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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Dovid Campbell

Introduction to the Perek Shira Project - Part II

Updated: May 9, 2023

In part I, we introduced the controversy surrounding Rebbe Yochanan's teaching in Eruvin 100b and noted that our earliest commentators apply this teaching universally. We will now see that important authorities of the modern era echo this idea as well. Rabbi Eliyahu HaKohen of Izmir, author of the celebrated Shevet Mussar, lived and wrote prolifically in the 17th and 18th centuries. On our subject, he writes the following:

כלל העולה שאע"פ שהתורה הקדושה דרכיה דרכי נועם ומודיעה לאדם דרכי החיים והדרך ארץ השלם והמעולה, עכ״ז נתן הקב״ה טבע מוטבע בב״ח מדברים מעולים כנזכר. כדי שיתפעל האדם על ידם לקיים דרכי התורה, בראותו שאם יעשה בהפך הוא פחות מהבעל חי בלתי מדבר ההולך על ארבע. שהרי נמצא בהם דברים מעולים מד״א ומהרחקת הגזל והנזק כמדובר, מה שאין בו. וע"י כך ירוץ לתורה ללמוד ממנה להיישיר בדרכיו, לקנות שלימות המדות ודרכי נועם הנותנים עלוי והתרוממות לנשמתו לעלות בסולם התורה עד כסא הכבוד, מקום שמשם חוצבה להתקשר בקונו. (שבט מוסר כב)
The general principle that arises is that–even though the ways of the holy Torah are ways of pleasantness, and it makes known to a person the ways of life and the perfect, elevated conduct–nevertheless the Holy One, blessed be He, provided a lofty nature, imprinted in the animals, as mentioned, so that a person would be moved by them to fulfill the ways of the Torah when he sees that if he does the opposite, he is less than an animal that is speechless and walks on all fours. For behold, they possess lofty attributes of proper conduct and avoidance of theft and damage, as mentioned, which he lacks. Through this [realization], he will run to the Torah to learn from it in order to straighten his ways, to acquire perfection of character and ways of pleasantness that are bestowed upon him, and the ascension for his soul to climb the ladder of the Torah until the Throne of Glory–the place from which it was carved–to be bound with his Creator.

Far from being supplanted by the Torah, the ethically-oriented study of nature is the Torah’s vital complement. In the continuation of this passage, which we will analyze later, Rabbi Eliyahu HaKohen even encourages the study of the works of chachmei hamechkar–scholars of scientific investigation–in order to further this practice. [1]

Even in very recent times, we find clear endorsement of Rebbe Yochanan’s practice. Failure to learn from the natural world may even be a more culpable error than failure to learn from the Torah itself. Consider the words of Rabbi Tzvi Shraga Grossbard:

וצריך להבין למה לנו לדעת מה היה אלמלא ניתנה תורה, הלא עכשיו אנו עומדים במצב אחרי שניתנה תורה, אלא גילו לנו חז"ל בזה שגם אחרי שניתנה תורה, נשארה עלינו החובה להסתכל בבריאה ולהתבונן בברואים, לצלול לעומק חכמת היצירה להבין וללמוד כל מה שאפשר ללמוד, ולא עוד אלא שהתביעה בעבור אי הלימוד מהבריאה, חריפה יותר וחודרת יותר מהתביעה על אי לימוד דרכי התורה, מפני שהאדם שהוא חלק מהבריאה בפועל, הוא קרוב יותר מצד עצם יצירתו להבין את שפת הבריאה המעשית, את השפה של 'השמים מספרים כבוד אל ומעשה ידיו מגיד הרקיע' (תהלים יט ב), מאשר להבין את התורה שבחינתה למעלה מהבריאה ונבראה קודם יצירת עולם המעשה… וכמו שחז"ל למדו דבר זה, שאלמלא לא ניתנה תורה היינו למדים מבעלי חיים, ממה שאליהוא מחבריו של איוב הוכיח את איוב 'מלפנו מבהמות ארץ ומעוף השמים יחכמנו' (איוב לה יא), למה לא למד דבר זה וכיוצא בו מבהמות ומעוף כמו שמפרש שם המהרש"א (עירובין ק: ח"א ד"ה היינו), אליהוא לא תבע את איוב על חוסר התעמקות והתבוננות בתורה, הוא תבע ממנו מדוע לא השכיל לראות את דרכי ה' והשגחתו מהבריאה עצמה. (דעת שרגא, פרשת תולדות)
And we need to understand, why do we need to know what would have been if we had not received the Torah? Aren’t we now in the situation of having received the Torah? Rather, Chazal have revealed to us with this that even after the Torah has been given, there remains upon us the obligation to observe the creation and contemplate created things–to dive to the depths of the wisdom of creation, to understand and to learn all that is possible to learn. And not only this, but the charge for not learning from the creation is sharper and more penetrating than the charge for not learning the ways of the Torah. This is because the person, who is an active component of the creation, is closer to understanding the practical language of the creation, due to the essence of his own formation. This is the language of “the heavens speak the glory of God, and the firmament tells of His handiwork” (Tehillim 19:2). [He is closer to this] than to understanding the Torah, whose nature is above the creation and which was created before the formation of the World of Deed…
And as Chazal learned this matter–that if the Torah had not been given, we would have learned from the animals–from that which Elihu, one of the friends of Iyov, rebuked Iyov: “He teaches us from the beasts of the land and makes us wise from the birds of the heavens” (Iyov 35:11), [meaning to say] why did he not learn this and similar matters from the beasts and birds, as the Maharsha explains there. Elihu did not charge Iyov with a lack of deep study and contemplation of the Torah; he charged him regarding why he was not wise to see the ways of Hashem and His providence in the creation itself.

Besides explaining why the Gemara’s teaching should certainly be interpreted as relevant to our time period, Rabbi Grossbard highlights the underlying rationale for the primacy of this type of study. He is not alone in this position. [2]

Perhaps no Torah scholar in modern times took a more emphatic and pragmatic stance on this subject than Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe. In his Alei Shur, which has already become a classic of mussar study and Jewish thought, we read the following:

אין דבר בבריאה שלא נוכל להתלמד ממנו, כי על כן ברא הקב"ה נבראים רבים כל כך. וכבר אמרו חז"ל "אלמלא ניתנה תורה היינו למדים צניעות מחתול וגזל מנמלה ועריות מיונה ודרך ארץ מתרנגול שמפייס ואחר כך בועל" (עירובין ק, ע"ב). בזה נתלמד עכשו להתלמד מבעלי חיים שלש פעמים ביום איזה דבר. ואם איננו מוצאים להתלמד משהו מהם להנהגה, נתלמד לראות בהם חכמת הבורא ית'. (עלי שור, שער שני (מערכת העבודה המוסרית), פרק חמישי (התלמדות), ועד חמישי)
There is nothing in creation that we cannot learn from. It is for this reason that The Holy One, blessed be He, created so many abundant creations. And Chazal have already said: If the Torah had not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, theft from the ant, illicit relations from the dove, and proper conduct from the rooster, which appeases and then mates (Eruvin 100b). From this we should take a lesson now to learn something from animals three times a day. And if we are unable to learn something from them regarding behavior, we should learn to see in them the wisdom of the Creator, may He be blessed.

Drawing directly from Eruvin 100b, Rabbi Wolbe understands this study to be the purpose of the diversity of species that we observe in nature. He views it as a practice requiring consistent reinforcement, and he emphasizes that its aim should be to derive practical lessons for behavior. A generalized appreciation of the Creator’s wisdom is only second-best.

In another passage, Rabbi Wolbe has strong words for those who neglect such a study. [3] One who fails to appreciate the natural world in this way is “like a blind man in his world,” and his life is “impoverished.” But Rabbi Wolbe also draws our attention to the ontological component of Rebbe Yochanan’s teaching, and it is here that we can begin to more fully address the question with which we began this essay. The ethical qualities that we perceive in various animals are not mere accidents or abstractions of the human mind. On the contrary, the behaviors that we call “instincts” are in fact “spiritual faculties” which were “rooted in them by their Creator.” Rebbe Yochanan was not merely providing us with an effective trick for moral improvement–he was offering us a window into the very foundations of reality.

This idea is developed by Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, a pillar of the Kelm school of mussar, mashgiach of the Mir yeshiva, and early teacher of Rabbi Wolbe. Drawing on well-known kabbalistic concepts, Rabbi Levovitz ultimately finds their ideal expression in our Gemara in Eruvin:

צריכים להבין זה שעולם המעשה אין זה כי אם השתלשלות מעולמות הקודמות לבד, והעולם המעשה הוא עולם אחר בנפרד, הענין הוא שאותה החכמה העליונה שבעולם האצילות מצוירת היא פה בעולם המעשה, אבל רק בהאופנים והציורים של עולמנו, עולם המעשה. ועל זה נאמר מה רבו מעשיך ה' כולם בחכמה עשית - ר"ל שבעולם הזה החכמה העליונה ממש בו, החכמה העליונה מצוירת היא במעשה. וזהו סוד עולם העשייה שהוא כתב כזה בו לקרות את החכמה העליונה, והוא ממש כמו אותה שבעולם האצילות, רק דשם הם באופנים וציורים אחרים, וכאן בעולם העשייה הנה זה בכתב וציורים של מעשה, והוא אמנם כתב יותר חזק וקיים, הוא סוד המעשה… כשאמרו חז"ל (עירובין ק:) אלמלא ניתנה תורה היינו למידין גזל מנמלה וצניעות מחתול, הן הן ציורים מחכמה עליונה בכתב של מעשה. (דעת תורה, פרשת זאת הברכה, עמוד רכב)
We need to understand that the World of Deed is only a cascading from the preceding Worlds, and the World of Deed is another, separate world. The idea is that that supernal wisdom that is in the World of Atzilus is formulated here in the World of Deed, but only in the aspects and formulations of our world, the World of Deed. And regarding this it is said, “How great are Your works, Hashem. You made them all with wisdom,” meaning to say, that in this world the supernal wisdom is actually present–the supernal wisdom is formulated here in deed. And this is the secret of the World of Deed, which is a script through which to read the supernal wisdom, and it is actually like that which is in the World of Atzilus–only that there they are in different aspects and formulations, and here, in the World of Deed, it is in the script and formulations of deed. However, it is a stronger and more enduring script, and this is the secret of deed… As Chazal said (Eruvin 100b): If the Torah had not been given, we would have learned theft from the ant and modesty from the cat–these are formulations from the supernal wisdom in the script of deed.

Rabbi Levovitz sees Rebbe Yochanan’s teaching as a practical manifestation of a fundamental reality; the natural consequence of a spiritual worldview. The things we encounter in this physical universe, the “World of Deed,” are nothing but manifestations, “written script,” through which we can read the subjects of Hashem’s supernal wisdom. What are these subjects? Seemingly, they are the values and virtues that Rebbe Yochanan tells us are embodied in nature. Since we cannot see these things directly, the Creator forms a world through which we can experience them. What exists in Hashem’s supernal wisdom as a particular combination of these virtues appears to us here as a unique species. [4]

So, what is a lion? Based on Rebbe Yochanan’s teaching and a substantial set of ancient and modern elucidations, the Torah’s vision of the lion is becoming clearer. It not only sheds light on the most essential being of the lion but also paves the way towards a transformative study of that being. But important questions remain, not the least of which being those raised by the Ben Ish Chai and Rabbi Sacks: what prevents us from learning the wrong sorts of lessons from nature? Additionally, there is the issue of translation: if each species represents its own unique lesson, we need to know where one species ends and the next begins. How do we “read” the book of nature without an understanding of its symbolic script? In the next part, we will see that the fascinating insights of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the illustrious Netziv of Volozhin, are especially illuminating.


[1] And he is far from alone in this recommendation. Consider the Radak’s commentary to Tehillim 139:14:

ונוראות היצירה הם נגלים לחכמים, כי כל אבר ואבר נברא בחכמה, ועל התכונה שנברא הוא לצורך ולתועלת. וכל אדם צריך להתבונן בהם, ומתוך כך יכיר נפלאות היוצר ויודה לו עליהם. ואם באנו לספר בזה החיבור תכונת האברים ותועלתם ומזג הכוחות ותועלתם, יאריך הסיפור, אבל המשתוקק להם ימצאם בספרי החכמים.

[2] See Sefer HaIkkarim 3:7. Commenting on Yirmiyahu 8:7, Rabbi Albo explains that Yirmiyahu rebukes the Jewish people not for their failure to learn the ethics of the Torah but for their failure to assimilate the ethics of nature. Obviously, neither Elihu nor Yirmiyahu were belittling the importance of Torah study. It seems that their goal was to charge their listeners with an offense that was inexcusable and that they could not argue their way out of. There is no excuse for neglecting the morality that surrounds us at every moment.


עלי שור, שער שני (מערכת העבודה המוסרית), פרק ארבעה-עשר (התבוננות), ועד שלישי

[4] Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein is inclined to interpret Eruvin 100b similarly: “The passage implies, first, that a cluster of logically ante-halakhic virtues exists; second, that these virtues can be inferred from natural phenomena; and, probably, third–with Plato and against the Sophists–that they relate to physis rather than nomos, being not only observable through nature but inherent within it.” See Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Learning (Ktav, 2003) vol. 2, 33-34.


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