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Thoughts on Perek Shirah

Several years back, I stumbled upon some interesting volumes published by a young Orthodox rabbi from Great Britain, living in Israel, who serves as the Director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Bet Shemesh.  These volumes deal with various matters connected with Judaism and the animal kingdom.  Nosson (Natan) Slifkin has a website appropriately named “ZooTorah,” a Hebrew pun for “this is the Torah,” on which he shares interesting information on animals, nature, andtheir relationship to Judaism.  His works on natural history and our Jewish tradition are quite fascinating. One of his volumes is on several animals mentioned in the Torah who have only one of the two physical signs that indicate that they are kosher. Another volume is on various strange animals (some mythical it seems) mentioned in Jewish tradition. Rabbi Slifkin also has a volume devoted to an ancient text which appears in many traditional prayerbooks entitled Perek Shirah, literally, “a chapter of song,” which is the subject of my essay this week. In Perek Shirah, the authors picture all of creation joining in song to praise our Creator.  Various verses are ascribed to animals and birds, and different other natural features of creation and one might imagine them all joining together in a chorus of praise to the Almighty. Slifkin’s book is entitled “Nature’s Song.”

 

Nobody is quite sure when this collection of verses and sayings was assembled, though as we have seen before, our rabbis are only too eager to link such texts of uncertain origin to biblical figures or to early rabbinic teachers when they can.  In this case, it is suggested that King David was the author of this work, while others attribute it to his son, King Solomon, and still others believe it was a joint effort of father and son.  There are those who suggest it is the work of various teachers from the time of the Mishnah, among them Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi. Some see it as part of the early mystical tradition of Heichalotliterature which flourished around the third century CE.  At the very least, if the text is not 3000 years old, as Davidic authorship would require or part of the early rabbinic period, we do know for sure that it is at least 1000 years old.  Until the 13th century it was known primarily among the mystics.  However, from then on it begins to appear in standard machzorim, and various collections of prayers, siddurim, even in non-mystical circles.  In some places, Perek Shirah was viewed rather critically and was used by contending philosophical and theological parties as a source of controversy because of its elaborate personification of all of the elements of creation.

 

In this work, which is generally divided into six chapters, one finds various aspects of creation assigned different verses through which they offer praise to God.  The six chapters lead some to recommend reading one chapter each day during the week.  The first chapter has elements of the earth: heaven, the earth itself, Gan Eden (paradise), Gehinnom (hell), wilderness, fields, waters, seas, rivers, and springs all offering verses of praise.  The second chapter lists elements of the sky: day and night, sun and moon, stars and clouds, rain and dew among others.  Chapter three speaks of plants and trees, first in general, then more specifically of figs, pomegranates, dates, apples, various grains and vegetables all singing praises of the divine.  The fourth chapter starts off with a detailed passage on roosters, then we continue with hens and doves, vultures and cranes, followed by a whole list of other birds and flying creatures,domestic fowl, and some insects such as locusts and spiders, and flies, and finally creatures of the sea, not only fish but seamonsters (the tannin, who may be a crocodile) and the leviathan (might be a whale), as well as the frog, one of the heroes of the story of the Exodus .  In chapter five we speak of large landcreatures, large and small kosher mammals such as cows, sheep, and goats, as well as the non-kosher pig along with equally non-kosher horses, camels, mules, and donkeys, elephants, lions, bears, foxes, and wolves, and even the hound and the cat.  The final chapter deals with more lowly creatures such as reptiles, snakes and scorpions, snails, ants, mice, and rats, and bringing up the rear is the poor kelev, the dog, whom earlier generationstended to look down upon.  Rabbi Slifkin, however, points rather to the dog’s loyalty to its master and notes that we might see the word “kelev” as being short for “kulo lev” all heart.  Many of us recognize that creature.

 

Right after we read of the dog’s praise of God, which cites a possibly familiar verse from Psalms that appears in the opening section of Kabbalat Shabbat, “Come let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before God our maker,” we find a complete reproof of a sage who failed to appreciate the value of dogs.  We read of Rabbi Yeshayah, a student of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa who fasted 85 fasts, one for each of the participants in the Shirahor the equivalent of the word “Peh” mouth, and who questioned the inclusion of dogs in this song.  He noted that it says in Isaiah that “dogs are brazen of spirit, they do not know satisfaction.”  This complaint was answered, we’re told, by a heavenly visitation.  An angel arrived at his door and told him to stop fasting.  He informed him of the great merit of the dogs who did not snarl on the night of the Exodus as the Israelites prepared to depart.  Not only this does the angel tell Rabbi Yeshaya, but alsotheir excrement is used in the processing of animal hides for the manufacture of parchment for sacred texts. Thus dogs, like all creatures, serve God’s purposes in the world and thus we by reading Perek Shirah are reminded that we too all serve a purpose in this world and each of us can fulfill God’s will by our actions and our words.  Thus we all take part in the great song of creation.

 

Rabbi Slifkin notes that there are many variant texts of Perek Shirah; almost no two are alike, he claims. Some include creatures not mentioned in other versions.  Some attribute different verses to different creations.  Often the order is varied.  While most versions have 85 creations mentioned, some have fewer, only 70.  Regardless, all of these versions seem to have the identical purpose of demonstrating how all of creation acknowledges its Creator and offers praise.  This provides a rather broad hint to humankind to get with the program.  Virtually all of these birds and animals are native to the Land of Israel and even the elephant was not unknown in ancient Israel thanks to invading armies that used them as modern armies usetanks today.  The other possible exception would be the Leviathan, depending on how one understands that term as an actual creature or a mythological one.

 

Many of the verses cited actually mention the name of the purported speaker in them.  These verses primarily come from biblical texts, mostly from the book of Psalms.  A few are from rabbinic texts or on occasion from another source.  Not all of them are obvious as to why they were chosen.  Thus the commentators have their work cut out for them showing us the ways each verse is appropriate for the one who offers it.

 

Aside from this passage in which Rabbi Yeshaya is taught thatimportant lesson about dogs, the texts of the various verses of praise put in the mouths of all creatures are preceded by two passages which speak of the merit of those who not only read but engage in deep study of Perek Shirah.  At first glance, if one merely reads these words their significance may seem rather minor.  However, as I’ve begun delving into this intriguing work, I’ve found not only the commentary by Rabbi Slifkin in English, but also several Hebrew commentaries that consider each passage individually in much greater depth.  The introductory paragraphs to this work indicate that those who engage in the study of this work in this world will merit engaging in it in the world to come.

 

There is also a short midrash that precedes the verses in the first chapter, that tells about King David who upon completion of the book of Psalms (which is attributed to him), he felt rather proud of himself.  And he said to God, “Is there a creature in Your world who has offered more songs and praises than me?”  At that moment, says the midrash, a frog appeared before him and said to him, “David, don’t be so proud of yourself, for I offer more songs and praises than do you and beyond that every song that I sing is equivalent to 3000 parables.”  The frog also mentions the great mitzvah he performs by offering himself as dinner to some sea creatures to fulfill the divine will.  This erudite frog cites a verse from Proverbs, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you shall heap coals of fire on his head and God shall reward you.”  Do not read it as “will reward you” (y’shalem lach), but instead as “shall make him at peace with you (yashlimeihu lach). The frog’s croaking, which is his way of singing God’s praises,is actually his undoing, for it reveals his location to those predators who wish to dine on him.  Blissfully, that croaking goes on and Mr. Frog offers himself sacrificially to those who are next in line in the food chain, thus fulfilling God’s commandment.

 

If humankind seems strikingly absent from this tableau of creation, singing the divine praises, the commentators remind us that we are indeed a major component in the creation story and thus for each of the creations mentioned, after analyzing their significance they go back and ask about the human connection to that aspect of creation.  From the very beginning when we read of the song of the heavens, the rabbis remind us that the numerical value of the word “shamayim” heavens, is the same as “neshamah” the soul.  The heaven tell of the glory of God and indeed so does the neshamah of each of us.  As we breathe, as we live, we offer praise to the Creator, as the book of Psalms concludes, “Kol haneshamah t’halel Yah, Hal’luYah.” “All who have breath (every soul) shall praise the Lord (Yah), Hal’luYah.”

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