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Table Talk: Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach: Shir Hashirim Print E-mail

HaggadahThe RaMA in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, 490:9 quotes Avudharam to the effect that it is customary to read Shir HaShirim on the Shabbat of Cholo Shel Moed Pesach. RaDVaZ

(1) and Magen Avraham (2) assert that the reason for this custom is that the Exodus from Egypt is alluded to within Shlomo’s poem. The verse to which these commentators are alluding that bears at least some slight relationship to the Egyptian redemption is Shir HaShirim 1:9 “I will compare you, my love, to a mare among the chariots of Pharoah.” (3) While Egyptian Pharoah’s down through history may all have traveled from place to place by chariot, the Rabbis assume that the reference in this verse is to the Egyptian chariots that pursued the Jews and ultimately sank beneath the Sea of Reeds on the seventh day of Pesach. (4)

An intriguing perspective for why Shir HaShirim is specifically associated with Pesach is offered by the first Gerer Rebbe, Sefat Emet.   (5) The commentator suggests that Shir HaShirim personifies the principle that everything that we perceive and experience within the world, is at least on one level, an allegory and therefore a source for lessons regarding the love that we are required to extend to God. However, since we are sometimes so caught up within the literalness of our lives that we fail to be able to properly draw these analogies for love of God from our experience, we need to be starkly reminded of this way of abstract thinking from time to time.  Pesach, which demonstrates how everything, even Pharoah, his chariots, his army, the sea, the phenomena that precipitated their drowning, the surrounding land, etc., all are subservient to God and His Word, eloquently and forthrightly teaches us to plumb the depths of our day-to-day experiences for similar lessons and indicators. (6) This was the great lesson learned during the course of the Exodus, and it is annually reinforced by the combination of Pesach and Shir HaShirim.

The Zohar (Parshat Teruma, Daf 143) places Shir HaShirim within a more eternal context, and explains the rationale for linking the poem with Pesach in the following manner: Shir HaShirim contains the overarching principles of the entire Tora; it includes hints regarding the Forefathers, the exodus from Egypt, the subsequent exiles of the Jews among the nations as well as their ultimate redemption, the resurrection of the dead, etc. Consequently, reading this Megilla helps us to learn an even more profound lesson regarding Jewish history, than we would by focusing upon the Exodus alone.

While accepting the premise that the entire panoply of Jewish history is to be found in one form or another within Shir HaShirim’s ambiguous and evocative verses, clearly broadens its appeal and potential significance, such an approach at the same time weakens the rationale why this work should be linked specifically to Pesach, as opposed to any of the other holidays mandated by the Tora.  While it could be maintained that since Pesach is the beginning of the history of the Jewish people, both a short and long view should be taken regarding the experiences that have already impacted upon us as well as those that continue to effect us currently and into the future, similar arguments could be made for reading this work on Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh HaShana and even Yom HaKippurim.

If anything, the Zohar’s perspective would appear to clarify the custom to recite Shir HaShirim, not so much on Pesach, but rather on every Erev Shabbat, whereby as we come to the end of a workweek, we would put into context what we have accomplished, and what remains to be done, both materially as well as metaphysically.

Additional explanations that have been given for the recitation of Shir HaShirim on Erev Shabbat (7) include: a) as part of our preparation for greeting the Shabbat Kalla (bride) we read verses that will make her that much more endeared to us, and b) Shabbat is the means by which God and the Jewish people are brought together, just as the lover and beloved pursue one another in Shlomo’s poem. (8)

Nevertheless, regardless of the various customs that have become part of Jewish traditional observance, the insistence on the part of Rabbinic tradition to view Shir HaShirim as a holy allegory describing the “on-again/off-again” relationship between the Jewish People and God is intriguing, but hardly obvious when taking the work at face value. Once authorship is clearly attributed to Shlomo HaMelech (Shir HaShirim 1:1, 5; 3:9, 11; 8:11-12), a review of the second Davidic king’s life does not necessarily suggest that he would have composed this poem with HaShem and Israel in mind. While his extraordinary wisdom originates from God, (9) and it would appear that at least one of the reasons that HaShem Decides to grant Shlomo’s request for wisdom is due to the young king’s religious devotion, (10) nevertheless, the manner in which he is described as developing and manifesting this Divine Gift does not lead one to conclude that composing sophisticated, allegorical spiritual poetry was his natural bent. (11) Shlomo makes his mark as a judge (Melachim I 3:16 ff., particularly v. 28), a government administrator (4:2 ff.), an orator and writer (5:12), a scientist (Ibid. 13), a diplomat (5:15 ff.), a logistical expert (Ibid, 27-28), a builder—particularly of the First Temple (6:1 ff.), and a composer of prayer (8:22 ff.). (12) Even the latter, the prayer that Shlomo invokes at the dedication of the Temple, sounds more prosaic than poetical, devoid of the conceits of metaphor, alliteration, meter, hyperbole, etc. that so extensively inform the religious poetry of his father, David.

Our natural skepticism is further fueled by Shlomo’s numerous romantic liaisons and involvements that are unambiguously criticized not only in the Oral Tradition, i.e., the Talmud and Midrash, but in the TaNaCh itself. Whereas one could imagine the deeply emotional relationship between Yaakov and Rachel producing lyrical paeans that extrapolate from the feelings extent between two human beings infatuated with one another, the ideal emotional state that should exist between God and Israel, the women with whom Shlomo becomes involved, do not appear to be the types that could enhance or even engender thoughts of pursuing and or being pursued by the Divine. Shlomo first loves the daughter of Pharoah (3:1), and while political considerations may have played a role in this marriage—the verse states that “Shlomo married Pharoah the king of Egypt and took his daughter”, implying that the relationship with Pharoah may have been more central to Shlomo’s intentions than was marriage to the daughter herself—nevertheless 11:1 documents “And King Shlomo loved numerous foreign (originally non-Jewish) (13) women, in addition to the daughter of Pharoah, Moabites, Amonites, Edomites, Tzidonites, and Hittites.” And in case the point of Shlomo’s shortcoming in this regard might be lost upon the reader, the text continues, (v. 2) “(These women derived) from the nations that HaShem Had Said to the Jewish people, ‘Do not intermarry with them, and they should not intermarry with you, lest they influence your hearts to follow after their gods’; nevertheless Shlomo clung to these women for love.” (14) Could Shlomo have made the leap from essentially forbidden interpersonal relationships to how the emotions associated with them could inspire deep spiritual sensibilities? Was writing Shir HaShirim a means by which in his own mind Shlomo assuaged some of his guilt, i.e., by rationalizing that being involved with these women, rather than alienating him from his tradition, in fact enhanced his relationship with God?

However, it appears that if we were to conclude that the book is probably not actually a piece of spiritual literature, then it probably would not have been included in TaNaCh, and it would have met the fate that Shlomo’s other writings seem to have encountered—of the 3000 Mashalim attributed to Shlomo in 5:12, only three remain, i.e., Shir HaShirim, Mishlei and Kohelet. The difficulties entailed in assuming that Shir HaShirim is to be taken literally, are duly reflected in the debate recorded in Masechet Yadayim 3:5. When discussing the respective holiness of different books of TaNaCh, although the overwhelming majority of the Tannaitic opinions cited in the Mishna concur that Shir HaShirim is as holy as the other volumes of the biblical canon, the fact that such a view had to be positively asserted numerous times, demonstrates that, at best, there is cause for harboring reservations. Rabbi Akiva’s resounding affirmation in 3:5 of Shir HaShirim’s significance—“the entire universe’s existence was not justified until the day Shir HaShirim was given within it; for all of the writings in TaNaCh are holy, but Shir HaShirim is the holy of holies”—while startling in its power when taken out of the Mishna’s context, becomes shrilly polemical viewed from the perspective of the debate swirling around this book, i.e., would the Tanna have been so extreme in his sentiment had there not been an undercurrent of opinion to have Shir HaShirim suppressed?  Furthermore, contrary to R. Akiva’s ringing affirmation that the holiness of Shir HaShirim was never in question, 3:5 concludes with the opinion of his brother-in-law, R. Yochanan ben Yehoshua that only after a vote on both Shir HaShirim and Kohelet, was it agreed to include them in the Jewish canon.

Fathoming the meaning of Shir HaShirim is one of the TaNaCh’s great challenges, and we should devote quality time to trying to solve some of its riddles, if not weekly, than at least annually, on Shabbat Cholo Shel Moed Pesach.

Shabbat Shalom and Moadim LeSimcha.

(1) Part 6, Siman 2091.

(2) Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 490, #8.

(3) See Shir HaShirim Rabba for an extensive interpretation connecting the verse with various aspects of the Exodus, specifically the events that took place at the Sea of Reeds.

(4) See Shemot 14:6 where a literal rendering of the Torah text suggests that Pharoah personally harnessed his horse in order to overtake the fleeing Jewish slaves. Beraishit Rabba 55:8 cites a parallel example where a distinguished individual is reputed to make an animal ready for travel, i.e., Avraham before the Akeida in Beraishit 22:3. While this type of terminology could be understood to connote nothing more than an individual giving orders to his servants to carry out some menial task on his behalf, R. Shimon bar Yochai opts to take the verses literally, and conclude that the individuals involved felt so strongly about what they were about to do, i.e., Avraham offering his son as a sacrifice, and Pharoah leading his armies to punish the escaping Jews, that they forgo etiquette, and perform the tasks themselves in the interests of saving time as well as modeling to their followers their commitment to the endeavor.

(5) Quoted by Eliyahu KiTov, Sefer HaToda’ah, Machon LeHotzo’at Seforim, Jerusalem, 1969, p. 179.

(6) Perhaps the only manner, by which such a perspective on the world can be internalized, is if we literally see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt on the night of each Seder.

(7) R. Yehuda Eisenstadt, Otzar Dinim U’Minhagim, Hebrew Publishing Co., New York, 1938, p. 414.

(8) Beraishit Rabba 11:8 R. Shimon bar Yochai imagines that whereas the other days of the week each are paired with one another, i.e., Sunday/Monday, Tuesday/Wednesday, Thursday/Friday, Shabbat is all alone and complains to God. God Responds that the Jewish people will be Shabbat’s partner, thereby creating a context wherein God and the Jewish people will have a regular occasion to relate to one another.

(9) Melachim I 3:12. But according to the fourth blessing in the Amida (Silent Prayer), where we implore God to Give us wisdom, isn’t it presumed that all intelligence derives from God? Perhaps, the Divine Change was made regarding Shlomo’s potential, i.e., that whatever objective ability he might have been given by God at the time of his birth, this innate intelligence is now being enhanced? For some however, it is not a matter of how much potential intelligence you have, but rather how you learn to use it and apply it. Was Shlomo’s IQ ratcheted up, or was he simply trained to use what he had more efficiently and to better effect?

(10) The description of Shlomo as “loving God” is striking. Who else is described in this manner in TaNaCh?

(11) 3:3 walked in the ways of David, his father. Would this include composing work similar to Tehillim?


(13) Shlomo’s legal relationship with these various women is a matter of controversy among the commentators. RaDaK on 3:1 summarizes several approaches, e.g., the prohibition against marrying these women was only as long as they had not converted; even though the Tora appears to prohibit marrying an Egyptian until three generations of converts have come from that family (Devarim 23:9), this is true for men rather than women—even though Halachically such a distinction is accepted by the Talmud for  Moabites (Yevamot 69a) and not for Egyptians (Ibid., 76b), there was a dissenting view in the time of Shlomo upon which he relied; if it is assumed that no converts were accepted during the reigns of David and Shlomo for fear that rather than being sincerely devoted to Judaism, these individuals were drawn to the Jewish people due to their material comfort and military successes-see Yevamot 24b –it could be posited that Shlomo loved these individuals without entering into formal marriage with them. Yet, the commentator continues, since he loved them so intensely, it was as if he was married to them.

(14) It is difficult to account for the TaNaCh’s assertion just two verses later (3:3) that Shlomo loved God. Can one both truly love God and commit egregious transgressions? Intermarriage is a major consideration during every epoch of Jewish history, and was an indicator of the weakening of the fabric of Jewish culture and tradition. RaShI on 3:3 claims that while he had been considered a lover of God previously, once he married Pharoah’s daughter this no longer was so, necessitating the assumption that the verses are not in their correct chronological order. RaDaK suggests rationales as to why marrying Bat Pharoah was not prohibited, and it is only later in life, recorded in Chapter 11, that his involvement with non-Jewish women becomes religiously corrosive.

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