Solomon Schechter called Shir HaShirim “one of the finest pieces of religious poetry in existence”. The poetical qualities of the book have made it a fruitful source for quotation and musical renditions.
Yet Schechter, who used words very carefully, calls it religious poetry. Long before his time, Rabbi Akiva said that all of Scripture was holy but Shir HaShirim was supremely holy.
A problem when there is no mention of God except for an incidental word for a flame, where the Divine name is a suffix to suggest how mighty the flame was, and the book has no evident religious or ethical theme and is an erotic love poem, the story of the love of a shepherd boy for his girl and their yearning for each other despite all obstacles.
While human love is neither frowned upon nor lacking in purity, Jewish tradition prefers to see the poem as an allegory. According to the Targum it is the story of Israel from the Exodus to the messianic age.
Medieval philosophers suggested that it traced the journey of the human intellect towards knowledge of the Divine. Many thought it symbolised the relationship of Israel and the Torah. The principal interpretation is as an allegory of God and Israel, with the ups and downs of the covenant relationship.
Yes, the language is erotic, an aspect not lost on the mystics who cherished the Zohar: “To the mystic such erotic imaginings become very readily the language of the soul in its desire for the consummation of spiritual union with the divine” (Hugh Schonfield).
Even those who follow the literalist interpretation notice that though erotic, the language of the book does not become pornographic. The love and yearning need none of the over-explicit excesses without which some contemporary writers and film-makers think they cannot sell their work.
Those who simplistically expect a poem to have rhyme and rhythm soon discover that Biblical poetry has other, less artificial characteristics. It has rhythm, accentuation and assonance; relatively short lines; parallelism, lyrical repetitions and refrains.
There is grace and beauty, and a constant feeling for the right word. It paints a picture: in this case alternating between the sophisticated life of the upper-class and the pastoral simplicity of the life close to nature.
The city-country dichotomy is given an unusual twist by Robert Gordis in his edition of the book; Gordis thinks that it is city-dwellers who appreciate nature more, presumably because they see so little of it.The authorship is traditionally attributed to Solomon, who is said to have composed 3000 proverbs and over a thousand songs (I Kings 5:12).
The books ascribed to him vary widely: it is said that he wrote Shir HaShirim in his youth, Mishlei (Proverbs) as an adult, and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in cynical old age.
The book had a struggle to be included in the Tanach because it seemed too secular and sensual.
It was the allegorical interpretation that ensured its acceptance, though Gordis argues that, like Kohelet, which was also the subject of considerable debate, the deciding factor was the people’s real affection for Shir HaShirim; he quotes the view of Jastrow, who said, “It entered the canon not by vote, but because of its inevitable human appeal”.
Shir HaShirim is read on Shabbat Chol HaMo’ed of Pesach. The link that binds Pesach to Shir HaShirim could be seen to be the fact that the Torah reading and the Haftarah are both poetic, so this provides a third poem.
A rabbinic idea is that splitting the Red Sea after the Exodus is connected with the love-and-marriage theme of Shir HaShirim: “Bringing two people together in a happy marriage is as difficult as parting the Red Sea”.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin finds a link in the fact that Pesach marks the covenant between God and Israel, expressed in the redemption; Rashi says, “The love between God and the Jewish people stands as a guarantor that God will appear again and redeem us again” (see chapter 1, verse 2).
An additional possibility is that both Pesach and Shir HaShirim celebrate the Land of Israel – Pesach because the yearning of the redeemed people was to reach the Promised Land, and Shir HaShirim because it articulates the beauty and wonder of Israel, that small country with such varied terrain and landscape.
In spring, love blossoms and so does the Land of Israel. Even in the cities one feels like echoing the words of the poem, “For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing bird has come: the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land”. We all think of going “down to the beds of spices, to feed in the gardens, to gather lilies”.
The kabbalists and many Sephardi congregations read Shir HaShirim on Erev Shabbat, “the time when the world enters into the state of re-unification and completion, as it did on that original Sabbath of Creation. This reunification is symbolised in the Kabbalah as the uniting, or coupling, of the Shechinah with her husband Tiferet, i.e. the primary symbol of unification is sexual union” (Alan Unterman).
The rabbinic sages knew that some people regarded Shir HaShirim as an earthly (and earthy) love song (there are views that say that the eight chapters comprise 28 love songs). The sages therefore said (Sanh. 101a) that a person who recites a verse from Shir HaShirim and treats it as a song brings evil upon the world.
The Talmud says (Sanh. 104b) that the Men of the Great Assembly wanted to add Solomon to the list of kings who have no share in the World to Come, but Solomon’s father David appeared to the sages and said Shir HaShirim represented the love of God for Israel.
They took no notice of him. Even when a fire from Heaven licked their seats they disregarded it, until a Heavenly voice praised Solomon for doing God’s work (Prov. 22:29).
And Rabbi Akiva said, “The world was never so worthy as when Shir HaShirim was given to Israel” (Yadayim chapter 3).