It’s the circle of life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the circle
The circle of life

Disney’s famous opening song for The Lion King describes the Circle of Life. It’s the arrangement of the natural world, moving us all in am endlessly unwinding cycle. As Mufasa explains to Simba, “When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so, we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.” This is the song of the wild animals.

In Judaism, the wild animals have a similar song. The ancient Midrash of Perek Shirah, literally “A Chapter of Song,” presents the “songs”—the spiritual messages—of various elements of the natural world, from the stars to the plants to the animals. The song of the wild animals is, “Blessed is the One Who is good and bestows good.” This is also a formal blessing that is recited upon an event that benefits others as well. As such, it is also applicable to wild animals. God is good to the animal; He provides it with food for life. Yet, even in the death of an animal, there is good to another; it becomes food for something else. The circle of life is not a wasteful arrangement; it is a system in which there is always benefit.

“As king,” Mufasa tells Simba, “you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.” The masterful opening sequence for the Circle of Life song presents the animal world of Africa in all its glory. Everything from ants to elephants to zebras makes an appearance. Yet there is one significant exception.

Where are the hyenas? They certainly play a major role in the Lion King story. So why do they not make an appearance in the Circle of the Life?

The answer is that Disney wanted to show only the nice animals, the good animals, as being part of the Circle of Life. And Disney divides the animal kingdom into good animals and bad animals. In the world of Disney, there are good animals, like the noble lion Simba and the cute meerkat Timon. And then there are bad animals. For example, there is the lion that speaks with a British accent—always the sign of an evil villain. And there are the hyenas.

Who doesn’t love to hate hyenas? Disney knew exactly which animal to pick for the villain. Hyenas have a mangy, lopsided appearance, with front legs longer than their hind legs. They emit unearthly howls and are filthy scavengers. The large African spotted hyenas can be extremely dangerous, and while the smaller striped hyena that is found in the Land of Israel is normally harmless, the Talmud notes that it too “has its hour” when it is dangerous.

Yet it is interesting to note that the phrase “having its hour” is a curious figure of speech. It appears in only one other place in all of Rabbinic literature. This is in the Mishnah which states: “Do not be scornful of any person and do not be dismissive of anything, for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is nothing that does not have its place.”
The Mishnah teaches us that one should not underestimate the value of anyone or anything in the world. Everything in the world has a valuable function, even if it seems harmful, such as repulsive or dangerous creatures. This would relate well to the hyena.

Hyenas have always been much loathed by man. It is natural for people to think that the world would be a better place without them. But, as the Talmud states, even the hyena has its hour. The hyena fulfills a vital role in the natural world – especially from a spiritual perspective.

Contrary to popular belief, spotted hyenas are not just scavengers, but often actively hunt down prey themselves. Lions feed off the remains of a kill made by hyenas just as often as hyenas feed from the remains of a kill made by lions. By killing herbivores, hyenas fulfill a vital function in keeping these animals’ numbers under control. If wildebeest and gazelle were to breed unchecked, the pastures would be overgrazed and mass famine would ensue. Second, the prey animals that the hyenas kill are usually the sick and weak individuals. This is because hyenas chase their prey, rather than stalking it, and it is the sick and weak individuals that are caught more easily. Killing these individuals has the effect of ensuring that the population of prey animals remains healthy.

Spotted hyenas also, of course, scavenge from dead animals, and striped hyenas do so almost exclusively. Hyenas possess immensely strong jaws with enables them to crush and chew up bones, which they digest with their very powerful acid stomach secretions. The result is that a pack of hyenas can entirely consume a dead animal within a short space of time. By so doing, they are fulfilling an important role in disposing of these carcasses, and preventing them for being a source of disease.

As we saw earlier, the song of the wild animals in Perek Shirah is “Blessed is the One Who is good and bestows good.” The origins of this song are in the fourth blessing in birkat ha-mazon, grace after meals, which in turn has its roots in events of two thousand years ago. The city of Betar was the pride of the Jewish nation. Tens of thousands strong, it boasted people of great spiritual stature. But then the Roman army of Emperor Hadrian managed to conquer even the stronghold of Betar, and ruthlessly massacred its inhabitants. And then Rome committed the final outrage: they refused to allow the survivors to bury the dead. The thousands of corpses lay where they fell, denied honor even in death.

Rabbi Gamliel and his court in Yavneh began several days of fasting. They prayed that this terrible disgrace should end, and eventually their prayers were answered: they received permission to bury the dead. The Talmud records that “On the day that the slain of Betar were given over for burial, they instituted the blessing of ‘Who is good and bestows good’; God is good in that He did not allow the bodies to decompose, and bestows good in that the bodies were given over for burial.”

Life has dignity, and God ensures that this dignity is not lost in death. This same consideration extends to wild animals as well as to the victims of Betar. God has created a system to ensure that the bodies of these animals do not suffer the disgrace of remaining on the ground. There is a system in place in the natural world, such that the wild animals disappear from view, and become part of the Circle of Life.

The song of the wild animals of the wild is the same as that sung over the victims of Betar. It is an acknowledgment of God’s kindness in ensuring that the dignity of life is not lost in death; “Blessed is the One Who is good and bestows good.” And the animal that plays the biggest role in this process is the hyena. Repulsive as the scavenging hyena may be to some, we should not underestimate its value in this world. Even the hyena has its hour. Even the hyena plays a crucial role in the Circle of Life.

Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin is the director of The Biblical Museum of Natural History in Israel. This essay is adapted from The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom (OU Press / The Biblical Museum of Natural History / Maggid Books).