Song of the Universe

TONIGHT IS SHAVUOT, WHICH CELEBRATES the gift of Torah at Mt. Sinai some 3,322 years ago. Whether one believes the Torah’s own account is inconsequential; what we celebrate is the living text (rather, Living Text) itself and its indivisibility from the Jewish soul. (It’s not just about Mel Brooks and rye bread, folks.) Jews the world over will be cracking the books for an allnighter of mind-stretching scope, G?d willing. For the hardcore, that means a survey of the Hebrew Bible (Torah, Prophets, Writings), Talmud (Mishna and Gemara), Law Codes (Mishneh Torah, Shulchan Aruch), Commentaries (Midrash) and a smidgen of qabala (Zohar), learning in pairs until dawn (or if unable, in bed until sleep).

Locally, that means a study party at our rabbi’s house tonight between 9 and midnight (if you don’t know where that is, shoot one to scoopatsonicdotnet and I’ll tell you). Everyone is invited to bring a personal piece of Torah to share; I’ll attempt to convey the thousand-year grandeur of the Talmudic intellectual tradition in fifteen minutes, and also acquaint everyone with a little-known text (at least until recently, at least to me) called Perek Shirah.

Perek Shirah (“Verses of Song”) is Torah writ large — 84 verses worth of Universe As Teacher. The text is at least 2,000 years old, according to its Jewish Encyclopedia article, and of uncertain authorship. Each verse (Psalms or Prophets, but mostly Psalms) illustrates how Torah is transmitted through a particular element, plant or animal. Its preface quotes the Talmud (Eruvin 100b), and fairly summarizes the work’s intent: “R. Yochanan said: ‘If these things were not prescribed in the Torah, we could learn decency from the cat; the ant would preach against robbery, and the dove against incest.’

By my own level of scholarship, Perek Shirah is somewhat over my head — which only interests me further. A free copy may be downloaded from three different websites (it’s the same 208k PDF):

Chag sameach (happy holiday)!

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