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Barry Dov Walfish

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Song of Songs: Four Approaches to Love in Commentary and Music

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Barry Dov Walfish

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Song of Songs: Four Approaches to Love in Commentary and Music

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https://thetorah.com/article/song-of-songs-four-approaches-to-love-in-commentary-and-music

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Song of Songs: Four Approaches to Love in Commentary and Music

Known by the acronym Pardes, four approaches—peshat, the literal, remez, the philosophical-allegorical, derash, the midrashic-allegorical, and sod, the mystical—can be found not only in commentaries on the Song of Songs but also in a variety of musical settings.

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Song of Songs: Four Approaches to Love in Commentary and Music

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Shir Hashirim, “The Song of Songs,” a collection of love poems, compiled over centuries, that probably reached its final form in the 5th–4th centuries B.C.E.[1], has had a special place in Jewish hearts and minds from antiquity until the present.[2] Its secular nature and lack of reference to God or anything of a religious nature may have led to the rabbinic dispute about its place in the canon as recorded in the Mishnah. Rabbi Akiva’s strong championing of the work in the early 2nd century C.E. seems to have silenced all opposition:

משנה ידים ג:ה {ט} אָמַר רְבִּי עֲקִיבָה: חַס וְשָׁלוֹם! לֹא נֶחְלַק אָדָן מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל עַל שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים, שֶׁלֹּא תְטַמֵּא אֶת הַיָּדַיִם, שֶׁאֵין הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ כְּדַי, כְּיוֹם שֶׁנִּתְּנָה שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, שֶׁכָּל הַכְּתוּבִים קֹדֶשׁ, וְשִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים.
m. Yadayim 3:5 {9} R. Akiva said: “Heaven forbid! No person of Israel ever disagreed regarding the Song of Songs that it should not render the hands impure (i.e., that it is considered scripture), for the whole world is not worthy as the day when the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is Holy of Holies.[3]

The allusive, ambiguous, suggestive, and mysterious nature of these poems contributed to their interpretation in a variety of ways, eventually leading to a multivocal approach to the book.

Early Allegories

In the first millennium, the Song was exclusively interpreted as a historical allegory, referring to the loving, covenantal relationship between God and the people Israel,[4] focusing on peak events in Jewish history such as the exodus, the revelation at Sinai, and the construction of the Tabernacle and the Jerusalem Temple. Entire works of translation (e.g., Targum Shir ha-shirim) and midrash (e.g., Shir ha-shirim Rabbah) were devoted to this mode of interpretation, with additional illustrations throughout rabbinic literature.

“My Dove in the Clefts of a Rock”

Here is an early example:

When the fleeing Israelites, facing impending destruction at the hands of the Egyptians, cry out to Moses in desperation.[5] Moses tries to calm them down and reassure them.[6] The tannaitic midrash Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael offers an analogy for Israel’s situation:

מכילתא דר"י בשלח ב לְמָה הָיוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל דּוֹמִים בְּאוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה? לְיוֹנָה שֶׁבָּרְחָה מִפְּנֵי הַנֵּץ, וְנִכְנְסָה לִנְקִיק הַסֶּלַע, וְהָיָה נָחָשׁ נוֹשֵׁף בָּהּ. אִם תִּכָּנֵס לִפְנִים, הֲרֵי הַנָּחָשׁ, וְאִם תֵּצֵא לַחוּץ, הֲרֵי הַנֵּץ!
To what could Israel be compared at that time? To a dove fleeing a hawk, who took refuge in the cleft of a rock, where a serpent hissed at her. If she were to enter within — there is the serpent; if she were to go out — there is the hawk.
כָּךְ הָיוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל דּוֹמִים בְּאוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה: הַיָּם סוֹגֵר, וְשׂוֹנֵא רוֹדֵף מִיָּד נָתְנוּ עֵינֵיהֶם בִּתְפִלָּה.
So, were Israel at that time: the sea was closing off their escape and their foe was pursuing them [from behind] — whereupon they raised their eyes in prayer.

The textual support the Mekhilta finds for this interpretation comes from the Song of Songs:

עֲלֵיהֶם מְפֹרָשׁ בַּקַּבָּלָה: [שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים ב,יד] "יוֹנָתִי בְּחַגְוֵי הַסֶּלַע, בְּסֵתֶר הַמַּדְרֵגָה, הַרְאִינִי אֶת מַרְאַיִךְ, הַשְׁמִיעִנִי אֶת קוֹלֵךְ, כִּי קוֹלֵךְ עָרֵב, וּמַרְאֵיךְ נָאוֶה." "כִּי קוֹלֵךְ עָרֵב", בִּתְּפִלָּה. "וּמַרְאֵיךְ נָאוֶה", בְּתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה.
Of them it is written in the tradition [Song of Songs 2:14] “My dove in the clefts of the rock, let Me see your face; let Me hear your voice. For your voice is sweet and your face is fair.” “Your voice is sweet”— in prayer; “your face is fair”—in Torah study.

In its original context, the verse seems to convey an element of coyness on the part of the female lover, who is hiding from the man, perhaps playing hard to get. The male lover expresses his desire to hear her voice and see her beautiful countenance. The element of hiding in a lofty cranny conveys distance and unreachability.

The rabbis, however, pick up on a different motif. The dove is a vulnerable bird, prone to predation by birds of prey and other predators. This element of vulnerability, being caught between a rock and a hard place, recalls the situation of the Israelites escaping from Egypt and heading for a body of water with no escape in sight while being pursued by the Egyptians. The comparison is a poignant one and seems an appropriate metaphor. The conclusion stresses the salvatory effects of prayer and study, activities highly valued by the rabbis.

Emergence of Peshat Reading

In the High Middle Ages, exegetes, such as Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167) and the Northern French school in the 12th and early 13th centuries began to explore and interpret the song on its basic level of love poetry, while still maintaining the allegorical interpretation that had become firmly rooted in the tradition. This trend reached its peak in a small number of commentaries devoted exclusively to peshat (plain-sense, contextual) exegesis.[7]

At around this same time, (late 12th–early 13th cent.) two other methods of reading Scripture, the philosophical and the mystical, emerged in both the Islamic and Christian worlds.

Philosophy

The philosophical trend was influenced by Aristotelianism as interpreted by Maimonides (1138–1204) and his contemporary the great Muslim philosopher Averroes (1126-1198). Philosophical commentaries on the Song view its dialogues as taking place between the rational human soul (the female) and the Divine Intellect (the male). In this view, each individual was tasked with developing their rational soul or intellect so that it might make contact with the Divine Intellect in this life and unite with it after death.

The Song is thus seen as a guidebook for attaining spiritual wisdom. The true meaning of the text is concealed in literary figures, and this concealed meaning is only available to the philosophically adept, thus, for a very small audience. The goal of the philosopher is to learn to love God with the mind alone, the human quality that is closest to the divine. This means that the eros of the Song is entirely spiritualized: Love of God is a refined intellectual love.

Lovesick for God

As Moses Maimonides puts it, commenting on Deuteronomy’s requirement from the second verse of the Shema prayer (6:5) to “love your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might”:

משנה תורה, ספר מדע, הלכות תשובה י:ג וכיצד היא האהבה הראויה הוא שיאהב את ה' אהבה גדולה יתירה עזה מאוד עד שתהא נפשו קשורה באהבת ה' ונמצא שוגה בה תמיד כאלו חולה חולי האהבה שאין דעתו פנויה מאהבת אותה אשה והוא שוגה בה תמיד בין בשבתו בין בקומו בין בשעה שהוא אוכל ושותה, יתר מזה תהיה אהבת ה' בלב אוהביו שוגים בה תמיד כמו שצונו בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך.
Mishneh Torah, Mada, Laws of Repentance 10:3 And what is the proper love? One should love the Lord with an exceeding great and very strong love so that the soul be tied to the love of the Lord, finding itself totally absorbed in it, as if he were suffering of lovesickness, when his mind is never free because of love for that woman, and he is obsessed with her, whether sitting down, or standing up, even when he is eating and drinking. More than this should the love for the Lord be in the heart of those who love him, meditating on it constantly, even as God has commanded us: “With all your heart and with all your soul.”

Maimonides then brings a prooftext from the Song of Songs:

והוא ששלמה אמר דרך משל כי חולת אהבה אני, וכל שיר השירים משל הוא לענין זה.
This is what Solomon said allegorically: “For I am love-sick” (Song 2:5). And, all of Song of Songs, is an allegory on this subject.

In this approach, rather than being a collection of songs devoted to human love, the Song of Songs is the sublimest expression of the love of the individual seeker for their God, exploring this relationship in every detail.[8]

Mysticism and Kabbalah

Practitioners of the mystical or esoteric lore of the Kabbalah, attempt to draw near to God and understand the mysteries of the divine and the relationship between the divine sefirot or “gradations.” For kabbalists, the Song of Songs represents an allegory of the relationship between these sefirot. The commentary of the thirteenth-century mystic Ezra ben Solomon of Gerona, for instance, interprets the Song’s dialogues as taking place between the divine gradations, with the female component longing to ascend the heights and kiss the transcendent male element and join with it in ecstatic union and thereby restore harmony in the divine being.[9]

The fact that the final gradation in the kabbalistic understanding of the divinity is feminine lends drama and excitement to the descriptions of the lovers and their lovemaking because Solomon is understood as the masculine element of the divine and his lover as the feminine element or the Shekhinah, the aspect of the divine that is closest to the people.[10]

By studying the Song’s dialogues, the mystic can experience the dynamics of the interactions between the divine energies in spiritual rapture. The soul’s true love of God enables the restoration of the fragments of existence to Divinity.

Pardes—The Four Exegetical Approaches

The four approaches to the text discussed above came to be referred to by kabbalists in the late thirteenth century by the acronym PaRDeS.[11]

  1. Peshat, the literal,
  2. Remez (lit. allusion) the philosophical-allegorical,
  3. Derash, the midrashic-homiletical,
  4. Sod, the mystical.

This acronym and its significations originated in the Zohar in the late 13th century and came to be understood as the characteristic methods of Jewish interpretation.[12] For the kabbalists, the mystical was the ultimate interpretation, the culmination of the mystic’s search for the divine. Medieval Christian exegetes also developed a fourfold system of interpretation, but the methods and the consistency of their application differ considerably from those in Judaism.[13] While Christian exegetes would try to exegete a book on all four levels, very few Jewish exegetes actually attempted to do this in their own commentaries.[14]

Fishbane’s JPS Song of Songs Commentary

In modern biblical scholarship, peshat exegesis reigns supreme and the fourfold pardes system is confined to the works of traditional rabbinic scholars. A recent exception is the extraordinary commentary of the scholar and theologian Michael Fishbane, in which he attempts to consistently exegete the text of the Song of Songs on the four classic levels of interpretation, adjusted to modern sensibilities:

  1. Peshat referring to the realm of natural experience and love;
  2. Remez to personal spirituality;
  3. Derash to communal religion and its duties;
  4. Sod to cosmic and transcendental intuitions.[15]

Through this commentary, Fishbane hopes not only to help his readers understand the text better in its context, the goal of most modern exegetes, but also to enrich their religious and spiritual lives.[16]

The Song of Songs in Jewish Music

The Song of Songs has penetrated every corner of Jewish culture, not only classical religious works, but literature, art, music, and dance as well. Musical uses of the Song appear in a variety of settings—classical, and popular, secular and religious. It is particularly noteworthy that Jewish musical settings for verses of the Song can be found that correspond to each of the four categories of traditional Jewish interpretation discussed above.

Peshat—Songs of the Yishuv

The leaders of the Zionist movement in the Yishuv, the Jewish population in pre-1948 Palestine, and in the fledging State of Israel, sought to instill in its members, especially its youth, a love for the land of Israel and an attachment to nature. This was part of an attempt to restore the Jewish people to “normalcy” after centuries in exile, separated from their ancestral homeland.

The Song of Songs played a major role in this revival because of its ability to conjure up the beauty of the land of Israel in all its richness. Putting these resonant verses to music and creating dances to enhance them was an effective tool in inculcating these values in these early generations of pioneers and nascent Israelis.

Some favorite verses were Kol Dodi (here sung by Sarah Levi-Tanai):

שיר השירים ב:ח קוֹל דּוֹדִי הִנֵּה זֶה בָּא מְדַלֵּג עַל הֶהָרִים מְקַפֵּץ עַל הַגְּבָעוֹת.
Son 2:8 The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. [17]

Dodi Li (here sung by Shoshana Damari)

שיר השירים ב:טז דּוֹדִי לִי וַאֲנִי לוֹ הָרֹעֶה בַּשּׁוֹשַׁנִּים.
Song 2:16 My beloved, who pastures [his flock] among the lilies, is mine and I am his.

Ana Halakh Dodeikh (here sung by Naomi Tzuri)

שיר השירים ו:א אָנָה הָלַךְ דּוֹדֵךְ הַיָּפָה בַּנָּשִׁים אָנָה פָּנָה דוֹדֵךְ וּנְבַקְשֶׁנּוּ עִמָּךְ. ו:ב דּוֹדִי יָרַד לְגַנּוֹ לַעֲרוּגוֹת הַבֹּשֶׂם לִרְעוֹת בַּגַּנִּים וְלִלְקֹט שׁוֹשַׁנִּים.
Song 6:1 Where has your beloved gone, O fairest among women? Which way has your beloved turned, that we may seek him with you? 6:2 My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices,

Many songs have been choreographed and were popular among all generations in the pre-State Yishuv and in the early days of the State of Israel, into the 80s and 90s. Since then, a new generation of composers and singers have continued the tradition, using a variety of musical styles. A song titled אֶל גִּנַּת אֱגוֹז “El Ginnat Egoz,” (To the Nut Orchard), composed by Sarah Levi-Tanai in 1943 and made famous by the popular duo, the Parvarim, in the 1960s and 70s, combines three verses:

שיר השירים ו:יא אֶל גִּנַּת אֱגוֹז יָרַדְתִּי לִרְאוֹת בְּאִבֵּי הַנָּחַל לִרְאוֹת הֲפָרְחָה הַגֶּפֶן הֵנֵצוּ הָרִמֹּנִים.
Song 6:11 I went down to the nut orchard, to look at the blossoms of the valley, to see whether the vines had budded, whether the pomegranates were in bloom.
שיר השירים ז:יב לְכָה דוֹדִי נֵצֵא הַשָּׂדֶה נָלִינָה בַּכְּפָרִים. ז:יג נַשְׁכִּימָה לַכְּרָמִים נִרְאֶה אִם פָּרְחָה הַגֶּפֶן פִּתַּח הַסְּמָדַר...
Song 7:12 Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields, and lodge in the villages; 7:13 let us go out early to the vineyards, and see whether the vines have budded, whether the grape blossoms have opened…
שיר השירים ד:טז עוּרִי צָפוֹן וּבוֹאִי תֵימָן הָפִיחִי גַנִּי יִזְּלוּ בְשָׂמָיו יָבֹא דוֹדִי לְגַנּוֹ וְיֹאכַל פְּרִי מְגָדָיו.
Song 4:16 Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden that its fragrance may be wafted abroad. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits.

The song sets a quiet contemplative mood, one that contributes to an atmosphere of what I might call secular spirituality, a mood that can be tapped into by a wide swathe of Israeli and Jewish society.[18]

Remez—Jewish Renewal

The Jewish Renewal movement sprang up in the 70s and 80s of the 20th century, inspired by charismatic figures such as R. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Arthur Waskow. It sought to renew Judaism through an emphasis on spirituality and mysticism, incorporating insights from the Kabbalah, Hasidism, and Eastern religions.[19]

One of the prominent figures in the movement is R. Shefa Gold, who has made a name for herself as a composer of chants based on biblical and other texts as a way of deepening the listener’s spiritual experience and bringing people closer to God. She has described Hebrew chant as an effective tool for healing and transforming people of different religions, not just adherents of Judaism. She has written several chants based on Song of Songs, including “Rising to Open: Kamti,” based on the verse:

שיר השירים ה:ה קַמְתִּי אֲנִי לִפְתֹּחַ לְדוֹדִי.
Song 5:5 I rose to open to my beloved.

Gold understands the verse as referring to the relationship between the individual and God, and how people should open their hearts to experience the divine. Thus, in her interpretive translation, she augments the verse to read, “I will open to you, my beloved; will you open, open to me?”, to which she adds this commentary:

The moment has come. We rise in order to open to the blessings and challenges of this moment. The inner gesture of rising to this moment is absolutely necessary if we are to open to what life is offering.

The English part that I added to this verse, expresses both my commitment and a sense of vulnerability. I ask for a Divine reciprocity in this opening. With each repetition of the chant I strengthen my commitment to open, and also become more receptive to the Divine response (through the world) that is opening to me.

This song is an example of remez in a more personal sense—understanding the text as applying to the relationship between the individual and the divine. The verse set to music is a tool for meditation and contemplation and for bringing the individual closer to God.

Derash—Classic Orthodoxy

The Chasidic singer Motty Steinmetz sings verse צְאֶינָה וּרְאֶינָה Tseno Ureno (in heavy Ashkenazi pronunciation), backed by the Yedidim Choir, and performed in Yeshivah Ateres Shelomoh:

שיר השירים ג:יא צְאֶינָה וּרְאֶינָה בְּנוֹת צִיּוֹן בַּמֶּלֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹה בָּעֲטָרָה שֶׁעִטְּרָה לּוֹ אִמּוֹ בְּיוֹם חֲתֻנָּתוֹ וּבְיוֹם שִׂמְחַת לִבּוֹ.
Song 3:11 Come out and look at King Solomon, at the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding, on the day of the gladness of his heart.

In this very traditional community, the verse is not understood to refer to King Solomon’s marriage to his beloved bride, but rather to the symbolic marriage of the people Israel and God at Mount Sinai. This interpretation is already found in the Mishnah, which describes how, on the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur, Jewish girls would go out to dance in borrowed clothing, and would invite the boys to court them:

משנה תענית ד:ח וּבְנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם יוֹצְאוֹת וְחוֹלוֹת בַּכְּרָמִים. וּמֶה הָיוּ אוֹמְרוֹת, בָּחוּר, שָׂא נָא עֵינֶיךָ וּרְאֵה, מָה אַתָּה בוֹרֵר לָךְ. אַל תִּתֵּן עֵינֶיךָ בַנּוֹי, תֵּן עֵינֶיךָ בַמִּשְׁפָּחָה. שֶׁקֶר הַחֵן וְהֶבֶל הַיֹּפִי, אִשָּׁה יִרְאַת ה׳ הִיא תִתְהַלָּל (משלי לא:ל). וְאוֹמֵר, תְּנוּ לָהּ מִפְּרִי יָדֶיהָ, וִיהַלְלוּהָ בַשְּׁעָרִים מַעֲשֶׂיהָ (שׁם).
m. Taʿanit 4:8 And the maidens of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards. And what would they say? “Young man, lift up your eyes and look: What do you choose for yourself? Do not pay attention to beauty, but rather to family. ‘Grace is deceptive and beauty is an illusion; a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised’ (Prov 31:30) And it says: ‘Give her from the fruit of her hands and let her deeds praise her in the gates’ (ibid).”[20]

The text goes on to quote another prooftext, this time from the Song of Songs:

וְכֵן הוּא אוֹמֵר, צְאֶינָה וּרְאֶינָה בְּנוֹת צִיּוֹן בַּמֶּלֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹה בָּעֲטָרָה שֶׁעִטְּרָה לּוֹ אִמּוֹ בְּיוֹם חֲתֻנָּתוֹ וּבְיוֹם שִׂמְחַת לִבּוֹ (שיר השירים ג:יא). בְּיוֹם חֲתֻנָּתוֹ, זֶה מַתַּן תּוֹרָה. וּבְיוֹם שִׂמְחַת לִבּוֹ, זֶה בִּנְיַן בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ, שֶׁיִּבָּנֶה בִמְהֵרָה בְיָמֵינוּ. אָמֵן.
Likewise, it says: “Go forth and gaze, maidens of Zion, upon King Solomon, upon the crown with which his mother crowned him on his wedding day, and on the day of the gladness of his heart” (Song 3:11). “On his wedding day,” this is the giving of the Torah; “On the day of the gladness of his heart,” this is the building of the Temple. May it be rebuilt speedily in our days, Amen.[21]

The choice to sing this verse, accompanied by the interpretation from the Mishnah—which is sung in the song—signals a desire to remind the listener that the only proper way to understand the Song of Songs is through the lens of the rabbis, which can also provide the listener with a profound spiritual experience.

Sod—An-ski’s The Dybbuk

The example we have chosen for Sod, the mystical level of interpretation of the song is taken from a different world, that of the shtetl of Eastern Europe, before the disruption of traditional life by the incursion of modernity.

S. An-ski (S.Z. Rapoport; 1863–1920) was an author and folklorist, who organized an ethnographic expedition throughout Russia in 1912–1914, collecting folksongs, folktales and other materials, thereby saving much of Eastern European Jewish culture that would have been lost forever.[22]

The most famous product of his research is the play The Dybbuk, which tells the story of a love affair between a young couple which was prevented from consummation, with tragic consequences. In 1937, Michał Waszyński produced a cinematic version of the play, incorporating important new elements.[23] The play and the movie have become classics, witnesses to a civilization that was destroyed by the Holocaust. The Song of Songs figures prominently in the film, symbolizing the power of love, both human and divine, operating on several levels.

In the film, two close friends, Nisn and Sender, living in a shtetl in the Pale of Settlement,[24] are study partners in a yeshiva. In the first scene of the movie (at 9:54–11:57), Nisn sings the first few verses of the Song of Songs plaintively, at his rebbe’s request, and Sender gazes longingly at him. The rebbe sits astounded, realizing that Nisn is really addressing his friend, expressing his feelings for him.

Nisn and Sender jointly vow that the children their wives are expecting, if of appropriate sexes, would eventually marry. The vow is met with disapproval by a mysterious and sinister traveller who warns of the danger of binding future generations. Sender’s wife dies giving birth to their daughter Leah, and Nisn drowns in a storm at the moment his wife gives birth to their son Khonen.

Sender becomes a rich but miserly businessman in the shtetl of Brinitz, and one day Khonen arrives there as a poor yeshiva student. Unaware of Khonen’s lineage, Sender offers Khonen hospitality. Leah and Khonen fall in love, but knowing that Sender will not agree to their marriage because of his poverty and lack of prospects, Khonen obsessively studies the Kabbalah and attempts through the use of practical Kabbalah to improve his position, to no avail. Sender arranges Leah’s marriage to a rich man’s son from another village.

In the synagogue the day before her marriage, Khonen sings the same melody of Song of Songs to Leah that Nisn had sung all those years before (at 51:06–52:32). This is meant to astonish, since Nisn had died before Khonen was born and could not have taught it to him. When Leah later sings the same melody to her father (at 53:33–54:05), and explains Khonen’s background, it suddenly dawns on Sender that Khonen is the son of his long-lost friend Nisn. Sender is devastated by this revelation and the knowledge that he has betrayed his pledge, but feels there is nothing he can do to change things, addressing his deceased friend, “Oy Nisn, khaver mayn … tsi shpeyt, tsi, shpeyt,” (“Oy Nisn, my friend, too late, too late”).

Devastated that he cannot marry Leah, Khonen, in desperation, calls on Satan to help him. He’s struck dead, but returns as a dibuk, a restless spirit, who possesses Leah under the chuppah (marriage canopy) on her wedding day. The wedding ceremony is postponed, and Sender calls on the assistance of Reb Azriel, a wise and powerful rabbi in nearby Miropol (Myropil). Azriel, calls the soul of Nisn to a דין תורה (din-toyre), a religious tribunal, but when Nisn refuses to participate, Azriel exorcises the dibuk. Despite this turn of events, Leah stills offers her soul to Khonen and dies, thus finally uniting with her true love, as the mysterious stranger blows out a candle.

The Song of Songs serves as a unifying element in this story. The prologue speaks mystically of the souls of two lovers “fusing into the mighty Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs of love eternal burning like an everlasting light never to be extinguished” (1:56-2:20).[25] In the final scene, after Leah dies and her soul joins that of Nisn forever, a final rendition of Shir Hashirim (at 1:59:30) brings the film to a close.

Here the Song of Songs symbolizes the most powerful love of all, fusing human and divine love into an overwhelming force. The two lovers, Leah and Khonen, are united in death, recalling verse 8:6 of the Song:

שיר השירים ח:ו שִׂימֵנִי כַחוֹתָם עַל לִבֶּךָ כַּחוֹתָם עַל זְרוֹעֶךָ כִּי עַזָּה כַמָּוֶת אַהֲבָה קָשָׁה כִשְׁאוֹל קִנְאָה רְשָׁפֶיהָ רִשְׁפֵּי אֵשׁ שַׁלְהֶבֶתְיָה.
Song 8:6 Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.[26]

In this case, it is only in death that the lovers’ consuming passion for each other can be fully realized.[27]

A Wellspring for Creativity

We have looked at how the four modes of traditional Jewish interpretation of the Song of Songs have carried over into the world of Jewish song, evoking four expressions of love: between human lovers, between the people Israel and God, between the individual seeker and God, and between lovers overcome by an overwhelming, all-consuming passion, infused with mystical elements. As it has for centuries, the Song of Songs continues to be a wellspring of artistic creativity and religious inspiration for Jews of all persuasions, in Israel and around the world.[28]

Published

April 3, 2023

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Last Updated

March 31, 2024

Footnotes

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Dr. Barry Dov Walfish was the Judaica Bibliographer and Curator at the University of Toronto Libraries until his retirement in 2017. He holds a Ph.D. in Medieval Jewish Intellectual History from the University of Toronto. He is the author of Esther in Medieval Garb,  Bibliographia Karaitica, and The Way of Lovers (with Sara Japhet) and is the main Judaism editor for De Gruyter’s Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception.