“Shir HaShirim”: The Song of Songs

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29 Jun 2006

“Shir HaShirim,” The Song of Songs, is one of the five “Megillot,” or Sacred Scrolls, that are part of the Hebrew Bible. It is a timeless allegory of the relationship between HaShem and the People of Israel, in terms of the love between a man and a woman. It is recited on “Pesach,” the Holiday that celebrates the liberation of the Jewish People from slavery in Egypt.

Shir HaShirimOn “Shabbat Chol HaMoed,” the Shabbat that occurs during the Intermediate Days of the Holiday, or on the Seventh Day of that Holiday when Shabbat coincides with that day, the reading of the “Megilah” of “Shir HaShirim” is incorporated into the Services in most synagogues in the Jewish world.

It is most appropriate that this “Megilah” be read on the Holiday of Pesach, because this Holiday is the “Holiday of Spring,” the Holiday of the return of life, of creativity, to the world. Its theme is “love,” the rebirth of which is also symbolized by Spring.

As mentioned above, this “Megilah” is an “allegory” for the relationship between G-d and Israel in terms of the love of a man for a woman. The “mashal,” or the “metaphor,” focuses on the man and the woman; the “nimshal,” or referent, is the relationship between HaShem and the People of Israel. According to the RAMBAM, a twelfth century Torah giant of the Jewish People, the highest form of relationship between a human being and HaShem is the relationship based on love, “Ahavat HaShem,” even higher than the relationship built on fear or reverence, “Yirat HaShem.” The RAMBAM continues, “Just as when a man loves a particular woman, he cannot remove her from his thoughts, with just such intensity should a person love HaShem.

And since Judaism regards the relationship between a man and a woman as potentially holy, Rabbi Akiva argued (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5) for the inclusion of Shir HaShirim in the Sacred Canon when its inclusion was questioned because of the apparent earthiness of the “mashal.” He said that if all the other Books of the Bible are considered “Kedoshim,” Holy, then Shir HaShirim must be considered “Kodesh Kodashim,” the Holiest of the Holy, because both its “mashal” and its “nimshal” are holy.

The “Megilah” (According to RASHI)

RASHI, the Master Commentator of the Jewish People, on the Written and on the Oral Torah, who lived in France during the First Crusade, but who never lets a trace of that calamity enter into his works, begins by citing the Rabbinic comment that all the references to Shlomo in the Megilah refer (not only) to King Shlomo, the son of David, but also to HaShem, as the King of the Universe Who Creates Peace in the Heavens. The name “Shlomo” is related to the word “Shalom” meaning Peace, that is in fact one of the Names of HaShem, because this Song is the holiest of all the Songs that have been sung by human beings to HaShem, as explained above.

According to RASHI, the Megilah is the “mashal” or allegory of a young and beautiful woman who becomes engaged to and then marries a king. But very soon after the marriage, she is unfaithful to him, causing him to send her away, into the status of “living widowhood,” meaning she is “as if” a widow, although her husband is still alive. But his love for her remains strong, and he watches over her at all times, from behind the scenes, to protect her. And when she resolves to return to him, and be faithful to him, he will take her back, with a love that is fully restored.

The “nimshal,” or referent, the object referred to by the “mashal,” is the People of Israel who were “engaged,” so to speak, to HaShem, when He took them out of Egypt. Then she stood beneath the “chuppah,” the marriage canopy with Him, at Mount Sinai, when He gave her the Torah. But then at the foot of the mountain, she was unfaithful to Him by building the Golden Calf.

But He forgave her for that sin, and for another great sin, and He eventually brought her into the Land of Israel, where she continued to sin. His patience exhausted, He finally sent her into Exile. There she realized that it was far better for her at first with HaShem than afterwards with all the false gods, and pines for the return of their earlier intimate status, in the Land of Israel. But when He approaches her, she suddenly forgets her earlier resolution, and when she seeks Him out, He will not accept her without complete “Teshuvah,” Repentance. But during all the time of her Exile, He watches over her, from “behind the shutters” and protects her from her enemies.

The Text of the Megilah, with Selected Commentary

Shir HaShirim Chapter 1, Verse 2 (1:2):

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth…”

RASHI: “This song (representing the People) is uttering with her mouth in her exile and in her living widowhood, ‘If only the King Shlomo (referring to HaShem) would kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, as in ancient times; for there are places where they kiss on the back of the hand or on the shoulder, but I desire and long for him to conduct himself with me as at first, as a groom to a bride, mouth to mouth…’ “

RASHI continues,

“…This is its literal meaning and, according to its allegorical meaning, it was said in reference to the fact that He gave them His Torah and spoke to them face to face; and that love is still sweet to them, more than any delight.”

“And they are assured by Him that He will appear to them again to explain to them the secret of its (that is, the Torah’s) reasons and its hidden intricacies; so they beseech Him to fulfill His word. And this is the meaning of ‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.’ ”

Shir HaShirim 1:4

“…the king has brought me into his chambers; we will be happy and rejoice in you; we will recall your love more than wine; our sincere and direct love.”

(The verse switches from the past tense to the future, perhaps reflecting the desire for the future Redemption from our present Exile)

RASHI: “According to its allegorical meaning, this refers to the strong and the straightforward love, without deceit or intrigue, with which I and my forefathers loved you in those days and continue to do so.”

“They also recall before Him the loving-kindness of their youth, their following Him into the desert, a land of drought and the shadow of death, and also the fact that they did not prepare provisions for themselves, and they believed in Him and His messenger, Moshe. And they didn’t say, ‘How can we go into the desert, a place with neither seed not food?’ But they followed Him, and He brought them into the chambers of the envelopment of His clouds.”

“With this memory, they are still today happy and joyful with Him despite the poverty and distress of Exile. And they delight in the Torah, and they recall that expression of His love more than wine, and the sincerity of their love for Him.”

Shir HaShirim 1:8

“If you do not know, O fairest of women, go forth in the footsteps of the sheep and pasture your kids beside the dwelling of the shepherds.”

This is the response of HaShem to the People of Israel asking for direction – where to go and what to do, in the darkness of the Exile –

RASHI: “If you do not know, My assembly and My congregation, O fairest of women, among the other nations, where you should pasture and be saved from the hands of those who oppress you; if you wish to survive among them and not have your children lost, then reflect upon the ways of your early forefathers. They accepted My Torah and observed My ordinances and My commandments, and followed in My ways.”

HaShem’s Redemption of the Children of Israel at the time of the Exodus is mentioned, as is the Giving of the Torah. But the Jewish People confesses:

Shir HaShirim 1:12

”While the king was at his table,…”

RASHI: “The Assembly of Israel replies and says, ‘All this is true; You bestowed goodness upon me, and I repaid You with evil, for while the King was still at the table of His wedding feast (that is, at Sinai)…

“…my spikenard gave forth its fragrance.”

RASHI: ‘…its fragrance left and turned to stench, because while the Divine Presence was still at Sinai, I sinned with the Golden Calf.’ But Scripture wrote an expression of affection, ‘gave forth its fragrance,’ and it did not write ‘stank’ or ‘became putrid’ since Scripture speaks in refined language.”

Shir HaShirim 1:12

“Behold you are fair, my beloved; behold, you are fair; your eyes are like doves.”

RASHI: “I (Israel) was ashamed of my misdeeds, and He strengthened me with words of appeasement, saying (BaMidbar 14:20), ‘I have forgiven, according to your words.’ And behold you are most fair, for your eyes are like doves… And this is the allegory:…”

“…I have pardoned you for your transgression, and behold you are (spiritually) fair through having declared at Mount Sinai, ‘We will do,’ and behold you are fair for having declared, ‘We will listen;’ fair through the deeds of your forefathers; fair through your own deeds.”

“…for your eyes are like doves.”

RASHI: “There are righteous ones among you who cleaved to Me as this dove which, once she recognizes her mate, does not let him mate with another…”

Shir HaShirim 2:14

“My dove, in the clefts of the rock, show me your countenance, let me hear your voice; for your voice is pleasant, and your appearance is comely.”

RASHI: “This is said in reference to the time that Pharaoh pursued them and overtook them encamped by the sea, and there was no place to flee in front of them because of the sea, nor was there place to turn to the side because of wild beasts.”

“To what were they likened at that time? To a dove which was fleeing from a hawk and entered the crannies of the rocks, and there the snake was hissing at her. Should she enter inside, there was the snake; should she go outside, there was the hawk. Thereupon, the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to her (Israel), ‘Show me your countenance, the quality of your deeds, to whom you turn in time of distress…’ “

“Let Me hear your voice” – “And the Children of Israel cried out to G-d.” (Shemot 14:10)

Shir HaShirim 2:16-17

”My beloved is mine, and I am his, who pastures among the roses. Until the sun spread and intensified, and the shade fled.”

RASHI: “(The allegorical meaning is) ‘My beloved is mine…’ – He demanded all His ‘needs’ from me, and He commanded only me, ‘Offer the Passover sacrifice, sanctify the firstlings, make a Tabernacle, sacrifice Burnt Offerings,’ and He did not demand (the like) from another nation…”

“ ‘…and I am his’ – All my needs I requested of Him and not of other gods.”

“ ‘Who pastures…’ – his sheep”

“ ‘among the roses.’ – In a goodly, tranquil and beautiful pasture.”

“ ‘Until the sun spread and intensified’ – This refers to the verse that is above it: ‘My beloved is mine and I am His, until the time that the iniquity caused the sun to burn me in the heat of the day, and the heat intensified.”

“ ‘And the shade fled’ – We sinned with the Golden Calf, we sinned with the Spies. (Consequently) “And the shade fled” – the merits that protected us disappeared, for we cast off His yoke.”

Shir HaShirim 3:11

“Go forth and gaze, O daughters of Zion, upon King Shlomo, upon the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding, and on the day of the joy of his heart.”

(The following comment of RASHI illustrates the degree of love with which a human being is supposed to love HaShem – remembering that all references to “Shlomo” are references to HaShem)

“…Rabbi Nechunya said, ‘Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai asked Rabbi Yose, “Is it possible that you heard from your father the explanation of “upon the crown with which his mother crowned him?” He said to him, ‘It can be understood by a parable concerning a king who had an only daughter, and he loved her exceedingly. He could not stop cherishing her until (out of love) he called her “my daughter,” as it is said (Psalms 45:11), ‘Listen, daughter, and see!’ He did not stop cherishing her until he called her

“my sister,” as it is stated (Shir HaShirim 5:2), “Open up to me, my sister, my love.’” He did not stop cherishing her until he called her “my mother,” as it is said (Yeshayahu 50:1), “Listen to Me, My people, and My nation, give ear to me.” But “My nation” is written without a “vav,” so that it can be interpreted as “and to my mother.” Upon hearing this, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai stood up and kissed him on the forehead.” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah)

In the following section, King Solomon, builder of the First Temple, in a spirit of Prophecy forecasts its ultimate destruction, some four hundred years later, at the hands of the Babylonians.

Shir HaShirim 5:2

“I was sleeping, but my heart was awake. A sound! My beloved is knocking! Open for me, my sister, my beloved, my dove, my perfect one, for my head is filled with dew, the locks of my hair, with the rains of the night.”

RASHI: “I was sleeping…” – “When I was peaceful and calm in the days of the First Temple, I neglected the worship of the Holy One, Blessed Be He, like one who slumbers and falls fast asleep.”

“But my heart was awake.” – “This refers to the Holy One, Blessed Be He. Thus is it expounded in the Pesikta (a Midrash):”

“The Holy One, Blessed Be He, Who is the rock (strength) of my heart and my portion (Psalms 73:26) was awake to guard me and to do good to me.”

“A sound! My beloved is knocking!” – “He rests His Divine Presence upon the Prophets and warns me through them by sending them (all day) ‘from early in the morning’ (Yirmiyahu 7:25).”

“Open for me…” – “Do not cause Me to depart from you.”

“For my head is filled with dew…” – “This is an expression of a man who comes at night, knocking at the door of his beloved. He says thus: ‘Out of love for you, I have come by night, at a time of dew or rain.’ And the allegory of ‘for my head is filled with dew” is that I am full of good will and satisfaction because of Avraham your forefather [the “head”], for his deeds were pleasing to me as dew. And behold, I come to you laden with blessings and the repayment of reward for your good deeds if you return to Me.”

“…the locks of my hair, with the rains of the night.” – “Also, in My hand, are many categories and various types of punishments to punish those who forsake Me and those who provoke Me.”

“ ‘Tal’ (Dew) is an expression of pleasure; ‘Resisai laylah’ (Rains of the night) are a cause of hardship and weariness.”

Shir HaShirim 5:3

“I have removed my garment; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I soil them?”

RASHI: “I have removed my garment;…” – “That is to say, I have already taught myself alien ways; I can no longer return to you… And the expression ‘I have removed my garment…I have washed my feet,” is an expression of the reply of the adulterous wife who does not want to open the door for her husband…”

Not-RASHI: The reference to a “Kutonet,” a garment, may be a reference to the continuing punishment for the sin of selling Yoseph into slavery and dipping his “Kutonet” into blood; that is, the sin of “Sinat Chinam,” “Causeless Hatred,” which although it was not the primary sin (idol-worship and social injustice were primary) at the time of the First Temple (though it was at the time of the Second Temple), it may also have been present.

Shir HaShirim 5:4

“My beloved stretched forth his hand from the hole, and my innards stirred for him.”

RASHI: “My beloved stretched forth his hand from the hole,…” – “which is next to the door, and I saw his hand, and the stirring of my innards swayed me to return to his love and to open the door for him.”

Shir HaShirim 5:5

“I arose to open for my beloved, and my hands were dripping myrrh, and my fingers were flowing myrrh upon the handles of the lock.”

RASHI: “I arose to open for my beloved, and my hands were dripping myrrh,…”

“That is to say, with a whole heart and a desiring soul, like one who adorns herself to endear herself to her husband with a goodly fragrance.”

“…flowing myrrh…” – “Its fragrance goes forth and spreads out in all directions.”

Shir HaShirim 5:6

“I opened for my beloved, but my beloved had vanished, had gone. My soul went out when he spoke; I sought him, but found him not.”

RASHI: “My soul went out when he spoke;…” – “For he said, ‘I will not come into your house since at first you did not want to open.’ ”


Having barely scratched the surface of Megilat Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, we will emulate HaShem and “skip over the mountains and jump over the valleys” (Shir HaShirim 2:8), to the end of the Megilah, and conclude with the last verse:

Shir HaShirim 8:14

“Flee, my beloved, and liken yourself to a gazelle or to a young hart upon mountains of spices.”

RASHI: “Flee, my beloved…” – “to hasten the Redemption, and rest your Divine Presence …“

“…upon mountains of spices.” – “This is a reference to Mt. Moriah and the Holy Temple; May it soon be built in our days. Amen.”