Introduction

גַּל־עֵינַ֥י וְאַבִּ֑יטָה נִ֜פְלָא֗וֹת מִתּֽוֹרָתֶֽךָ

Uncover my eyes and I shall look at hidden things from Your Torah.

This is the first of four introductory articles to the study before getting to the text of Song of Songs. (Also called Song of Solomon and Shir Hashirim in the original Hebrew.) We begin here with broader concepts and will go deeper into details in subsequent articles. 

The term “Holy of Holies” is a reference to the inner and most sacred space within the Temple described in the Bible (Details about the Temple and the concept of levels (‘worlds’) of existence will be covered shortly.)

At this “highest level within existence,” the High Priest would make a connection to God “outside of existence.” This was a ‘joining’ our world (with our limited view/connection to the ‘immanent’ aspect of God), to the transcendent aspect of the Creator, where everything is ‘one’ — no aspect of distinction or conflict. The latter is often referred to as “Ein Sof,” meaning “without end.”

This concept, that the Holy of Holies is a place of connecting to the “eternal-singular,” is what lies behind this remarkable statement about Song of Songs:

“Heaven forbid that any man in Israel ever disputed the sacredness of Shir HaShirim for the whole world is not worth the day on which Shir Hashirim was given to Israel, for all of the Writings are kodesh (“holy”) but Shir Hashirim is kodesh kedashim (“holy of holies”).”
Rabbi Akiva, Mishnah Yadayim 3:5

This quote seems outrageous as it claims that all the books of the Hebrew Scriptures are holy, but Song of Songs is the holiest of them all.  How could a great sage like Rabbi Akiva make such a claim?  

What is hidden in this mysterious text and how do we uncover it?

Imagination

But all of this is a far-reaching plan, the Lord’s plan to perfect the imaginative faculty, for imagination is the healthy basis for the supernal spirit that will descend on it … the supreme divine spirit destined to come through King Messiah. Therefore, now the imaginative faculty is being firmly established. When it is completely finished, the seat will be ready and perfect for the supernal spirit of the Lord, fit to receive the light of the divine spirit, which is the spirit of the Lord, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and strength, a spirit of knowledge and awe of the Lord.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, “Orot” (1920)

“Imagination” does not mean a lack of boundaries. The latter exists in terms of eternal truths and principles that reflect the transcendent creator and creation. Just as a top athlete might display imaginative skill within the rules of their sport, the same applies when pondering spiritual realities.

The difference, however, is that with the latter the more you progress, the more you will be able to bend. You could say that you might even ‘break’ certain rules. Of course, even the idea of ‘breaking rules’ is itself part of the rules, or ‘framework,’ of reality. Ironically, it requires a disciplined path of learning to reach that level. 

Our existence is a dynamic one, involving at one end, the expansiveness (‘force’) of imagination, and at the other, the restrictiveness (‘form’) of whatever we are dealing with – in this case a mystical Biblical text. 

Further, our collective imagination is far greater than the sum of its parts. Two or more people studying together and discussing matters can provoke each other to think in ways they normally might not have. As we will show, the ‘level’ of the Holy of Holies, is also the level of collective consciousness.

All of that being said, Song of Songs will stretch our imagination. It is a text where opposites exist in the same place and time (and must be resolved) which includes verses simultaneously having “positive and negative” connotations.

Throughout the book we also experience an intermingling of past “good times,” a present exile & process of rectification, and future redemption.

Views of Interpretation

All legitimate ways of understanding the text are grounded in the same framework of reality that we will address in greater detail in our remaining introductory articles.

Areas of interpretation center around the two main characters in the text, one of which is presented as masculine and the other feminine.

The main ones relate to these concepts:

  1. Man and Woman
  2. God and the “Children of Israel”
  3. God and the human Soul

1. Man and Woman

At first glance, Song of Songs seems to be a dialogue between a man and a woman, lovers who admire one another, but who lost and seek to find each other.  It is also quite ‘sensual.’ In the first chapter alone, there are references to touch, taste, sound, sight, and smell.

This more ‘literal’ level of understanding presents an array of difficulties.

  • Why is such a text in the Bible? How does it relate to anything else we find such as commandments, prophecy, morals, ethics, or even history?
  • If we are going to use verses, such as 8:4 (“awaken not love before its time”) to promote virtues such as celibacy until marriage (as some do), why then does the book contain such ‘erotic’ language leading up to that?
  • What about these same ‘lovers’ also referring to themselves as being brother and sister as the text states? Something does not add up.

It is evident that such a rendering of the text causes more problems than it solves. Thus, the consensus is that the text is allegory. This relates to what is called the ‘remez’ level of interpretation, which means “to hint” at something.

There is even a comment in the Talmud, saying that the text ‘hides’ the deeper meaning and to simply read it plainly, is to make a mockery of it:

He who recites a verse of the Song of Songs and treats it as secular air, and one who recites a verse at the banqueting table unseasonably, brings evil upon the world. Because the Torah girds itself in sackcloth, and stands before the Holy One, blessed be He, and laments before Him, Sovereign of the Universe! Thy children have made me as a harp upon which a clown plays.
Sanhedrin 101a

This is not to dismiss the idea of love between a man and a woman. There’s an interesting verse in the Talmud that makes such a comparison, expressing the deep love God has for the people in a way they could relate to:

Whenever Israel came up to the Festival, the curtain would be removed for them and the Cherubim were shown to them, whose bodies were intertwisted with one another, and they would be thus addressed: Look! You are beloved before God as the love between man and woman.
Yoma 54a

We will move on to the major allegorical interpretations,

2. God and The Children of Israel

Instead of answering Rabbi Yishmael, Rabbi Yehoshua diverted his attention to another matter and said to him: Yishmael, how do you read the following verse in the Song of Songs (1:2)? Do you read it as: For Your love [dodekha] is better than wine, or as: For your love [dodayikh] is better than wine? The first version, which is in the masculine form, would be a reference to God, whereas the second version, in the feminine, would be a reference to the Jewish people.
Avodah_Zarah.29b.8 (Sefaria.org)

The most common understanding is that our text is a song of love describing the intimate connection between God (the masculine voice in the story) and the “Children of Israel” — the descendants of Jacob, who was also named Israel. It is a song of love and devotion, of human error and repentance, of exile and redemption. 

The feminine voice in the story ‘represents’ the people, but is that of the ‘Shekinah’ — the divine presence who is with the people. Shekinah relates to both, shachen, which is a ‘neighbor,’ and to shochen, meaning “to dwell within.” The word and concept are ‘feminine.’

(When discussing any dynamic involving God, (i.e., prayer, meditation) the masculine aspect relates to the Divine and the feminine to the human.)

This adds another interesting dimension to the text, as it seems that the Divine Presence itself is in need of correction, and though she “accepts this,” she also relates that her present exile was due to the actions of the people. (We expand on the Shekinah below in the fourth area of interpretation.)

In the Biblical narrative, God forgave Israel for the sin of the golden calf (a subject that is alluded to in chapter 1) and He eventually brought them into the Land of Israel, where they continued to go astray. His patience exhausted, He finally sent them into Exile. There, they realized that it was far better for them with God than afterward with all the false gods. Through the voice of the Shekinah, she/they express longing for the return of their earlier intimate status, in the Land of Israel.

This is all reflected in Song of Songs. However, when the male figure approaches her, she suddenly forgets her earlier resolution. (A very ‘human’ behavior!) When she seeks him out to reunite, he will not accept her without her first correcting her mistakes and returning to her “true self.” This is the concept of “teshuvah.” The goal of this return is the “Image of God” we are created in.

HARK! MY BELOVED KNOCKETH: by the hand of Moses, when he said, [And Moses said:] Thus saith the Lord: About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt (Exodus 11:4). OPEN TO ME. R. Jassa said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: My sons, present to me an opening of repentance no bigger than the eye of a needle, and I will widen it into openings through which wagons and carriages can pass. R. Tanhuma and R. Hunia and R. Abbahu in the name of Resh Lakish said, It is written, Let be and know that I am God (Psalm 46:11). Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Israel: ‘ Let go your evil deeds and know that I am God. R. Levi said: Were Israel to practice repentance even for one day, forthwith they would be redeemed, and forthwith the scion of David would come. How do we know? Because it says, For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture and the flock of His hand. Today, if ye would but hearken to His voice. (Psalm 95:7) R. Judan and R. Levi said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: Let go of your evil ways and practice repentance even for a flash and know that I am God.
Midrash Rabbah Shir Hashirim 5:3

The good news is that during all the time of her exile, He watches over her, from “behind the wall, gazing through the window,” (v. 2:9) and protects her from her enemies.

A further example of the significance of Song of Songs as it relates to Israel and deeper concepts is found in the very opening words of the Zohar, the preeminent text of the mystical dimension of Torah. Commenting on Genesis 1:1, the Zohar goes straight to Shir Hashirim:

Rabbi Hizkiah opened his discourse with the text: As a lily among thorns, etc. (Song of Songs 2:2). ‘What’, he said, ‘does the lily symbolize? It symbolizes the Community of Israel. As the lily among thorns is tinged with red and white, so the Community of Israel is visited now with justice and now with mercy; as the lily possesses thirteen leaves, so the Community of Israel is vouchsafed thirteen categories of mercy which surround it on every side.
Zohar 1:1

3. God and the Human Soul

Another allegorical understanding may be considered “broader” than the previous, and that is between God (the masculine character, as always) and the human soul. The basic concept here is simple. The soul is on a mission here in this world but longs to return from where it came.

Our world is one of ‘concealment,’ where the reality of God is not so easy to perceive. This is referred to as “Hester Panim” – hiding of the Face. Not only that but there are many barriers and distractions to “finding our way back,” making this quite a struggle at times.

The cause of this separation goes back to the Garden of Eden story.  The wonderful unity and harmony of that existence was interrupted by what may be understood as an act of self-centeredness. Humans were “brought down” into the lowest world of existence where physicality was dominant. This remains the case to this day. The spiritual entity of the human soul was forced into this exile.

The soul, however, is never “cut off” from God. It maintains a connection from this lowest and darkest world of existence, back to the ‘source’ – before existence (Ein Sof, as mentioned earlier).

The following text relates to this and also connects this allegory to the previous, linking the Shekinah to the soul:

The text of the Tanya (Likutei Amarim) gives an analogy that when a rope has one end tied above, tugging at the lower end will draw down the upper end as well. The upper extremity of a soul is likewise bound to its source in the blessed Ein Sof, while at its lower extremity, it is enclothed in the body. When the lower extremity of the soul is dragged into spiritual exile through wrongful action, speech, or thought, this has a corresponding effect upon the upper reaches of the soul which are bound Above. In a sense, that ‘divine presence’ within us is also dragged into the separation. This is the esoteric doctrine of the “Exile of the Shekinah.” Sin causes the soul to be exiled within the ‘darkness’ of our physical world. The presence of God is not easy to see around us. This idea of the elements of creation ‘hiding’ God, is called the domain of the kelipot – a term meaning shells or barriers. Breaking through or free of these barriers goes back to what was said earlier about making connection to God through prayer (which includes deeper meditation), Torah study (like we are doing here) and mitzvoth, acts of kindness – which elevate his soul, enabling it to reunite with its source, the eternal, called Ein Sof, meaning ‘without end.’
Likutei Amarim (ch. 45), Chabad.org

As we see in the above allegories, physical imagery is assigned to G-d in the form of bodily and other spritual elements. Jewish mystical literature that comes under the heading of Shi‘ur Komah (“Measurement of the Body”) has its origins in Song of Songs.

This is not exclusive to our text, however. For instance, G-d presents “Himself” as a woman in Numbers 11:12:

Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that you say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,’ to the Land You promised their forefathers.

We will develop all of the concepts mentioned in this first section in the subsequent background articles and in the study of the text itself. Within the text, there are different ways to approach various sections, verses, and words – all of them connecting us to singularity – from the Holy of Holies.


NOTES

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RESOURCES (links)

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