The third section of our Sacred Scriptures is called “Kesuvim” – Writings. Within the Kesuvim is a book called Shir HaShirim – the Song of Songs. Regarding Shir HaShirim, Rabbi Akiva stated: “All the Kesuvim are holy, but Shir HaShirim is the holy of holies” (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5).
As the opening verse of Shir HaShirim indicates, this sacred song was composed by Solomon – the king and prophet who built the Temple in Jerusalem. According to our tradition, Shir HaShirim is an allegorical love song which tells the story of the People of Israel and their journey through history – including their various exiles. The ancient Aramaic commentary on Shir HaShirim, known as the Targum, explains that this sacred song was written by Solomon in “the spirit of prophecy.” (Commentary to Shir HaShirim 1:1)
In Shir HaShirim – the Song of Songs – Solomon tells the allegorical tale of the fervent love between a bridegroom and a bride, their marriage, the wife’s betrayal of her husband, and the wife’s regret over her past behavior. The song also describes how the wife longs for her husband after they are separated, and how the husband still loves his wife and will therefore return to her. In this allegory, Hashem – the Compassionate One – is the “husband” and Israel is the “wife” (Introduction of Rashi). The romance begins with the Exodus from Egypt, and through the Covenant at Sinai, the “Bridegroom” and “bride” are united. There is also a long and painful period of separation, and the detailed imagery of this sacred song expresses the yearning of Israel to be fully reunited with her Beloved in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
The Prophets frequently compared the relationship between Hashem and Israel to the relationship between bridegroom and bride and/or the relationship between husband and wife. For example, regarding the reconciliation of Israel with Hashem, it is written, “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 63:5). And it is also written regarding this reconcilation, “And it shall be on that day, spoke Hashem, that you will call Me, ‘my Husband’ ”(Hosea 2:18).
The idea that Israel is the bride of Hashem is also found in the following Divine proclamation which the Prophet Jeremiah conveyed to Israel regarding her willingness to leave Egypt and follow her Beloved into the wilderness in order to receive the Torah:
“Thus said Hashem: ‘I recall for you the lovingkindness of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed Me into the wilderness, into an unsown land.’ ” (Jeremiah 2:2)
In Shir HaShirim, the bride, Israel, recalls the following call of her Beloved to go forth from the bondage of Egypt, as the “winter” of exile has passed, and the “spring” of redemption has arrived:
“My Beloved lifted His voice and said to me: ‘Arise My love, My fair one and come away. For the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The blossoms have appeared in the land, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in the land.’ ” (Shir HaShirim 2:10-12)
The commentary of Ibn Akin on the above passage reveals that this loving call to experience the “spring” of redemption will also precede our final redemption at the dawn of the messianic age. (Cited in the ArtScroll Shir HaShirim)
The Festival of Passover is deeply connected to Shir HaShirim, as the romance with our Beloved began at the Exodus from Egypt; moreover, we are to re-experience this loving relationship during each Passover Festival. This is why our people have a custom to chant Shir HaShirim after the Passover Seder, and Ashkenazi Jewish communities also chant this sacred song on the Shabbos of the intermediate days of Passover. In the loving spirit of Passover, I will share with you the following interpretations of verses which refer to the Exodus and later stages of our journey:
“Your oils are fragrant; Your Name is flowing oil; therefore do maidens love You” (Shur HaShirim 1:3).
The classical commentator, Rashi, explains this verse in the following manner: The awesome miracles that the Beloved performed when He took Israel out of Egypt caused His Name to spread over the world like the fragrance of fine oil. This caused other “maidens” – a metaphor for righteous individuals among the nations – to love Him. Rashi specifically mentions Jethro and Rachav – two converts whose love for the Compassionate One led them to join Israel through accepting the Covenant of Torah.
In the next verse, Israel expresses her yearning for her Beloved by saying to Him: “Draw me, we will run after you” (1:4).
Why does Israel first say “me” and then “we”? The following answer is found in the commentary of Rav W. Wolf on Shir HaShirim: Israel is asking her Beloved to draw her close to Him, so that humankind will be inspired by her example. As a result, both Israel and humankind will together follow Hashem. Israel is therefore saying, “Draw me close to you, and then we – I and all humankind – will run after you.” (Cited in the Art Scroll Shir HaShirim)
In the next verse, the bride suddenly turns to a group of young women and addresses them as “daughters of Jerusalem” (1:5). Who are these “daughters of Jerusalem”? According to an ancient teaching cited by Rashi, they are the nations of the world. Israel addresses them as the “daughters of Jerusalem,” because in the future, Jerusalem, the spiritual center of Israel, will also be the spiritual center of all the nations. Rashi adds that a similar metaphor is found in the following Divine promise to Jerusalem regarding the nations of the world: “And I will give them to you for daughters” (Ezekiel 16:61). This verse in Shir Hashirim therefore serves as a reminder that our story represents the human story, as our ultimate redemption in Jerusalem will lead to the ultimate redemption of humanity.
Israel, whose unique journey through history leads to a universal goal, has an intimate relationship with her Beloved - a relationship which began with the Exodus from Egypt. Israel therefore proclaims in this love song, “I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine” (6:3). The Chassidic sage, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, explains that the Beloved and Israel seek ways to express their love and appreciation for each other, and he offers the following example:
Within the Torah, the Beloved expresses His love for us by referring to our festival of freedom as, “the Festival of Matzohs” (Exodus 23:15). This name recalls and praises our willingness to swiftly follow our Beloved into the wilderness with no provisions, except for some matzohs! We, however, refer to this Festival as “Passover” –a name which praises our Beloved for saving us by passing over our houses during the final plague against the firstborn. (Cited in the ArtScroll ShirHashirim)
As we mentioned above, the Song of Songs describes our journey through history. I would therefore like to suggest another interpretation of Israel’s statement, “I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine.” During our journey, there were nations that claimed that God has rejected us, and this claim is still being heard today. We, however, remember that the Compassionate One proclaimed to our people: “And I have loved you with an eternal love” (Jeremiah 31:2). We therefore respond to the claim that the Compassionate One has rejected us by singing, “I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine!”
In the closing verse of Shir HaShirim, we call out to our Beloved:
“Flee, my Beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young hart upon the mountain of spices” (8:14).
This allegory can be understood in the following manner: Flee, My Beloved, from our common exile and be like a gazelle or a young hart in Your swiftness to redeem and rest Your “Shechinah” – Divine Presence - among us on the fragrant Mount Moriah, site of Your Temple. (Based on Rashi)
According to our tradition, the Shechinah represents the “feminine” aspects of the Compassionate One. The above verse is therefore alluding to our reunion with both the masculine and feminine aspects of our Beloved.
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos and a Joyous Festival,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. The introduction to the ArtScroll Shir HaShirim cites the following teaching from the Zohar in the name of Rabbi Yossi: King Solomon was inspired to compose Shir HaShirim when the Holy Temple was built and all the spheres, upper and lower, were completed with one wholeness.
2. The journey of the Exodus leads to the Holy Temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, and a reference to this goal is expressed in the following verse from the Song at the Sea, which we sung to the Compassionate One after the sea split and we were delivered from the pursuing Egyptians:
“You will bring them and plant them on the mountain of Your heritage, the foundation of Your dwelling-place that, You, Hashem, have made – the Sanctuary, O Master of All, which Your hands established” (Exodus 15:17)
“Your dwelling place” – The place for the House of Your Shechinah (Targum Onkelos).
The sea split on the Seventh Day of Passover. We therefore chant the Song at the Sea on the Seventh Day of Passover, which begins this year on Sunday night, April 8th.
3. We sing a song at the Seder known as “Dayenu” which lists the fifteen steps of our journey from Egypt to the Land of Israel, and the last step is the building of the Holy Temple.
4. The Temple, the House of the Shechinah, is destined to become a universal house of prayer, as the Compassionate One proclaimed, “My House shall be called a house a prayer for all the peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).
5. The Art Scroll Shir HaShirim helps us to appreciate the depth and true beauty of the sacred Song of Songs. The translation, as well as the commentaries that are cited, increase our awareness of the loving relationship between us and the Compassionate One. It is therefore an uplifting and comforting work which can be studied throughout the year; moreover, it can help to strengthen us during this very difficult period when we are experiencing the “birth pangs” of the approaching messianic age. For information on this recommended work, visit: http://www.artscroll.com/linker/hazon/home and write Shir HaShirim on the search line.