Parshas Ha’azinu, which is almost exclusively a song written by Moshe Rabbeinu, provides an opportunity to discuss a collection of pesukim and midrashim called Perek Shirah that has become quite popular in recent years.
For those who are not familiar with it, its introduction is a story wherein a frog tells David Hamelech that he sings more praises than David does. This is followed by a long list of praises, which are predominantly pesukim of Tanach, that are recited by the heaven, the earth, the fields and all the other components of the earth and its atmosphere, the various fruit trees and other plants, followed by a long list of animals, both kosher and non-kosher. Perek Shirah then concludes with another paragraph of Tannaic origin.
Perek Shirah is an ancient text; the question is -- how old? First, let us examine who is its author. On this matter, there are differences of opinion.
The Mabit, a dayan on the beis din of Rav Yosef Karo and his successor as the av beis din of Tzefas, wrote a commentary to Perek Shirah in which he writes:
“It is easy to believe that David Hamelech compiled and organized Perek Shirah with the additional ruach hakodesh (Divine inspiration) that he received when he completed Sefer Tehillim. [This is because, when he finished Sefer Tehillim] David became conceited over the fact that he praised Hashem more than the earlier generations (see Yalkut Shimoni, Tehillim #889). He then chanced upon a frog, and, through ruach hakodesh, the song of the frog and the mitzvah in which it is involved were revealed to him, and also the songs of the heaven, the earth and all of their legions.”
We have this midrash as our introductory paragraph to Perek Shirah.
The difficulty with this approach, as mentioned by Yashir Moshe, a commentary to Perek Shirah printed 150 years ago, is that many pesukim in Perek Shirah come from the works of the Nevi’im who lived long after David. However, based on a Tosafos (Gittin 68a, s.v. u’kesiv), Yashir Moshe suggests that perhaps even though those pesukim were not yet written by the Nevi’im, they were already known to David.
Another suggestion is that Shelomo Hamelech compiled it (Mesaprim Tehillos Hashem, a different commentary to Perek Shirah, written by a talmid of the Rama of Fanu named Rav Chananyah).
In a letter to the Rogachtover Gaon, Rav Shalom Moscovitz, the rav of Shatz, wrote that while we do not know exactly who compiled Perek Shirah, many suggest that it was Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa (beginning of Daas Shalom, vol. I).The Be’eir Mayim Chayim (Bereishis 1:1) writes that Perek Shirah was compiled by Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol.
Some contend that it was compiled by Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi. This is suggested by the author of a commentary to Perek Shirah entitled Pi Eliyahu.
The Reciter of the Song
As we have said, most of Perek Shirah consists of several dozen lines and small paragraphs describing the praises of Hashem uttered by various creations. The question that is debated in Torah literature is who recites these praises. While preparing this article, I found an edition of Perek Shirah in Otzar Hachamah called “Perek Shirah Hashalem,” which was published in 5765 by Rav Eliezer Korman. In this edition, the author has several introductions, one of which is dedicated to the question of who recites the shirah. He lists no less than fifteen opinions, citing numerous sources for each view, of which we will discuss three:
1) The creations themselves recite the praises.
2) The creations are incapable of speech, but it would be appropriate for them to recite these praises.
3) Each creation has a malach that represents it in the spiritual world, and it is this malach that recites the praise.
Let us now examine the sources of each of these ideas. For the sake of brevity, we will quote only one work for each view and note where to find additional sources.
1) The Creations Themselves
The pasuk states, “Vechol siach hasadeh,” “And all the trees of the field” (Bereishis 2:5). Rabbeinu Bachye writes, “It would have been more appropriate to write, ‘vechol atzei hasadeh,’ but instead it states, ‘siach.’ This is similar to ‘lasu’ach basadeh,’ ‘to supplicate in the field’ (ibid. 24.63), which Chazal explain means prayer (Brachos 26a). This comes to hint that all the trees and plants praise and extol Hashem. This is similar to how Chazal (Rosh Hashnah 8a) expound the pasuk: ‘They shout joyfully, they even sing’ (Tehillim 65:14), that the stalks of grain sing, and their song is the praise of Hashem. This is because Hashem desires that His praise should come forth from all species, even from plant life” (see also Ohr Hachayim, Bereishis 3:1, last explanation; Maharsha, Chiddushei Aggados, Sanhedrin 37b, s.v. veshema tomar; Be’eir Mayim Chayim, Bereishis 1:1, s.v. vehineih hischalkus mahusam; Siddur of Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Shimshon of Germeiza, s.v. yotzeir ohr – vehakol yoducha).
2) What They Would Say
Before citing the proponent of this view, we will digress a moment, in order to provide the backdrop tothis opinion. The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 17a) relates the story of Rabbi Eliezer ben Durdeiya, who committed many sins. At one point, he was told that there was no hope for him and his repentance would never be accepted. He went and sat between two mountains and two valleys, and in succession, asked the mountains and valleys, the heavens and the earth, the sun and the moon, the stars and the constellations to ask for mercy on his behalf. They all responded, “Before we ask for compassion for you, we must ask for compassion for ourselves.” At that point, Rabbi Eliezer ben Durdeiya realized that it depended upon him. He began to cry and continued doing so, until he died. A Bas Kol (heavenly voice) announced that, for his remorse, Rabbi Eliezer ben Durdeiya has earned life in the World to Come.
The Ritva (ad loc.) writes that the mountains did not speak, because these creations are incapable of speech. Rather, this entire “conversation” took place in Rabbi Eliezer ben Durdeiya’s mind, who understood that if he were to ask all of these creations to seek compassion for him, this is what they would respond. This approach is how all similar incidents are to be understood, including Perek Shirah. If these creations had the power of speech, they would use these praises to revere Hashem.
3) Recited by the Angel
Another view of who recites the songs found in Perek Shirah is that it is the representative angel of each creation. One of the earliest proponents of this approach was the Arizal, as quoted by his primary student, Rav Chayim Vital, in Shaar Maamarei Rashbi (Perek Shirah): ‘
“You should know that all the creations in this world – each one of them has an angel, guardian or minister over it in Heaven. This is the hidden meaning of what is written in Chazal that there is no blade of grass below that does not have a mazal responsible for it who strikes it and says to it, ‘Grow’ (see Bereishis Rabbah 10:6). It is through this appointed angel that life force and spiritual bounty are drawn to that creation. Be aware that this angel cannot bring spiritual bounty before he says the song that is appropriate for it before Hashem. Through his praise, the spiritual bounty, life force and sustenance are granted to that creation.
“Thus, we find that all of those songs in Perek Shirah are sung by the ministers and the upper mazalos appointed over the lower beings” (see also Maharsha, Chiddushei Aggados, Pesachim 118b, s.v. dagim shebeyam; Mar’is Ha’ayin [Chida], Avodah Zarah 17a).
The Benefits and Advantages
If one wishes to see the great benefits and advantages of reciting Perek Shirah, one need not look further than the introductory lines of Perek Shirah:
1) Rebbi says, anyone who involves himself in Perek Shirah in this world, merits to learn, teach, keep, perform and fulfill [the Torah]; his learning will be preserved, he will be saved from the Evil Inclination, from bad occurrences, suffering in the grave, from the judgment of Gehinom, from the birth pangs of Moshiach; he will have a long life, he will merit to experience the days of Moshiach and life in the World to Come.
2) Rabbi Eliezer says, anyone who recites this song in this world, will merit to say it in the World to Come, as it states, “Az yashir Moshe” – “Then Moshe will sing.” It does not say, “shar,” “he sang,” rather, “yashir,” “he will sing” it in the future.
3) Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol says, anyone who involves himself with Perek Shirah daily, I testify concerning him that he is a ben olam haba (he will enter the World to Come), he will be saved from a bad occurrence, from the Evil Inclination, from a difficult judgment, from Satan and from all types of destroyers and damagers.
Aside from the above, we find several sources in Torah literature regarding the benefits of shirah in general and Perek Shirah in particular. These include:
1) Rabbeinu Bachya (Bamidbar 21:19) writes that, through shirah, an individual or a group can draw bracha from the upper realms to the lower world, similar to what can be accomplished through prayer. This is reflected in the gematria of “tefillah,” which, without the yud, equals 515, the same gematria as “shirah.”
2) A person who is a baal nefesh, conscientious, and seeks to benefit others, should recite Perek Shirah with proper intent. This rectifies what people have damaged in the creation and brings great benefit to the world. He who recited Perek Shirah will merit a nice portion in Gan Eden (Mesaprim Tehilos Hashem).
3) The power of Perek Shirah is great, for it is a beautiful, uplifted, praised and vintage song; a song which includes all the praises of all the creations above and below (Introduction of Maharam Chagiz to the Pi Eliyahu commentary on Perek Shirah).
4) According to the Mabit, in his commentary to Perek Shirah, Perek Shirah is even greater than Sefer Tehillim. Whereas each psalm in Tehillim has the ability to protect against evil or to bring a specific benefit, Perek Shirah has the power to bring about many salvations and protections.
When to Recite It?
The Elyah Rabbah (1:1) cites from the Derech Chochmah that there is a custom to recite Perek Shirah every day, based on the words of the introduction to Perek Shirah that whoever recites it every day is a ben olam haba. The Elyah Rabbah contends that the author was not precise in his reading, and in actuality it states, “anyone who involves himself every day with Perek Shirah.” The Elyah Rabbah explains that it is unnecessary to recite the entire Perek Shirah on a daily basis, but one should read part of it every day. He writes that the custom is to divide it into seven portions and complete it weekly, similar to Sefer Tehillim.
According to the Mabit, the preferred time of day to recite Perek Shirah is in the morning, as this is the time when “we take pleasure in the creation of the world.” People awaken and give thanks to Hashem for returning their souls to their bodies. Animals call out to Hashem and ask for sustenance (see Tehillim 104:21). Plant life is rejuvenated by the morning dew.
Mesaprim Tehillos Hashem suggests that Perek Shirah is not necessarily recited in its entirety. Rather, there are two possibilities of when one can make use of the songs of praises contained therein:
1) Whenever one comes across one of the creations mentioned in Perek Shirah, one should recite the pasuk attributed to that creation. By doing so, he “extracts the sparks of holiness” contained in that creation.
2) In order that a person not be an ingrate, whenever he benefits from any creation, no matter how insignificant, he should immediately give praise and thanks to Hashem for that benefit, and he should add the appropriate pasuk from Perek Shirah attributed to that creation. When someone does this, Hashem bestows bounty to that creation from which the person benefited.
This lesson can be derived from Adam Harishon. The Midrash (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, chap. 19) relates that Shabbos came before Hashem and protected Adam from being put to death. In appreciation, Adam recited a special praise in honor of Shabbos, “Mizmor Shir Leyom Hashabbos.”
Involvement means Reflection
The Mabit writes that the importance is not merely reciting Perek Shirah, but rather understanding and reflecting on it. The Tannaic introduction to Perek Shirah does not say, “Anyone who recites…,” but rather, “Anyone who is involved in…” Being “involved” goes beyond lip service and requires contemplation, in order to learn the moral lessons from the words of Perek Shirah.
Rav Yosef Albo writes, in Sefer Ha’ikrim (Maamar 3, chapter 1), that by contemplating the nature of the various creations, a person can gain insights regarding good character traits, moral lessons and practical advice. Rav Albo points to the Gemara (Eiruvin 100b) which tells us that many good traits can be derived from the animal kingdom. For this reason, Perek Shirah was compiled. It is meant to give a person the opportunity to consider and delve into the nature of the various creations and learn important life lessons. (The intrepid reader is urged to study this section of Sefer Ha’ikrim, wherein he provides several examples.)
Through Shirah Bounty is Received
What is the purpose of the shirah recited by each one of the creations? Perhaps an insight can be gleaned from an explanation of Rav Yonason Eibshitz in his Yaaros Devash (vol. I, #4). The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Yehoshua #22) states: “From the time the sun rises until it sets, it praises Hashem. Similarly, we find that when Yehoshua was standing in Givon and wanted to stop the sun from moving, he did not instruct the sun to stand still. Rather, he instructed, ‘The sun in Givon should be silent.’
“Whenever the sun moves, it praises Hashem, and as long as it praises Hashem, it has the power to persist. That is why Yehoshua told it to be silent, (i.e., so that it would stop)… The sun replied to him: ‘You say that I should be silent? Who will say the praise of Hashem?’ Yehoshua relied: ‘You be silent, and I will say,’ as it states, ‘Then (az) Yehoshua spoke,’ and ‘az’ refers to songs of praise, as it states, ‘Az yashir Moshe.’”
Rav Eibshitz writes that we learn from this Midrash that all of the movements of the celestial bodies are accomplished via song. Through their song, they have the capability to receive the spiritual bounty that emanates from the Divine Presence. This is true of all the spiritual entities that are appointed to be responsible for animal life and inanimate objects. They do not receive the spiritual bounty, except through song. It is through the songs of Perek Shirah that these creations receive their spiritual energy.