Rejoice, rejoice in the good
news: Spring is here and Passover is on the way. And I too rejoice when Nissan,
the month that was once the first of the Hebrew calendar, arrives, and with its
vernal beauty steals the joy of the still-blustery Adar - though we are all
commanded to rejoice during that month. The joy of Nissan is double - both
departing for freedom and departing from winter.
I have revised my tastes in Bible a number of times over the years; a kind of
weakness of taste, a sort of capriciousness of temperament that is
characteristic of transitional seasons. Today I am almost certain that I have
formulated my position: The Song of Songs and the Book of Ruth are my
favorites, and that is final.
These are two books of a subversive character, and both of them always bring up
the question of how they succeeded in the first place in entering the
collection of Holy Writ. How were they given canonical status? Were such
writings collected and redacted nowadays, it is doubtful they would be awarded
this status. Quite possibly, the Song of Songs would be left out because of its
eroticism and the Book of Ruth pushed out because of its ethics. But we shall
write about Ruth at length at the end of the counting of the Omer, when the
holiday of Shavuot arrives.
Ruth and the Song of Songs are the most Land-of-Israel books that I know of,
then or now. When the question arises of whether there is such a thing as
Israeli literature, and not just Israeli writers, these two books are the
decisive answer: Indeed there is such a literature. Reading and delighting in
them is possible anywhere, but the writing could have taken place only here, in
Bethlehem and Jerusalem, among the fields and vineyards of the beloved land of
I once suggested to our Interior Ministry that it rely on the Book of Ruth to
establish the rules for obtaining citizenship in this country, and now I am
suggesting to the Tourism Ministry that it use the Song of Songs to attract
tourists in love. And Bar Refaeli, with little marketing effort, can play the
role of "For I am lovesick." As everyone knows, the Song of Songs is
attributed to King Solomon, but according to modern research, the text was
shaped many years after his reign. Not only historically, but also from the
literary perspective, it is difficult to accept Solomon as the author, as in
his palace harem he had a thousand women, whereas Shulamith's love for her
beloved is unique and exclusive. The lord of a thousand women does not qualify
for a love experience that is so focused and for longings that are so
Today the prevailing assumption is that the anthology of love songs was not
written by a single hand but rather by various authors in various periods,
although a rereading reveals perfect stylistic and thematic unity.
The Song of Songs is a subversive book in biblical, conservative and
traditional terms, so much so that the sages had to interpret it as a kind of
allegory. Not a beloved and a lover, not a shepherd and a shepherdess, not
Shulamith and her beloved, but rather a love affair between the community of
Israel and God. Rabbi Akiva, of all people, who held the Song of Songs to be
more sacred than the other books of Scripture apart from the five books of
Moses and the Prophets, is recorded as having said that "anyone who
warbles the Song of Songs in drinking houses and makes it into a kind of ditty
has no portion in the world to come."
Those sages always had to spoil our fun. Why do they do this to us? What did we
ever do to them? Happily for us, this exegesis, which was aimed at preventing
desecration, did not make a deep impression on creative inspiration. Generation
after generation had its say and transmitted material, and there isn't a single
line that has not been put into the mouths of flesh-and-blood lovers. There
isn't a single poem in the Song of Songs that has not been sung by the young in
spirit, who, in the breezes of the night and the day, imagine themselves as
shepherds and shepherdesses, black and comely, tanned swarthy by the sun; this
is their sensual fantasy.
The allegory argument in this case is rather funny and far out. Even God
Himself would not be grateful to the great leaders of Israel and their exegetes
if a trace of the human remained in His image. What is it they want to tell us,
the sages of blessed memory - that their God is not only merciful, but also
libidinous, and that the community of Israel, for its part, is particularly
interested in the thighs of the Holy One, blessed be He, which are "as
pillars of marble." He swoons over her most intimate parts, "the
rounding of thy thighs," "thy belly is a heap of wheat" and
"thy two breasts are like twin fawns," and he dreams of climbing into
the palm tree with the help of the branches thereof and her breasts as the
clusters of grapes. As for her, she will nestle him between her breasts, his
left hand under her head and his right hand embracing her.
God shows up all of a sudden, and with no prior warning in any other reference,
knocks on the door, his head filled with dew, on his locks the drops of night,
removes his coat, washes his feet and is ready; and she rises to open the door,
her heart moving for him, her hands and her fingers flowing with myrrh on the
door handles. She too is ready.
Good God, what is happening here? Has the landlord gone crazy? How is it that
we hadn't previously known such a human God, so similar and equal to us?
Neither did He know that He was like that, until his emissaries and exegetes
told Him. The Song of Songs is customarily read on the Sabbath of the
Intermediate Days of Passover, between the first and the seventh day. There are
those who also read it on the closing holiday, and even a few who end the seder
night by reading it. I very much recommend this custom, and I think it should
spread. The Song of Songs is a much better read than the Passover Haggadah,
which is an eclectic text that stops at every station in time, like a slow
train that takes on more and more freight.
Because the Haggadah is a wide-open text that has not been zealously guarded in
every generation, it has been infiltrated by a mix of biblical verses and bits
of legend, prayers and hymns and just plain songs. With its educational mission
("thou shall tell thy son on that day"), the Haggadah is ostensibly
also aimed at children, and perhaps first and foremost at them, so as to
instill in all four kinds of sons the story of the Exodus from Egypt, to make
them like it and to educate each according to his needs. But while the Song of
Songs only charms, the Haggadah is also scary, like Grimms' fairy tales. When
the Haggadah pours out its wrath, it does so on young and old alike. Alongside
fine and interesting sections, there are a number of baffling and boring parts.
No wonder many families postpone the worst and have the meal first so that
slumber will not fall on the eyelids of the tender Jewish infants.
Therefore, I recommend that another question be added to the traditional four:
How is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights we read
only the Haggadah; on this night we also read the Song of Songs, wherein the
songs are better than wine and verily, even the fleshpots.