Perek Shirah is an ancient text that is at least two
thousand years old; some commentaries even attribute its
authorship to Dovid Hamelech! It is a list of eighty-four
elements of the natural world, including elements of the sky
and of the earth, plants, birds, animals and insects,
attaching a posuk from the Torah to each.
The concept behind Perek Shirah is that everything in
the natural world teaches us a lesson in philosophy or
ethics, and the verse gives a clue as to what that lesson
"Perek Shirah" literally means "Chapter of Song." But
in which way is it a song? The text itself is certainly not a
song; the words do not rhyme, nor is it arranged in a
structure of poetic verse. Perhaps the word "song" refers to
the actions of the creatures involved. But it can hardly be
true in a literal sense that creatures sing -- we could get
away with such a description for the birds and maybe certain
insects, but surely not for the mammals and reptiles, and
certainly not for plants!
Rather, the creatures sing in a more abstract, perhaps
mystical sense. A melody is comprised of a variety of notes.
Each note by itself is plain and boring. It is the harmony of
a variety of different notes, each occurring at a specific
time, which produces a beautiful melody.
The same is true, at a larger scale, of an orchestra. Its
beauty arises from the harmony of the different instruments
involved. There is no such thing as the "best" instrument. If
every musician were to play the same instrument, the results
would not be particularly spectacular. It is precisely
because an orchestra is made up of different instruments that
the composite symphony is so pleasant.
The natural world plays such a symphony. It is made up of a
vast array of different components, all of which function
together in perfect harmony. The ecosystem is a finely
engineered and highly delicate assemblage. There is a
bewildering set of interacting patterns. At a very general
scale, we note that the flowers are pollinated by the
insects, and the insects are preyed upon by reptiles, which
are in turn eaten by mammals. When these die, their remains
fertilize the soil for new growth, aided by the sun and rain.
It is a marvelous and extraordinarily intricate system. This
symphony of different components is the song of nature.
But this is a shallow perspective, taking nature at face
value alone. When we consider that each aspect of nature
manifests different spiritual qualities, the song takes on an
entirely new dimension. Nature is seen to be a tapestry of
spiritual colors, playing a transcendent melody. This is the
real symphony of nature.
We can develop the metaphor of an orchestra more fully. In
this spiritual orchestra, the musical instruments are the
creations in the natural world, of land, sea and sky. The
Craftsman who made these instruments is the Creator Himself,
who also composed the melody that they should play. The
different musical notes are the different lessons of the
Torah, each of which can be played by a specific creation.
The musicians are man himself who, by learning the lesson
that the creation embodies, are playing its music. And
Perek Shirah is the instructor and conductor, teaching
man how to produce the correct sound from each instrument and
how they he should function with others in harmony.
Let us look at the songs in Perek Shirah of two
animals: the horse and the mule. Perek Shirah tells us
that "The horse is saying, `Behold, as the eyes of the
servants to the hand of their master, as the eyes of the
maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so are our eyes to
Hashem our G-d until He will favor us' (Tehillim
123:2)." What does this mean? What lesson is the horse
On February 18th, 1519, Hernando Cortes set sail from Spain
for Mexico with six hundred men and sixteen horses. Within
two years, he had conquered the Aztec civilization, and their
capital city of Tenochtitlan lay in ruins. His victory was
doubtless due in part to the fact that his men possessed
guns; but they had another, even greater, advantage. As
William H. Prescott noted in his History of the Conquest
of Mexico in 1843, it was the sixteen horses that won the
battle; not through any brute advantage that they gave so
much as through the terror that they inflicted:
"[The Aztecs] . . . had no large domesticated animals, and
were unacquainted with any beast of burden. Their
imaginations were bewildered when they beheld the strange
apparition of the horse and his rider moving in unison and
obedient to one impulse, as if possessed of a common nature;
and as they saw the terrible animal, with `his neck clothed
in thunder,' bearing down on their squadrons and trampling
them in the dust, no wonder they should have regarded him
with the mysterious terror felt for a supernatural being."
This might help us appreciate the peculiarities of beasts of
burden in general and the domestic horse in particular. Proud
and powerful, it nevertheless submits itself to the control
of relatively weak man. Capable of a thundering gallop, it
will trot docilely behind its human master. Tossing its mane
in a symbol of freedom, it readily obeys instructions from
the small biped sitting on its back.
Its free spirit does not necessarily suffer from deferring to
authority. Picture the lowly soldier, just drafted into the
ranks of the nation's army. There is a chain of authority,
and he is right at the bottom of it. Everyone gives orders to
him. There are two courses of action open to him. He can
maintain his independence, fight for his freedom, and refuse
to submit himself to any authority -- in which case he will
soon find himself in prison.
Alternatively, he can choose to control his ego and submit
himself to authority. If he excels at this self-discipline,
he will find himself rising in rank. The more he submits to
the authority of the system, the more powerful he becomes.
Servitude is not suicide. The same is true for man's
relationship with Hashem. The human spirit is not compromised
by subjugation to Hashem's authority.
" 'The words were chorus (engraved) on the tablets'
(Shemos 32:16) -- Do not read chorus but rather
cheirus (free); for there is no freer man than the one
who busies himself with Torah" (Tanna Devei Eliyahu
This statement initially seems bizarre. How can subjugating
oneself to the yoke of the Torah, with its 613 commandments
governing every sphere of one's activities, be rated as a
process of freedom?
The answer is that while such a person is not free in the
sense of having a wealth of choices, he is free in the sense
of being free to follow the dictates of his soul. He is not
enslaved by the desires of his body, and Hashem prevents him
from being encumbered by the burdens of the material world.
In dedicating himself to the service of the King of Kings,
lesser forces lose their hold on him.
The horse is not disadvantaged by its self- discipline in
subduing its spirit to the control of man. On the contrary,
its gains are numerous. It need no longer be enslaved to
searching for food and water, as these needs are supplied by
its human masters. Its proud spirit finds expression in the
thundering charges of races and war.
The song of the horse is the song of the one who subjugates
himself to higher authority: "A song of ascents; to You I
raised my eyes, Who dwells in the Heavens" (Tehillim
123:1). The psalm continues, "Behold, as the eyes of the
servants to the hand of their master, as the eyes of the
maidservant to the hand of her mistress, so are our eyes to
Hashem our G-d until He will favor us." By dedicating himself
to the service of Hashem, man finds ultimate fulfillment and
The song of the mule in Perek Shirah is,
"All the kings of the earth shall acknowledge You, Hashem,
for they have heard the sayings of Your mouth" (Tehillim
The Torah is not always popular. Often, its lessons are
perceived as being old-fashioned, politically incorrect or
otherwise unfashionable and outmoded. This phenomenon is the
backdrop to a cryptic story in the gemora:
[The Elders of Athens asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya:]
"When salt spoils, with what can one salt it?"
[Rabbi Yehoshua] replied: "With the afterbirth of a mule."
"But does a mule have an afterbirth?"
"And does salt spoil?" (Bechoros 8b)
When the Elders of Athens spoke about salt, they were
referring to Torah, the preservative of the Jewish People.
They considered that this preservative had spoiled; that it
had become obsolete and irrelevant. After all, those were the
glorious days of Greek culture, and many Jews were seeing the
Torah as old-fashioned. Rather than observe Shabbos, they
wanted to run in the Olympics; rather than study Torah, they
wanted to study Greek philosophy. It was time, said the Greek
Elders, to salt the salt. It was time to change the Torah in
order to keep it in the spirit of the day and ensure its
popularity. It was time to reform Judaism.
Rabbi Yehoshua replied that they should use the afterbirth of
a mule, the hybrid offspring of a horse and donkey. A mule
seems like a wonderful animal. It's strong, it's surefooted,
it's long- lived. By taking elements of the donkey and of the
horse, we seem to have the best of both worlds. It seems just
like a Hellenized, modernized Judaism -- hybridizing the two
cultures in order to have the best of both worlds.
There's just one problem.
Mules can't breed. They are sterile.
You want to reform Judaism, to combine it with the latest
fads? Sure, it will look great, and it will doubtless be very
popular. But it won't last. It's not authentic and it can't
perpetuate. Torah, the preservative of the Jewish People,
will continue to preserve them, as long as it is left pure
The truth of the matter is that in any case the mule is not
such a wonderful innovation. Like most of man's experiments
to alter the natural state of affairs, that which seems like
an improvement turns out to have unexpected drawbacks. The
mule turns out to be a stubborn animal. It might be a strong
worker, but that's not much help when it refuses to work.
Stubborn, intractable and often bad-tempered, the mule isn't
such a terrific new model, after all.
Changing the Torah and making it more fashionable, aside from
preventing its perpetuation, is never really an improvement
anyway. Hashem made it the way it is because that's the way
it works. The Torah is perfect, and perfection cannot be
improved. Any modifications can only detract from it. That it
why we are instructed: "Do not add to the matter that I am
commanding you, and do not subtract from it" (Devorim
It's obvious why removing aspects of the Torah is wrong; but
even additions are forbidden. That which is perfect does not
need improvement. And once man adds to the Torah, he shows
that he considers it to be in need of alteration, which is
the first step on the path to essentially reforming it
according to his whims.
This lesson is especially important for the leaders of the
Jewish People. Although placed in a position of power, they
are to remember that the salt of the Jewish People doesn't
need preserving, and any attempts to alter it are harmful and
forbidden. Newly-crowned kings are paraded on mules, the
animal that remind them that changing Hashem's work only
detracts from it:
" . . . King David has made Shlomo king . . . And they have
caused him to ride on the king's mule" (Melochim I
It's often difficult to understand the wisdom of the Torah.
It might be tempting to tamper with it, to alter it, to
"Rabbi Yehuda expounded . . . What does it mean `All the
kings of the earth shall acknowledge You, Hashem?' . . .
When the Holy One said `I [am Hashem your G-d]' and `You
shall not have [any other gods],' the nations of the world
said, He is expounding for His own honor; but when He added
`Honor your father and mother,' they retracted this and
acknowledged [the authority and wisdom of] the first
commandments" (Kiddushin 31a).
The first commandments, which teach of man's duties to his
Creator, were seen as irrelevant. Does Hashem really have
anything to do with us? And is there any practical benefit to
observing Shabbos, when bread has to be put on the table?
But when the laws that govern interpersonal relationships
were given, such as that of honoring one's parents, it was
obvious to all that the Torah's instructions are not
irrelevant and obscure whims. It became clear that the Torah -
- all of the Torah -- is a precisely crafted system that
perfectly governs human society.
But the commandment of "Honor your father and mother" also
reminds us of a specific point: that we are to acknowledge
and respect the natural order of things. It's not only the
Torah that is Hashem's creation -- the entire world is His
handiwork. It is forbidden to crossbreed animals. We may not
try to reform the natural world, and we may not try to reform
The song of the mule is, "All the kings of the earth shall
acknowledge You, Hashem, for they have heard the sayings of
Your mouth." The mule, that seemingly fantastic innovation
which turns out to be sterile and stubborn, reminds us to
acknowledge that Hashem knows what's best. Attempts to alter
and improve upon His work are pointless and doomed.
Rabbi Nosson Slifkin learns at the Mirrer Yeshiva and
teaches at Ohr Somayach. He is the author of the Focus
Series on the parsha, and Seasons of Life: The
Reflection of the Jewish Year in the Natural World, all
published by Targum Press. Awaiting publication is
Nature's Song, an English commentary on Perek
Shirah, from which this essay is extracted.