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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Dovid Campbell

Introduction to the Perek Shira Project - Part III

Although this part of the introduction can stand on its own, part I and part II will provide helpful context.

The Great Sage

In his influential Torah commentary, Haamek Davar, the Netziv tackles the subject of the proper application of taamei hamitzvos–the underlying rationales for the commandments. He posits a connection between the ethical ideals learned out from the taamei hamitzvos of our great sages and the teaching of Rebbe Yochanan in Eruvin 100b:

ואמרו חז"ל (עירובין ק,ב) דיש ללמוד צניעות מחתול, וכן הרבה, והרי הדבר ברור שאין החתול משתבח בצניעותו יותר מתרנגול הפרוץ, באשר שגם שניהם המשונים בטבעם אינו מצד שינוי דעתם, אלא חוקי טבע בריאתם מיוצר הטבע יתברך, ומ"מ אנו למדים יותר צניעות מחתול ולא פריצות מתרנגול, באשר אנחנו מבינים מדעת אנושי שטבע זה הוא מתקבל ונאה יותר. רק אם לא היינו רואים בריה צנועה מעולם לא היינו מבינים שיש צניעות, ועתה כשאנו רואים בריה צנועה ומידה זו מתקבלת על דעתנו, עלינו ללמוד ממנה.
כך הוא חוקי התורה, באמת אין לשבח מצות עשה של כיבוד אב ואם שהוא מדת החסד יותר ממצות עשה של מחיית עמלק או איבוד עיר הנדחת, שהוא אכזריות, ושניהם אינם אלא חוקים וגזירות מנותן התורה יתברך, וכדאיתא בברכות (לג,ב). אלא באשר אנו רואים מצות כיבוד אב ואם שהיא מתקבלת על שכל אנושי גם כן, עלינו ללמוד ממנה למקום אחר. (הרחב דבר לשמות כ:יא)
And Chazal said (Eruvin 100b) that one should learn modesty from the cat, and many other such teachings. Now, it is clear that the cat is not praised for its modesty more than the licentious rooster, since the differences in their natures are not due to a difference in their intellects. Rather, the laws of the nature of their creation are from the Former of nature, may He be blessed, and nevertheless, we learn more modesty from a cat than licentiousness from a rooster. This is because we understand through the human intellect that this nature is acceptable and more pleasant. It is just that, had we never seen a modest creature, we would not understand that modesty exists, and now that we see a modest creature and this quality is acceptable to our intellects, it is incumbent upon us to learn from it.
Such are the laws of the Torah. In truth, one should not praise the positive commandment of honoring one’s father and mother–which is the quality of kindness–more than the positive commandment of eradicating Amalek or destroying the wayward city–which is cruelty. The two of them are nothing but laws and decrees from the Giver of the Torah, may He be blessed, as it is brought in Berachos 33b. Except, since we see that the commandment of honoring one’s father and mother is also acceptable to the human intellect, it is incumbent upon us to learn from it to another context.

Both the lessons of the Torah and the lessons of the natural world rely on mankind’s intrinsic moral sense for their full expression. Without this ability to recognize which behaviors are “acceptable and more pleasant,” we would find lewdness as praiseworthy as modesty; cruelty as honorable as kindness. Though we often find ways to rationalize our actions and blur important distinctions, few individuals truly conflate these categories to the extent that they can no longer sense any distinction between them. An intrinsic moral sense is fundamental to our humanity, and Rebbe Yochanan’s teaching testifies to its existence and reliability.

But if so, why do we not find every individual gradually refined by the ethical lessons of his or her environment? Why does human history seem to be filled with so much cruelty? The answer, writes Rabbi Levovitz, lies in our improper vision of the natural world:

איתא בחז"ל (עירובין ק:) אילמלא ניתנה תורה היינו למדים צניעות מחתול וכו', שלכאורה אין אנו מבינים מה שייכות הם לנו הצניעות של החתול וכו', והלא אנו מורגלים תמיד לומר (רמב"ם דעות פ"ג ה"א) "די לנו במה שאסרה תורה", אבל מזה שאמרו שאלמלא ניתנה התורה היינו למדים מבעלי חיים, רואים אנו שאמנם כי האדם בטבעו הוא באופן להתלמד מאחרים, אם האדם רואה מרגניתות בהבריאה, תכונות נעלות מאוד, ומוצא בעצמו רוממות ויקרות עד אין סוף שגם הוא מסוגל להן, אם גם הוא יכול להיות כמותן מדוע א"כ לא יתלמד מהם? החסרון הוא שחושב שהטבע הוא רק כמו חתיכות עץ בעלמא והוא הנהו החכם, וממילא איך יתלמד מהטבע?! אבל לו היה יודע "שאין חכם כהטבע" (עיין אדר"נ כח, א), והוא עומד לפני חכם גדול, אז כבר היה חושב אחרת, והיה ודאי עומד לפני הטבע בכבוד גדול כלפני חכמה עליונה, שהינהו באמת. (דעת תורה פרשת נשא, עמוד סא)
It is brought in Chazal (Eruvin 100b), “If the Torah had not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, etc.” Seemingly, we do not understand what relevance the modesty of the cat has to us, etc. Aren’t we accustomed to always say (Rambam, Hilchos Deos 3:1), “What the Torah forbade is sufficient for us”? But from that which they said, “If the Torah had not been given, we would have learned from animals,” we see that man is, in his nature, configured to learn from others. If a person sees daisies in the creation, exceedingly lofty qualities, and he finds within himself a sublimeness and infinite preciousness that he is also capable of–if he too can be like them, why wouldn't he learn from them? The deficiency is that he thinks that nature is just a simple piece of wood, and he himself is the sage, and obviously, how could he learn from nature? However, if only he knew that “there is no sage like nature,” and he is standing before a great sage, then he would already think otherwise, and he would certainly stand before nature with great respect, as before supernal wisdom, which it truly is.

We have come to view the natural world like a lifeless piece of wood–a static presence lacking meaning, lacking wisdom, and lacking personal relevance. Note that Rabbi Levovitz does not attribute our failure to learn from nature to some atrophying of our intrinsic moral sense. On the contrary, he affirms this uniquely human capacity and places the blame squarely upon our lack of reverence for nature, “the great sage.” [1]

This understanding offers a reasonable defense against the challenges of the Ben Ish Chai, Rabbi Sacks, and others who would deny the reliability or relevance of Rebbe Yochanan’s practice. These challenges lean on an unnecessarily pessimistic view of our intrinsic moral sense. Additionally, they destroy any possibility of an experiential resonance with the ethical lessons of the Torah and nature, since they deny our ability to reliably perceive ethical value. We can now turn to the second major question that we laid out above–how do we learn to read the book of nature without a clear understanding of its symbolic script, i.e. the various kinds, types, and species of the natural world?

The Torah’s Species Concept

Throughout Haamek Davar, the Netziv displays a sustained interest in what we might call the Torah’s “species concept.” [2] This interest reflects the Torah’s own enthusiasm for this subject. The earliest chapters of Bereishis present us with the creation of distinct natural kinds, Adam’s subsequent naming of these kinds, and Noach’s eventual rescue of them in the Ark. Numerous halachic subjects also require a focused study of how the Torah defines species, from the laws of forbidden mixtures to those of animal sacrifices and kashrus. [3] It is in this last domain that the Netziv draws our attention to the fundamental difference between the Torah’s species concept and mankind’s innate perception of natural kinds:

למינה – בכמה עופות לא כתיב למינה אע"ג שיש כמה מינים באותו שם. כמו נשר שנקראים כמה מינים בזה השם גדולים וקטנים. ויש לדעת כי אדם הראשון בחכמת רוה"ק קרא שמות להברואים בלשה"ק לפי הבטתו באיזה פרט בפנימיות אותה בריה וקרא שמו ע"ש הפעולה. ונכלל כמה מינים משונים במראיהם ובכמה פרטים עד שבלשון אוה"ע וחכמי הטבע המה מינים נפרדים לגמרי בשם. ומכ"מ נכנסו בסוג א' בלשה"ק ע"ש אותה השתוות באותו דבר שנקראו משום זה אותו שם. ומש"ה באותה בריה שחלוקי המינים שבו המה תחת סוג א' גם בלשון ודעת חכמי הטבע לא כתיב בלשה"ק למינה. כמו שיש כמה מיני תרנגולים ונכנסים תחת שם א' ע"פ דעת חכמי הטבע. משא"כ במינים שע"פ חכמי הטבע המה נפרדים אלא בלשה"ק המה בסוג א' עפ"י הפרט שנקראו משום זה אותו שם. באלו כתיב למינו. ללמד דאע"ג שנראים לנו רחוקים מכ"מ כך שמו בלשה"ק. ויש ג"כ להיפך. שבלשה"ק המה נפרדים מחמת שמשונים באותו פרט וחכמי הטבע כוללים בסוג א'. והיינו דאי' בחולין דס"ב תרננולא דאגמא אסירא דחזיני' דדריס. וא"כ ע"כ הוא נכלל בשם איזה עוף טמא שבתורה ולא בגדר תרנגול. אלא שחכמי הטבע חלקו את הפרטים לפי דעתם והכניסוהו תחת סוג תרנגול. (העמק דבר, ויקרא יא:יד)
“According to its species” – With several birds it is not written, “according to its species,” even though there are several species with that name, like the nesher, where several species are called by that name, large ones and small ones. And one should know that Adam HaRishon, with the wisdom of ruach hakodesh, gave names to the creations in Hebrew, according to his perception of a certain particularity in the innerness of that creature, and he called its name according to that activity. And he grouped together several species that differ in their appearances and several particular qualities to the extent that in the language of the gentiles and the scientists they are entirely separate species in name. Nevertheless, they are entered into one type in Hebrew due to that commonality in that thing by virtue of which they were called that name. For this reason, in that creature where the different species it contains are under one type, even in the language and understanding of the scientists, it is not written in Hebrew, “according to its species.” For example, there are many species of roosters, and they are entered under a single name according to the understanding of the scientists. This is not the case with species which, according to the scientists, are separate but in Hebrew are within one type, according to the particular quality by virtue of which they were called that name. For these, it is written, “according to its species,” to teach that even though they appear distant to us, nevertheless such is its name in Hebrew. And there is also the opposite case, where in Hebrew they are differentiated since they differ in that particularity, and the scientists include them in one type. And this is what is brought in Chullin 62b, “The swamp rooster is forbidden because we have seen that it claws [prey].” And if so, perforce it is included in the name of one of the impure birds in the Torah and not in the category of the rooster. But the scientists differentiated the particulars according to their understanding and entered them under the type of “rooster.”

The Netziv’s interpretation is fascinating for a number of reasons. First, it implies that the Torah acknowledges and accommodates the fact that our scientific method of categorizing the natural world differs considerably from the Torah’s. There is strong evidence that the taxonomy that the Netziv attributes to the chachmei hateva is in fact a nearly universal human activity. Individuals separated by geography, time, and culture have nevertheless carved up the world in surprisingly similar ways. Consider, for example, the experience of Ernst Mayr, the legendary biologist who visited New Guinea to study its native bird populations. Mayr discovered that the indigenous people categorized these species in almost exactly the same ways that he did, leading him to the conclusion that “the species was a very real thing in nature.” [4] According to the Netziv, it is this taxonomic proclivity that the Torah acknowledges with the phrase, “according to its species.”

Additionally, the Netziv has indicated the types of qualities which distinguish our natural taxonomy from the Torah’s species concept. While the former seems to be based on simple “appearances” or morphology, the Torah’s classification is tied to a special “innerness” and unique “activity” of each creature. For clarification of these rather obscure terms, we can turn to the Netziv’s commentary on Adam’s naming of the animals, which he has already mentioned here.

In Bereishis 2:19-20, Adam names the animals and realizes that none can serve as a fitting partner for him. The Netziv writes that these names were based on the unique spiritual force or faculty that Adam perceived in each species, and they remain the species’ names even when the animals are not utilizing their respective faculties. Unlike a sort of “spiritual DNA,” which would be constantly present and stable in the animal, the Netziv seems to be envisioning a more dynamic essence–a perceptible quality that can be more or less manifest. The picture becomes more clear in verse 20:

ולאדם לא מצא עזר כנגדו – בזה שקרא שמות ראה אדם שקשה להשיג עבורו עזר. וביאור הדברים, שאדם מתחילה לא הבין בעצמו אם יש לו כל חליפי המדות, שהרי מעולם לא כעס ומאין ידע שיש לו מדת הכעס, וכן רחמנות וכדומה. אבל בעת אשר התבונן על כל הברואים ועמד על טבעם, מזה התבונן שאצלו נכללות כל המדות שבכל מיני ברואים, דבלא זה לא היה עומד על כחותיהם, דמי שאינו יודע רוגז לא יאמין ולא יתבונן מה הוא רוגז. (העמק דבר, בראשית ב:כ)
“And man did not find a helper opposite him” – Through assigning names, Adam saw that it was difficult to obtain a helper for himself. And the explanation of these words is that Adam originally did not understand whether he possessed all the diverse qualities. For behold, he had never gotten angry, and from where should he have known that he has the quality of anger? And so too compassion and similar qualities. However, when he contemplated all the creations and understood their nature, he observed from this that all of the qualities that are in all of the species of creations are included within him. For without this, he would have been unable to understand their faculties, since one who does not know rage does not believe and does not contemplate what rage is.

Here we see that the process of naming was a process of recognizing the essential middos of each creature. These middos, such as anger and compassion, constitute the unique spiritual faculties that distinguish each species. Beautifully paralleling his commentary to Shemos 20:11, the Netziv explains that this process also entailed a spiritual awakening for Adam–an awareness of the ethical dynamics of his own soul.

Much like we understood the ontological dimension of Rebbe Yochanan’s teaching, we find a complementary conception of the natural world in the thought of the Netziv. This was also alluded to in his discussion of the various bird species, when he noted that two birds that both appeared to be roosters were ultimately considered separate species by the Gemara. The reason for this distinction was their behavior, which reflected distinct ethical natures.

The Netziv goes further in developing the Torah’s species concept. Not only is the species revealed as a dynamic ethical essence, but it is also found to unfold dynamically within time. When commenting on Noach’s gathering of the animals onto the Ark, the Netziv writes the following:

למינהו – כבר ביארנו בפרשת בראשית (א,כא) ענין "למינהו", שיש בכל בריה כמה מינים, ובשעת יצירה לא יצא אלא אחד, ואח"כ נתחלק לכמה מינים. וכן נח לא הכניס אלא אחד ובו היו נכללים כל המינים שבו. (העמק דבר, בראשית ו:כ)
“According to their species” – We have already explained in the portion of Bereishis the concept of “according to their species”–that there exists in every creature numerous species, and at the time of formation only one was produced, and afterwards it was divided into numerous species. And so too, Noach brought in only one [creature], and in it were included all the species it contained.

In a strictly taxonomic sense, there were fewer species on the planet in Noach’s time. But, from the Torah’s perspective, the number of species is constant. All of the species, i.e. the essential ethical natures, were present with Noach in the Ark. But at that time they were condensed into a much smaller number of physical creatures, whereas today those ethical natures have branched out, and continue to branch out, into the astonishing variety of lifeforms that we perceive.

The Netziv is in good company here. [5] But it is important to recognize that his evolutionary view of nature has little in common with the Darwinian view. Darwin saw a process governed by chance and reproductive fitness. The unique qualities of an animal could be reduced to fortunate accidents and competitive advantages, and the relationships between species were similarly reducible to genetic composition. The Torah’s evolutionary perspective, by contrast, sees life as an unfolding or particularization of ethical values, becoming manifest in evermore vivid and unique expression. If genetics has a role in this process, it is only to the extent that genes themselves are but physical appearances of ethical values that are ontologically primary. [6]

We have come a long way towards a reasonable understanding of the Torah’s view of nature and its diversity. It is an understanding that conceives of our material reality, the “World of Deed,” as a reflection of fundamental and dynamic ethical values–fundamental, in that they constitute the essential natures of things, and dynamic, in that their manifestation evolves throughout time. These ethical values, the middos that Adam recognized in the living world, therefore comprise the basic text of the book of nature. It is this text that Rebbe Yochanan requires us to interpret and assimilate into our own way of life. Of course, there are important distinctions between what Adam recognized and what Rebbe Yochanan expects us to undertake. Adam had access to the original, archetypal species and, according to the Netziv, grasped their true names through ruach hakodesh. By contrast, Rebbe Yochanan’s practice is concerned with these species in their differentiated multiplicity and relies on human investigation.

It is tempting to view the Perek Shira as an attempt to bridge this gap. There are certainly aspects of this ancient text that make such an interpretation attractive. Like both Adam’s naming of the animals and Rebbe Yochanan’s practice, the Perek Shira seems to view this world as an embodiment of ethical qualities. And, if we appeal to the concept of a limited number of archetypal species, we have a straightforward explanation for why the Perek Shira contains such a broad yet limited sampling of nature’s cast of characters. The work might then be viewed as an ancient attempt–whether through divine inspiration, human investigation, or some combination of the two–to identify the archetypal species of nature and their corresponding ethical essences.

But there are also major challenges for such an approach. First, what reason do we have to believe that these specific species are the archetypal ones? The Perek Shira includes many similar species–such as the wolf, fox, dog, and hound (for those who interpret zarzir as the hound)–but certain unique species, like the bee and leopard, are conspicuously absent. [7] Furthermore, Rebbe Yochanan’s practice is explicitly independent of the Torah, while the Perek Shira’s lessons are conveyed almost entirely through verses from Tanach. Perhaps the author did not intend for us to perceive the lessons of these verses in the animals themselves; he simply wanted to inform us of the songs sung by each species! These are the challenges we must meet in order to render our view of the Perek Shira plausible. We'll tackle them in the final part of this introduction.


[1] This is not to say that every individual is equally prepared to study nature’s lessons, nor that such study comes effortlessly and without ambiguity. But it is important to recognize that our primary obstacle may be found in a materialistic worldview that has affected even spiritually-minded individuals. Consider also Rabbi Yisroel Lipschitz’s Tiferes Yisroel, Boaz commentary to Avos, chapter 3. Reflecting on the gentile nations’ ethical advancement, he notes the pedagogical value of nature study in this process:

עכ"פ כל מה שהשיגו אח"כ בסבות הצלחתם בזה ובבא, נתהווה להם ע"י הם עצמן, באופן שנוכל לומר הן עשו את עצמן.

דהרבה שאבו ולמדו מתורת ה' באר הישראלי, בזמן הרב מאז ועד עתה. והרבה מחיובי האדם ומדרך המדות והמוסר, למדו

ע"י אורך הזמן והטבע. ע"י שבקע עליהן אור השכל מעט מעט כאור נוגה הולך ואור.

[2] The term is certainly inappropriate in some respects. Besides being an anachronism, it is clear that the Torah’s concept of min differs radically from how we tend to view species in science and everyday life. Nevertheless, there are obvious parallels, and I am encouraged by the fact that important scholars have already approached the subject along these lines. See, for example, José Faur, “The Hebrew Species Concept and the Origin of Evolution: R. Benamozegh’s Response to Darwin,” Rassegna Mensile di Israel 63:3 (1997), 42-66. Though I will use the term “species” throughout, my reference to either its modern connotation or the Torah’s min will be clear from context.

[3] It must be recalled that our focus in this essay is the ethically-oriented study of nature that occurs prior to, or parallel with, text-based Torah study. It is for this reason that Eruvin 100b and the events of sefer Bereishis are prioritized in our analysis, and it is in this context that we apply the term “species concept.” In halachic contexts, species are generally differentiated through morphology (consider the Rambam’s words in Hilchos Kilayim 3:5, for example). Even so, these morphological distinctions can guide us to broader ethical reflections; see Ramban to Vayikra 11:13. We bring the following halachically-oriented passage only because it is explicitly linked to Adam’s naming of the animals by the Netziv himself.

[4] “Mayr recognized 137 different species of bird and the tribesmen 136.” See Carol Kaesuk Yoon, Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), 105-106. Dr. Yoon identifies other nearly universal features of folk taxonomies, such as binomial nomenclature and familial terminology. Her work is also important in that it represents an acknowledgement, from an evolutionary biologist, that science’s current view of life has alienated us from the natural world to an astonishing degree.

[5] The Ran, in his commentary to Bereishis 6:14-15, also understands Noach to have taken a limited number of core species onto the Ark. Citing Chullin 63b, which teaches that numerous “species” of impure birds are all considered subtypes of the ayah, the Ran believes that these subtypes may be produced over time from the archetypal ayah due to environmental conditions. Rabbi David Luria arrives at the same understanding in order to explain the Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer’s claim that a surprisingly small number of creatures were brought onto the Ark (Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer 23). In more modern times, we find Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson arguing that while the major domains of nature were created independently, “this Creation does not deny the possibility of evolution after that of particular species through various mutations” (“Theories of Evolution,” Chabad, accessed January 31, 2023, See also our discussion of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam’s view below.

[6] Interestingly, this view of values as “ontological primitives” enjoys significant support in secular philosophy as well. See chapter 26 of Dr. Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World (Perspectiva, 2021). Dr. McGilchrist also points to philosopher Derek Parfit as a “naturalist” who nevertheless viewed values as “irreducible properties” (p. 1259).

[7] In his commentary on the Perek Shira, Rabbi Natan Slifkin offers an explanation for the absence of the leopard, arguing that the leopard’s quality of boldness is antithetical to the overarching theme of the Perek Shira. See Nature’s Song (Zoo Torah, 2009), 380. While not unreasonable, this explanation does little to illuminate the surprising absences of many other species. And if we consider the Perek Shira’s closing passage, which seems to teach that even the lowliest of creatures has redeeming qualities and a place in the universal symphony, then even the absence of the bold leopard remains somewhat surprising.


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