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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Dovid Campbell

Introduction to the Perek Shira Project - Part IV




A Mysterious Ensemble


We can begin by exploring the history of commentary on the Perek Shira and then analyzing the nature of the text itself. [1] The Perek Shira practically cries out for interpretation, and we can observe many rich exegetical traditions orbiting this unique work. [2] Although there is often a temptation to reduce these traditions to “rational” or “mystical” schools of thought, this distinction obscures the nuance that many commentators might have sought in their interpretation. Such nuance seems to be present in the commentary of Rabbi Moshe di Trani, the Mabit, whose commentary to this work is one of the earliest we possess. In his introduction to the Perek Shira, the Mabit is happy to offer esoteric explanations alongside those that “bring the concept of Perek Shira closer to the intellect.” So, how does the Mabit understand the mysterious ensemble of this work?


The Mabit offers two explanations in his introduction. It is possible that the author merely included those species for which he found relevant Scriptural verses, either in the sense that the verse directly references the species or the author possessed some tradition about their association. It is also possible that these species are inclusive of all others, and they therefore serve as general categories, encompassing all the phenomena of reality. Without mentioning the Netziv’s concept of dynamic unfolding, the Mabit fully endorses the idea that these species are uniquely archetypal.


We find this approach echoed in a much more recent commentary, and here the concept of a dynamic unfolding in time is highlighted. Drawing on a comment of Rabbeinu Avraham ben haRambam, Rabbi Beryl Klein proposes that the elements of the Perek Shira are those original species from which all others were later produced. [3] It now seems entirely plausible to interpret the ensemble of the Perek Shira as the archetypal species, incorporating all others and giving rise to them temporally.


But what about our earlier difficulty with this view? Is it reasonable to consider four closely-related species of canine (wolf, fox, dog, and hound) as utterly distinct? We should recognize that such a difficulty only arises when we slip back into a taxonomic view of the natural world, which approaches “relatedness” through the lens of morphology or genetics. Though the Netziv has shown us that the Torah recognizes such a lens, and even makes use of it in some halachic contexts, this is not the Torah-independent lens being described by Rebbe Yochanan. If we adopt the proper view, it becomes easier to see how morphologically similar species might nevertheless manifest radically different ethical values, and vice-versa. [4]


While we may have arrived at a plausible explanation for the Perek Shira’s cast of characters, we still haven’t clarified the nature of its teachings. If the Perek Shira is truly an ancient example of Rebbe Yochanan’s practice–or, more accurately, an attempt to ground this practice in a firm grasp of the archetypal species–then its teaching must be open to human investigation and experience. If the lessons sung by these plants and animals cannot be perceived in the plants and animals themselves, then the Perek Shira bears little resemblance to Rebbe Yochanan’s practice, which clearly assumes the role of human perception. So, do we have any reason to read the Perek Shira in this way?


Above, we cited the Sefer HaIkkarim, who encouraged us to investigate and derive ethical lessons from the natural world. Immediately following the cited passage, Rabbi Albo adds the following:


ועל הכונה הזאת נתיסד פרק שירה, שאמרו רבותינו ז״ל כל האומר פרק שירה בכל יום מובטח לו שהוא בן העולם הבא, ואין הכונה על ההגה והצפצוף בפה אלא על מחשבת הלב, כמו אמרתי אני בלבי, והמחשבה היא שיסתכל כי מכל אחד מן הנבראים הנראים לעין יש ליקח ראיה על איזו מדה טובה או מוסר השכל או דבר חכמת בינה, כמו שאמרו שם שמים מה הם אומרים השמים מספרים כבוד אל וגו׳, ואומרים ואומר הנזכר שם בכל פרק שירה, לרמוז על ההוראה, כאמרם ז״ל זאת אומרת… (ספר העיקרים ג:א)
And the Perek Shira was founded on this intention, for our rabbis (may their memories be blessed) have said: Everyone who says Perek Shira everyday, he is assured that he is a son of the World to Come. The intention is not on [mere] utterance and chattering of the mouth, but rather on the thought of the heart, as in “I said to myself in my heart.” And the thought is to perceive that from each one of the creations that are visible to the eye, one should take evidence regarding some good quality, ethical lesson, or the wisdom of understanding. As they said there, “The heavens, what do they say? The heavens speak the glory of God, etc.” And the “saying” that is mentioned there in the entire Perek Shira is to allude to demonstration, like their statement (may their memory be blessed), “This says [i.e. this demonstrates]...”

We see that the Perek Shira itself was founded on this intention (the ethically-oriented investigation of nature). Not only this, but even the language of the Perek Shira indicates that its lessons are experiential. According to Rabbi Albo, the elements of nature “speak” in the sense that their ways of being testify to the lessons of their associated verses.


Although he is one of the few Rishonim to discuss the nature of the Perek Shira, Rabbi Albo is actually not the first. Rabbi Shmuel Kimchi wrote the earliest commentary on the Perek Shira that has come down to us, and he notes in his introduction that he has drawn some of his explanations from contemporary sages. For these reasons, his commentary provides an important window into one of the earliest exegetical traditions on this text.

Rabbi Kimchi clearly views the Perek Shira as a work open to novel and continued interpretation. Like Rabbi Albo, he explicitly links it to Rebbe Yochanan’s teaching in Eruvin 100b (see Rabbi Kimchi’s fascinating introduction to the text). In some cases he appeals to scientific discoveries in order to explain a creature’s unique song, and he even encourages the reader to offer their own interpretation when he finds himself at a loss. [5] Rabbi Kimchi does not seem to view the Perek Shira as an esoteric work, with a fixed meaning available only to those initiated into its secrets. On the contrary, the work must be approached through the realm of experience. Rabbi Kimchi is so adamant on this point that he even reinterprets the identity of the Leviathan (which he acknowledges generally refers to a giant sea creature) on the grounds that the Perek Shira would not teach a lesson through a creature whose behavior we cannot witness and analyze. [6]


Similarly, Rabbi Eliyahu HaKohen of Izmir finds a connection between human investigation and the study of Perek Shira:


הרי עיני כל משכיל רואה מעלת האדם, ושבעבורו נבראו כל הנבראים, ולכן כלם נותנים עזר וסיוע לאדם, שמהם ילמד להיישיר דרכו ולהעמיד ולקיים כל הבריאה כנז"ל. כמה יש ללמוד מן החיות ומן הבהמות, כדכתיב מלפנו מבהמות ארץ. ושלמה המע״ה מוכיח לעצל מן הנמלה, וכמה וכמה יש ללמוד מהם. עיין בחכמי המחקר בדברים הסגוליים המוטבעים בבריות אשר ילמוד מהם האדם לתקן מדותיו כדי שלא להיות פחות ונעדר מהם. כי חסרון גדול יגיע לנפשו ביום הדין, בנמצאה בהמה או חיה שלם ממנו, אוי לאותה בושה וכלימה. למה לא ילמד אדם משמים וארץ ימים ונהרות מדברות ואילנות ועשבים ובהמות וחיות ועופות ושקצים ורמשים, שכלם יודעים ומכירים לבוראם ואומרים שירה לפניו בכל יום, כל אחד השירה השייך לו כמבואר בספר פרק שירה. (שבט מוסר כב)
Behold, the eyes of every intelligent person see the lofty stature of man, and that all creations were created for him, and therefore all of them give help and assistance to man. From them, he learns to straighten his way and to establish and sustain the entire creation. How much there is to learn from the wild and domestic beasts, as it is written, “He teaches us from the beasts of the land.” And Shlomo HaMelech, peace be upon him, reproaches the lazy person through the ant. There is so much to learn from them! See the works of the scientists regarding the special traits that are imprinted in creatures from which a person will learn to correct his own character traits, so that he will not be lesser and devoid of them. For a great deficiency will reach his soul on the day of judgment when it is found that a domestic or wild beast is more perfect than he is. Woe to that shame and humiliation! Why should a person not learn from the heavens and earth, the oceans and rivers, the deserts, trees, grasses, domestic and wild beasts, the birds, the creepers and crawlers? All of them know and recognize their Creator and say song before him everyday, each one the song relevant to him, as it is explained in the book, Perek Shira.

To align an ethically-oriented investigation of nature, drawn from scientific writings, with the overarching program of the Perek Shira would be exceedingly strange if Rabbi Eliyahu HaKohen did not find a basic correspondence between their goals and methodologies.


Perhaps the most explicit connection between Rebbe Yochanan’s practice and the Perek Shira comes from one of the classic commentaries on the Ein Yaakov. In his Iyun Yaakov to Eruvin 100b, Rabbi Yaakov Reischer offers an explanation for how the cat’s essential quality of modesty relates to its song in the Perek Shira. Similarly, the lesson conveyed by the ant’s song finds full expression in the behavior attributed to it by Rebbe Yochanan. Rabbi Reischer clearly sees a tight unity between the two disciplines, with the ethical middos that are disclosed to human perception being intimately bound up with the lessons conveyed by these animals’ songs.


Finally, it is worthwhile to reflect on the text of the Perek Shira itself. There is no universal agreement as to who authored this fascinating work. [7] Among the commentators, some attribute it to Dovid HaMelech or his son, Shlomo, while many are inclined to view it as a product of the Tannaim that was preserved as a sort of baraisa, an extra-mishnaic teaching. [8] Regardless of its origin, one must acknowledge the numerous textual variants and the significant differences between them.


Following Rabbi Korman’s scholarship, we find the Perek Shira containing as few as sixty-one and as many as ninety-three natural phenomena. There are at least eighteen unique versions of the text, not including alternative arrangements of some versions. These texts sometimes differ widely from one another. Many creatures are simply missing from the majority of texts; others are generally included but have different verses associated with them. There are other differences as well. [9]


These are obviously not simple scribal errors, and–in a work where even the arrangement of stanzas is pregnant with meaning–they yield significantly different conceptions of the natural world. It seems clear that, throughout history, various transcribers and commentators have felt at liberty to augment the text. [10] Even in relatively modern times, we find Rabbi Yaakov Emden adding the song of the plants. Rabbi Emden did not view this as a true addition and based his decision on a well-known Gemara, [11] but it is entirely possible that other writers did not feel the same constraints or had their own traditional justifications. Additionally, the songs are not limited to verses from Tanach, with some versions containing passages from the Talmud and Zohar. [12]


What emerges is a vision of a work in flux. We cannot know if there was an original, “authentic” Perek Shira, but what seems clear is that later sages viewed it not as a static work but as a dynamic discipline. It was an ongoing attempt to identify those phenomena of nature that are archetypal and to select the Scriptural verses that best embody their ethical essences. Such a conception might seem problematic if the Perek Shira is viewed as a primarily liturgical or mystical work, as it is often seen today, but it makes perfect sense if we follow the above sources and interpret this text in the broader context of Rebbe Yochanan’s practice.



Opening Another Book


Few today would deny the spiritual value of the natural world or even its necessity as an object of study. But, as Rabbi Levovitz warned, we often lack the proper orientation towards this study and implicitly accept a materialistic worldview. We also fail to clearly articulate a method for this study and content ourselves with a generalized appreciation for the wisdom in nature–a valuable acquisition to be sure, but one that is ultimately inferior to transformative ethical insight, as Rabbi Wolbe taught. This idea of genuine ethical insight, mediated by nature study and grounded in our intrinsic moral sense, might strike some as being fundamentally opposed to the Torah’s way. [13] For this reason, this essay has attempted to demonstrate that this idea runs through the works of some of our greatest Geonim, Rishonim, Achronim, and modern Torah luminaries, and we have sought to establish the plausibility of interpreting the Perek Shira in this light.


At the core of this approach is an understanding that the natural world, the human soul, and the revealed Torah all reflect the same essential values, but they do so differently, and this is by design. Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, in his Meshech Chochma on the Torah, reflects on the ambiguous phrasing of Shemos 24:12:


והתורה והמצוה אשר כתבתי להורתם – אשר כתבתי לא יתכן על התורה והמצוה ועיין רשב"ם, ונראה דאלמלא נתנה תורה היו למדין צניעות כו' גזל מנמלה כו' (גמ' עירובין), לכן אמר אשר כתבתי בספר הטבע אשר יצרתי שזה ספר של השי"ת היוצרה, ולפי דברי ריש לקיש בריש ברכות, הכוונה על אשר כתב השם בנשמות כלל ישראל שכל אחד קיבל חלקו מסיני והוא כתוב על לוח לבם חרותה במקור נשמותיהם כל מה שתלמיד ותיק עתיד לחדש וזהו גמרא ודו"ק.
“And the Torah, and the mitzva, which I wrote, to instruct you” – “Which I wrote” cannot refer to “the Torah and the mitzva” (see Rashbam). And it seems that [the meaning is] “if the Torah had not been given, we would have learned modesty etc., theft from the ant etc.” (Eruvin). Therefore He said “which I wrote in the book of nature that I formed,” since this is the book of Hashem, may He be blessed, who formed it. And according to the words of Reish Lakish in the beginning of Berachos, the intention is on that which Hashem wrote in the souls of the assembly of Israel, since each person received his portion from Sinai, and it is written on the tablet of their heart, engraved in the source of their souls, all that a veteran student would someday innovate, and this is Gemara. Analyze and it will be found simple.

Alongside the revealed Torah, there is another “writing” which may be interpreted as either the natural world or the human soul. Just like the Torah, the intention of this additional writing is “to instruct you”–to provide you with another lens.


Consider Rabbi Meir Simcha’s commentary on Shemos 32:16, in which he analyzes the Gemara’s statement that the Tablets could be read both from within and from without. Once again drawing on Eruvin 100b, he explains that a comprehension of Hashem’s supernal wisdom can be gained by two paths–the natural world and the revealed Torah. Rabbi Meir Simcha emphasizes that both paths are called “reading” by the Gemara. They are two different lenses on the same Divine lessons, both entailing careful study and interpretation.


We can embrace the fact that we have been given two books: the book of nature and the book of Torah. [14] They are ultimately complementary, but each has its own language, its own rules, and its own methodology. To study both books in tandem is like viewing an object with both eyes–it yields an aspect of depth that is unavailable to either eye alone. And this means that to ignore either book leaves us with an impoverished vision of reality and a partial grasp of our spiritual ideal. In an era when technology and urbanization have wonderfully strengthened the dissemination of Torah but greatly weakened our connection with the natural world, regaining the proper balance might be the unique challenge–and opportunity–of our time.



Notes


[1] In this analysis, I have relied heavily on Rabbi Eliezer Korman’s Perek Shira HaShalem (Bnei Brak, 2005), a work of incomparable value for a serious study of the Perek Shira. Besides offering an anthology of both major and lesser-known commentaries, Rabbi Korman presents an extensive survey of the Perek Shira’s numerous textual variants. It is important to note, however, that this work does not incorporate the earliest commentary on the Perek Shira by Rabbi Shmuel Kimchi.


[2] See Malachi Beit-Arié, “Perek Shira: Introduction and Critical Edition,” (PhD diss., Hebrew University 1966), who outlines these exegetical traditions, their histories, and their motivations. As will become clear, I am less inclined towards a sharp delineation of these traditions but recognize the value in highlighting certain trends.


[3] Cited in Perek Shira HaShalem, p. 44. Rabbi Klein draws on Rabbeinu Avraham’s commentary to Bereishis 1:22. In a footnote, Rabbi Korman explains this comment in the same manner as Rabbi Klein, although I am unsure if his intention is to support Rabbi Klein’s interpretation or to simply elucidate it. In my view, it is easier to interpret Rabbeinu Avraham as referring to an increase in population than an increase in species. In either case, Rabbi Klein’s inclination to interpret the Perek Shira in this light and Rabbi Korman’s willingness to cite his approach indicate that neither understood the nature or content of the Perek Shira to inherently preclude such an interpretation.


[4] For example, the wolf manifests ferocity and aggression, whereas the fox–although also a predator–embodies a distinct furtiveness and slyness. Against both of those, the dog is a symbol of loyalty and attachment. If it displays aggression, it is generally of a protective nature. It is difficult to determine the precise line between a dog and a hound, but assuming that the latter refers to a special type of hunting dog, then we can appreciate how the hound displays a very unique type of predatory behavior–almost intermediate between the wolf and the dog but distinct from both.


[5] Regarding his incorporation of scientific discoveries, see commentary to the spider, the fox, the snake, and the ant. Regarding his encouragement of the reader’s interpretation, see commentary to the ox/donkey/camel. We find an even stronger conviction regarding the individual’s ability to investigate and interpret the Perek Shira in the commentary of Rabbi Chanoch Zundel Luria (Kenaf Renanim, commentary to the Sun): עניני פרק שירה, אשר הענין והבחינה הנלמד מהנמצא, הוא אשר יפול עין כל אדם בתחילת ההסתכלות ולא יצטרך לעמוק בסתרי חכמת הטבע אשר אנשיה מעטים, אבל הבחינה בברואים, לכל אדם מסורה, כפי שיד שכלם מגעת, איש איש כפי עיני בחינתם, יעסוק בפרק שירה. ולולי זאת היה ענין פרק שירה נתונה לבני עליה, וכבר קרא הנביא לכל אשר בשם ישראל יכונה "שאו מרום עיניכם וראו מי ברא אלה וגו'." ולזה אמרו האלהיים בפתיחה: כל העוסק בפרק שירה. ולא אמרו: כל "תוכני" "טבעי" "למודיי" יעסוק בזה. הרי עשו חובה לכל עינים לו ישים לבו להבין מה שעיניו רואות.

[6] Rabbi Kimchi reinterprets it as a human, thereby adding a unique element which other commentators consider to be conspicuously absent from the Perek Shira. Regarding the conviction that the Perek Shira contain only elements that are available to experience, see Kenaf Renanim, commentary to Garden of Eden.


[7] See Perek Shira HaShalem, Introduction, pp. 1-2, for a collection of the major positions on this subject. Our earliest manuscript evidence for the Perek Shira dates from the 10th century; see Malachi Beit-Arié, “Perek Shira: Introduction and Critical Edition,” 1,5.


[8] A dissenting voice is Rabbi Moshe Taku, who views the entire work as a Karaite forgery. Ironically, our first reference to the Perek Shira is from a tenth century Karaite work that labels it a Rabbinic forgery. It seems clear that the majority of Rabbinic authorities found neither theory particularly compelling. See Malachi Beit-Arié, “Perek Shira: Introduction and Critical Edition,” 8-9.


[9] For example, some versions lack chapter divisions, while others are divided into four, five, or six chapters. These chapters are sometimes titled according to domains of the natural world, but often they are simply numbered.


[10] Or, alternatively, the Perek Shira was originally composed in numerous variants, perhaps by many authors, and some of these variants have survived until today. Perhaps a combination of both theories would best explain the observed variations–I leave this to experts in the manuscript history. Whichever explanation is preferred, I believe the following conclusion stands.


[11] Rabbi Natan Slifkin offers a lucid explanation of Rabbi Emden’s reasoning. See Nature’s Song (Zoo Torah, 2009), 195.


[12] See, for example, the songs of the dove, frog, and rooster in most standard editions.


[13] After all, doesn’t Rebbe Yaakov warn us in the third chapter of Avos not to interrupt our Torah study, even for the sake of appreciating the natural world? Rabbi Luria analyzes this mishna in the introduction of his Kenaf Renanim and concludes that it is only addressing those who do not approach nature through the lens of the Perek Shira. Similarly, Rabbi Avigdor Miller explains that the mishna only prohibits abandoning one’s learning for the sake of personal enjoyment–”But if he’s enjoying it in order to see the chochmas Hashem and chesed Hashem, and to express his gratitude to Hakodosh Boruch Hu, that’s not stopping. Suppose a person is learning Bava Kama, and he stops Bava Kama to learn Bava Metziah in the middle, is it a sin? What of it? It’s stopping Torah to learn Torah.” (“Rav Avigdor Miller on The Torah of the Trees,” Toras Avigdor, accessed January 31, 2023, https://torasavigdor.org/rav-avigdor-miller-on-the-torah-of-the-trees/.)


[14] Or we might adopt Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen’s model of a book and its commentary:

וכמו ששמעתי כי הש"י ‏עשה ספר והוא העולם ופי' על אותו ספר והוא התורה כי התורה כמו מפרש קניני הש"י בנבראים (Tzidkas HaTzaddik 216).


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