Song of Songs

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

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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.

One or two Orthodox Jews in the twentieth century did try to suggest that even on the literal level the book can be seen as sacred literature, since love between husband and wife is holy and divinely ordained. But, while there is no explicit rejection of such a literal interpretation in Rabbinic literature, the standard Rabbinic view, and the reason why Rabbi Akiba declared the book to be 'the Holy of Holies,' is that the Rabbis saw the 'lover' as God and the 'beloved' as the community of Israel.

The Rabbis also understood the opening verse as 'Song of Songs about Shelomo' and took the name as referring not to King Solomon but to God, she-ha shalom shelo, 'to whom peace belongs.'

Revealing in this connection is a passage in the Talmud (Sanhedrin, 101a) dating from the second century: 'He who recites a verse of the Song of Songs and treats it as a song and one who recites a verse at a banquet (this usually denotes a wedding feast), unseasonably, brings evil upon the world,' from which it would seem that it was only the profane and frivolous use of the book in its plain meaning to which the Rabbis objected.

Allegories Abound

Nevertheless, throughout Rabbinic literature it is the allegorical meaning that is followed. The Midrash Rabbah to the book interprets the whole book in this vein. For example, the verse (1:2): 'Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth' is interpreted as referring to the revelation at Sinai when Israel took upon itself to keep the Torah and an angel was sent by God to kiss each Israelite.

bible quizThe verse (1:5); 'I am black but comely' is given the interpretation that the community of Israel says to God: 'I am black through my own deeds, but comely through the deeds of my ancestors,' or 'I am black in my own eyes, but comely in the sight of God,' or 'I am black during the rest of the year, but comely on Yom Kippur.'

The verse: 'Like a lily among thorns, so is my darling among the maidens (2:2)' is interpreted as referring to Israel's oppression by the secular powers: 'Just as a rose, if situated between thorns, when the north wind blows is bent towards the south and is pricked by the thorns, and nevertheless its heart is still turned upwards, so with Israel, although taxes are exacted from them, nevertheless their hearts are fixed upon their Father in Heaven.'

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

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.