The Song of Songs
The biblical book The Song of Songs is read in synagogues during Passover. The ancient Jewish sages felt Jews should be acquainted with the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. Tanakh is an acronym for the three parts of the Hebrew Bible: The Torah of Moses, the Nevi’im, “prophetical books,” and Ketuvim, “Writings.” They arranged that the Five books of Moses be read in its entirety every year, selections from the prophets read after the weekly portion called haftarah, meaning “parting” and “taking leave,” and five of the books in the Writings, one each on five holidays. The Song of Songs was selected for Passover.
- The biblical book The Song of Songs is one of the most perplexing and inscrutable volumes of the Hebrew Bible. Do its eight chapters depict the drama of a young girl’s yearning for her lover and the lover’s longing for his beloved, as is evident in its literal reading? If so, why did ancient Jews include this physical depiction in the Bible, and why was it accepted as a holy document by Christianity?
- Is it, as the second century Rabbi Akiva proclaimed, the most sacred book of the Bible? If so, why? Is it a work of symbolism or allegory depicting the spiritual love between the Jewish people and God, as rabbis say, or between the Christians and the church, as Catholic priests declare?
- Is it, as some scholars claim, a collection of disjointed portrayals of love?
- Benjamin J. Segal, a rabbi, educator, and lecturer, answers these and many other questions in his readable, engaging, and informative volume, “The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love.”
- Segal interprets The Song of Songs as a single love poem that expresses the emotional longings and the natural rapture of physical love between a young woman and man, an ideal love, a model for others. This love is egalitarian. Both the male and female assume the initiative, unembarrassed.
- He sees no suggestion in the poem that it was intended to be interpreted allegorically and finds evidence that it was understood literally in ancient times. The Song’s author, he writes, is unknown, although the work is traditionally ascribed to King Solomon, whom this tradition says wrote over a thousand poems. It was probably composed in the fourth or third century B.C.E. by a woman or a man who wanted to capture the feminine voice and emotion.
- He answers the issue of how a love poem could be canonized in the Bible by saying that the book was first accepted as canonical by the general population, who were entranced by its portrayal of love, and then consented to by the rabbis and priests as well, perhaps because they could see allegory in its account.
- This view that the general population preceded the rabbis in enjoying the book and that they only later accepted it as part of the Bible is not unique. Many things in Judaism happened this way. An example is going to water on Rosh Hashanah to wash away misdeeds.
- Segal reveals the clever ways that The Song of Songs poet relates her tale. These include double entendres, among the poet’s favorite techniques, graphic metaphors, and symbols. It also has an intentional and clever blurring of intent: is the girl speaking now, or is it the boy? This ambiguity allows the accomplished poet to talk even of coition in an erotic but non-pornographic way, as in “I have come to my garden, my sister bride” in 5:1.
- He shows how the young couple interacts verbally. For example, she uses a term or metaphor of endearment on which he latches and modifies ever so subtly as a term for his love for his beloved.
- Segal recognizes that the Song, like poetry in general, is subject to various interpretations. Therefore he frequently incorporates more than a single explanation into his commentary but uses this to show the author’s skill and depth of her presentation. Thus, generally, two different accounts do not conflict but supplement each other and add depth and meaning. In 6:2, for instance, the girl informs her friends that her lover “has gone to his garden.” The girls were led to understand her speaking of a physical site, an actual garden. However, she probably meant intimacy. Her lover came to her.
- Similarly, Segal highlights many incidences that should be read as irony; are the lover’s friends complimenting her when they describe her in 5:9 and again in 6:1 as the “most beautiful of women,” or are they mocking her self-assurance, her delusion?
- Segal’s interpretation of the great poem is divided into six parts, each in a separate section of his book, each following the other. Each could stand alone, but together they add multiple dimensions to his presentation, like the difference between a two and three-dimension viewing.
- The first is a translation and commentary. The second offers the reader a fuller and deeper understanding. Verse 8:8 discloses that the young girl’s brothers see their kid sister as immature, lacking even female breasts, while her self-image in 8:10 is the opposite; her breasts are the focal point of her attraction. He shows how the poet uses “wine” repeatedly as an understated symbol for physical love, which clarifies 8:2, where the boy offers the girl spiced wine, which is intercourse.
- The notes in the third section provide an even richer viewing of the poem and assemble some ideas in other commentaries.
- The 34-page Overview, which follows, is an excellent summary of the many themes in the poetry, bringing them together clearly and excitingly and adding new insights. He shows many reasons, for example, why he is convinced that the poem was written by a woman or a man using a female voice. He clarifies why King Solomon is the anti-hero of the poem: the beloved declaring, sometimes subtly and at other times overtly and derisively, that her lover is more precious to her than King Solomon and his enormous wealth.
- The fifth section is an excursus on love, and the sixth is an appendix discussing the poet’s style. All in all, a wealth of absorbing material.
- The twelfth-century Bible commentator Abraham ibn Ezra described The Song of Songs: “This noble book is entirely a delight, and none of Solomon’s one thousand and five songs can match it.” Those who love reading brilliant poetry and speculating upon the various levels of meanings contained in its themes will be fascinated by Segal’s interpretations. So, too, those who seek to understand biblical books and those who read simply for enjoyment.
- His book also shows how understating events and making other happenings obscure can draw us into the author’s tale and make it fascinating.
 Published in 2009 by Gefen Publishing House.