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Thoughts on the Song of Songs

Jewish Scripture is made up of 24 books which are sometimes counted as 39 (e.g. The Book of Twelve Minor Prophets can be counted as one or twelve books). There are the five book of the Torah which make up the first part. Then comes Nevi’im, the Prophets, comprised of the early prophetic prose books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, and the later literary prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve. Finally, the third section is Ketuvim, the sacred Writings: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, the Megillot of Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, plus Daniel, Ezra/Nehemiah (counted as one book), and Chronicles. Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim, are combined to form the TaNaKh, the Hebrew acronym for the entire Bible.

We have a number of Jewish books that did not make the cut but were collected by the early Church. Some are included in some Christian Bibles and are known as Apocrypha, these include Maccabees and the book of Judith, as well as the book of Ben Sira, often quoted by the rabbis as if it were a biblical book. Other books from this post-biblical period have been collected as well under various categories in a variety of ancient languages, mostly written by Jews. The Sages inform us, however, that a few of our familiar biblical books barely squeaked by when the rabbis decided on the biblical canon. Among these is Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs. Aside from presenting itself as a collection of love poems, the book, like the book of Esther, does not mention the name of God. In spite of these obstacles, the book was described by none other than Rabbi Akiva, the leading figure of early second century Judaism, as “holy of holies,” based on the midrashic interpretation which sees the two lovers in the poems as God and the people of Israel.

Each of the Five Megillot mentioned above, were assigned to one of the holidays on the Jewish calendar. Ruth is read on Shavuot, Lamentations on the fast of Tisha B’Av, Ecclesiastes on Sukkot, Esther on Purim, and the Song of Songs is designated for Passover. This practice of reading Shir HaShirim on Pesach is not mentioned in the Talmud, but appears first in the post-Talmudic work of Soferim which was written not earlier than the 8th century. However, we must note that substantial excerpts from Song of Songs are included in a number of piyyutim, early poems from the 6th or 7th century, composed for the festival of Passover. The custom of reading the entire book which we find in Soferim, was at first done on the evenings of the seventh and eighth days of Passover, half (four chapters) each night. The Machzor Vitry, in the 11thcentury establishes the Ashkenazic practice of reading the Song in its entirety on the intermediate Shabbat of the holiday. When there is no intermediate Shabbat, as is the case this year, when Passover starts and ends on Shabbat, the custom was to read it on the seventh day. This was done, aside from the midrashic explanations, because there seems to be some reference to the Exodus in the Song which mentions “Pharaoh’s chariots.” Those same chariots appear in the Torah reading for the seventh day, when we read of the crossing of the Red Sea, which traditionally took place seven days after the Exodus. Thus we have the Song of the Sea and the Song of Songs read on day seven, at least when there is no Shabbat Chol HaMoed. The practice in Mainz, recorded in the 17th century work of the Maharil (Rabbi Jacob Moellin) was to read the Song of Songs just prior to the Torah reading and that has become standard practice among Ashkenazim. The Sephardim also read Song of Songs on Passover, but they have a variety of different practices as to when it should be read. The background of the Song, taking place in the Spring, gives another reason for chanting it on Passover, known as the festival of Aviv (spring).

We might mention as well that since the 16th century, beginning in Safed, under the influence of the Kabbalists, it became customary to read the Song of Songs each week before Shabbat. You may see it printed in traditional Orthodox prayerbooks prior to the Shabbat evening worship. In the Conservative Lev Shalem Siddur, excerpts from the Song have been incorporated into the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers as well.

Professor Michael Fishbane from the University of Chicago Divinity Schools, in his commentary to Song of Songs as part of the Jewish Publication Society’s Bible Commentary, discusses four different types of commentary that we find in Jewish tradition which are particularly notable with regard to the Song of Songs. The acronym for these types of commentary is “PaRDeS,” a word that means “orchard.” In slightly different order, we speak of P’shat, the plain sense of the text, Derash, the meanings derived by the rabbinic Midrash, Remez, philosophical interpretations and allegories, and Sod, the “secret” mystical interpretations. Fishbane, after explaining these different kinds of interpretation, proceeds to provide the reader with a four-fold commentary on the Song. Each selection from the Song of Songs is followed by four different commentaries, P’shat, Derash, Remez, and Sod. Fishbane suggests that one follow one of the four at a time to get the full picture of these interpretations.

In the P’shat section, he focuses on the language of the poem and its narrative of the two young lovers. It is sometimes difficult to sort out who is speaking when, but we can get a pretty good sense of the thoughts and events surrounding these two people who express their deep love for one another in most explicit terms, but is never fully consummated in the poem.

In the Art Scroll siddur, the emphasis is on the Derash interpretation, which avoids what some pious readers might see as the scandalous affair described in the P’shat. Instead, it tells of the love of God and Israel for one another and recounts incidents in our history, primarily the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai. “Solomon, Shelomo” in the Song is Melech shehashalom shelo, the King who is the Master of Peace, God Himself. Quoting Fishbane, “Creation and freedom are the gifts of love; and just laws and human dignity are their social expression. Law seeks to regulate love; love keeps the law sacred.” Kisses are seen as words of Torah, “dodim,” is God’s expression of love through the written and oral Torah. Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehudah differ in their understanding of the fragrance given off by the beloved (Israel) while the King (God) was on His couch (at Sinai). Rabbi Meir sees it as the odor of sin from the Golden Calf incident, while Rabbi Yehudah believes, since the poem speaks of Israel’s praise, a good fragrance came from their declaration of “we shall do and we shall hear.” Even the descriptions of the body of the beloved are given a midrashic spin: her two breasts, for example, may refer to Moses and Aaron who nourished the people with Torah.

In the Remez commentary, we find the soul searching for spiritual fulfillment. The philosophic approach speaks of the great longing of the individual to connect with God. Here “kisses” reflect the intensity of the longing in spite of human limitations. From verse to verse the seeker reflects on himself and on his perception of God in the world. As the song progresses, we read of the seeker’s progress on the path of self-understanding and the quest for greater connection to the divine. His longing for spiritual realization is answered by a call from the divine to the soul. Rabbi Arthur Green in his review of this commentary, notes that this Remez commentary is not only unique, but may in fact reflect Fishbane’s personal quest, not unlike our own, perhaps.

The Sod commentary is the mystical approach to the Song. The Zohar, the central mystical text, quotes the Song frequently as well as having a devoted section to the entire book. The mystics see the Song as embracing the totality of existence. The divine dimension informs all of reality. The mystic seeks to connect his soul with the divine and to understand the inner workings of divinity. There is a certain mutuality between the soul and the divine. As one continues through the commentaries one follows the journey of the soul.

What we see in this volume is the depth and variety of Jewish interpretation of this text which goes far deeper than the surface love poetry that meets the eye. In his review of the book, Rabbi Green notes that Fishbane includes only the Jewish varieties of commentary. However, he reminds us that Christian commentators have also had a tremendous amount to say about this work as well. Professor Fishbane’s work however gives the English reader a true entree into the vast collection of studies that the Song of Song has generated in our Jewish tradition. From words of love come deep insights into the world of the spirit.

Rabbi Akiva, as mentioned, called this poem the Holy of Holies, he also claimed “Had Torah not been given, it would have been possible to conduct the world on the basis of the Song of Songs.” Rabbi Green responds, “What a world! What a religion! Instead of reams of law, narrative, ethical discussions, ritual taboos, sacred times, food proscriptions, and the rest of Torah, all we would have is a collection of erotically charged love poems: ‘Ah, you are fair, my darling,/Ah you are fair./ Your eyes are like doves’ and ‘Come, my beloved,/ Let us go into the open;/...There I will give my love to you.’ How, precisely,” asks Green, “might we ‘conduct the world with such verses? For Akiva...the answer was quite obvious….As the God of the exoteric Judaism was giving Israel the Torah, the same God-as-secret-lover was whispering these poems into His beloved’s ear...Without the exoteric Torah, we would be able to discover all its truths by delving deeply into the words of the great canticle. All you need to know, so to speak, lies hidden within its song.” The collection of commentaries gathered by Dr. Fishbane, demonstrates the richness within this special poem.

As Passover draws to its conclusion, we celebrate the crossing of the sea and the beginning of the journey through the wilderness toward Sinai. That journey symbolizes our only personal journeys through life and the continuing relationship between the lovers, Israel and God. We will hear the lovely melody of Song of Songs on the seventh day, on Friday, and as we follow the text, let us allow it to carry us to the heights of spirituality and recall the depths of interpretation.

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