Torah Portion of the Week: A Canonization Conundrum

Ariel Seri-Levi
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Ariel Seri-Levi

The Song of Songs is unique, so different from other biblical texts that one wonders how it became part of the canon. While there are other books of the Bible that do not deal directly with Israel or God, only the Song of Songs deals with neither. Nonetheless, it has long enjoyed a sanctified status; for instance, it is part of the liturgy – read every Friday evening in Sephardi synagogues and on Shabbat Hol Hamo’ed Pesach in Ashkenazi ones.

It is a collection of love poems, similar to those encountered in other samples of ancient Near Eastern literature. The chief protagonists – and speakers – are a man and a woman. The man is the “beloved” – dod in Hebrew, usually understood to mean “uncle” but having romantic, sexual connotations here: “Come, my beloved, Let us go into the open; Let us lodge among the henna shrubs. Let us go early to the vineyards; Let us see if the vine has flowered, if its blossoms have opened, if the pomegranates are in bloom. There I will give my love [dodi] to you” (7:12-13). The woman is addressed as ra’ayati, usually meaning “my wife,” but connoting here “my darling”: “Ah, you are fair, my darling; ah, you are fair, with your dove-like eyes! And you, my beloved, are handsome, beautiful indeed! Our couch is in a bower” (1:15-16).

Sometimes the lovers’ relationship experiences bitter moments because of a missed opportunity, as in this marvelous passage, repeatedly cited in modern Hebrew works: “I was asleep, but my heart was wakeful. Hark, my beloved knocks! ‘Let me in, my own, my darling, my faultless dove! For my head is drenched with dew, my locks with the damp of night.’ I had taken off my robe – was I to don it again? I had bathed my feet – was I to soil them again? My beloved took his hand off the latch, and my heart was stirred for him. I rose to let in my beloved; my hands dripped myrrh – my fingers, flowing myrrh – upon the handles of the bolt. I opened the door for my beloved, but my beloved had turned and gone. I was faint because of what he said. I sought, but found him not; I called, but he did not answer. I met the watchmen who patrol the town; they struck me, they bruised me. The guards of the walls stripped me of my mantle. I adjure you, o maidens of Jerusalem! If you meet my beloved, tell him this: That I am faint with love” (5:2-8).

'The Song of Songs,' 1853, by Gustave Moreau.Credit: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon

Why was this love poem canonized? We have no definitive answer. In the Mishnah (Tractate Yadayim 3:5), doubt is expressed regarding the holiness of Song of Songs. Rabbi Akiva rejects such arguments: “Heaven forbid! None have ever disputed the Song of Songs’ sanctity The day the Song of Songs was granted is the most blessed of days because, whereas all the Bible’s texts are holy, the Song of Songs is holiest of holies.” Although this debate provides no historical documentation on the book’s canonization, it demonstrates that even the Talmudists questioned its sanctity.

One characteristic of the Song of Songs, which perhaps led to its inclusion in the canon, is its link to King Solomon. The book opens with the words, “The Song of Songs, by Solomon,” who is mentioned in it several times. However, as scholar Yair Zakovitch notes in his commentary on the book, Solomon is not the author; he is mentioned in third person, sometimes rather unflatteringly, such as in the description of the excessive security arrangements surrounding him: “There is Solomon’s couch, encircled by sixty warriors of the warriors of Israel, all of them trained in warfare, skilled in battle, each with sword on thigh because of terror by night” (3:7-8).

Certain linguistic elements indicate that the book was written in the Second Temple period – centuries after Solomon. For example, the letter shin used for the relative pronoun “that,” as in, “That I am faint with love.” In Solomon’s day, the word asher was used instead; but in the Song of Songs it appears only in the title, “The Song of Songs, by Solomon” [asher le’Shlomo].

Two other works attributed to Solomon (although not written by him, biblical scholars argue) are Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Two additional works attributed to the king but excluded from the canon are the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon and Psalms of Solomon. But, even if the attribution to Solomon contributed to the Song of Song’s canonization, that still does not explain why Rabbi Akiva dubs it “holiest of holies.” Apparently, the reason is to be found in its exegetical history: In Jewish literature over the centuries, it has been considered a description of the love relationship between God and Israel, and almost never as a depiction of a love relationship between a man and a woman.

The text itself contains no basis for this allegorical interpretation. Other biblical texts, however, especially prophetic literature, also compare the God-Israel relationship to that between a man and a woman. The allegorical interpretation might even have preceded the editing of the book or its inclusion in the canon. But there is a reversal here that is worthy of note: Whereas the prophets sought a way of describing the God-Israel relationship and found it in conjugal relations, exegetists of the Song of Songs, in seeking an interpretation of a text that explicitly described a conjugal relationship, found it in the God-Israel relationship. As a consequence, the Song of Songs, read allegorically, presents a view of the God-Israel relationship different from that offered by the prophets: less patriarchal, more reciprocal, and never phrased as an indictment of an adulteress. It has detailed descriptions of anatomy, and of courtship, avoidance, fulfilment, missed opportunities, exposure and shame.

Metaphorical interpretation is often a response to the awkwardness arising from a text’s literal reading. Maimonides, whose exegesis influenced succeeding generations’ attitude toward the biblical God, denies the blatant mythological style of the biblical text, arguing that it is metaphorical. According to Maimonides, God has no physical body; he neither loves nor hates, or feels anger or regret. All these attributes are interpreted by him as metaphors for abstract philosophical matters.

The Song of Songs generates awkwardness because of its very human content; the solution is to shift the focus to the ties between God and Israel. Thus, metaphorical interpretation here operates in the opposite direction: Instead of removing the text from the mythological world, it represents the work as a rich, turbulent myth. In religious exegesis, the Song of Songs joins biblical myth in depicting the complex conjugal relationship between God and Israel, and continues to this day to inspire rich mythological literary creation.

All biblical quotations are from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.