Shir HaShirim - The Holiest of the HolyBy Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
If you read the introduction to my book, The Nach Yomi Companion Volume I: Neviim – Prophets, then you saw how I was formerly daunted at the prospect of learning such Books as Job and some of the Later Prophets.
Boy, was I off base! You know what’s hard? Shir HaShirim. Though we might be deceived into thinking it’s simple from our public reading of it on Passover (if not every Friday night, as is some people’s custom!).
Shir HaShirim, The Song of Songs (also known as Canticles and as The Song of Solomon) is a most atypical Book. On the surface, it is a beautiful love story, at times bordering on erotic poetry. There would seem to be little place for such a thing in the Bible. And yet, the Mishna in Yadayim (3:5) says that the entire world was never more deserving than the day on which Shir HaShirim was given to Israel. Why? Because “all the Writings are holy, but Shir HaShirim is the holiest of the holy.”
Shir HaShirim, like Koheles (Ecclesiastes) and Mishlei (Proverbs) was written by King Solomon, but edited into its final form by the court of his descendant, King Chizkiyahu (Hezekiah). The commentators try to infer the order of the Books’ composition based on their introductory phrases, but no definitive conclusion is reached. (Proverbs is by “Solomon the son of David, king of Israel,” Ecclesiastes is attributed to “the son of David, king in Jerusalem,” and Shir HaShirim is merely “by Solomon.” The presumption is that by the time he wrote that, Solomon was famous in his own right.)
The Book is taken to be a metaphor for the relationship between G-d and Israel. In the metaphor, G-d plays the role of the man and Israel plays the woman. (This is a common metaphor; throughout the Bible, the relationship between G-d and Israel is described as a marriage, with the revelation at Sinai being the wedding.) However, the depth of the imagery makes this Book very hard to understand, as the basic reading of the text and the meaning of the verses can be quite divergent. For example, let’s look at just the first verse, which is the aforementioned introductory phrase:
Text: “The Song of Songs, by Solomon.”
Targum (Aramaic translation): “The songs and praises recited by Solomon, the prophet and king of Israel, which he received through a spirit of prophecy from the Master of the world, G-d.”
Rashi (a Medieval commentator who focuses on the simple meaning of the verses): “Our rabbis taught (in Talmud Shavuos 35b) that every place it says Shlomo (Solomon) in Shir HaShirim, it refers to The Holy One, i.e., the King to Whom peace belongs. This is the song above all other songs, which was sung to G-d by His congregation and people, the nation of Israel…”
That’s a translation and a very basic comment just on the introduction – can you imagine what the actual allegorical stuff must be like?
Accordingly, I have provided not one, but two synopses for each chapter of Shir HaShirim. One addresses the metaphor presented by the simple translation of the text; this is called the Mashal in Hebrew. The second synopsis is for the deeper, allegorical meaning. This is called the Nimshal. They are completely independent of one another. Not only can they be read together or separately, but whatever comments I might normally make after a synopsis are unique to either the Mashal or the Nimshal.
I hope this helps one better understand and appreciate the depth and beauty of Shir HaShirim, arguably the most profound Book in the Bible.
Proceed to chapter one.