present in which the Torah had not been given), or he might be saying that this practice would have been our only access to ethical instruction but has now been complemented by the Torah’s teachings.

The Ben Ish Chai, in his Ben Yehoyada on this Gemara, clearly takes the former approach. But he begins by questioning why this should be so:

אִלְמָלֵי לֹא נִתְּנָה תּוֹרָה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, לָמַדְנוּ צְנִיעוּת מֵחָתוּל וְכוּ'. הנה מלשון זה יש לדייק דעכשיו דנתנה תורה אין לנו ללמוד מאלו, וקשה מה בכך אדרבא צריך ללמוד מאלו ליקח קל וחומר לעצמינו?
If the Torah had not been given to Israel, we would have learned modesty from the cat, etc. Behold, from this language it can be inferred that now that the Torah has been given, we should not learn from these [animals]. And this is difficult–what is the issue? On the contrary, we must learn from these [animals] in order to apply these lessons all the more so to ourselves.

Although the Gemara implies that we should no longer learn these qualities from the animals, this interpretation requires explanation. Aren’t we missing out on an important benefit by ignoring this practice? The Ben Ish Chai therefore explains what he understands to be the underlying rationale, and he offers an illuminating insight into human psychology:

ונראה לי בס"ד כי עתה שנתנה תורה ואסרה לנו השקר אין ללמוד מדת הפיוס מן תַּרְנְגוֹל, שהוא מפייס בשקר וכזב דמבטיח ואינו עושה, ואומר הרבה ואפילו מעט אינו עושה דהא ודאי אסור באדם כיוצא בזה, וכן אין ללמוד ממנו דבר טוב זה פן יתלמד מכל דרכיו, שהוא אוהב נשים הרבה ומרבה התשמיש…
ולכן עתה שניתנה התורה לנו אין נכון ללמוד מבריות אלו כלום, פן ילמדו גם מן הרעות הנמצאים בהם.
And it appears to me, with the help of Heaven, that now that the Torah has been given, and it has forbidden falsehood to us, we should not learn the quality of appeasement from the rooster, since he appeases with falsehood and deceit–he promises and does not fulfill, and he says much but doesn’t do even a little. Behold, it is certainly forbidden for a person to behave this way. And so too, one should not learn [even] this positive thing from him, lest he learn from all his ways, since he loves women greatly and mates abundantly… [The Ben Ish Chai makes similar arguments for the other animals in the Gemara.]
And therefore, now that the Torah has been given, it is not proper to learn anything from these creatures, lest they also learn from the wickedness that is within them.

We see that even the animals mentioned by Rebbe Yochanan display some very undesirable traits. If we had no Torah, we would have to make due with this situation, but there is no reason to compromise when the Torah offers a better path.

Even more recently, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks offers a similar explanation of this Gemara:

There is no morality in nature. No good, right, duty or obligation are written into the fabric of things. There is no way of inferring from how things are to how things ought to be. The Talmud says that had God not revealed the commandments, ‘we could have learned modesty from the cat, industry from the ant, marital fidelity from the dove, and good manners from the rooster’. But equally we could have learned savagery from the lion, pitilessness from the wolf and venom from the viper. [3]

Though his intention may be essentially the same, it’s worth noting that Rabbi Sacks seems to go even further than the Ben Ish Chai here. The Ben Ish Chai believed that we would properly identify those animals with positive ethical qualities. However, once we accepted them as our teachers, we would no longer distinguish between their positive and negative behaviors–we would absorb the bad with the good. Rabbi Sacks claims that we would not even confine ourselves to those animals that seem essentially praiseworthy–“equally we could have learned” from the fidelity of the dove and the pitilessness of the wolf. Without the Torah or some moral code, everything is equally justifiable because “there is no morality in nature.”

Though their arguments are compelling, it is important to recognize that they represent a significant departure from earlier interpretations of this Gemara. Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Paquda, in the second chapter of his monumental Chovos HaLevavos, explains that the Creator’s existence is best known through reflection upon His creation. This leads to an extensive presentation of the natural world and its study. We encounter the primary elements of creation, the compounds that arise from them, and ultimately the nature of plants, animals, and humans. But before embarking on this journey, Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Paquda wishes to clarify its importance:

אך אם אנו חייבין לבחון בברואים אם לא, נאמר כי הבחינה בברואים והבאת ראיה מהם לחכמת הבורא ית' אנו חייבין בה מן המושכל ומן הכתוב ומן הקבלה. (חובות הלבבות ב:ב)
But regarding whether or not we are obligated to investigate these creations, we will say that the investigation of creations and the bringing of proofs from them to the wisdom of the Creator, may He be blessed, is something we are obligated in from reason, from the written Torah, and from received tradition.

It is not merely important; it is obligatory. And this obligation comes from multiple directions–from human reason, from the written Torah, and from received tradition. Rabbeinu Bachya finds clear textual and traditional support for the necessity of the practice. However, it is his support from the aspect of human reason that is particularly relevant to our study:

ואמרו אלמלא נתנה תורה לישראל למדנו צניעות מחתול ועריות מיונה ודרך ארץ מתרנגול וגזל מנמלה, וכבר התבאר חיוב הבחינה בברואים והבאת הראיות מסימני החכמה ואתה דע לך:
And they said: If the Torah had not been given to Israel, we would have learned modesty from the cat, illicit relations from the dove, proper conduct from the rooster, and theft from the ant. The obligation to investigate creations and to bring proofs from the signs of wisdom has thus been explained. Know this for yourself.

According to the Chovos HaLevavos, our Gemara in Eruvin 100b is a source for the intellectual obligation to study the natural world. But how so? As we would expect, Rabbeinu Bachya is reading the text carefully. Rebbe Yochanan did not say that we could have learned these lessons from these animals; he says that we would have. In other words, something would have compelled us to study these animals and search for their moral lessons. But what type of obligation could compel us into such a universal program of study before the giving of the Torah? To Rabbeinu Bachya, the answer is clear–only the type of obligation that arises from the self-evidence of human reason. [4]

The Chovos HaLevavos in no way limits the relevance of this Gemara to a hypothetical or bygone era. On the contrary, it is cited as proof of the enduring intellectual obligation to engage in this practice. [5] Clearly, Rabbeinu Bachya did not interpret this Gemara like the Ben Ish Chai, and he is not alone. Rabbi Yosef Albo, author of the Sefer HaIkkarim, also finds an enduring relevance in Rebbe Yochanan’s teaching:

אמר רבי יוחנן אלמלי לא נתנה תורה לישראל למדנו צניעות מחתול וגזל מנמלה ועריות מיונה. וזה מבואר על הדרך שכתבנו, כי המדות הפרטיות אשר בבעלי חיים ראוי לו לאדם שילמד אותם מצד שכלו ויתקבצו כלם בו ויחזרו בו כלליים, כי כמו שמצד שכלו וכליו הוא כאלו נבראו עמו כל כלי המלחמה וכאלו נבראו עמו המלבושים מקום הצמר בכבשים, וכן שידע לתקן מזונו באופן נאות אל מזגו מרכיב המאכלים זה בזה באופן שיהיה ערב ובריא אל מזגו, כן ראוי שילמד כל המדות הטובות הפרטיות אשר בכל אחד מן הבעלי חיים ויקבץ אותם כדי שימצאו כלן בו, וימציא בזה המלאכות והחכמות. (ספר העיקרים ג:א)
Rebbe Yochanan said: If the Torah had not been given to Israel, we would have learned modesty from the cat, theft from the ant, and illicit relations from the dove. This is explained in the manner we have written, for the particular ethical qualities in the animals should be learned by a person through his intellect, and he should gather them within himself and make them into general principles. For just like a person, by way of his intelligence and tools, is as if he had been created with all the tools of war and with garments in place of the wool on the sheep–and so too he knows how to prepare his food in a manner that is appropriate to his constitution, mixing this food with that in a manner that will be sweet and healthy for his constitution–so too is it fitting for him to learn all of the good, particular ethical qualities that are manifest in all of the animals and gather them so that they all be found within him. In this way, he will attain the various crafts and wisdoms.

Rabbi Albo writes explicitly that it is appropriate to learn proper conduct from the animals. He makes no indication that he is limiting this practice to a certain time period. He goes on to explain that this practice is the underlying intention of the Perek Shira, a work that remains widely studied today and which we will explore later in this essay.

We can appeal to an even earlier authority than the great Rishonim cited above. Rabbi Saadia Gaon, in the context of a survey of the medicinal value of various animals, writes the following:

ולמעלה מזה בחשיבות, תכונות בעלי החיים שהאדם צריך לסגלן לעצמו בעבודת הבורא, כמו ששנו קדמונינו הוי עז כנמר וקל כנשר ורץ כצבי וגבור כארי לעשות רצון אביך שבשמים. ופרוש דבריהם: הוי משתמש {בתכונות} העוז של הנמר וקלות הנשר ומהירות הצבי וגבורת הארי בעבודת רבון העולם, והנביאים דברו בכל אחד מן הענינים האלה… וכן שאר התכונות המשובחות שבבעלי החיים שבעל השכל משתמש בהן באופן הראוי בעוד שבעלי החיים משתמשים בהן באופן טבעי וסתמי, ללא הבחנה שכלית. (ר' סעדיה גאון פירוש בראשית א:כה)
And above this in importance–the qualities of animals that a person needs to assimilate to himself in the service of the Creator, as our early sages taught–be bold like a leopard, light like an eagle, swift like a deer, and mighty like a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven. The explanation of their words is: utilize the qualities of the boldness of the leopard, the lightness of the eagle, the swiftness of the deer, and the mightiness of the lion in the service of the Master of the world. The prophets spoke of each of these matters… And so too, the other praiseworthy qualities within animals that an intelligent person utilizes, in the proper manner, while the animals utilize them in a natural and default manner, without intellectual understanding.

Once again, there is no indication here that this practice is limited to a specific time. On the contrary, Rabbi Saadia Gaon links it to a mishna in Avos (which certainly applies after the giving of the Torah!), and he explains that the mishna is merely highlighting a small subset of a practice that must ultimately include all “praiseworthy qualities amongst the animals.”

None of these early sources seem to interpret Eruvin 100b as a limitation on our ability to derive ethical lessons from the living world. None confine it to a pre-Torah era or reserve its practice for a spiritual elite. What we do find is strong, general support for this practice–even amplifying it to the entire animal kingdom.

Nor can this be characterized as an ancient position that was subsequently supplanted or overruled by later authorities. In part II, we'll explore some more recent sources regarding the importance of this study.


[1] “Imitations and Semblances: How the Mitzvos Direct our Exploration of Reality,” Hakirah 33 (2023).

[2] The Hebrew word טבע, generally translated as nature, has been used since the period of the Rishonim to designate regular patterns in the world around us. In this sense, it is not a denial of Divine providence but simply designates the type of providence that the Creator wishes to manifest regularly and predictably. Throughout this essay, we will encounter the term used in this way by great Torah authorities, early and modern. I believe the term must also be understood to include universal human proclivities–I can see no reason to differentiate between the beaver dam and the log cabin; the birdsong and the symphony.

[3] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning (Schocken, 2011), 123.

[4] This also seems to be the interpretation of Rabbi Yisroel Zamosz. See Tov HaLevanon to Chovos HaLevavos 2:2.

[5] Consider the strong words of Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg in his approbation for the Toldos HaAretz, a work that sought to present natural science to an Orthodox readership:

על בקשתו לתת הסכמת דעתי להוציא לאור העולם את ספרו תולדות הארץ אני מתפלא מאוד… כי מי זה הישראלי אשר לא ידע התועלת הגדולה היוצאה ממדעות כמו אלה? ומי זה לא יבין דעת כי מחקי הבריאה יכיר כל משכיל את בוראו, ממנו יעמוד על אמתתו יתברך ושלמותו…

מי זה האיש אשר לו עינים לראות, לא ראה את דברי החסיד האמתי בעל חובות הלבבות בשער הבחינה, המדבר בחיוב השגת דרכי ה' מצד פעולותיו הנכבדות, והוא מחסד ה' על ברואיו לתת בלב כל איש שכל בינה ודעת להשיג בם דעות אמתיות ונכוחות בדרכי ה' הנהגתו והשגחתו בעולם, למען יבוא בם אל השלמות הנרצה והמכוון ממנו ית' בבריותיו, כי חקי הבריאה אשר כלם בחכמה עשויים יורו על דרכי ה' כי כלם בצדק משפט ומישרים, מהם ילמוד האדם ללכת גם הוא בהם ויגיע בזה אל השלמות האפשרי לכל עצם בעל תכלית…


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