“It is a love song (or, in one view, a collection of love songs) devoid of reference or even allusion to God, Torah, and Israel’s historical experience. It is devoted rather to an intimate view of two young people, a man and a woman. Since they are caught in a moment of transition to adulthood, they could be called “boy” and “girl,” or, more exactly נער and נערה. The woman is also called the Shulammite, which probably means “the flawless one.” (Prof. Michael V. Fox)
“What is the purpose of Literature, and Art in general?
The purpose of Art, in all its forms, is to give expression to every concept, every emotion, and every thought found in the depths of the human soul. As long as even one quality remains concealed within the soul, it is the responsibility of the artist to reveal it.
Of course, artistic expression is not without boundaries and limits. The artist is duty-bound to create and express as long as his art serves to enrich and ennoble life. Some matters, however, are best left hidden. For such topics, the artist should use his figurative shovel, to bury and cover (cf. Deut. 23:24). Woe to the author who uses his artistic tools for the opposite purpose, to uncover and reveal unseemly matters, thus polluting the general atmosphere.
Love and Literature
What about romance and love? How should literature relate to these delicate topics?
The intense emotions that are experienced with regard to love are a significant part of the human condition, and it is natural that literature should expound on them. Great care, however, is required when dealing with this particular subject. The tendency toward intoxication with these emotions can defile the subject’s inherent purity.
It is unfortunate that modern literature concerns itself exclusively with only one form of love — the romantic love between man and woman. If a literary work without some expression of the inner feelings of romantic love is considered incomplete, then it certainly should include some of man’s lofty emotions of love for the Creator of all works, the Source of all good and kindness. Can the depths of this exquisite love be measured? Can it be contained within vast oceans or confined within expansive skies?
The dearth of artistic expression for this sublime love is redressed by the Bible’s lofty song of love: the Song of Songs. As Rabbi Akiva taught:
“All the books of the Bible are holy; but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies” (Yadayim 3:5).
Rabbi Akiva and Shir HaShirim
A soul that is insensitive to feelings of romance cannot relate to the tender sensibilities expressed in songs of love. Such a person will pervert those poetic yearnings, reducing them to the level of his own base desires. Similarly, one who has never ascended the heights of holy contemplation, one who has never experienced the uplifting surge of love for the Rock of all worlds — such a person will fail to grasp how the sublime yearnings of the Song of Songs truly reflect the highest aspirations of the Jewish people. But an insightful person will recognize that the body of literature of this holy nation, whose long history is replete with extraordinary displays of self-sacrifice and martyrdom to sanctify God’s Name, would be incomplete without a suitable expression of their boundless love for God.
As he was cruelly put to death at the hands of the Romans, Rabbi Akiva told his students,
“All my life I have been troubled by this verse, “You will love God... with all your soul” — even if he takes your soul. When will I have the opportunity to fulfill this?”
Rabbi Akiva then recited the Shema, and his soul departed when he reached the word echad, declaring God’s unity (Berachot 61b).
Only a soul as great as Rabbi Akiva could testify that the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies, and that “the entire universe is unworthy of the day that the Song of Songs was given to Israel.” In his life, Rabbi Akiva experienced love in all of its levels: the private love for Kalba Savua’s daughter, in its natural purity; the idealistic love for his people, including its fight for independence against Roman occupation; and the lofty love for God, in all of its noble beauty. Thus, Rabbi Akiva was eminently qualified to evaluate the true nature of the love so poetically expressed in the Song of Songs.
But those with narrow minds and coarse hearts cannot properly appreciate this precious book. They are like those who crawl at the bottom of a towering castle that stretches high into the clouds. They measure the height of this great edifice according to their limited eyesight. And if they are informed that from the spires of this great castle one may view a dazzling star, breathtaking in its exquisite beauty, they immediately conclude that such a star must be a lowly one indeed.
Such narrow minds, who can only see in Rabbi Akiva a lonely shepherd who fell in love with his employer’s daughter, will certainly fail to comprehend his startling declaration that the Song of Songs is sacred above all other books of the Bible. They only see a simple shepherd and a simple song of private love.
We may appreciate Rabbi Akiva’s greatness of soul from the following story. When a group of scholars saw a fox scampering in the ruins where the holy Temple once stood, they shed tears at this sight of bleak desolation. Rabbi Akiva, however, astounded his companions by laughing. He understood that, just as the prophecies of destruction had come to pass, the prophecies of redemption will also be fulfilled. For this spiritual giant, the distant future was as real and palpable as the present reality. His unshakable faith and vision was rooted in a profound love of God. This love so filled his pure heart that the future was a certain reality, leaving no room to mourn over the disasters of the present. For Rabbi Akiva, the tragedies of the day were but a thin cloud, casting fleeting shadows under the brilliant daytime sun.
Only such a lofty soul could confidently proclaim, “The entire Bible is holy. But the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”
(Rav Abraham Isaac Kook)
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. This year there is no Shabbat Chol Hamoad, so it is read on Shabbos, the last day of Peasch. 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, transferred 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 shepherd, 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 solicitude 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.
Midrash, Targum and early medieval commentators understood the story allegorically.
Rashi (1040-1105) was the first to interpret the text on two levels, literal and allegorical: “One verse may have several meanings, but in the end the literal meaning may never be overlooked... I say that Solomon saw in a vision that Israel would endure exile after exile, destruction after destruction, and that they would mourn in their current exile their earlier exalted position and recall their first love affair [with God] in which they were treasured above all other nations … and they will recall God’s kindnesses and their misdeeds and the benefits he promised to grant them at the end of days. And he established this book through divine inspiration in the figure of a woman living a living widowhood, longing for her husband, clinging to her lover, recalling her love for him in her youth. Her lover suffers along with her, recalling the kindnesses of her youth, the splendor of her beauty, and the fittingness of her deeds, through which he became attached to her with a powerful love, to let her know that he did not willfully bring grief [see Lam 3:33] and her divorce is not.”
Even the rationalist Rambam (1135-1204) gives 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. It is tender and devoted to the lovers.
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 hundred 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.