The Kiss - From Metaphor to Mysticism
The Song of Songs opens with a young woman, perhaps musing with her friends, yearning for the intimacies of her beloved. The poetic alliteration of its first two verses heightens the sensuality of the sentiment:
שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים אֲשֶׁר לִשְׁלֹמֹה. יִשָּׁקֵנִי מִנְּשִׁיקוֹת פִּיהוּ...
Shir ha-Shirim asher li-shelomo. Yishaqeini mi-neshiqot pihu…
Song of Songs of Solomon. Oh, let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth…
The frank eroticism of the young woman’s longing is plain, and belies the truth of Herman Hupfeld’s famous lyric, “A kiss is just a kiss.” Nevertheless, a kiss is not always romantic. In the words of English historian Keith Thomas, the kiss can express “deference, obedience, respect, agreement, reverence, adoration, friendliness, affection, tenderness, love, superiority, inferiority, even insult. There is no such thing as a straightforward kiss.”
If this is true of kisses between people, it is even truer for kisses in the Song of Songs, a work of literature that has long been interpreted as an allegory for God’s love. The kiss, consequently, must come from God, but what does it mean to receive a divine kiss and who is receiving it? The history of Jewish allegorical and symbolic interpretation offers many answers to these questions.
1: An Angel’s Kiss for Accepting God’s Commandment
Song of Songs Rabbah, the 9th century midrash collection, offers multiple interpretations of the question: what does it mean to receive a divine kiss? One such interpretation, quoted in the name of the 3rd cent. C.E. Galilean sage Rabbi Yochanan, interprets the kiss as the divine response to Israel’s accepting the commandments. However, to limit the anthropomorphism entailed in God kissing each Israelite, this interpretation replaces God with individualized angels:
יִשָּׁקֵנִי מִנְּשִׁיקוֹת פִּיהוּ, אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן מַלְאָךְ הָיָה מוֹצִיא הַדִּבּוּר מִלִּפְנֵי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַל כָּל דִּבּוּר וְדִבּוּר, וּמַחֲזִירוֹ עַל כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל וְאוֹמֵר לוֹ מְקַבֵּל אַתָּה עָלֶיךָ אֶת הַדִּבּוּר הַזֶּה, כָּךְ וְכָךְ דִּינִין יֵשׁ בּוֹ, כָּךְ וְכָךְ עֳנָשִׁין יֵשׁ בּוֹ, כָּךְ וְכָךְ גְּזֵרוֹת יֵשׁ בּוֹ... וְכָךְ קַלִּים וַחֲמוּרִים יֵשׁ בּוֹ, כָּךְ וְכָךְ מַתַּן שָׂכָר יֵשׁ בּוֹ, וְהָיָה אוֹמֵר לוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל, הֵן,
“Oh, let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth”—Rabbi Yochanan said: An angel would take an utterance from the blessed Holy One, and for each and every utterance would cycle back to each and every member of Israel, saying, “Do you accept this utterance upon yourself, with such-and-such regulations; such-and-such punishments; such-and-such decrees… such leniencies and stringencies; and such-and-such reward entailed in it?” And the Israelite would reply, “Yes.”
וְחוֹזֵר וְאוֹמֵר לוֹ מְקַבֵּל אַתְּ אֱלָהוּתוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, וְהוּא אוֹמֵר לוֹ, הֵן וָהֵן, מִיָּד הָיָה נוֹשְׁקוֹ עַל פִּיו.
[The angel would] continue saying, “Do you accept the sovereignty of the blessed Holy One?” And he would reply, “Yes, certainly!” At once, [the angel] would kiss him on the mouth.’”
R. Yochanan’s reading removes any tinge of romance or closeness between God and the Israelites receiving the proxy kiss. The non-erotic kiss serves to seal the deal after the various Israelites accept their part of the bargain.
2: The Kiss as Symbol for a Commandment
In a succeeding passage of the same collection, R. Joshua, a 2nd cent. Judean sage, interprets the kiss as a symbol for the commandments themselves:
רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אוֹמֵר שְׁנֵי דִבְּרוֹת שָׁמְעוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מִפִּי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, אָנֹכִי וְלֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב: יִשָּׁקֵנִי מִנְּשִׁיקוֹת פִּיהוּ, וְלֹא כָּל הַנְּשִׁיקוֹת.
Rabbi Joshua says, “The Israelites heard [only] two utterances from the blessed Holy One, “I am [YHWH your God]…” and “You shall have [no other gods]…” (Exodus 20:2–3), as is written: “Oh, let him kiss me from kisses of his mouth,” but not all the kisses.
In this instance, the focus is on the preposition מִן, typically “from,” in the phrase מ-נשיקות פיהו, from [among] the kisses of his mouth. Following the rabbinic principle that an indefinite plural means two (מיעוט... שנים), R. Joshua reads the verse as the equivalent of saying “God should kiss me with two kisses.”
He reads this verse as a reference to God’s direct revelation of the first two commandments of the Decalogue. Whereas in the Torah, the people complain about God speaking, asking Moses to intercede on their behalf as a conduit, this verse expresses a positive reaction to having twice been “kissed by God,” i.e., having heard two divine commandments directly from God.
3: The Divine Kiss of Death
The third interpretation in Song of Songs Rabbah interprets the kiss as a metaphor for the painless death with which righteous people are rewarded. The text begins with the opinion of R. Nehemiah (2nd cent. C.E.):
רַבִּי נְחֶמְיָה אָמַר שְׁנֵי חֲבֵרִים שֶׁהָיוּ עֲסוּקִים בִּדְבַר הֲלָכָה, זֶה אוֹמֵר בֵּית אָב שֶׁל הֲלָכָה וְזֶה אוֹמֵר בֵּית אָב שֶׁל הֲלָכָה, אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא שׁוּקְיוֹתְהוֹן עַל יָדִי.
Rabbi Nehemiah said: Two friends busy with each other regarding a matter of Jewish law, one explains the law [one way], and the other explains the law [differently], the blessed Holy One says: “Their desire [to know the law] places them with me.”
The unusual Hebrew term shukyotehon “their desire,” is an alliterative pun on the word for kiss (neshika), and the connection is later made explicit:
וְרַבָּנָן אָמְרִין עֲתִידִין נַפְשֵׁיהוֹן שֶׁל אֵלּוּ לִנָּטֵל בִּנְשִׁיקָה.
The rabbis said, “In the future, the souls of those [who study Torah] will be taken with a kiss.”
Next, the text quotes an obscure sage, Rabbi Azariah, who argues that Moses, Aaron, and Miriam all died from the kiss.
אָמַר רַבִּי עֲזַרְיָה מָצָאנוּ שֶׁנַּפְשׁוֹ שֶׁל אַהֲרֹן לֹא נִטְּלָה אֶלָּא בִּנְשִׁיקָה, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב: וַיַּעַל אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן אֶל הֹר הָהָר עַל פִּי ה' וַיָּמָת שָׁם. וְנַפְשׁוֹ שֶׁל משֶׁה מִנַּיִן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיָּמָת שָׁם משֶׁה עֶבֶד ה' עַל פִּי ה'. מִרְיָם מִנַּיִן, דִּכְתִיב: וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם, מַה שָּׁם שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר לְהַלָּן עַל פִּי ה', אַף כָּאן כֵּן, אֶלָּא שֶׁגְּנַאי לְפָרְשׁוֹ.
Rabbi Azariah said: We find that the soul of Aaron was taken with the kiss, for it says (Num 33:38) “Aaron went up Mount Hor by the mouth of God and died there.” And where do we know that this is what happened with the soul of Moses? For it says (Deut 34:5): “And Moses, the servant of YHWH died there by the mouth of God.” And how do we know [this happened] with Miriam? For it says (Num 20:1): “Miriam died there.” Just as it says [by Aaron and Moses] “by the mouth of YHWH,” so to here [it means that], only it would be degrading to say it explicitly.
The biblical proof is based on the biblical phrase על פי י"י, “from the mouth of YHWH,” which he understands literally, i.e., by a kiss from God’s mouth. The text then expands the group of people who will be rewarded with this death:
וּשְׁאָר כָּל הַצַּדִּיקִים מִנַּיִן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: יִשָּׁקֵנִי מִנְּשִׁיקוֹת פִּיהוּ, אִם עָסַקְתָּ בְּדִבְרֵי תוֹרָה שֶׁשְֹּׂפָתֶיךָ מְנֻשָּׁקוֹת, סוֹף שֶׁהַכֹּל מְנַשְׁקִין לְךָ עַל פִּיךָ.
And with regard to all the other righteous ones, from where [do we know that they will die by the kiss of death]? As is said (Song 1:2), “Oh, let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth”—if you occupied yourself with words of Torah, so that your lips kissed each other [as your mouths opened and closed when talking about Torah], in the end, all will kiss you on the mouth [including God upon your death].
According to this imagery, God’s kiss is God’s way of bringing the beloved Torah scholar painlessly into the divine realm at the time of transition from this world to the next.
Philosophical Adaptation: Maimonides
In his philosophical work, The Guide of the Perplexed, Moses Maimonides (1138–1204) adapts the rabbinic concept of death by the kiss, describing it as mystical union with the Active Intellect, the entity responsible for the maintenance of this world in Maimonides’ philosophy (Guide, 3.51):
[W]hen a perfect man is stricken with years and approaches death… [intellectual] apprehension increases very powerfully, joy over this apprehension and a great love for the object of apprehension become stronger, until the soul is separated from the body at that moment in this state of pleasure. Because of this, the Sages have indicated with reference to the deaths of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam that the three of them died by a kiss...
Their purpose was to indicate that the three of them died in the pleasure of this apprehension due to the intensity of passionate love. In this dictum the Sages… followed the generally accepted poetical way of expression that calls the apprehension that is achieved in a state of intense and passionate love for Him, may He be exalted, a kiss, in accordance with its dictum: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” and so on. [The Sages]… mention the occurrence of this kind of death, which in true reality is salvation from death, only with regard to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
While the intention of the rabbinic teaching is more modest, indicating only that these biblical heroes died painlessly, without the horror of confronting the Angel of Death, Maimonides turns it into a moment of divestment of coarse materiality and ecstatic union. Kissing is now a purely figurative way of speaking of the transmutation of the perfected philosophical mind at the point of death.
Kabbalistic Adaptation: Kisses as Mystical Rapture in Life
Shortly after the death of Maimonides in 1204, kabbalists in Spain begin to write down and publish mystical traditions that were previously transmitted orally or that they themselves created. Among the first of these literary pioneers was the Catalan kabbalist R. Ezra of Gerona (13th cent., a contemporary of Naḥmanides), who was the first to write a kabbalistic commentary on the Song of Songs.
In contrast to Maimonides, for whom the figurative kiss of rapture comes only at death, Ezra places the hope for kisses in the mouth of the individual soul who pines for mystical union with God in this life. He writes,
והנשיקה משל לתענוג דביקות הנשמה במקור החיים ותוספת רוח הקדש... וכשהוא מדבר עם הכבוד... מדבר דרך נסתר.
The kiss is a parable for the joy attained by the soul in its adhesion to the Source of Life and the endowment of holy spirit… When it speaks with the Glory…it speaks derekh nistar.
In Ezra’s rendition of the kisses between God and devotee, the kissing imagery symbolizes the dual exchange that occurs in mystical union. It first symbolizes the desire and joy of the soul as it cleaves upwards, fusing with Divinity, here called Kavod, “Glory.” Second, it represents the soul’s spiritual transformation through the downward infusion of holy spirit into the individual. The focus here is not the moment of death, but the ongoing spiritual dynamics in the life of the mystic.
The final point, that the soul speaks with the Glory derekh nistar has a dual meaning here. In kabbalistic literature, the term means “in an esoteric manner,” and could be taken to be descriptive of the doctrines being taught. It is also a grammatical term, though, signifying the third person.
By using this term, Ezra is alluding to the homiletical hook for his reading, namely, that the voice of the female lover speaks to her beloved in the third person (Oh, let him…). Since it is the human soul addressing the immanent aspect of God, the Song of Songs formulated the wish in a respectful manner.
4: Masculine and Feminine Aspects of God
The Zohar, the central and canonical Jewish text of Jewish mysticism that was produced largely in late 13th–early 14th century Castile, is written as mystical midrash, and is charged with erotic energies. Verses from the Song of Songs are interpreted and reinterpreted throughout its many pages. In this case, the Zohar shifts the imagery from God kissing Israel to masculine and feminine aspects of the divine kissing each other.
Under the influence of Greek philosophy as absorbed through the writings of Muslim philosophers and theologians, medieval Jewish thinkers wrestled with the chasm between a philosophically abstract and transcendent deity on one hand, and the religious desires for a caring, watching, and engaged God on the other. One of the strategies that emerged was to conceptualize God’s transcendence and immanence, compassion and judgment, love and punishment as a series of graded emanations, ten in all, called sefirot.
The performance of commandments, prayer, and Torah study were all now reimagined as the instruments through which the kabbalist could unify those different aspects. They focused chiefly on the masculine aspect or potency of divinity called the “blessed Holy One” and the feminine aspect/potency of divinity, called “Shekhinah” or “Assembly of Israel.” For the kabbalists, then, the Song of Songs describes the love that obtains between these two facets of God.
The Zohar begins by seeking to explicate the reason for the very human metaphor of kissing, as opposed to a more ethereal or abstract term such as love.
רבי יצחק פתח: ישקני מנשיקות פיהו וגו'. אמרה כנסת ישראל ישקני מנשיקות פיהו. מאי טעמא ישקני, יאהבני מבעי ליה.
Rabbi Yitzḥak opened, “Oh, that he would kiss me with the kisses of his mouth…!” Assembly of Israel said, “Oh, that he would kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” Why, “Oh, that he would kiss me?” The verse should read “Oh, that he would love me.”
The Song of Songs, explains R. Yitzhak, employs daring anthropomorphic imagery (kiss-breath-mouth-spirit) in order to talk about the intra-divine romance with the dynamics of intimacy, rather than the perceived sterility of more philosophical terminology.
אלא הכי תנינן מאי נשיקות, דבקותא דרוחא ברוחא דבגיני כך נשיקה בפה דהא פימא אפקותא ומקורא דרוחא הוא ועל דא נשיקין נשקין בפימא בחביבותא דבקין רוחא ברוחא דלא מתפרשן דא מן דא.
However, we have learned as follows: What are kisses? Cleaving of רוחא (ruḥa), spirit, to spirit. Therefore, kissing is by mouth, for the mouth is the outlet and source of ruḥa, breath; so, kisses are kissed with the mouth in love, and spirit clings to spirit, never parting from one another.
ועל דא מאן דנפיק נשמתיה בנשיקה מתדבק ברוחא אחרא דלא מתפרשא מניה והיינו אקרי נשיקה ועל דא אמרה כנסת ישראל ישקני מנשיקות פיהו לאדבקא רוחא ברוחא ולא אתפריש דא מן דא.
Consequently, one whose soul departs by a kiss cleaves to another spirit, which never parts from him—this being called a kiss. So, Assembly of Israel said, “Oh, that he would kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” to join spirit to spirit, one not parting from the other.
One distinctive element here is the projection of ru’aḥ onto the masculine and feminine divine aspects. The Zohar relies upon the rabbinic model of a human being kissed by God/ru’aḥ as a paradigm for Shekhinah/Assembly of Israel asking for a kiss so that She can be united with the masculine aspect of God above.
Consolidating many of the earlier traditions that we have seen above, this passage solicits all of their meanings to render the meaning of Shekhinah’s call for kisses. She wants the union that comes with the kiss for the righteous at death, the intimacy that links two lovers as promised in Genesis 2:24, and the union that the pious mystic seeks with God.
The kabbalistic symbolism of the Zohar presents the human model of kissing as the ideal metaphor to describe the intra-divine romance. It is the embodied quality and experience of the kiss that enables the kiss between human beings to teach directly and explicitly about kisses between different rungs of the Godhead.
What is “His Mouth”?
The embodied nature of the kissing metaphor becomes more acute when the Zohar turns its gaze to the slightly unusual form of the term pihu, his mouth. In the Zohar’s commentary on the Song of Songs, the mystical midrashim are presented in a dialogue between Rabbi Shim'on bar Yochai and Elijah. The latter remarks on the unusual pronoun form פיהו (pihu), in contrast to the Bible’s prevailing form פיו (piv).
פיהו, אמאי פיהו, פיו מיבעי ליה. אלא לאכללא תרוייהו כחדא. פיהו, לאתחזאה דהא איהי זמינית לגביה כאתתא דתקינת פומה לקבלה נשיקו בעלה, בגין כך אתחזי זמינו דפומה פיהו..
“פיהו (Pihu), His mouth. Why פיהו (pihu), his mouth? It should be פיו (piv), his mouth! Well, this enfolds the two of them as one. פיהו (Pihu) demonstrates that She is ready, like a woman preparing her mouth to receive kisses from her husband. Thus, Her mouth’s readiness is seen in פיהו (pihu).
The act of uttering the word pihu (rather than piv) puckers the lips, a visual performance that demonstrates the woman’s readiness for a kiss. More than just cute, the Zohar here reads the Song of Songs as a verbal enactment of divine love, in which the embodied enactment of the text mirrors and models the love that is pursued by the enigmatic cycle of songs.
More esoterically, in the Kabbalah’s decoding of every term, and often every letter in Scripture, as symbols pointing toward divine dynamics. The form of the letter ו (vav) of the word פיו (piv) is viewed as masculine, so by the logic of kabbalistic linguistics the phrase His mouth apparently omits any orthographic representation of the feminine.
By using the word פיהו (pihu) which inserts the letter ה (heh), written with an opening at the bottom and thus conceptualized as feminine, the pihu form of the word juxtaposes the letter ה (heh), representing the feminine Shekhinah, with the letter ו (vav), representing the blessed Holy One. This form thereby signifies the union of the masculine and the feminine potencies within divinity. The letters of the word are marshalled to demonstrate that intimacy between the different aspects of God occurs on the literal level of the letter.
5: Back to Human Love
While the Zohar’s readings stress events in the celestial realms, its exegesis leaves room for reading the verse as human kissing as well:
ישקני דביקו דרחימו רוח ברוח, דהא ד' רוחין מתחברין ואתעבידו כחדא , דא יהיב רוחא לחבריה ונטיל ההוא רוח דחבריה דאתדבק ביה. משתכחי רוחא דיליה ורוחא דחבריה הא תרין, אוף הכי חבריה. משתכחי ד' רוחין דמתחברן כחדא באינון נשיקין.
“Oh, let him kiss me”—fusion of love, spirit with spirit. Four spirits join and are made one. One gives his spirit to his fellow and takes the spirit of his fellow who has cleaved to him. Thus, his spirit and his friend’s spirit are two; similarly, with his friend, yielding four spirits, united as one in those kisses.
In the exchange of breath that occurs through kissing, spirits join—as each one gives of his or her own spirit while partaking of the spirit of the other. This engenders four spirits, united as one. The math here is admittedly a bit curious: two companions infuse each other with spirit, even as their own indigenous spirit remains. As a result, each has their own spirit and that of the other’s, yielding a total of four.
Arriving at the number four is like winning the kabbalistic lottery. Since there are four letters in the tetragrammaton and four creatures supporting Ezekiel’s divine chariot, if two people have attained a quality of ‘four-ness’ through the merging of four lips in holy union with each other they have effectively created a resting place for Divinity.
To put it differently, when people kiss, they are participating in an immanence of the intra-divine kisses. The text continues, reinforcing this claim:
מנשיקות, מאינון נשיקין עילאין דקא הוה נשיק מקדמת דנא, דהא רחימו דחדוא לאו איהו אלא מגו נשיקין דרוחא עילאה בתתאה.
“From the kisses”—from those lofty kisses, kissed before. For joyous love comes only from kisses, fusing upper spirit with lower.
The paradigm for kisses of love is the pattern of those exchanged between upper spirit and lower spirit, and the blessed Holy One and Shekhinah, respectively. The human kisses that the text celebrates are those that partake of the primordial sefirotic union—the loving kisses that transcend human history and creation altogether.
Thus, as the Zohar reads it, the paradigm of the kisses in the Song of Songs occur in the divine realm, but we humans, through recognizing love’s origins in that supernal dimension, participate in the immanence of the intra-divine kisses and can participate in that same love.
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Prof. Joel Hecker is Professor of Jewish Mysticism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He received his Ph.D. in Judaic Studies from New York University in 1996, and his rabbinic ordination and a M.A. in Jewish Philosophy from Yeshiva University in 1990. He is the author of Volumes 11 and (with Nathan Wolski) Volume 12 of The Zohar: Pritzker Edition and is the author of Mystical Bodies, Mystical Meals: Eating and Embodiment in Medieval Kabbalah (Wayne State University Press, 200
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