file Shir Hashirim—Song of Songs

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Select Quotes from Shir Hashirim

“As a rose among the thorns, so is my beloved among the daughters
 …for I am lovesick
 My beloved raised his voice and said to me, 'Arise, my beloved, my fair one, and come away’
 The blossoms have appeared in the land, the time of singing has arrived
 My beloved is mine, and I am his
 Behold, you are fair, my beloved; behold, you are fair; your eyes are [like] doves…
 You are all fair, my beloved, and there is no blemish in you
 You have captivated my heart, my sister, [my] bride; you have captivated my heart with one of your eyes
 How fair is your love, my sister, [my] bride; how much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than all spices!
 Your lips drip flowing honey, O bride; honey and milk are under your tongue, and the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.
 I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine
 How fair and how pleasant you are, a love with delights!
 I am my beloved's, and his desire is upon me.
 Many waters cannot quench the love, nor can rivers flood it”

Shir Hashirim as a Love Story

The custom is to read Shir Hashirim on Shabbat Chol Hamoad of Pesach since Passover is the time when God redeemed us from Egypt and chose us to be His Special Nation. The exquisite love that exists between God and us is portrayed as the undying love between a man and woman in the beautiful, poetic language of Shir Hashirim. Re-awakenings and rebirth in Man and in Nature occur in spring (chodesh ha’aviv).

This stirring love story is believed to have been composed by King Solomon (who also authored Proverbs and Ecclesiastes) as indicated in the opening passage, “The Song of Songs which is Solomon’s”.

Following is a summary of the narrative by Rabbi Dr. S.M. Lehrman (Soncino Press, 1952)

“The story describes the trials of a beautiful peasant maiden from Shunem, or Shulem, who was employed by her mother and brothers as a shepherdess to their flock of goats. She had fallen in love with a shepherd of the same village, but the brothers did not look with approval on the union. They, accordingly, trans¬ferred her services from the pasture to the vineyards, in the hope that there her meetings with her lover would not be possible. One day, as she was tending the vines, she was seen by the servants of King Solomon, when he chanced to pass the village on his way to his summer resort in Lebanon. Impressed by her beauty, they try to persuade her to accompany them. She refuses and is finally led away as a captive to the king's chambers. No sooner does the king behold her, when he, too, falls violently in love with her. He sings her beauty and uses all his endeavors to induce her to abandon her shepherd for the love and wealth he can shower upon her. The ladies of the court also join in trying to dislodge her love for her humble swain. Her heart, however, belongs to him and she remains steadfast.

During her stay in the palace, she yearns for her lover and is tantalized by the taunts of the ladies of the court that he has rejected her. In her agitated state of mind she speaks to him as if he was in her presence, and even dreams that he has come to rescue her and escort her back to her mother's home. Awaking from her dream, she rushes out of her chamber to seek him in the streets where she is roughly treated by the watchmen of the city, who misjudge her character. When the king is finally convinced of the constancy of her love for the shep¬herd, he dismisses her from his presence and allows her to return home. She is now joined by her lover and, leaning on his arm, approaches Shunem where a warm welcome awaits her. They come upon the scenes so dear to them, and she recounts the vicissitudes through which she had lately passed. The story ends on a triumphant note. Not only could her love not be extinguished by the temptations offered by the king, but she also assures her brothers that their solici¬tude for her virtue was unwarranted. She has proved that love is capable of heroic endurance. The tale she tells to their assembled friends makes a strong protest against the luxury and vice of the court, and pays testimony to the beauty and dignity of pure love and fidelity.”

Shir Hashirim as an Allegory

The Sages of the Talmud debated about including this Megilla in Scripture, presumably because of the uncertainty over whether the words were to be taken literally as the expression of love between a man and woman or whether this Book is allegorical, depicting the spiritual “marriage” between Israel and God that began with the Revelation at Mt. Sinai. Even if the former, matters relating to the marital relationship are steeped in holiness. Indeed, one of the seven blessings at a wedding concludes with the hope that God will “cause Zion to rejoice with her children”, thereby linking the religious ideas of redemption and Return to Zion with the wedding ceremony. Rabbi Akiva ruled that all the Songs in the Torah are holy and Shir Hashirim is holy of holies.

Midrash, Targum and early medieval commentators understood the story allegorically. Even the rationalist Rambam gave homiletic meaning to many of its verses.

Shir Hashirim as a Collection of Love Stories

Rabbi Amos Chacham, in the Daat Mikrah commentary, is of the opinion that Shir Hashirim may be an organized collection of independent love stories (or poems recited at weddings) describing pure, unadulterated love and recording different situations experienced by the couple. An unnamed shepherd (referred to as “dod”) who wanders through the mountains of Israel is in love with an unnamed beautiful young woman (tall, dark complexion, and dark hair) referred to as “raaya” who appears to be from a wealthy family (pampering herself with many expensive perfumes) and whose brothers demand that she tend the family vineyards. There is no mention of God or religion. It is a Book that possesses a unity “of ardent love, abundance of imagery, vivacity of movement pleading tones and warm passions” (Rabbi Lehrman). The imagery is sensual and suggestive, but it is never vulgar or coarse.

The message of the Megilla is that Love, one of the strongest emotions, can also be the holiest. A Loving God watches over His Chosen People; Israel reciprocates with its loyalty to and faith in Him. Rabbi Chacham speculates that the reason that there is no mention of God is because of concern that this holy poetry might find itself in an “unholy”, profane environment (i.e., overindulgence at a wedding where the poems would be recited).

Reciting Shir Hashirim Friday Evening before Mincha

The Daat Mikrah attributes the custom of saying Shir Hashirim Friday evening before Mincha to Kabbalists, who linked “Boee Kallah, Boee Kallah” to the word Kallah(bride) that appears in Shir Hashirim. Shellie Schiff of Oceanside, New York notes that there is a similar custom among women who, after candle lighting, gather together to read Shir Hashirim. Juxtaposing the peaceful serenity of Shabbat with the love relation of God and Israel portrayed in Shir Hashirim reinforces the very warm, moving, continuous interdependent relationship between us and Him. God lovingly gave us this gift of Shabbat. As Achad HaAm observed some 100 years ago, "More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews." This triangle of relationships (Shabbat, Israel and Shir Hashirim) is a “threefold cord that is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:12).

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the Three Biblical Books about Love

Shir Hashirim, read in the spring on Pesach, is about love as passion. The lovers are young. There is no mention of marriage, a home, children, or responsibility. They are obsessed with one another. They long for the other’s presence. That is how love should be some of the time if it is to be deep and transforming all the time.

The Book of Ruth, the scroll read on Shavuot during the harvest season, is about love as loyalty: Ruth’s loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi, and Boaz’s to Naomi, Ruth and the family heritage. It is about loving kindness. It begins with Death, bereavement and childlessness and ends with marriage and the birth of a child. It is about marriage, continuity and keeping faith.

Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) read in the fall on Sukkot as the days grow colder and shorter, is about love grown old and wise. It is about the brevity of life on earth. After giving it extensive thought, the author concludes that nothing can defeat death—not philosophy, not pleasure, not laughter, not wealth. Happiness is to be found in work and love: “Enjoy life with the woman you love all the days of this fleeting life you have been given under the sun, all the fleeting days, for that is your portion in life and in all your labor under the sun”. Love is the joy of being with one you love.

Concludes Rabbi Sacks: “The essential message of Judaism is contained in no one of these books but in the combination of all three. Eros is the fire that gives love its redemptive, transforming, other-directed quality. Marriage is the covenantal bond that turns love into a pledge of loyalty and brings new life into the world. Companionship, experience and a life well lived bring “simcha” [joy], a word that appears only twice in Shir HaShirim, not at all in Ruth but seventeen times in Kohelet.”

The three stages of love during one’s lifetime are traced over the course of a year with the changing seasons. Spring brings passionate youthful Love as expressed in Shir Hashirim. Adult Love is about marriage, childbirth and continuity as described in Ruth. Maturity is characterized by Kohelet as living one’s life with the one you Love.

Rabbi H. L. Berenholz

Aaron Stein

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