Perek Shirah

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PEREK SHIRAH (Heb. פֶּרֶק שִׁירָה "chapter of song"), a short, anonymous tract containing a collection of hymnic sayings in praise of the creator placed in the mouths of His creatures. All creation, except man, is represented – the natural and supernatural orders, inanimate nature, the heavens and all their hosts, the world of plants, and the world of animals – each according to its kind. Together the hymns comprise a kind of cosmic song of praise by the whole of creation. They are set in a prose midrashic framework imparting a firm literary structure to a collection that in itself lacks textual continuity. Most of the "hymns" are in fact biblical verses, the greater part of them citations from Psalms. At the end of Perek Shirah there are pseudepigraphic additions, apparently of a later date, praising the one who says Perek Shirah. The connection between many of these texts and the creature uttering the praise in each hymn is not clear. The anthropomorphism of creation in the composition, at first sight totally foreign to the spirit of Judaism, has, from the first references in literature until the most recent, given rise to violent opposition and accusations of forgery. Consequently there have been various attempts, some apologetic, to deny the work's apparent simplicity in favor of a philosophical-allegorical, talmudic-didactic, or kabbalistic-mystical interpretation.

The text has been preserved in several manuscripts, including genizah fragments, the earliest dating from about the tenth century. The versions differ considerably in content and arrangement, and classification of the manuscripts reveals the existence of three distinct traditions: Oriental, Sephardi, and Ashkenazi. The first printed edition, with a commentary by Moses b. Joseph de *Trani (printed as an appendix to his Beit ha-Elohim; Venice, 1576), was followed by dozens of corrupt editions, generally accompanied by commentaries.

Perek Shirah is first mentioned in a polemical work of *Salmon b. Jeroham, a Jerusalem Karaite of the first half of the tenth century. References to it can be found in European sources at the end of the 12th century, and from the 13th century onward various interpretations are known, mainly kabbalistic. It would seem that from the outset Perek Shirah was intended as a liturgical text, as also seems apparent from the pseudepigraphic mystical additions. In the early Ashkenazi manuscripts it was included in maḥzorim and collections of special prayers in close proximity to prayers issuing from circles of *Ḥasidei Ashkenaz. The spread of the later custom of reciting Perek Shirah as a prayer and its inclusion in printed siddurim was mainly due to the influence of the Safed kabbalists.

Talmudic and midrashic sources contain hymns on the creation usually based on homiletic expansions of metaphorical descriptions and personifications of the created world in the Bible. The explicitly homiletic background of some of thehymns in Perek Shirah indicates a possible connection between the rest and tannaitic and amoraic homiletics, and suggests a hymnal index to well-known, but mostly unpreserved, homiletics. The origin of this work, the period of its composition, and its significance may be deduced from literary parallels. A tannaitic source in the tractate Ḥagigah of the Jerusalem (Ḥag. 2:1, 77a–b) and Babylonian Talmud (Ḥag. 12a–14b), on hymns of nature associated with apocalyptic visions and with the teaching of ma'aseh bereshit, serves as a key to Perek Shirah's close spiritual relationship with this literature. Parallels to it can be found in apocalyptic literature, in mystic layers in talmudic literature, in Jewish mystical prayers surviving in fourth-century Greek Christian compositions, in Heikhalot literature, and in *Merkabah mysticism. The affinity of Perek Shirah with Heikhalot literature, which abounds in hymns, can be noted in the explicitly mystic introduction to the seven crowings of the cock – the only non-hymnal text in the collection – and the striking resemblance between the language of the additions and that of *Shi'ur Komah and other examples of this literature. In Seder Rabbah de-Bereshit, a Heikhalot tract, in conjunction with the description of ma'aseh bereshit, there is a clear parallel to Perek Shirah's praise of creation and to the structure of its hymns. The concept reflected in this source is based on a belief in the existence of angelic archetypes of created beings who mediate between God and His creation, and express their role through singing hymns. As the first interpretations of Perek Shirah also bear witness to its mystic character and angelologic significance, it would appear to be an apocalyptic chapter of Heikhalot literature.

Some parallels to Perek Shirah exist outside Hebrew literature: the Testament of Adam (preserved in Syriac, Greek, and in later translations), which contains horaries of praise by the whole of creation framed in an apocalyptic angelologic vision similar to that in Seder Rabbah de-Bereshit, the Greek Physiologus of the second century, which reveals structural and formal parallels to Perek Shirah; and Islamic oral traditions (Ḥadīth) and Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ ("Sincere Brethren"), writings on the praise of created beings.


M. Steinschneider, in: hb, 13 (1875), 103–6; Ginzberg, Legends, 1 (1909), 42–46; 5 (1925), 60–62; Scholem, Mysticism, 62: M. Beit-Arié, "Perek Shirah," critical ed., 2 vols. (Ph.D. thesis, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1966). add. bibliography: J.M. Baumgarten, in: rq, 36 (1978), 575–78.

[Malachi Beit-Arie]

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Perek Shirah

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