Song of Songs

The Rabbis taught: All the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.

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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Song of Songs (Hebrew, Shir Ha-Shirim) is the book of eight chapters in the third section of the Bible, the Ketuvim, first of the five Megillot ('scrolls'). 

Dating & Authorship

According to the Rabbinic tradition generally, the author of the book is King Solomon (based on the heading: 'The Song of Songs by Solomon,' though this can also mean 'about Solomon') but in the famous Talmudic passage (Bava Batra 15a) on the authorship of the biblical books it is stated that the book was actually written down by King Hezekiah and his associates (based on Proverbs 25:1).

song of songs bibleModern scholarship is unanimous in fixing a much later date for the book than the time of Solomon, though opinions vary regarding the actual date. On the surface, the book is a secular love-poem or a collection of such poems and is considered so to be by the majority of modern biblical scholars.

No doubt because of this surface meaning, the ancient Rabbis, while accepting the Solomonic authorship, debated whether the book should be considered part of the sacred Scriptures. The Mishnah (Yadaim 3:5), after recording this debate, gives the view of Rabbi Akiba, eventually adopted by all the Rabbis, that no one ever debated that the Song of Songs is sacred: 'for all the ages are not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the Ketuvim are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.'

In the liturgy of the synagogue, Song of Songs is recited during the morning service on the intermediate Sabbath of Passover. Under the influence of the Kabbalah the custom arose in some circles, especially in Hasidism, of reciting the Song of Songs on the eve of the Sabbath.

Interpreting Song of Songs

That the Rabbis in the second century CE could debate whether Song of Songs belongs to sacred Scripture is evidence enough that in this period there were some who took it all literally as a dialogue of love between a man and a woman, sexual desire expressed exquisitely but with the utmost frankness.

One or two Orthodox Jews in the twentieth century did try to suggest that even on the literal level the book can be seen as sacred literature, since love between husband and wife is holy and divinely ordained. But, while there is no explicit rejection of such a literal interpretation in Rabbinic literature, the standard Rabbinic view, and the reason why Rabbi Akiba declared the book to be 'the Holy of Holies,' is that the Rabbis saw the 'lover' as God and the 'beloved' as the community of Israel.

The Rabbis also understood the opening verse as 'Song of Songs about Shelomo' and took the name as referring not to King Solomon but to God, she-ha shalom shelo, 'to whom peace belongs.'

Revealing in this connection is a passage in the Talmud (Sanhedrin, 101a) dating from the second century: 'He who recites a verse of the Song of Songs and treats it as a song and one who recites a verse at a banquet (this usually denotes a wedding feast), unseasonably, brings evil upon the world,' from which it would seem that it was only the profane and frivolous use of the book in its plain meaning to which the Rabbis objected.

Allegories Abound

Nevertheless, throughout Rabbinic literature it is the allegorical meaning that is followed. The Midrash Rabbah to the book interprets the whole book in this vein. For example, the verse (1:2): 'Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth' is interpreted as referring to the revelation at Sinai when Israel took upon itself to keep the Torah and an angel was sent by God to kiss each Israelite.

bible quizThe verse (1:5); 'I am black but comely' is given the interpretation that the community of Israel says to God: 'I am black through my own deeds, but comely through the deeds of my ancestors,' or 'I am black in my own eyes, but comely in the sight of God,' or 'I am black during the rest of the year, but comely on Yom Kippur.'

The verse: 'Like a lily among thorns, so is my darling among the maidens (2:2)' is interpreted as referring to Israel's oppression by the secular powers: 'Just as a rose, if situated between thorns, when the north wind blows is bent towards the south and is pricked by the thorns, and nevertheless its heart is still turned upwards, so with Israel, although taxes are exacted from them, nevertheless their hearts are fixed upon their Father in Heaven.'

In the Zohar and the early Kabbalah the dialogue of love is between the two Sefirot, Tiferet, the male principle in the Godhead, and Malkhut, the Shekhinah, the female principle. In the opening passage of the Zohar, in current editions, the lily among the thorns is Malkhut attacked by the demonic forces but strengthened against these evil forces by the five strong leaves surrounding the lily, the other lower Sefirot.

The sixteenth-century mystic, Moses Cordovero, interprets the book as a dialogue between the individual soul and God. Even in an earlier period, Maimonides (Teshuvah 10:3) writes in the same vein, when discussing the love of God:

'What is the proper form of the love (of God)? It is that he should love the Lord with great, overpowering, fierce love to the extent that his soul is bound to the love of God and he dwells on it constantly, as if he were love-sick for a woman and dwells on this constantly, whether he is sitting or standing, eating or drinking.'

'Even more than this should be the love of God in the heart of those who love him, dwelling on it constantly, as it is said: "with all thy heart and with all thy soul" (Deuteronomy 6:5). And it is to this that Solomon refers allegorically when he says: "For I am love-sick" (Song of Songs 2:5) and the whole of Song of Songs is a parable on this topic.'

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.