Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple
Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective.
Shir HaShirim is a song of springtime, redolent of lilies and spices, gardens and flowers, sunshine and apples. The springtime air calls for celebration, which is one of the main reasons why the Song is recited on Pesach. In some traditions it is also recited on the eve of Shabbat, in order to give poetic voice to the sweetness and savour of the Day of Rest.
HEART OR MIND?
At first glance Shir HaShirim is emotional, rhapsodical, an outpouring of the heart with no significant intellectual content. Yet the Bible places it in the third section of Tanach, the K’tuvim or Wisdom writings. Wisdom literature is by definition more cerebral than emotional, and one wonders how this category can cover a book like Shir HaShirim.
One answer is that it all depends on the object of the affection that runs through the story. If one understands it as a dialogue between the human being and Wisdompersonified, the speaker is enraptured with the source of reality.
In later Jewish history there is another apparently unusual mystical relationship, between Joseph Karo, the compiler of the Shuchan Aruch, and the Mishnah personified.
ALIENATION & REDEMPTION
A characteristic theme of Jewish history is estrangement and rediscovery. Generally it is part of the drama of the covenant between God and Israel, with times of closeness and times of distance.
In Shir HaShirim the story is played out in miniature. The two main characters, the boy and the girl, constantly seek one another, sometimes seeing each other close up, sometimes separated, never ceasing to dream of embracing and being together for good.
In Biblical language, Israel says to God, “Hashivenu HaShem, bring us back to You”, and God replies, “Return to Me, and I will return to You”.
THE LOVE VOCABULARY
Whether we take Shir HaShirim literally or allegorically it is a love poem.
It has two main words for love – dod and re’a. The root of dod means to caress. Its derivatives include the name David; dod, an uncle (dodah is an aunt); and duda’im, mandrakes – a love potion. A well-known version in the Siddur is L’cha dodi likrat kallah, “Come, my beloved, to meet the Sabbath bride”; since dodi is masculine, the call is probably addressed to one’s dearest friend.
Re’a, generally understood as a neighbour, suggests a person with whom one has a close association.
In Shir HaShirim the words for love are interchangeable. The shepherd girl calls her loved one dodi and he calls her rayati.