A celebrated dispute appears in the Mishna – in Tractate Yadayim. It concerns the books attributed to King Solomon: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs (Shir Hashirim, in Hebrew). The basic question is whether they should be included in the sacred canon – that is, in the Bible – or not. “Rabbi Akiva says: ‘God forbid that anyone should say that the Song of Songs renders one’s hands impure! The greatest day was the one on which Israel received the Song of Songs. All of the writings in the Bible are holy and the Song of Songs is the holiest of holies. If there was any dispute about a certain book, it was about Ecclesiastes’” (Mishna, Tractate Yadayim 3:5).
Various commentators have attempted to explain that Rabbi Akiva’s unique excitement over the Song of Songs is connected to the book’s allegorical meaning. According to this approach, the book, if interpreted literally, is not holy; instead, it must be read as an expression of God’s love for Israel, an allegorical interpretation that renders the Song of Songs holy.
That approach, however, is unsatisfactory. Can one say that the day Israel received a book whose sole meaning can be derived only through allegorical interpretation was truly the greatest of all days? After all, every book could be given an allegorical interpretation, by which it can be assigned whatever meaning a person desires. Moreover, there are other books in the Bible that eloquently express God’s love for his nation – such as Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Isaiah and Esther. Why has the Song of Songs been given such a privileged status, as if its granting to Israel is almost as significant as God’s granting of the Torah to Israel at Mount Sinai?
The meaning of the Song of Songs for the sages becomes clear in the opening to the midrashic work Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) Rabbah, where the discussion actually concerns a verse from Ecclesiastes (called Kohelet in Hebrew). Toward the end of the latter book, a verse sums up the intellectual achievements of Kohelet – its eponymous author, namely, Solomon (according to the sages): “And besides that Kohelet was wise, he also taught the people knowledge; yea, he pondered, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs” (Ecclesiastes 12:9). In the sages’ view, the phrase “he also taught the people knowledge” refers to the teaching of Torah.
This verse explains precisely what Solomon did for Torah study: His interpretive work is depicted with the terms “he pondered” (izeyn) and “he sought out,” two actions that are expressed in the phrase “and [he] set in order many proverbs.” The verb “izeyn,” which is commonly understood to mean “to balance,” is given another meaning by the sages: “It is written, ‘he pondered.’ What did he ponder? The Torah. In other words, he created a ‘handle’ (or ‘ears’ [from the word ozen, ear]) for the Torah. Prior to Solomon, no one created such figurative language for the Torah” (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:8).
Just as a potter makes a handle (“ear”) or two for a cup, similarly, argue the sages, Solomon provides a handle for understanding the Torah. This is the innovative interpretation that Solomon has created in the Song of Songs: He has fashioned figurative language for the Torah. This is Solomon’s main intellectual accomplishment: the joining together of figurative fragments that can serve as a handle for the Torah – a handle for understanding the Torah’s text. The midrashic work then goes on to illustrate precisely what Solomon has done.
The male protagonist in the Song of Songs addresses the female protagonist, his beloved: “O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely” (Song of Songs 2:14). His beloved is like a dove hiding in the clefts of a rock and he urges her to emerge from her hiding place, to show herself and to allow him to hear her voice. According to the sages’ perspective, this image is a handle that enables one to understand text that appears in the Torah. The question is to which passage the verse should be applied.
Several suggestions are offered in Shir Hashirim Rabbah 2:31: “Rabbi Elazar argues: ‘It should be applied to the passage in the Torah describing Israel’s plight as it stands on the shores of the Red Sea [before God parts the waters.] The phrase “O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock” refers to Israel hiding itself on the shores of the sea, while the phrase “let me see thy countenance” refers to the verse in the Torah, “Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord” [Exodus 14:13]. The phrase, “let me hear thy voice” is the singing of the song of praise by Moses and Israel, as it is written, “Then sang Moses” [Exod. 15:1], while the phrase “for sweet is thy voice” is the song they sing. Finally, the phrase “and thy countenance is comely” refers to the fact that Israel points to the divine presence, saying, “This is my God, and I will glorify Him” [Exod. 15:2].’”
According to Rabbi Elazar, the verse in the Song of Songs is intended to illustrate the narrative of the parting of the Red Sea. The dove represents Israel and the rock the Red Sea, which hides Israel in its depths. The dove’s voice is the singing of the song of praise by Israel when it sees the Egyptians drowning in the sea. The word “This” in “This is my God” in that song of praise is interpreted by the sages as referring to the fact that Israel sees God in all his glory on the sea and that the Israelites actually point at the divine presence. Rabbi Elazar explains the words “and thy countenance is comely” as a description of the gentle and beautiful way in which the Israelites point at the divine presence. The handle that the Song of Songs provides for the verses in the passage depicting the parting of the Red Sea enables Rabbi Elazar to “get a grip on” the Torah text and to explain it.
Rabbi Akiva offers another solution: “Rabbi Akiva argues: ‘It should be applied to the passage in the Torah describing Israel as it stands before Mount Sinai. The phrase “O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock” refers to Israel hiding in the shadow of Mount Sinai, while the phrase “let me see thy countenance” refers to the verse in the Torah, “And all the people perceived the thunderings” [Exod. 20:14]. The phrase “let me hear thy voice” is Israel’s voice before the granting of the Ten Commandments, as it is written, “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do” [Exod. 19:8], while the phrase “for sweet is thy voice” is Israel’s voice after they are granted, as it is written, “And the Lord heard the voice of your words, when ye spoke unto me; and the Lord said unto me: ‘I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken unto thee; they have well said all that they have spoken’” [Deuteronomy 5:24].’”
According to Rabbi Akiva, the verse in the Song of Songs is a handle for understanding the passage in the Torah describing the granting of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Israel is the dove hiding in the clefts of the rock on Mount Sinai. God wants to hear Israel’s voice and the two phrases “let me hear thy voice” and “for sweet is thy voice” refer to Israel’s response before and after the Torah is granted.
Thus, the Song of Songs is the holiest of holies, not because it is a cryptic text that must be deciphered through an allegorical reading. Quite the contrary: In the sages’ view, it is an allegory in itself. The sages regard it as a very simple text whose images are clear and whose parables are easy to understand. According to the sages, the Song of Songs enables an understanding of another text that is truly enigmatic – the Torah. They see the Torah as a text that is inaccessible and, in their opinion, Solomon’s creation of figurative phrases in the Song of Songs opens the door to an understanding of the Torah.
The Song of Songs is one notch above the other writings in the Bible in terms of holiness not because of its esoteric nature, but because it paves the way for an understanding of the Torah’s text. Were it not for the Song of Songs, the Torah would lack a handle for a comprehension of its content.