Shir HaShirim

Shir HaShirim Asher L’Shlomo. These words, which begin the Songs of Songs, were read so beautifully by Rabbi Marcus on Tuesday and by Sherwin and Arlene today. Why do we read the Song of Songs on Passover? Because it symbolizes the rebirth of nature. In spring the products of one’s love come to full fruition, with flowers blooming and baby animals being born. It is also a time for us to renew our love with G-d and with one another.

Interestingly the book Shir HaShirim almost did not make it into the biblical canon. The Mishnah records a debate over including this book, arguing that it falls into the category of מטמא את הידיים, that it dirties or impurifies the hands. Rabbi Akiva, however, came to its defense, asserting that all of the כתובים[1] are holy but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.[2] He then goes on to describe the Song of Songs allegorically, as the love between G-d and Israel, an analogy which Rashi builds upon, asserting that the distance between the lovers is like the distance between us and G-d when we are in exile.[3]

The Song of Songs is considered to be so sacred that Sephardim traditionally read it every Friday night before Kabbalat Shabbat. The special relationship between G-d and Israel is one to highlight, especially at the dawn of the Sabbath. My question, however, is even if Song of Songs was talking about the erotic love between two human lovers would it be a forbidden text? What is more sacred than two people proclaiming their eternal love for one another and using romantic, sophisticated poetry to describe their love?

Whether we believe that Song of Songs is talking about two star-crossed lovers pining for one another when they are separated, or G-d and Israel being separated and longing to be reunited, we can agree that as human beings we need times when we are close to and in relationship with others. Zalman Shachter-Shalomi puts this best when he states “our minds might insist that we go directly to the Infinite when we think of G-d, but the heart doesn’t want the Infinite; it wants a You it can confide in and take comfort in. The poetry of Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, speaks this language.[4] We require the intimacy and touch of personal relationships, and Shir HaShirim provides us with these opportunities. It also reminds us that every Shabbat we have the opportunity to reengage, to find the closeness when we feel so remote from everything.

As we engage in a special Shabbat, the one which coincides with Passover, let us take the opportunity to strengthen the relationships that we have with others and with G-d. Shir HaShirim gives us the language of yearning for those connections, reminding us that we are never too far away to reconnect. As we reflect on the wisdom of King Solomon’s poetry may we apply it to our own lives physically, emotionally and spiritually. If we ever feel that we have drifted too far away, let us use Shabbat to reconnect with those most important to us: our spouses, our parents, our children, our friends and G-d. In so doing, we will escape from the forces burdening us and keeping us in exile and we will return to those who we love.

[1] The third section of the Bible, called “the writings”

[2] Mishnah Yadaim 3:5

[3] Rashi’s commentary to Song of Songs, seen on Page 7 of Siddur Lev Shalem

[4] Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, taken from Page 7 of Siddur Lev Shalem

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