Introduction to The Song of Songs (An Excerpt)
by Amos Hakham
Translated by David S. Zinberg
Amos Hakham passed away on August 2, 2012 at the age of 91. The following is an unofficial translation of an excerpt from the Introduction to his commentary on the Song of Songs, published in 1973 by Mossad Harav Kook, in the Da’at Mikra series of Bible commentaries.
The selection below is an outstanding example of Hakham’s distinct approach, in both his Introduction and commentary, characterized by uncompromising scholarship coupled with faithfulness to tradition. Here and in his other writings, he displays a profound mastery of the Bible and the literature of the Sages, a keen eye for subtle literary and linguistic features of the text, a love of Jewish tradition, and a genuine religiosity that is never cloying. His style is marked by a fluid, graceful clarity. With courage and sensitivity, Hakham confronts one of the most challenging subjects in traditional biblical exegesis.
Hakham’s presentation is transparent and honest rather than pedantic. First, he cites a broad range of general approaches and specific theories, from both traditional and modern sources. He then carefully and fairly evaluates each view, adds his own observations and, finally, offers a conclusion.
Biblical quotations are from the New JPS Version, except for translations inconsistent with Hakham’s understanding of the verse. The translation of a passage from Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah is from I. Twersky, A Maimonides Reader (New York: Behrman House, 1972). Where valuable, I have included Hakham’s original Hebrew in square brackets. Hakham’s footnotes are not included in this translation.
The Content and Meaning of the Song of Songs in the Literal Sense
The Song of Songs, in the natural sense of Scripture [peshuto shel mikra], is about a man’s love for his beloved woman [ahavat ha-dod le-ra’eyato], and the woman’s love for him.
The question of continuity and division is critical for understanding the Song of Songs, and there are a variety of views on the subject. Aggadists tended to interpret its verses independently, each conveying its own idea. Opposing this method, Rashi wrote in his Introduction: “There are many aggadot on this book . . . but they are inconsistent with the syntax of Scripture and the sequence of the verses. I have endeavored to follow the natural sense of the verses and to interpret them sequentially . . .” Indeed, one who studies Rashi’s commentary on the Song of Songs will find that he attempts to interpret the entire book as a single, continuous poem. For Rashi, the continuity of the Song of Songs lies mainly within its referent [nimshal], which is Israel’s history from its origin to the end of days. R. Abraham ibn Ezra interpreted the Song of Songs in similar fashion, though Ibn Ezra also tried to find continuity within its literal sense. In his commentary, the Song of Songs is a chronology of events taking place between two lovers.
A number of modern biblical scholars attempted to follow this approach to its logical conclusion; they maintained that the Song of Songs is a single, continuous poem written in the form of a dramatic dream vision. But adherents of this view are forced to posit far-fetched interpretations and to take many verses out of context. Other scholars held that the Song of Songs is an anthology of several poems (excerpts of poems, for the most part) -- composed in various periods and provenances -- which were compiled haphazardly at a later time.
The most plausible approach, I believe, is as follows: The Song of Songs is not a continuous chronology of two lovers, and it is certainly not a drama. But neither is it an anthology of poetic excerpts. Rather, it is an anthology of complete poems written by a single author on a single subject, following a specific methodology and purpose. The poems are sometimes brief and simple, sometimes lengthy and complex. Nevertheless, for the most part they are self-contained units. In the commentary, I have assigned a unique title to each poem and have also noted its division into sections or stanzas. Often, the divisions are ambiguous; other commentators have split or combined the poems differently. But these are merely details which do not undermine the central thesis that the Song of Songs is an anthology of complete poems.
As mentioned, the overall theme of the poems is the love between the dod and his ra’eyah. However, there are several differing opinions regarding the circumstances in which the poems were composed. Rashi (in the Introduction to his commentary) says that the ra’eyah in the Song of Songs is a “widow of the living,” i.e., her husband has abandoned but has not divorced her, and she longs for him in her songs. He consoles her, promising that he will yet return. Ibn Ezra reads the Song of Songs as the story of a preadolescent girl, whose beloved is a shepherd, guarding a vineyard.
Modern biblical scholars have suggested that the poems in this book do not describe events which took place between a particular pair of lovers but, instead, these songs were popular at wedding banquets. As proof, some point to a statement of the Sages forbidding the use of lyrics from Song of Songs in drinking halls (Sanhedrin 101a; Tosefta Sanhedrin 12:5). Because the Sages prohibited such a practice, their argument goes, this was in fact the original custom. It was eventually forbidden, they say, due to deteriorating moral standards and out of fear that it might create an atmosphere of levity leading to the desecration of the sacred. Among those who maintain that the Song of Songs comprises wedding songs, some suggest that the name “Solomon” -- appearing seven times in the book -- refers not to King Solomon, but to the groom, who is likened to a king. In light-hearted humor, he is caricatured as “Solomon.” Some have claimed that these songs were originally sung at festivals for Israelite girls, such as the dance festival at Shiloh recorded in Judges (21:21), and the festival mentioned at the end of Mishnah Ta’anit (4:8) as well as the Targum to Lamentations, on the phrase “her maidens are unhappy” (1:4).
The most reasonable approach, I believe, is as follows: Although the Song of Songs does include dance songs (e.g., “Turn back, turn back, O maid of Shulem!” 7:1), one cannot claim that all the poems are dance songs. It is likely that the poet borrowed phrases from dance songs and embedded them, as necessary, within his poems. Likewise, some of the poems may have originally been wedding songs -- at least one, ending in the words, “Eat, friends, drink deeply, beloved” (5:1), is an obvious example; it is a call to the diners at a wedding banquet to eat and drink -- but one cannot generalize this to all the poems. Most likely, the portraits of the lovers within the Song of Songs depict a variety of circumstances. In some, the lovers may be formally unconnected; in others, they may be betrothed, at their wedding banquet, or already married. Also, the notion that every “Solomon” is a metaphor for the groom seems far-fetched. Sometimes, “Solomon” is simply King Solomon himself.
The love portrayed in the Song of Songs is untainted and pure. It is entirely within the bounds of that which is appropriate, permissible, and accepted. No divine or human obstacle stands in the way of their love. The ra’eyah brings her dod to her mother’s home; that is, everything is conducted according to custom and convention, and with the family’s approval. The ra’eyah does have desperate moments. But although she calls herself “lovesick” (2:5, 5:8), she is referring to an intense longing for her beloved rather than an emotional crisis. At times, the ra’eyah refuses her dod, and the dod may elude her and disappear, but that does not mean that there was animus between them. Instead, this dynamic should be understood as “a rejection with the left hand, and an embrace with the right.” The ra’eyah is treated cruelly by her brothers, but they do not keep her away from her beloved. They are intent only on increasing their possessions but, in the end, they relinquish what is hers.
Whether the entire Song of Songs refers to a single pair of lovers, or describes multiple couples, is a significant question. That is, can all that is said of the dod and the ra’eyah be conflated within the portrait of an individual man or woman? There do not appear to be substantive contradictions between the different descriptions of the dod and ra’eyah; we may thus assume that the book intends to describe different circumstances or events in the lives of a pair of lovers who actually lived at some point in time.
I do not mean to suggest that everything recounted in the Song of Songs should be taken as a narrative or that it only describes events that actually took place between two specific individuals. The very nature of poetry is to portray circumstances more beautifully and more perfectly than they really are. Here too, the primary goal of the Song of Songs is to present an ideal portrait of the innocent love between a dod and his ra’eyah. But the descriptions are based on reality.
The dod portrayed in the Song of Songs is a shepherd. His sheep are never mentioned explicitly in the poems, but “shepherd” is used several times as his alternate name. Although there appear to be instances where “shepherd” is used a metaphor for the dod, wandering the hills and tending his gardens like a grazing gazelle, he is initially depicted as a real shepherd, as implied by the verse, “Where do you pasture your sheep? Where do you rest them at noon?” (1:7). Possibly, because he would wander the countryside with his sheep, he mentions the names of several places scattered far and wide throughout the land. It is also possible that because he was a shepherd, he compares his love’s beauty to flocks of goats and ewes. But there is no hard evidence that compels us to interpret the text this way. Nevertheless, we may infer from Scripture that he roamed the mountains (“leaping over mountains”; 2:8), which is consistent with shepherding. The image of the dod is depicted with all the emotion and intensity of one who is “lovesick.” Scripture suggests that he was tall (“preeminent among ten thousand,” “stately as the cedars”; 5:10,15), that his hair was “curled, and black as a raven” (5:11), his cheeks were ruddy and bearded (“his cheeks are like beds of spices”; 5:13), and he was a swift runner (2:9, 8:14).
The ra’eyah is also tall, with an upright posture (“Your stately form is like the palm”; 7:8), her hair is black (“Your hair is like a flock of goats”; 4:1), and her complexion is dark as well (“because I am swarthy”; 1:6). The white of her teeth, which “bear twins” (6:6), stands out against her dark face. Her movement and her gait are full of grace (“How lovely are your feet in sandals, O daughter of nobles!”; 7:2).
She is called a “daughter of nobles,” and the poems imply that she was from a well-to-do family: She wears costly perfumes, and her brothers offer her a “silver battlement” (8:9). They own vineyards, but she too has a vineyard of her own. Her brothers direct her to tend the vineyards, and she also tends to sheep (perhaps at the advice of her dod, so that he might see her more easily: “Go follow the tracks of the sheep, and graze your kids by the tents of the shepherds”; 1:8). The portrait in the Song of Songs suggests that her brothers treated her heavy handedly, forcing her to work in the vineyards. She knew her dod previously and, unbeknownst to her brothers, fell in love with him; to them, she was still a child. After much time elapsed, the brothers were finally inspired to provide for their sister’s upcoming marriage, only to discover that she had already found her intended.
God is never mentioned in the Song of Songs. This is likely one of the motivations for the Sages’ pronouncement that “every ‘Solomon’ in the Song of Songs is divine” (Shavu’ot 35b). But the question remains why God is not mentioned explicitly. Commentators and thinkers have said that the holiness of a text is not determined by tallying its divine names. Just as there are texts whose sacredness is self-evident even without reference to God, so is the untainted and sacred love depicted in the Song of Songs. Nevertheless, it seems that the poet deliberately excluded the explicit form of God’s name from the text. Possibly, because the poems -- in their literal sense -- were originally meant to be recited as expressions of love between a groom and bride, it was feared that they might not always be recited in purity, and for this reason God’s name was omitted. It is also possible the omission contains a moral statement, related to Rava’s comment (Mo’ed Katan 18b), that a lover may not solicit divine intervention in the hope of marrying his love.
It is also worth noting that the dod and ra’eyah are nowhere mentioned by name. They address each other not by proper name, but by pet name, like dodi, ra’eyati, and many others. The ra’eyah’s friends are called “Daughters of Jerusalem,” and the dod’s friends are called “companions” [haverim], “friends” [re’im], and “beloved” [dodim]. This is a known biblical feature, in which male or female characters may remain anonymous for the duration of a lengthy and detailed narrative.
The Song of Songs as a Parable of Divine Love
In the Midrash, the Sages offered many allegorical interpretations of the Song of Songs, taking its earthly love as a parable for the love between God and Israel. This notion is based on prophecies in which God’s covenant with Israel is symbolized by the marriage covenant between a man and his beloved wife. The great medieval Jewish exegetes interpreted the Song of Songs within this conceptual framework and objected strenuously to the idea that its meaning is limited to its literal, natural sense of the love between a man and woman.
It is well known that the term “parable” [mashal] in the Bible, as well as in Hebrew generally, has several different meanings. Many types of parables are found in the Bible (and not all parables are explicitly termed “parables”). The parable in the Song of Songs is apparently not the type in which the referent displaces the literal sense but, instead, adds a nobler and more sacred meaning to the natural meaning. That is, although the natural, literal sense refers to the love between a flesh-and-blood dod and ra’eyah, by virtue of the fact that their love is wholesome, innocent, pure, and holy, it is worthy of serving as a representation and a model for a more exalted love. Support for such an approach can be found in the statements of the Sages and Jewish scholars throughout history. Indeed, while the Sages of the Midrash interpreted the Song of Songs’ love as that between Israel and God, they also interpreted it naturally, viewing the dod and the ra’eyah as two human beings. For example, in R. Yohanan’s exegesis of the verse, “I have come to my garden, my own, my bride” (5:1; see the commentary, in the poem’s summary section) [In the summary of that poem, Hakham cites Vayikra Rabba (9:6): “The Torah teaches you proper etiquette: A groom may enter the bridal chamber only after receiving his bride’s consent. First, (the bride) says, ‘Let my beloved come to his garden and enjoy its luscious fruits’ (4:16); and only then (in the next verse, the groom responds), ‘I have come to my garden, my own, my bride’ -dsz]. This is linked to the idea, appearing frequently in the literature of the Sages, that all aspects of marital relations are rooted in holiness and allude to holy matters. For this reason, the marriage blessings include the following: “The barren will surely rejoice when her children return to her joyfully. Blessed are you, God, who brings joy to Zion with her children.” From the formulation of this blessing, we may infer that the joy experienced by every bride and groom represents the joy associated with the redemption and the ingathering of the Diaspora. There are many kabbalistic teachings which take aspects of marital relations as symbols of lofty matters.
We should also draw attention to the mistaken notion that the Sages interpreted the Song of Songs allegorically because they considered its natural sense to be unworthy of the Holy Scriptures. It is not so. Some of the greatest exegetes have noted that one must not even contemplate the idea that a prophetic text would employ something inherently offensive to suggest that which is holy and pure. Rather, just as the referent is holy, so is the allegory. The fact that the prophets compare the covenant between God and Israel to the marriage covenant suggests that the latter is sacred and noble. The Sages have said, “If a married man and woman are worthy, God’s presence dwells with them” (Sotah 17a).
As noted, many exegetes interpreted the Song of Songs allegorically, viewing the ra’eyah as an emblem for Israel and the dod for God. Thus, the love between the dod and the ra’eyah represents God’s love for his people and Israel’s love for God. In the Midrash, the Sages followed this exegetical method. Likewise, the Targum translated the Song of Songs allegorically and ignored its literal sense. Many such midrashim are embedded in Jewish liturgical poetry [piyyutim]. On Passover, several communities once recited -- some still do -- piyyutim based entirely on the Song of Songs, from start to finish, on the subject of God’s love for his people and the promised redemption. Many piyyutim for other occasions include phrases from the Song of Songs; such phrases were a quintessential part of the piyyut vocabulary and, subsequently, entered popular usage.
The great medieval exegetes such as Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and others, were also of the view that the Song of Songs allegorizes God’s love for his people. The difference between the approach of Rashi and Ibn Ezra and that of the Midrash is as follows: The Midrash generally ignores the allegory entirely and exclusively addresses the referent. The exegetes, on the other hand, also address the literal sense of the allegory. Furthermore, they attempt to connect adjoining verses and to find context and continuity within the Song of Songs as a whole. In their view, the Song of Songs includes hints regarding all of Jewish history, from its origins until the end of days. The hints are not of a general nature; they refer to specific future events. Thus, for example, Rashi interprets the verse, “Before I knew it, my desire set me mid the chariots of Ammi-nadib” (6:12) as an allusion to the civil war between the Hasmonean brothers John Hycranus and Aristobulus, which led to Israel’s subjugation by Rome. They saw the Song of Songs as a prophetic or visionary work. But there are those who do not accept -- within the natural sense of the book -- interpretations predicting future events. However, this objection does not undermine the view which sees the love in the Song of Songs as emblematic of God’s love for his people.
All the midrashim and the exegesis cited above view the ra’eyah as a “collective personification,” representing Israel as a whole. However, some exegetes emphasize that God’s love applies to each Jew individually and they thus identify the ra’eyah with the devout soul, serving God out of love and longing for Him. The Bible does contain expressions supporting the notion that the devout’s yearnings for God are represented by human love, e.g.: “We long for the name by which you are called” (Is. 26:8); “My soul thirsts for you, my body yearns for you” (Ps. 63:2); “My soul is attached to you” (Ps. 63:9). See also Hagigah 15b where the verse “Draw me, let us run after you” (Song 1:4) is said to refer to R. Akiva, who “entered the orchard” of divine wisdom in peace, and left in peace. Maimonides writes in the Laws Concerning Repentance (10:3):
What is the love of God that is befitting? It is to love the Eternal with a great and exceeding love, so strong that one’s soul shall be knit up with the love of God, and one should be continually enraptured by it, like a lovesick individual, whose mind is at no time free from his passion for a particular woman, the thought of her filling his heart at all times, even when sitting down or rising up, when he is eating or drinking. Even more intense should be the love of God in the hearts of those who love Him. And this love should continually possess them, even as He commanded us in the phrase, “with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 6:5). This, Solomon expressed allegorically in the sentence, “for I am sick with love” (Song 2:5). The entire Song of Songs is indeed an allegory descriptive of this love.
See also what Maimonides states in Guide of the Perplexed, Section III, at the end of chapter 51.
Many exegetes followed this approach by interpreting the details of the Song of Songs as allusions to the inner spiritual life of devout lovers of God; their feelings, longings, uncertainties, doubts, failures, and triumphs in attaining their goal, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord. A number of them saw allusions to scientific and philosophical subjects -- as they understood them -- within the detailed descriptions of the book. Among the adherents of this approach are R. Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon (translator of the Guide of the Perplexed), R. Joseph ibn Aknin (a disciple of Maimonides), R. Joseph ibn Kaspi (a commentator on the Bible and on the Guide), and R. Meir Malbim. R. Abraham ibn Ezra and R. Isaac Arama (author of the Akedat Yitzhak) rejected this type of exegesis. In their respective Introductions to the Song of Songs, they underscored the obligation to remain completely faithful to the Sages, and they rejected the conception of the Song of Songs as an allegory of anything other than the love between God and his people. Yet it appears that their statements were not directed at Maimonides. His words stand firm, and we may take the yearnings of love in the Song of Songs as faithful expressions of the worshiper’s yearnings for God. However, in Maimonides’ view, the allegory applies to the general theme of the book, but we should not attempt to draw parallels between details of the allegory and details of the referent.
We must also mention the kabbalistic approach to the Song of Songs. Generally, “we are not to delve into hidden things”; as R. Isaac Arama writes in the Introduction to his commentary on the Song of Songs, he does not wish to address kabbalistic interpretations. Still, it was the kabbalists who, in recent times, popularized its study -- or, at least, its recitation -- among the Jewish populace. Based on their commentaries, the custom of reciting the Song of Songs before the Service for Welcoming the Sabbath has become widespread.
In simple terms, the kabbalistic view is essentially this: The love in the Song of Songs represents the longing of creation for its Creator, the longing of worlds detached and distant from their origin to return and reunite with their Maker. However, for our purposes we must emphasize that for kabbalists, that which takes place in the supernal realms is reflected in (or, casts a shadow upon) the events of our world. The reflection is revealed in multiple stages and by various means. Thus, we may conclude, a variety of hermeneutics of the Song of Songs are possible: The literal interpretation, describing the love between a man and woman; the midrashic, referring to God’s love for his people; the hermeneutic which speaks of the devout’s love for God; the mystical interpretation, which is about the love that permeates all of creation. For kabbalists, each hermeneutic points to the same essential idea, even if revealed in a variety of ways and in different stages.