Rav Kook Torah

Psalm 49: Parables and Riddles

The psalmist announces that he will introduce his words of wisdom by way of a parable and a riddle:

“I will incline my ear to a parable; I will open my riddle to the accompaniment of a harp.” (Ps. 49:5)

Maimonides similarly wrote that the method of truly great thinkers is “to employ the style of riddle and parable” (Introduction to Chelek). Why do the wise speak in parables and riddles? And what is the role of the harp?

Rav Kook explained that these are two tools for presenting complex ideas.

The Parable

The first tool is the mashal, the parable. The parable is similar to the concept we wish to explain; but it itself is clear, and allows the audience to grasp the difficult idea. This method only requires one to ‘incline an ear.’ No great intellectual exertion is necessary. Just hearing the parable is sufficient; the idea immediately becomes clarified.

Sermons often make use of parables. The master of this method was the famed Maggid of Dubno (Rabbi Jacob Kranz, 1740-1804). His unrivaled success with brilliant, incisive parables stemmed from his thorough grasp of the ways of the world. His encyclopedic knowledge enabled him to find the exact parable to use.

The Riddle

The chidah (riddle) works in a different fashion. The listener must work out the riddle for himself. The intellectual challenge stimulates the mind, enabling it to perceive deeper aspects of the idea to be grasped.

Simply ‘inclining an ear’ is not enough to decipher the riddle. The listener needs a special inspiration — and that is the role of the harp. We find that the prophets utilized music in order to clear their minds and attain a prophetic state (see I Kings 3:15; I Samuel 10:5; I Chronicles 25:1). Music has the ability to stimulate and inspire. It assists us in solving the riddle, and we are granted a more profound insight into the original matter.

(adapted from Shivchei HaRe’iyah pp. 285-286)