Your Time for Love Has Arrived: A literary analysis of Shir Ha-shirim

Each year, as we read the magnificent love story of Shir Ha-shirim — the Song of Songs — we encounter the sacred flames of passion between the Jewish people and the Almighty expressed in the work. Whose heart wouldn’t be stirred by the depiction of the Dod (male lover), symbolizing God, knocking at his beloved’s door, begging her to let him in, or by the riveting drama of the Re’aya (female lover) — the Jewish people — returning to her beloved as the mutual bonds of affection are restored?

The gripping emotional experience of reading Shir Ha-shirim each Pesach leaves little time for a systematic study of the literary and poetic detail of the work, particularly the plethora of imagery contained therein. A deeper understanding of the poetic style, language and form allows us to more fully appreciate how the words and images blend with the emotional development of the drama and contribute to the narrative flow. It is therefore worthwhile to undertake this study now, prior to the reading of the Megilla, so that the stylistic techniques can work their literary magic and intensify our emotional participation in the reading of Shir Ha-shirim. This Megilla is, after all, the “Poem of Poems,” and, given its poetic nature, we must approach the text accordingly, from the perspective of poetic analysis.

In his introduction to “Moreh Nevuchim,” the Rambam already noted the relationship between human aesthetic sensitivity and the Scriptures, thus encouraging the implementation of literary techniques in the study of Tanakh:

The key to understanding all that the prophets said, and to the knowledge of its truth, is the understanding of the parables, of their import, and of the meaning of their expressions. You already know that which God said, “I spoke parables through the prophets” (Hoshea 12:11) and “Propound a riddle and relate an allegory” (Yechezkel 17:2). Furthermore, because of the frequent use made of parables by the prophets, one prophet says, “They say of me, Is he not a maker of parables?” (ibid. 21:5). You know how Shlomo began his book, “For understanding proverb and epigram, the words of the wise and their riddles” (Mishlei 1:6).

The Re’aya’s Impulsiveness and the Dod’s Restraint

From the moment the curtain rises, the Re’aya finds herself struggling to reach the long-awaited reunion with her lover (the Dod). She passionately yearns for him, and she runs after him through the hills and valleys. The only pursuit occupying her at this time is meeting her Dod and capturing his love.

However, he is less than quick to respond. He stands behind the fence, peering in from beyond the window and through the cracks in the wall, but refuses to appear. She cries, “Tell me, you whom I love so well; where do you pasture your sheep? Where do you rest them at noon?” But all he can reply is, “Go follow the tracks of the sheep.” She wants to locate him immediately, but all he tells her is to follow his tracks he left behind. She is confused and frustrated: why won’t her Dod come to greet her and take her into his arms?

As readers, we, too, cannot understand this game of hide-and-seek. Why does her Dod retreat, slip away, resist her pressure and deny her advances? Why does he seem to appear and then hide, begin to approach and then flee?

The answer lies in the unique character of the Re’aya. She is infused head to toe with unbridled passion; she is bursting with boundless emotional energy. She does not calculate her steps – she simply charges forward in a stream of uncontrolled love. The text describes not a gradual process of emotional development, nor a systematic progression of a relationship and its internalization for the long-term. Rather, she drives headlong straight towards the most intense levels of affection. This passion drives her relentless pursuit of her Dod, but also creates a stumbling block before the realization of her fantasies. So physically and emotionally drained is she from her frustrating pursuit of her Dod, from her races through the hills and valleys in the scorching sun (1:7), from the late, nighttime hours (3:2) of impassioned, premature yearning, that when the long-awaited moment finally arrives, she cannot get out of bed to let her Dod inside.

This impulsiveness, the inability to differentiate between the time of affection and the necessary preparation towards that end, forms the central axis of the Megilla throughout its depiction of the Re’aya’s attempts to find her Dod and his reaction, until he finally arrives and knocks at her door. While she bursts forth with no restraint, her Dod tries to cool the flames of passion so as to deepen their love gradually.

He expresses his intention in two ways. Firstly, he explicitly indicates the motivation behind his peculiar conduct: “I adjure you, maidens of Jerusalem, by gazelles or by hinds of the field: Do not wake or rouse love until it pleases!” (2:7). One verse earlier, the Re’aya had cried that she is “faint with love,” and she expressed her desire to have “his left hand under my head, and his right arm embracing me.” Therefore, her Dod warns that her yearning has blossomed too quickly and insists that it must not “be aroused until it pleases.” He later articulates this warning for a second time, under similar circumstances, and, immediately thereafter, we learn that Shlomo’s bed is guarded by sixty armed guards (3:7). The Dod thus ensures that his Re’aya will not burst into his residence in her pursuit of passion.

However, beyond the explicit illustration of the different attitudes of the Dod and his Re’aya, the Megilla employs more subtle literary techniques to draw our attention to their conflicting approaches. Among other means, the Megilla enlists the concept of time as well as rich imagery to express the emotions of both characters in the drama.

At the outset of her pursuit, the Re’aya turns to her lover and asks (1:7), “Tell me, you whom I love so well; where do you pasture your sheep? Where do you rest them AT NOON?” Her poor timing, the fact that she wishes to unite with her lover before the appropriate moment, is strengthened by the emphasis on the time of her yearning. She wants to see him immediately, in the middle of the day, the time allocated for work, not pleasure. At this early stage in their relationship, she should not neglect all her responsibilities and run after her lover. She pays no heed to this societal convention; her impulsive character drives her after her beloved even during the daytime hours.

Understandably, his response is soon in coming (1:8): “Go follow the tracks of the sheep, and graze your kids by the tents of the shepherds.” In other words, relax, calm down, get back to work. When the appropriate time arrives, our rendezvous even in the midday hours can be justified; but not now. As the relationship is still in its formative stages, the labor of love must be performed only by night, not by day. The Dod will come – only in the dark of night, not in broad daylight.

Whereas the element of timing is employed in a subtle – albeit powerful – way, the supple imagery used by the two main characters pulsates throughout the entire drama. A clear difference exists between the imagery employed by the Re’aya and that employed by her lover. The Re’aya draws all her images from the natural world, from the roaming beasts of the field and the wild vegetation of virgin lands. Her world is an unrestrained, untamed wonderland, with no restrictions or societal taboos. Vegetation grows unabated, just as the general tendency of living creatures is to act on impulse. The organic world continually expands and spreads, and from this world of unrestrained activity does the Re’aya borrow her images to depict her feelings towards her Dod.

She identifies both him and hersewith this world. Two examples highlight the mimplementation of this quality of nature: a) “Like an apple tree among trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the youths.” b) “My beloved is like a gazelle or like a young stag.” In both instances – one from the world of flora, and the other from the world of fauna – she emphasizes freedom and mobility. The inorganic world, which stands motionless, passively, waiting for the human being to come along and utilize its elements for his own purposes, does not exist in the Re’aya’s imagery. From the outset of the Megilla through her lover’s ultimate arrival and knock on her door, the Re’aya includes no images from the world of arts and crafts; she draws entirely upon the images of nature.

The world of her Dod, by contrast, is far more complex. He doesn’t reject the natural drive, but rather tries to control it. He does not look for a purely artificial existence, bereft of natural emotion and vitality. Rather, he seeks a world where the passionate heart functions harmoniously with the sophisticated human mind. He must therefore turn to both realms – the pure world of nature and the human world of the arts – in depicting their relationship, and at times he combines the two in a single, complex metaphor. At one point he turns to her and exclaims, “Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, browsing among the lilies.” On the other hand, he also declares, “Your cheeks are comely with plaited wreaths, your neck with strings of jewels. We will add wreaths of gold to your spangles of silver.”

The complexity of his approach is manifest most clearly in his opening praise to the Re’aya (1:9): “I have likened you, my darling, to a horse in Pharaoh’s chariots.” On the one hand, the horse ranks among the classic symbols of unrestrained, natural energy (e.g. Iyov 39:19-25), and for good reason is the frontier culture of the “Wild West” often associated with this specific animal. However, the horse referred to here is tied to a chariot. Enormous reservoirs of energy lie within this horse, but he is harnessed to meet the demands of man, who works every muscle and demands total compliance to his will. Thus, the chariot-horse symbolizes channeled and suppressed energy, the submission of impulse to authority. This horse accurately represents the stirred emotion and excitement that patiently await the proper time to burst forth. The Dod later continues, “Ah, you are fair, my darling, ah, you are fair. Your eyes are like doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats streaming down Mount Gilead…” Her hair has grown beyond limitation, but her face lies concealed by the veil. Throughout the Megilla, the Dod blends these two worlds, weaving together the wreaths of gold and spangles of silver with the lily among thorns, and the eyes like doves with strings of jewels.

Upon closer analysis, we can discern a certain progression throughout his depiction. The closer we are to the beginning of the Megilla, when the relationship between the Dod and the Re’aya is still in its early formative stages, the more we find images of specifically inanimate objects. As the relationship progresses, there develops a gradual transition to images from the natural world. By the time the Dod arrives at his beloved’s door, not a single inorganic image is enlisted. When the time of love arrives, the bed that had been guarded by sixty armed soldiers ceases to be an object constructed from cedars of Lebanon with pillars of silver and golden upholstery. At this point, the Dod emotionally proclaims (4:15), “You are a garden spring, a well of fresh water, a stream from Lebanon,” and, immediately thereafter (5:2), “Let me in, my own, my darling, my faultless dove! For my head is drenched with dew, my locks with the damp of night.”

However, the Re’aya misses her opportunity, specifically because of her having been overcome by impulsive affection. That same inability to suppress her love at the beginning of the Megilla now ruins what would have been the actualization of that love. Just as she could not control her premature passion, which did not correspond to the formative stage of their relationship, so are those same feelings incapable of overcoming the fatigue and indolence which has settled in during the late nighttime hours.

However, in the aftermath of her failure to open the door in time, she learns her lesson and drastically changes her approach. In a dramatic and heroic about-face, the Re’aya now employs for her expressions of love the spiritual images of the Dod. As she pours out her soul in anguish over her mistake, she describes him in totally different terms from the ones she had used earlier. Rather than resorting to purely natural images, she now moves into a world containing a significant artistic element:

His head is finest gold, his locks are curled and black as a raven … His lips are like lilies; they drip flowing myrrh. His hands are rods of gold, studded with beryl; his belly a tablet of ivory, adorned with sapphires. His legs are like marble pillars set in sockets of fine gold; he is majestic as Lebanon, stately as the cedars. (5:11-15)

By blending flowing myrrh and rods of gold, and drawing an appropriate balance between the woods of Lebanon and marble pillars, the Re’aya demonstrates the internalization of her beloved’s secret into her own character, moving towards a more stable, firmly-established relationship.

At this stage in the drama, the critical question is, has the Re’aya missed her chance forever, or will the Dod return once again to actualize their love? Did she lose the opportunity, will their love never be fulfilled, or will her feelings of longing finally be satisfied? Will the Dod continue to hide and peer in through the cracks in the walls, or will he return to his beloved? These questions take on new significance in light of the Re’aya’s change of attitude in the aftermath of her failure, and they form the basis of the second half of the Megilla.

The Restoration of Their Love

In order to follow the progress of their relationship after the Dod’s unanswered knocking and subsequent disappearance, we must compare two sections of the Megilla: the section before the missed opportunity, and the one immediately thereafter. In the beginning of chapter 4, the Dod senses that he no longer needs to restrain his emotions – the time for love has arrived. He thus turns to his beloved with a stream of songs and praises that eventually leads him to her home and brings him to passionately knock at her door. Now his speech is firm and confident, bereft of the hesitation and restraint that has characterized his words to his beloved beforehand:

Ah, you are fair, my darling, Ah, you are fair! Your eyes are like doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats streaming down Mount Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of ewes climbing up from the washing pool; all of them bear twins, and not one loses her young. Your lips are like a crimson thread, your mouth is lovely. Your brow behind your veil gleams like a pomegranate split open. Your neck is like the Tower of David, built to hold weapons, hung with a thousand shields – all the quivers of warriors. Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, browsing among the lilies. When the day blows gently and the shadows flee, I will betake me to the mount of myrrh, to the hill of frankincense. Every part of you is fair, my darling, there is no blemish in you! (4:1-7)

The conclusion of this soliloquy testifies to the Dod’s intense affection and his anticipation of his imminent arrival at her home at the dark of night. His songs of praise continue to grow and intensify until eventually he exclaims (4:16), “Let my beloved come to his garden and enjoy its luscious fruits!” With this proclamation, he arrives at the Re’aya’s home. However, as we know, she does not let him in, and he, in turn, flees. She finally gets out of bed to search after him, but all she finds are the city-watchers, leaving us – the readers – confused as to the direction their relationship now tak. Will he return to his beloved, or will he continue fleeing through the mountains?

The answer comes almimmediately, in the Dod’s first speech after fleeing from her home. The fact that he responds to her longing is less significant to us than the allusions latent in his remarks:

You are beautiful, my darling, as Tirzah, comely as Jerusalem, awesome as bannered hosts. Turn your eyes away from me, for they overwhelm me! Your hair is like a flock of goats streaming down from Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of ewes climbing up from the washing pool; all of them bear twins, and not one loses her young. Your brow behind your veil gleams like a pomegranate split open… (6:4-7)

In his response, the Dod virtually repeats the same praises for his beloved that he had articulated earlier, just before his arrival at her home. In essence, he does not react to the new reality; he does not attempt either to appease or to discourage her in the aftermath of the recent failure. Rather, he intentionally returns to the point before the crisis. Throughout the Megilla, the images and words of love continuously develop and change in accordance with their emotions. Specifically here – after the jarring disruption of their love – the Dod simply repeats that which he had expressed earlier, indicating that all is forgotten; their love has been restored to its previous peaks of passion. These verses, which describe her teeth, hair and brow, contain the powerful message of the Almighty’s acceptance of us with renewed love, willing to ignore and overlook the awful past of sin and spiritual indifference.

[The Ramban points out that this is the point of the repetition of the details of the Mishkan, God’s abode among Beni Yisrael, in parashiot Vayakhel and Pekudei. These details had originally appeared in parashiot Teruma and Tetzaveh, but were then followed by the Golden Calf in Ki Tisa; their detailed repetition afterwards indicates the restoration of the relationship of love between God and His people despite the intervening sin.]

And so, from this point on, their relationship flows quickly and in straightforward fashion until they finally arrive at their long-awaited union. Once the Dod turns back the clock and overlooks her mistake, the drama continues from the same point where it had developed earlier. Thus, many elements from chapter 4 – before the crisis – appear again in chapter 7, for chapter 7 is but an improved edition of the events of chapter 4.

Another dimension of the Dod’s repetition of chapter 4 relates to the gradual development of his attitude towards her body. Until the beginning of chapter 4 – just before he arrives to actualize their love – all his references related to the whole of her personality, except for several remarks about her most external, less intimate physical features – “your dove-like eyes,” “Your cheeks are comely with plaited wreaths, your neck with strings of jewels.” He spoke not at all about her more private features, whose mention at the formative stages of their relationship would be inappropriate. His depiction was thus consistent with his general approach, which insisted on allowing their feelings to gradually and naturally mature and ripen.

Now, in chapter 4, their love has developed and may now be actualized in the form of their nighttime rendezvous. Understandably, at this point the Dod now turns to the more intimate features of his beloved’s body, the parts concealed from strangers but disclosed to the Re’aya’s soul-mate and lover. Thus, his praises in chapter 4 do not end with the comparison of her eyes with doves and her hair with flocks of sheep. He now progresses to the next level: “Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, browsing among the lilies;” “How sweet is your love, My own, My bride!”

The apex of this progression occurs in his final song of praise, sung just before his arrival to her door:

A garden locked is my own, my bride, a fountain locked, a sealed-up spring… You are a garden spring, a well of fresh water, a stream of Lebanon… Blow upon my garden, that its perfume may spread. Let my beloved come to his garden and enjoy its luscious fruits! (4:12, 4:15-16)

The garden with its flowing fountain is clearly a sexual image, one employed several times by Chazal for this purpose. The depiction of the garden and fountain as locked and sealed until this moment accurately captures the gradual development of their relationship from the beginning of the Megilla through this point.

The Ultimate Realization of Their Love

As we know, however, the Dod does not have the opportunity at this juncture to “come to his garden and enjoy its luscious fruits.” His knocking goes unanswered by the shamefully indifferent Re’aya. As we have seen, after the missed opportunity the Dod pledges the restoration of his love to the point before the crisis, and he employs similar images to those used in his praise of chapter 4. However, at this point he moves even further, to a more intimate level of praise, now referring to all parts of her body:

Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master’s hand. Your navel is like a round goblet – let mixed wine not be lacking! Your belly is like a heap of wheat hedged about with lilies. Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle. (7:2-4)

He accepts his beloved as affectionately as before, and they can now actualize their love, which had previously been lost. “How fair you are, how beautiful! O Love, with all its rapture!” (7:8). This exclamation, which signifies the successful consummation of their renewed courtship, is the great exclamation of Shir Ha-shirim, testifying to the depth of the love of the Dod towards the Re’aya. This is the moment for which she has longed from the time the Dod suggested that she follow the tracks of the sheep and wait for the proper moment of love.

At this point, when the Dod and Re’aya have finally arrived at the long-awaited moment of love, one would have thought that our work is finished. However, the Megilla is not yet done – one more chapter remains. This chapter (actually, beginning from 7:12) seems, at first glance, unrelated to the drama of the previous seven chapters, and, beyond that, presents a totally different relationship from that which had developed over the course of the Megilla.

The defining characteristic of the end of Shir Ha-shirim is the sense of calm and tranquillity that has overcome their relationship. Now the Re’aya speaks with a newfound sense of security and self-confidence:

Come, my beloved, let us go into the open; let us lodge among the henna shrubs. Let us go early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine has flowered, if its blossoms have opened, if the pomegranates are in bloom. There I will give my love to you. The mandrakes yield their fragrance, at our doors all choice fruits; both freshly picked and long-stored have I kept, my beloved, for you. (7:12-14)

As opposed to the previous chapters of tension and struggle, these verses speak of mutual harmony and a pastoral aura that has taken hold. The two no longer stand opposite one another; they now stand alongside each other as a single unit. This transition from tension to tranquillity is expressed in terms of their departure from the bustling city to the vineyards, where they can sleep peacefully and wake to the serene, country sounds of friends speaking warmly with one another.

The struggle to come together in mutual bonds of affection has come to an end. We now encounter a married couple, working together to intensify their feelings and deepen them naturally, rather than through tension and conflict. If you will, the Re’aya’s depiction of their plans to head out into the fields may be viewed as a honeymoon, and an expression of her desire to move even beyond this point, to the elimination of all feelings of tension in favor of a natural unity between them:

If only it could be as with a brother, as if you had nursed at my mother’s breast: then I could kiss you when I met you in the street, and no one would despise me. I would lead you, I would bring you to the house ofmy mother, of her who taught me… (8:1-2)

“Look at Your Love Before the Almighty!!”

Rav Katina said: When the Jews would make their pilgrimage for YTov, the curtain would be opened for them, showing them the “keruvim” embracing each other, and they would say, “Behold your love before the Almighty, like the love of a man and woman!”

Rav Chisda asked [from the verse], “Let them not go inside and witness the dismantling of the sanctuary”… [So how could the Jews be allowed to actually see the “keruvim”?]

Rav Nachman answered: This may be compared to a bride. So long as she lives in her father’s home, she is modest before her husband [i.e., during the period of engagement. Similarly, while Benei Yisrael were still in the wilderness, they were not yet comfortable with the Presence of the Shekhina]. Once she moves into her in-laws’ home, she is no longer modest before her husband. (Yoma 54a)

The discomfort and tension between the couple mark the engagement period. This metaphor, employed to describe the relationship between the Almighty and Benei Yisrael prior to their entry into Israel, accompanies us throughout the Megilla until the final chapter, where there occurs the transition to their married life, where the tension and apprehension disappear.

Just as God did not forsake His love of Am Yisrael in the wake of the sin of the Golden Calf, so does the Dod retain his affection for the Re’aya even after she does not open the door for him. Great is repentance motivated by love (teshuva me-ahava), for it brings man closer to God, and great is the love and compassion of the Almighty for His people!

Translated by David Silverberg

To download this shiur, click here.

 VBM—The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion

This article was reposted with permission from the VBM—The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion. It is part of the  series “The Meaning of Pesach“.

About the Author
Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein is a co-Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion and and is teaching an advanced Gemara BeIyun shiur at the Beit Midrash for Women Migdal Oz. He is the author of: Moses - Envoy of God, Envoy of His People, and Netivei Nevua, a sefer on haftarot. He is also the author of several series of shiurim online at the VBM—The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion. He is married to Dr. Michal Lichtenstein and has three daughters.
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