Song of Songs

The Rabbis taught: All the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.


Reprinted from
The Jewish Religion: A Companion
, published by Oxford University Press.

Song of Songs (Hebrew, Shir Ha-Shirim) is the book of eight chapters in the third section of the Bible, the Ketuvim, first of the five Megillot (‘scrolls’). 

Dating & Authorship

According to the Rabbinic tradition generally, the author of the book is King Solomon (based on the heading: ‘The Song of Songs by Solomon,’ though this can also mean ‘about Solomon’) but in the famous Talmudic passage (Bava Batra 15a) on the authorship of the biblical books it is stated that the book was actually written down by King Hezekiah and his associates (based on Proverbs 25:1).

song of songs bibleModern scholarship is unanimous in fixing a much later date for the book than the time of Solomon, though opinions vary regarding the actual date. On the surface, the book is a secular love-poem or a collection of such poems and is considered so to be by the majority of modern biblical scholars.

No doubt because of this surface meaning, the ancient Rabbis, while accepting the Solomonic authorship, debated whether the book should be considered part of the sacred Scriptures. The Mishnah (Yadaim 3:5), after recording this debate, gives the view of Rabbi Akiba, eventually adopted by all the Rabbis, that no one ever debated that the Song of Songs is sacred: ‘for all the ages are not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the Ketuvim are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.’

In the liturgy of the synagogue, Song of Songs is recited during the morning service on the intermediate Sabbath of Passover. Under the influence of the Kabbalah the custom arose in some circles, especially in Hasidism, of reciting the Song of Songs on the eve of the Sabbath.

Interpreting Song of Songs

That the Rabbis in the second century CE could debate whether Song of Songs belongs to sacred Scripture is evidence enough that in this period there were some who took it all literally as a dialogue of love between a man and a woman, sexual desire expressed exquisitely but with the utmost frankness.

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Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

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