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Barry Dov Walfish





Song of Songs: The Emergence of Peshat Interpretation





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Barry Dov Walfish





Song of Songs: The Emergence of Peshat Interpretation








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Song of Songs: The Emergence of Peshat Interpretation

The Song of Songs is a collection of love poetry. The Rabbis read it as an allegory of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. Only in the Middle Ages, in Spain and Northern France, did scholars begin to pay attention to the plain (Peshat) meaning of the text. Some went as far as dropping the allegory altogether and treating it as love poetry, as it was originally intended.


Song of Songs: The Emergence of Peshat Interpretation

Song of Songs in a 14th c. manuscript of the Pentateuch and Five Scrolls, MS 19776, f.117v. British Library

The Song of Songs is a collection of love poems, completely lacking in religious content. It is totally preoccupied with individual concerns of the most intimate nature—declarations of love between two young lovers, detailed descriptions of their relations and of their naked bodies, and depictions of locales where the lovers meet to pursue their intimate relations. It lacks expressions of piety, moral instruction, or deliberations over the fate of humankind or the presence or absence of justice in the world.[1] It never mentions the Israelite nation, its history, or its covenant with God. The name of God is not even mentioned once.  

Reading Shir Hashirim Allegorically

Its attribution to King Solomon no doubt contributed to its acceptance and inclusion in the canon, though there must have been some who expressed reservations about it. Very early on, probably sometime in the late Second Temple period, it began to acquire an allegorical meaning, as it invited comparison with other passages in the Prophets which described the relationship between God and the Jewish People in terms of marriage and infidelity. These passages in Hosea (1:2-8, 2:20-22),[2] Isaiah (50:1, 54:4-8), Jeremiah (2:2, 32-33), and Ezekiel (16:4-14) probably had some role in the eventual acceptance of the Song as a prophetic allegory concerning the fate of the Jewish people.[3]

One suspects that by the early second century, this view had taken hold, as attested by the famous statement of R. Aqiva (m. Yadayim 3:5),

אין כל העולם כלו כדאי כיום שניתן בו שיר השירים לישראל שכל כתובים קדש ושיר השירים קודש קדשים.
All eternity is not as worthwhile as the day the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all biblical books are holy, but the Song of Songs is holy of holies.

And yet, there is evidence that the Song still retained its original meaning in some circles as attested by the same R. Aqiva (t. Sanhedrin 12:10):

המנענע קולו בשיר השירים בבית המשתאות ועושה אותו כמין זמר אין לו חלק לעולם הבא.
Whoever warbles the Song of Songs in the banquet-hall and makes it into a kind of a love-song has no portion in the world-to-come.

This warning is a clear indication that people were doing just that.  

Shir Hashirim in the 1st Millennium 

The allegorical reading of the song as a description of the relationship between God and the Jewish people dominated the interpretive tradition of the first millennium, including the Targum Shir HashirimMidrash Shir Hashirim Rabbah, and scattered references throughout rabbinic literature. Even the Karaites, those so-called “literalists,” considered the Song as absolutely concealed, with no exoteric meaning, i.e., its literal meaning is the allegory.[4]

This monolithic view held sway all over the Jewish world, both East and West,[5] until the time of Rashi (1040-1105) in Northern France and his followers in the peshat school of biblical interpretation.

Rashi: Peshat and Allegory Intermingled

Rashi is the first exegete to interpret the text of the Song on two levels, the literal or contextual and the allegorical. Uniquely here, Rashi begins his commentary to the Song of Songs with a methodological introduction:[6]

אחת דבר אלהים שתים זו שמענו, מקרא אחד יוצא לכמה טעמים וסוף דבר אין לך מקרא יוצא מידי משמעו.
“One thing God has spoken, two things have we (MT: I) heard” [Ps 62:12].  One verse may have several meanings, but in the end the literal meaning[7] may never be overlooked.
ואף על פי שדברו הנביאים דבריהם בדוגמא צריך ליישב הדוגמא על אופנה ועל סדרה כמו שהמקראות סדורין זה אחר זה.
And even though the prophets spoke their words in figures, the figures must be resolved according to their form and order, as the verses are ordered one after the other.
ראיתי לספר הזה כמה מדרשי אגדה יש סדורים כל הספר במדרש אחד, ויש מפוזרים בכמה ספרי אגדה מקראות לבדם ואינם מתיישבין על לשון המקרא וסדר המקראות. ואמרתי בלבי לתפוש משמע המקראות ליישב ביאורם על הסדר והמדרשות רבותינו קבעום מדרש ומדרש במקומו.
I have seen many aggadic interpretations for this book, some arranged in a single midrash for the entire book, others scattered over several books, but they do not fit properly with the language of Scripture and the order of the verses. And I resolved to grasp the literal meaning of the verses and set down their meaning in order. As for the midrashic interpretations—our rabbis have set them down, each one in its place.

Despite Rashi’s emphasis on his intention to interpret the text according to its literal meaning, he explicitly acknowledges the importance of its allegorical meaning, which he also explains in this preface:

אומר אני שראה שלמה ברוח הקדש שעתידין לגלות גולה אחר גולה חורבן אחר חורבן ולהתאונן בגלות זו על כבודם הראשון ולזכור חבה ראשונה אשר היו סגלה מכל העמים… ויזכירו את חסדיו ואת מעלם אשר מעלו ואת הטובות אשר אמר לתת להם באחרית הימים.
I say that Solomon saw in a vision that Israel would endure exile after exile, destruction after destruction, and that they would mourn in their current exile their earlier exalted position and recall their first love affair [with God] in which they were treasured above all other nations … and they will recall God’s kindnesses and their misdeeds and the benefits he promised to grant them at the end of days.
וייסד הספר הזה ברוח הקדש בלשון אשה צרורה אלמנות חיות משתוקקת על בעלה מתרפקת על דודה מזכרת אהבת נעוריה אליו. גם דודה צר לו בצרתה ומזכיר חסדי נעוריה ונוי יפייה וכשרון פעלה אשר נקשר עמה באהבה עזה להודיעה כי לא ענה מלבו ולא שילוחיה שילוחין כי עוד היא אשתו והוא אישה.
And he established this book through divine inspiration in the figure of a woman living a living widowhood, longing for her husband, clinging to her lover, recalling her love for him in her youth. Her lover suffers along with her, recalling the kindnesses of her youth, the splendor of her beauty, and the fittingness of her deeds, through which he became attached to her with a powerful love, to let her know that he did not willfully bring grief [see Lam 3:33] and her divorce is not final, that she is still his wife and he still her husband.

Sarah Kamin, in her important study of Rashi’s exegesis, points out two innovative features in Rashi’s commentary on the Song of Songs:

  1. the clear distinction between the literal and allegorical levels of meaning, the transformation of the literal level to a separate object of exegesis in and of itself, and the effort to coordinate between these two levels of meaning;
  1. the imposition of unity both in content and form on the entire work. The picture of a widow living in living widowhood—the Jewish People in its present exile—who is reviewing its history and mourning the travails of the present is the picture that connects all the parts of the Song of Songs into a single complete unit.[8]

One example will illustrate the importance of the peshat in Rashi’s commentary:

ז:ה אפך כמגדל הלבנון – איני יכול לפרשו לשון חוטם, לא לעניין פשט ולא לעניין דוגמא, כי מה קילוס נוי יש בחוטם גדול וזקוף כמגדל? ואומר אני אפך לשון פנים, וזה שהוא אומרו לשון יחיד ואינו אומר אפייך שעל המצח הוא מדבר שהוא עיקר הכרת פנים … ותדע שהרי מקלסה והולך מלמטה למעלה.
7:5 Your face is like the tower of Lebanon – I cannot explain [appekh] as meaning nose, not for the purpose of peshat or for the figurative meaning, for what kind of beautiful feature is a big nose that is upright like a tower? And I say that appekh refers to the face, and the fact that he uses the singular and not the plural indicates that he is talking about the forehead which is the main feature of the countenance … and you should know this, since he is praising her in order from bottom to top.

This comment is very revealing regarding Rashi’s methodology. It shows that he tried to find interpretations for both the peshat and the allegory that fit together and make sense.[9] It also gives rare insight into his aesthetic sense. 

Not to belittle Rashi’s achievement in interpreting the literal/contextual meaning of the text of the Song of Songs, but the general pattern in Rashi’s commentary is for the peshatinterpretation to be integrated with the allegory and for many verses to be interpreted only according to the allegory. (For more details on Rashi’s methods in this commentary, see excursus.)

Thus, despite Rashi’s important pioneering efforts, and his many insights into the meaning of individual words or verses, one does not come away with the impression of a full-bodied peshat commentary, but rather of one in which the peshat is the handmaiden to the allegory, which drives the agenda of the commentary as a whole.[10] 

Rashbam: Peshat and the Allegory Clearly Delineated

Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (ca. 1085-ca. 1160), Rashi’s grandson, built on his grandfather’s foundation and applied the peshat method much more systematically and consistently.[11] In his poetic introduction, he gives as his goal:

ללמד ולספר את פשוטו, בשיטתו ומלתו, כאשר יתכן על מכונו, בלשונו.
To teach and tell its plain meaning according to its method and expression as it is established on its foundation in its language.

He further explains that for Solomon the Song is about a maiden

… הומה ומתאוננת על אוהבה שפירש ממנה והלך למרחקים. והיא מזכרת אותו באהבתו אותה אהבת עולם, ומשוררת ואומרת: אהבה עזה כזאת הראה לי ידידי בעודו עמדי, ומדברת ומספרת לחברותיה ונערותיה: כך וכך אמר לי דודי וכן השיבותיו.
… who longs and mourns for her lover, who left her and went far away. And she remembers him, who loved her an everlasting love, and sings, saying: Such a powerful love did my lover show me when he was still with me. And she speaks and tells her friends and maidens, such and such did my lover say to me and thus did I answer him.

Rashbam makes no mention of the allegory in his introduction. The story he intends to tell is that of a maiden whose lover has left and gone away and her intense longing for his return. Yet he does not really abandon the allegorical meaning, as he makes clear in the first verse of the commentary, where he explains:

שלמה המלך יסדו ברוח הקוד[ש] כי ראה שעתידין ישר[אל] להתאונן בגלותן על הק[דוש] שנתרחק מהם כחתן אשר נפרד מאהובתו, והתחיל לשורר את שירו במקום כנסת ישר[אל] שהיא ככלה לפניו.
King Solomon wrote this through the inspiration of the divine spirit, for he saw that Israel in their exile was destined to mourn God, who distanced himself from them like a groom who parted from his beloved. And he began to sing his song on behalf of the Community of Israel who is like a bride before him.

We see then that for Rashbam as for Rashi, the Song must be read on two levels–the story of the maiden and her lover which is the parable and the story of the Community of Israel and her bridegroom [God] who has left her, which is the allegory.[12]

A Parable and Its Allegorical Meaning

As Japhet demonstrates in her edition, Rashbam divides the book into literary units, some of which may consist of several verses, and explains each unit on two levels, with each allegorical comment preceded by the word dimyon (figure or image). At the end of each unit there is almost always a third section which has short word meanings and grammatical comments. Thus for example:

א:ד משכני – משוך אותי אליך ונרוצהאחריך, אני וכנסיא שלי, כאז כשנות עולמים, אשר הביאני המלך ידידי אלחדריו. וכאשר נרוץ אחריך נגילה ונשמחה בך, ונזכירה דודיך ודברי אהבתך יותר ממשתה היין ומתיקה….
1:4 Draw me – Draw me to you [says the maiden] and we will run after you, I and my entourage, as in years gone by, when the king, my friend, brought me to his chambers. And when we will run after you we will rejoice and exult in you and we will recall your love and your words of love, more than the drinking of wine and sweet drinks.
דימיון לכנסת ישר[אל] המתאוננת ומתחננת לפני הק[דוש] להוציאה מגולה כאז אשר הוציא אותה מגלות מצר[ים] ומסבלותם, והביא אותה חדריו לעשות לו משכן, לעבוד לו עבודת תמיד לפניו.
This is a figure for the people Israel who mourns and pleads before God to take her out of exile as [he did] then when he took them out of Egyptian exile and their sufferings [in Egypt] there and he brought her to his chambers to make for him a tabernacle, in which to worship him on a regular basis.

We see in Rashbam, a distinct move away from the allegory-centered commentary of Rashi. Rashbam’s primary goal is to explain the text on its literal level (lefi peshuto), but he also recognizes that the plain meaning is a parable symbolizing the relationship between God and his people. As Japhet explains, since the text is written in figures, the figures require an interpretation and this interpretation is part of the plain meaning.[13] The upshot of this method is that much more space is devoted to explaining the parable (i.e., the mashal) than its allegorical meaning, two levels that are clearly separated.

Ibn Ezra’s Three-tiered Exegesis

Rashbam’s Spanish contemporary, Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164), authored two commentaries on the Song of Songs, each of which explicated the text rigorously and consistently on three levels, which he called pe‘amim (times):

  • Word meanings and grammatical comments;
  • Mashal, the allegory, the equivalent to the peshat;
  • Nimshal, or the meaning of the allegory, which has to do with the relations between God and the Jewish people, which in the introduction he calls the midrash.

Ibn Ezra, was a renowned grammarian, schooled in the Spanish tradition, and so the biggest section of his commentary is usually the first, the section devoted to grammar and lexicography. He also often spends more time expounding the mashal than he does the nimshal. To give but one example, at 2:15, Ibn Ezra (in the second commentary), after explaining the meanings of the words, explains the mashal:

אחזו לנו שועלים – והעניין לכו שמרו את הכרם מן השועלים כי אני רוצה ללכת שם עם דודי שהוא הרועה בשושנים בעבור הריח הטוב שיש לשושנים.
Catch us the foxes – this means, go, guard the vineyard from the foxes, because I want to go there with my lover, who is browsing among the lilies because of the pleasant smell lilies have.

The nimshal:

אחזו לנו שועלים – הם עובדי העגל שהשחיתו כרם יי’ והוא בית ישראל, ועוד הכרם היה סמדר.
Catch us the foxes—these are the worshipers of the [golden] calf who destroyed God’s vineyard, which is the house of Israel, and this when the vineyard was in blossom.

The approaches of Ibn Ezra and Rashbam to the text of the Song are very similar, but the structure of their commentaries is different. In practice, Ibn Ezra devotes more time and effort to the nitty gritty of peshat exegesis than Rashbam, though in both cases, the peshat is their major concern.[14]

The Prague Anonymous Peshat Commentary: Solomon and His Favorite Wife

The increasing focus on peshat seen in Rashi, Rashbam, and Ibn Ezra is taken to its logical conclusion in two anonymous Northern French commentaries from the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, which are totally free of rabbinic allegory and interpret the song solely according to its plain meaning.

The first is found in a Prague manuscript (henceforth the Prague Anonymous), first edited by the Hungarian rabbi and scholar Adolph Hübsch (1830-1884)[15] and most recently by Sara Japhet.[16] The commentary is nearly complete (it lacks most of chapter 8, only including a comment on the last verse). The brief introduction at verse 1 states:

ופי[רוש] שיר השירים שיר זה אחד השירים אשר אמר שלמה אשר הרבה שירים  אמר…
And the interpretation of “Song of songs” is: This song is one of the songs composed by Solomon, who wrote many songs[17]….
מפני מה נכתב זה מכולם, לפיכך נכתב שנתחבב לעולם.  ומדרש דכתיב עליהם המשלים לפיכך נכתב שדרשוהו לענין שיעבוד ובוראם חפץ ותאב לגואלם ולהבדילם מן העמים להיות לו לעם והם משתוקקים אליו ובוטחים בו כי לא יעזבם לאורך ימים ויגאלם ברחמיו וכרוב חסדיו וראה שלמה במחזה כל אלה וכתב דוגמא בו ואשתו וריעותיה. 
Why was this one written of all the others? Because it became beloved by the people. And there is the midrash, that the parables are written about them, therefore it was written down, because it was applied homiletically to the matter of the enslavement [of Israel by the nations] and their creator desires and craves to redeem them and separate them from the nations to be for him a people, and they long for him and have trust in him that he will not abandon them for many days and will redeem them in his great mercy and abundant kindness. And Solomon saw this in a vision and wrote this figure for him, his wife and her friends.[18]

The author seems to be giving two reasons for the Song of Songs’ popularity and why it was written down and preserved in the canon: 1) that it became popular; 2) because of the midrash, the allegorical interpretation of the Song as telling the story of God and the Jewish people.[19] We see here the influence of Rashi, even in the use of the word דוגמא for “figure.”

Solomon Loved one of His Wives More than the Rest

Although the author cites the allegory as one of the reasons for the Song’s popularity,[20] nevertheless, he chooses to interpret the entire book only according to the peshat:

א:ב ישקני [מנשיקות פיהו]– פי[רוש] לפי פשוטו, אשה אחת היתה לשלמה אהובה יותר מכל נשיו והיא מחבבת אותו ועליה אמר השירה הזאת ועל רוב חיבתה ועל המעשה אשר נעשה כמו שמספר למטה. 
1:2 “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” –According to the peshat, Solomon had one wife, whom he loved more than the others, and she loved him and he recited this poem about her and about her great love and about everything that transpired, as he tells later on.
ומקראות שלמטה מסייעות שאחת היתה לו אהובה יותר מכולם שנ[אמר] למטה ששים אלה מלכות וכו’ שכולם נשא ואחת היא יונתי החביבה לי על כולם, ואותה האשה אומרת ומבקשת שתעשה לה בקשתה. ומה בקשתה? ישקני המלך בעלי מנשיקות פיהו, שהיא נשיקה נכונה שיש מנשקים בידו ובידה. 
The following verses support the view that he had one wife that he loved more than all the others, as it says, “there are sixty queens and eighty concubines” and he married them all, but “only one is my dove” (6:8-9) who is dearer to me than all the rest. This one asks that her request be granted. And what is that request? May my husband the king kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. For this is the proper kiss, as there are some that kiss on the hands.

The Prague Anonymous returns to this theme of a favorite wife in his comment on verse 4 of this chapter:

א:ד מושכני[21] אחריך נרוצה – היה מנהג למלך שלמה בכל אשר היה פונה היה מוליך נשיו עמו והיה לו נשים הרבה פעמים היה מוליך עמו אחת ופעמים שתים שלושה. וזאת מרוב חיבתה היתה מבקשת ממנו שיהא מוליכה עמו בכל מקום, וזה שמדברת לו משכיני עמך בכל אשר תלך ואחריך נרוצה עם מלכות[י]ך ונשותיך.
1:4 Draw me after you, let us run – It was the custom of King Solomon that wherever he went he would bring his wives with him, and he had many women, sometimes he would bring one, sometimes two or three. And this one out of her great love asked him to bring her to every place, and this is what she says, “draw me with me to every place you go, and we will run after you with your queens and wives.

In these two comments we see the exegete expounding his view that the lover is King Solomon, which also fits in with what follows immediately “the king has brought me to his chambers.”

א:ה שחורה אני ונאוה בנות ירושלים – יש לומר שהייתה מושחרת, וזו תימה גדול, מאחר שהיא שחורה היאך היתה נאוה? וכן הייתה מדברת: אתם בנות ירושלים רעיותיי נשי שלמה, אע”פ שאני שחורה נאוה אנוכי שיכולה אנוכי להתקשט ולהתנאות.
1:5 I am dark but comely, o daughters of Jerusalem – It seems that she was blackened, and this is a curious thing, if she was black how could she be comely? And this is what she said: You, daughters of Jerusalem, my companions, wives of Solomon, even though I am dark, I am comely, since I can bejewel myself and become more attractive.

Here, the author follows the common opinion that being black is a sign of ugliness and not a quality of extra beauty.

The entire commentary, which is cut short towards the end of chapter 7, is concise and sticks to the plain meaning, avoiding even a hint of allegory. It is all about Solomon and his special love for one of the women in his harem and it contains no allusion to the relationship between God and his people, past or present.

The Oxford Anonymous Peshat Commentary: The Love of Two Young Lovers

The second commentary is also anonymous and dates from the same period and locale as the Prague Anonymous—Northern France in the late twelfth century. This commentary is more extensive and richer than the Prague commentary and betrays much more about the author’s social and cultural milieu. It was first published by Henry J. Mathews in 1893 from a single Oxford MS[22] and has recently been reedited and translated into English by Sara Japhet and myself.[23]

The beginning of the commentary is missing and we are thus deprived of any introductory or methodological statements that the author may have made.[24] But the author is consistent in portraying the Song as a secular love poem describing the love between two young lovers.[25] The descriptions are detailed and graphic and the author is not at all hesitant to describe the most intimate scenes and details of the bodies of the lovers in the spirit of the original. The commentary is rich and diverse in its exegesis, often offering several alternative interpretations for difficult passages. The following are a few examples that illustrate the exegete’s exegetical creativity and/or his cultural milieu:

The Fellowship of Young Lovers

ה:א אכלו רעים ושתו [26] ושכרו דודים – כלו’ אני רוצה שכל אותם שאוהבים עלמות יהנו מהם. שלפי שאני אוהב וחושק אני אוהב דודים וחושקים. שכן מנהג החושקים שאוהבים כל החושק כמותם ומחלקים להם מה שיש להם.
5:1 Eat, friends, drink and be drunk, lovers – That is to say, I want all those who love maidens to enjoy them. Because I love and desire, I love lovers and desirers. For it is the custom of lovers to love all those who love like them and they share with them what they have.

Here, the exegete is expressing a sentiment which one might find among young wealthy noblemen in medieval Spain or France. One gets the sense of a party culture that one could imagine in the courts of kings and noblemen. 

The Groom’s Banner

ב:ד ודגלו עלי אהבה – שושביניו וסיעתו שבאו עמו לחופתו היו מביאי[ם] דגלים, קומפנון, שהוא הזקיקם לכך מרוב אהבתו אותי כדי לכבדני.
2:4 And his banner over me was love – His attendants and his entourage that came with him to his wedding brought banners, comfanon [“flag” in Old French], which he made them bring out of his abundant love for me in order to honor me.
ע[נין] א[חר] – ודגלו שהביא החתן בידו איננו כשאר דגלים שנושאים פרשים למלחמה אך דגל של אהבה היה להראות שהיה אוהב אותי ודעתו לכבדני נגד העם.
Another matter: The banner that the groom brought in his hand was not like the other banners that knights carry in battle, but it was rather a banner of love to show that he loved me and he thought to honor me in front of the people.

The exegete conjures up a scene of knights doing battle, carrying banners. The banner is here not metaphorical, but a real-life banner, here one that is meant to win a maiden’s heart. 

A Brave Heart to Face Lions and Leopards

ד:ט לבבתיני[27]אחותי כלה –א[מר] לה אל תחשבי בלבך שלא נוכל לעלות אל הרי האריות והנמרים פן יטרפו אותנו אל תפחדי מהם כי לבבתיני כלו[מר] נתת לי לב אמיץ בגבורים שבשביל אהבתך נתגברתי ונברא לי לב חדש שיש לי כח ללחום עם האריות והנמרים ולגרשם ממעונותם וכן דרך החושקים שעושים מלחמות ונצחונות בשביל אהבת חשוקתם.  
4:9 You have heartened me, my sister the bride – He said to her, do not think in your heart that we will not be able to go up to the mountains of the lions and the leopards, lest they prey on us; do not be afraid of them, because “you have heartened me,” that is to say, you have given me a brave heart among the warriors, so that for your love I have become strong and a new heart was created in me, for I have the strength to fight with lions and leopards and drive them out of their lairs. This is the way of lovers, who fight battles and win victories for the love of their beloved.

This comment conjures up the era of knights in shining armor, dueling and jousting and performing acts of bravery and courage to win the hand of a fair maiden. The text does not necessarily conjure up a hunting expedition, but for a medieval knight, hunting lions and leopards to impress your lover would be the thing to do.

The Mown Garden

ו:יא אל גנת אגוז ירדתי – עתה מספרת אל דודה מה אירע לה כשהלכה לבקשו ואומרת לו שירדה אל גנת אגוז שהיה ירק שלה גזוזה. שכן מנהג העולם שקוצרים וגוזזים העשב והשחת כדי שיחזור וישגא מאוד. וכן כת’ “אחר גזי המלך” [עמוס ז 1]. וכן “ירד כמטר על גז” [תהלים עב 6].
6:11 I went down to the mown garden – Now she tells her lover what happened to her when she went looking for him, and she tells him that she went down to the mown garden, whose greenery was mowed down. For this is the custom of the world to reap and mow down the grass and the hay in order for it to flourish greatly again. Similarly, it is written “after the king’s mowings” [Amos 7:1]. Similarly, “May he come down like rain upon the mown grass [Ps 72:6].

The exegete offers an unusual derivation of the noun אגוז — from the root –גז”ז and explains גנת אגוז as a “garden whose greenery was mowed down.” He bases his explanation on “the custom of the world,” the reality as he knows it.[28]

Craving to Lie Between Her Breasts

ז:ח ושדייך לאשכולות – מתאוין לשכב בין שדיה כמו שתאבים לאכול אשכל של ענבי[ם] כמו שנ[אמר] במיכה אין אשכל לאכל[29]בכורה אותה נפשי ובישע[יה][30]כבכורה בתאנה בראשיתה.
7:8 Your breasts are like clusters – [Men] crave to lie between her breasts like they crave to eat a cluster of grapes as it is said in Micah “There is not a cluster to eat, not a ripe fig I could desire” [Mic 7:1], and in Hosea “Like the first fig to ripen on a fig tree” [Hos 9:10].

The sensuousness of this comment is quite striking.

What All the Boys Would Say to Her

ז:ט אמרתי אעלה בתמר – כך היו כל אחד הבחורים אומ[רים] לה אמרתי אעלה כלו[מר] תאבתי ואמרתי בלבי לעלות בתמר לפי שהמשילה לתמר למעלה ותאבתי לאחוז בענפיו ולהתענג בשדייך כאשכולות ולהריח ריח אפך שמריח כתפוחים.
7:9 I said, ‘I will climb the palm tree’ – Thus each of the young men said to her, “I said I will climb,” that is to say, I desired and thought to myself to climb the palm tree, because above he compared her to a palm tree, and I desired to take hold of its branches and to take pleasure in your breasts, which are like clusters, and to smell the odor of your nose which smells like apples.

Again, a strikingly sensuous comment.

Convalescing from Marital Union

ב:ה סמכוני באשישות – כך אמרתי למשרתי החופה שהביאו לי אשישי יין לסעוד את לבי ולסמכו, כי אני חולת אהבה – מצער הבתולים. 
2:5 Sustain me with flagons – This is what I said to the wedding servants who brought me flagons of wine to sustain my heart and support it, “for I am sick from love” – from the pain of the hymen.

The idea that “sick from love” refers to the actual physical act of love and that the poet is here talking of consummation of marriage, is I believe, unique to this exegete.   

A Commentary for the Acculturated Young French Jew

This commentary is the product of a particular period in Jewish history in the diaspora. I would suggest that the author was likely a sophisticated young man, who was acculturated to French society, or at least familiar enough with its culture and mores to be able to describe it in detail and crave to imitate it. Growing up he may even have been exposed to the songs of the trouveres, those wandering minstrels who roamed the countryside telling tales of knights, and beautiful maidens and their exploits.

Having read the Song of Songs, it captured his imagination, and he saw in it a story worthy of those trouveres and he chose to tell it in this commentary—a story of two young lovers, one the future king, and his favorite lover/wife. Indeed, it may be the influence of the courtly culture that determined for the exegete that the story he is telling must be about Solomon. He weaves the poems of the Song of Songs together into a continuous narrative and tells his story, one that he hopes can hold its own with the tales of the trouveres.[31]

The End of Peshat

The trend of peshat exegesis of Rashbam and his school, which combined contextual exegesis with storytelling,[32] was not destined to last very long. By the middle of the thirteenth century the period of peshat had drawn to a close and the Jewish community that produced it, finding itself in an increasingly hostile environment, was withdrawing into itself and taking solace in comforting midrashim and soaring mystical compositions, which better suited the tenor of the times. The peshat method receded and others took over.

Due to the lack of interest in peshat in the late Middle Ages, the survival of these two anonymous commentaries is nothing short of miraculous — each one was preserved in a single manuscript.[33] For the Song of Songs, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and beyond, philosophical and mystical exegesis would dominate. Not till the time of the Haskalah and the rise of modern biblical scholarship would Shir Hashirim be read solely on the level of peshat again.[34]


Rashi’s Method in his Song of Songs Commentary in Practice

Rashi’s statement that the literal meaning of the text may never be overlooked and the book must be explained according to the order of the verses and Sarah Kamin’s highlighting of Rashi’s innovative focus on the literal/contextual meaning, leads to the expectation that Rashi would interpret the Song consistently according to the two methods that he has just outlined—the literal meaning of the human love story and the figurative/allegorical meaning relating to Israel in exile and its relationship with God, both past and present.  But in practice this program is not carried out systematically and, as Sara Japhet points out,[35] we find a variety of treatments of peshatvs. derash in Rashi’s commentary:

1. Peshat followed by Allegory – The text is explained first according to the literal meaning, then according to the allegory, which is sometimes preceded by the word dugma (figure):[36]

א:ד מישרים אהבוך – אהבה עזה אהבת מישור בלי עקיבה [ל’ פסוק (ישעיה מ) והיה העקוב למישור והרכסים לבקעה] ורכסים, אשר אהבוך אני ואבותי באותן הימים זהו פשוטו לפי עניינו, ולפי דוגמתו הם מזכירים לפניו חסד נעורים אהבת כלולות לכתם אחריו במדבר ארץ ציה וצלמות וגם צדה לא עשו להם והאמינו בו ובשלוחו ולא אמרו היאך נצא למדבר לא מקום זרע ומזונות והלכו אחריו והוא הביאם לתוך חדרי היקף ענניו בזו עודם היום גלים ושמחים בו אף לפי עניים וצרתם ומשתעשעים בתורה ושם מזכירים דודיו מיין ומישור אהבתם אותו.
1:4 They have loved you straightly – A strong love, a straight love without crookedness or ridges [cf. Isa 40: 4] which I and my ancestors have loved you in those days. This is the plain meaning according to its context. But according to the figure, they [i.e., Israel] are reminding him [God] of the kindness of youth, the love of newlyweds, their following him in the desert, a land of drought and darkness [Jer 2:2, 6], and they also did not prepare provisions [Exod 12:39], and they believed in him and in his messenger [cf. Exod 14:31] and they did not say, how can we go out into the desert, a place with no seeds or food and they followed him and he brought them inside his enveloping clouds and they still today rejoice and are happy with him despite their poverty and misery and they amuse themselves with the Torah and in this they mention his love more than wine and the straightness of their love of him.

Here Rashi clearly gives a peshat and allegorical interpretation of the term מישרים אהבוך, although the mention of ancestors in the peshat interpretation doesn’t quite fit. But the pattern is clearly followed.

2. Incomplete Peshat – The commentary begins with the literal meaning, doesn’t complete it, then moves to the allegory. For example:

א:ו אל תראוני – אל תסתכלו בי לתמהון ובזיון. שאני שחרחורת.לפי שאין שחרותי וכיעורי ממעי אמי. אלא על ידי שזיפת השמש. שאותו שחרות נוח להתלבן כשיעמוד בצל; כך אני. בני אמי נחרו בי. בני מצרים שגדלתני ועלו עמי בערב רב [ר’ שמ’ יב 38] הם חירחרוני בהסיתם ופיתויים עד ששמוני נוטרה את הכרמים ושם שזפתני השמש והושחרתי, כלומר, נתנוני עובדת אלהים זרים וכרמישהיה לי מאבותיי לא נטרתי.
1:6 Do not stare at me – Do not look at me with astonishment and disdain. Because I am swarthy. Because my swarthiness and ugliness are not congenital, but rather from being tanned by the sun. This swarthiness will fade when it stays in the shade; thus it is with me. My mother’s sons quarreled with me. Egyptians who grew up with me and left with me in the mixed multitude [see Exod 12:38] started up with me with their incitement and temptation until they made me guard the vineyards and there the sun tanned me and I became swarthy, that is, they made me worship strange gods and my vineyard, that I had from my forefathers, I did not guard.

Rashi’s commentary here is very much a paraphrase. The first part indeed explains the peshat, that the maiden is not black from birth, but rather got heavily tanned from being out in the sun for long periods. But, beginning with “my mother’s sons quarreled with me,” without missing a beat, Rashi switches over to the allegory, explaining that the verse refers to the time that the Israelites were in Egyptian exile and that the Egyptians who escaped Egypt with them—the mixed multitude—were the ones who forced the Israelites to worship idols and neglect their own god.

3. Peshat and Allegory Mixed – The commentary moves between levels without clearly distinguishing between them. An example is 1:7:

הגידה לי שאהבה נפשי – עכשיו [רוח הקודש] חוזר ומדמה אותה לצאן אשר [חביבה] על הרועה. אומרת כנסת ישראל לפניו, כאשה לבעלה: הגידה לי שאהבה נפשי איכה תרעהאת צאנך בין הזאבים הללו אשר הם בתוכם ואיכה תרביצם בצהריים בגלות הזו שהיא עת צרה להם כצהרים שהוא עת צער לצאן, שלמה אהיה כעוטיה  ואם תאמר מה איכפת לך? אין זה כבודך שאהיה כאבילה עוטה על שפם בוכייה על צאני. על עדרי חביריך אצל עדרי שאר הרועים שהם רועים צאן כמותך כלומר בין גדודי האומות הסמוכים על אלהים אחרים ויש מהם מלכים ושרים מנהיגים אותם.
Tell me, you, whom my soul loves – Now the [Holy Spirit] returns to compare her to sheep which are [beloved] by the shepherd. The Jewish people say to him [i.e., God], as a wife to her husband: Tell me, you, whom my soul loves, where do you pasture your sheep among those wolves among whom they exist, and where do you rest them at noon in this exile which is a time of trouble for them like noon which is a time of discomfort for sheep. for why should I be like one who is covered, and if you say why do you care? It is not befitting your honor that I should be like a mourner covering the upper lip, crying over my sheep. Beside the flocks of your fellows. Beside the flocks of the other shepherds who tend their flocks like you, that is to say, among the troops of the nations that rely on other gods and have kings and princes leading them.

The commentary on the verse is almost all allegory, but it does include some peshat elements, e.g., the observation that noon is a time of stress for sheep and the explanation of עוטיה as meaning to cover (deriving from Lev 13:45, על שפם יעטה “and he shall cover over his upper lip”), i.e., the maiden is covering herself, out of modesty, as she wanders among the flocks of her lover’s companions.


March 28, 2018


Last Updated

November 4, 2023


View Footnotes

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.