The Song of Songs: Still a Hit After All These Years


The Song of Songs: A New Translation With an Introduction and Commentary
By Ariel and Chana Bloch
253 pages. University of California Press. $16.15.

Judaism is a religion of contrasts. In the midst of their wedding joy, the newly married Jewish couple breaks a glass, in recognition of the continued brokenness of the world. The celebration of freedom at the Passover Seder is tempered by the spilling of a few drops of wine, as a sign of mourning for the Egyptians who, according to the biblical account, lost their lives during the exodus. The seudat havra’ah, the first meal eaten at a shiva house after a funeral, often begins with eggs, which symbolize the continuing circle of life.

It comes as no surprise then that Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year, is followed, less than a week later, by Tu B’Av, the holiday of love. The Talmud describes this as a day when, during the period when the Temple stood, young unmarried women would don white dresses and dance in the vineyards, while potential suitors watched. Appropriately, the utter desolation and hopelessness of the book of Eicha (Lamentations), read on Tisha B’Av, stands in stark contrast to the sensuality and vivacity of Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) which, while not read publicly on Tu B’Av, is the one book of the Bible expressly devoted to love.

In both style and substance, Shir HaShirim differs fairly dramatically from virtually every other book of the Bible. This is one of only three biblical books whose central character is a woman, and the only book narrated primarily by a woman. Contrary to what one might expect from the biblical canon, Shir HaShirim contains no overtly religious elements, but is rife with explicit and implicit sexuality. While most other books of the Bible offer little in the way of physical description, Shir haShirim entices the senses with vivid images, scents, and tastes. Consider the following, from the translation by Ariel and Chana Bloch:

Kiss me, make me drunk with your kisses!/Your sweet loving/is better than wine./You are fragrant,/you are myrrh and aloes./All the young women want you./Take me by the hand, let us run together!/My lover, my king, has brought me into his chambers./We will laugh, you and I, and count/each kiss,/better than wine./Every one of them wants you (1:2-4).

Contrast the effusiveness of these lovers with the description of David’s first glance of Batsheva, at the start of another great biblical love story: "Late one afternoon, David arose from his couch and strolled out onto the roof of his royal palace; and from the roof, he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful" (II Samuel 11:2), or with Abraham’s words to Sarah: "I know that you are a beautiful woman" (Genesis 12:11). After reading the teases of the lover in Shir haShirim, one wonders how David or Abraham succeeded in seducing their multiple wives.

The central characters of Shir haShirim are a pair of young lovers exploring their love and lust just as spring is awakening in Jerusalem. The blossoming of their relationship is intertwined with the blossoming of spring, and the natural world becomes a metaphor for their own love:

An enclosed garden/is my sister, my bride,/a hidden well, a sealed spring./Your branches are an orchard/of pomegranate trees/heavy with fruit,/flowering henna and spikenard,/spikenard and saffron,/cane and cinnamon,/with every tree of frankincense,/myrrh and aloes,/all the rare spices./You are a fountain in the garden,/a well of living waters/that stream from Lebanon (4:12-15).

While explicit in its sexuality, Shir haShirim couches erotic images in riddles and double entendres. In this way, the poem retains a sense of coy innocence, even while presenting overtly sexual scenes:

And my beloved among the young men/is a branching apricot tree in the wood./In that shade, I have often lingered/tasting its fruit (2:3).

Then I went down to the walnut grove/to see the new green by the brook,/to see if the vine had budded,/if the pomegranate trees were in flower./And oh! before I was aware,/she sat me in the most lavish of chariots (6:11-12).

Unsurprisingly, Shir haShirim has long elicited controversy within both Jewish and Christian religious communities. In discussing the relative holiness of the books of the Bible, the Mishnah (the earlier layer of the Talmud) comments:

Rabbi Akiva said: God forbid [that anyone might consider Shir haShirim not holy]. No person in Israel has ever disputed [the status of] Shir haShirim, for the entire world is not as valuable as the day on which Shir haShirim was given to Israel, for all of scripture is holy, and Shir haShirim is the holiest of the holy” (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5).

Rabbi Akiva, one might say, doth protest too much.

Through the years, the desire to assign a religious framework to Shir haShirim has given rise, both in Jewish and Christian interpretation, to allegorical interpretations of the book. In midrash and in an early Aramaic translation, Shir haShirim becomes an allegory of the love between the Jewish people and God. The Shiur Koma, an early Jewish mystical work, viewed the description of the male lover as a metaphor for God’s own physical attributes. Early Christians understood Shir haShirim as a metaphor for the marriage between Christ and the Church. Rashbam and Ibn Ezra, two of the Jewish medieval commentators most opposed to non-literal understandings of scripture, balanced their interpretive sensibilities with their inherited religious tradition by reading the text simultaneously on a literal and an allegorical level.

Rejecting the understanding of Shir haShirim as primarily an allegory for religious love does not, however, explain what the book is. On this question, scholars differ. The absence of a coherent narrative has prompted some to view the book as a collection of disconnected poems, perhaps developed and expanded through the process of oral transmission. Others maintain that the consistent language, imagery and characterizations point to the essential unity of the book. Some take a middle road, seeing in Shir haShirim individual poems arranged in a specific order, with each poem thematically and linguistically linked to those before and after it.

Some have understood the parallels between Shir haShirim and Mesopotamian fertility literature as placing the book within an idolatrous liturgical tradition. The female lover’s periodic appeals to the “daughters of Jerusalem,” who function in much the same way as the chorus in a Greek play, have led others to understand the book as a dramatic performance. Still others consider Shir haShirim to be a series of wedding songs, meant to be sung during the week of celebration following a marriage. The frequent use of parables and riddles links Shir haShirim to the genre of wisdom literature, of which the biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes as well as apocryphal works such as The Wisdom of Ben Sira are a part. At the same time, occasional echoes of biblical language and phrases suggest an attempt to establish Shir haShirim as a religious book, or at least to appeal to readers familiar with the Bible. One can hardly read the female lover’s comment that “his desire is for me” (7:11) without recalling God’s words to Eve, “your desire shall be for your husband” (Genesis 3:16) in the other great biblical story set in a garden.

The use of Aramaic and post-biblical Hebrew in Shir haShirim, combined with the similarities between this book and Greek love poetry, have led to an emerging scholarly consensus that the text was codified during the Hellenistic era, perhaps around the third century BCE, though some consider sections of the book to have been composed centuries earlier.

Given the relatively late dating of Shir haShirim, the attribution of the book to King Solomon is impossible. Most scholars, however, consider the reference to Solomon as consistent with the tradition of linking wisdom books with ancient figures, and as an attempt to add an element of majesty to the text. Placed within the context of a luxurious royal palace, the love between the two central characters becomes even more exquisite. Solomon’s Hebrew name—Shlomo—also serves as a play on words with the identity of the female character, called a Shulamite—probably a woman of Jerusalem (Yerushalayim).

With its sensuality, its erotic nature, and its mysterious placement within the most sacred of books, it is no wonder that readers, both ancient and modern, think Shir haShirim is hot stuff.