Song of Songs – Shir Hashirim – means the greatest song/poem of all. This refers to the love poems written mostly by a man to a woman and a woman to a man alternately. The love expressed is literal and sensuous. The Bible states in the very first verse of the book that Solomon is the author.
Love songs dominate this book certainly, but there exists a story line running through the narrative. King Solomon was in love with a young shepherd girl named Shulamit, the girl from Shulam. Shulamit is the feminine form, incidentally, of Shlomo-Solomon (both names are closely related to shalom, the Hebrew word for well-being). This was a case of unrequited love. Solomon loved Shulamit, but the young maiden was alas infatuated with a shepherd boy. The B’not Yerushalayim, the Daughters of Jerusalem, also composed some of the poetry in this sad narrative.
The sages of Israel in Talmudic and medieval times did not see Shir Hashirim as a romantic expression of love. Rather, the amorous text was thought to be allegorical and spiritual: G-d’s love of Israel. (There is a legend that Rabbi Akiva himself, in the second century, first proffered this interpretation). In this image, G-d was the bridegroom and Israel was the bride. Similarly, the Fathers of the Church would interpret the Song of Solomon (Canticles, as they called the book), as symbolic of Christ’s love of the faithful.
Had Canticles not been interpreted allegorically it would not have been part of either the Jewish or the Christian canon.
Fortunately these lovely poems have been incorporated into the biblical text. They have indeed expressed the Divine love for Israel in such a way as to inspire countless Jews throughout the generations. They have also made many Jewish weddings both spiritual and romantic.
We know from the Book of Kings that Solomon had in his life a great deal of romance, whether for pleasure, politics or both. That the splendid monarch could have been pining for a shepherd girl, irrespective of all the other opportunities for amour he had in Jerusalem, is charming to contemplate. The fact that Shulamit would marry for love and not wealth and power says a lot about her character as well.
The rabbis taught that the youthful and exuberant king had penned Song of Songs, the middle-aged and prudent monarch wrote the book of Proverbs, and the aged and jaded Solomon composed Ecclesiastes. All three books are part of the Five Scrolls, the other two being Lamentations and Esther. Many more secular biblical scholars maintain that these books were written hundreds of years after Solomon lived, which was in the 10th century B.C.E.
Song of Songs was the first book of the Writings: Ketuvim. The Writings as a collection represented the last of the three parts of the Hebrew Bible. The first five books of the Ketuvim are known as the Five Scrolls, the Hamesh Megillot. All five of these megillot are chanted/read on specific holy days. Song of Songs/Shir Hashirim, the first of these scrolls, is associated with the festival of Passover/Pesach. As the spring festival/Chag HaAviv, the salient idea is that of growth, new life and coupling. Song of Songs is associated with the months of spring because that is when love is in the air, and creation of new life is at its most possible.
Indeed, in chapter 2 of Canticles, we read or better yet, recite: Rise my love, my beauty, and come, for look, the cold season has passed, the rains are over, and the budding flowers again appear upon the earth (verses 10-13).
Later, in chapter 6, we find the bride’s declaration: ani l’dodi v’dodi li, I am my beloved and my beloved is mine. This is spoken at almost all Jewish weddings and is one of the very most salient and compelling statements in all the Hebrew scriptures. Even more, here we have one of human culture’s most evocative declarations of mutual love.
We are lucky that this masterpiece of literature survived. Song of Songs inspires us as the ultimate expression of love between human beings and between people and the Divine. As the flowers bloom here in Georgia, we give thanks for G-d’s providence and for each other.
Rabbi Richard Baroff
President, Guardians of the Torah