What Is Better than Wine?
In the opening of the Song of Songs, the woman declares to her lover:
שיר השירים א:ב יִשָּׁקֵנִי מִנְּשִׁיקוֹת פִּיהוּ כִּי טוֹבִים דֹּדֶיךָ מִיָּיִן.
Song 1:2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your loving is better than wine.
The word דֹד (dod) can mean “love,” though it generally has the connotation of physical intimacy, “love-making,” as it does here. In other contexts, it is used as a term of endearment for a lover, “beloved.” All this is true of its Akkadian cognate as well.
The LXX translates: “For your breasts are better than wine” (ὅτι ἀγαθοὶ μαστοί σου ὑπὲρ οἶνον); its translator read the word דֹּדֶיךָ (dodekha) “your (m.s.) loving” as דַּדַּיִךְ (dadayikh) “your (f.s.) breasts.” דַּד is a homograph to דֹּד in Hebrew written with consonants only (and no vowel points), which was the way it was written in the biblical period; different systems of writing vowels were introduced into Hebrew starting around the 8th century C.E.
The words dod and dad derive from different proto-Semitic roots, preserved in the cognate language Ugaritic:
- dd (dad) = “love, loved one.”
- ḏd (thad) = “breast, bosom, nipple.”
In Ugaritic, the latter term appears in the phrase “those who suck from the nipple (b ap ḏd),” i.e., babies. Both roots, dod and dad, may derive from baby talk.
Other Examples of דֹּד/דַּד Confusion
Three further passages in the Song of Songs feature this same division between the Masoretic דֹּד and the LXX דַּד. Two of them feature the same expression that your dodim/dadim are better than wine:
שיר השירים א:ד ...נָגִילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה בָּךְ נַזְכִּירָה דֹדֶיךָ מִיַּיִן....
Song 1:4 …Let us be glad and rejoice in you (f.s.). Let us extol your (m.s.) loving beyond wine…
LXX reads: “we will love your breasts beyond wine.”
שיר השירים ד:י מַה יָּפוּ דֹדַיִךְ אֲחֹתִי כַלָּה מַה טֹּבוּ דֹדַיִךְ מִיַּיִן...
Song 4:10 How beautiful your loving, my sister bride, how much better your loving than wine…
LXX reads: “How beautiful your breasts have become, my sister bride! How beautiful your breasts have become, above wine.”
The final example has the woman offering her dodim to her lover:
שיר השירים ז:יג נַשְׁכִּימָה לַכְּרָמִים נִרְאֶה אִם פָּרְחָה הַגֶּפֶן פִּתַּח הַסְּמָדַר הֵנֵצוּ הָרִמּוֹנִים שָׁם אֶתֵּן אֶת דֹּדַי לָךְ.
Song 7:13 Let us rise early in the vineyards. We shall see if the vine is in flower, if the blossoms have opened, if the pomegranate trees have budded. There I will give my loving to you.
For the final line, the LXX reads: “There I will give you my breasts.”
This rending of dod as dad is not unique to the LXX. The Old Latin follows the Greek here, as does the Latin Vulgate, while the Syriac Peshitta translates the terms in different ways in different places.
The Alternative Point in Rabbinic Texts
This reading of “breasts” was known in rabbinic Jewish circles as well. For example, Tosefta Parah (10:3) records a conversation between Rabbi Joshua and his student, Rabbi Ishmael, about the proper reading of this verse:
אמר לו: "ישמעאל אחי, היאך אתה קורא: 'כִּי טוֹבִים דֹודֶיךָ מִיָּיִן' או 'כִּי טוֹבִים דַדַיִךְ מִיָּיִן'?" אמר לו: "'כִּי טוֹבִים דַדַיִךְ.'" אמר לו: "אין הדבר כן, שהרי חברו מלמד עליו: 'לְרֵיחַ שְׁמָנֶיךָ טוֹבִים... [עַל כֵּן עֲלָמוֹת אֲהֵבוּךָ].'"
[R. Joshua] said to to him: “Ishmael, how do you read [the passage in Song 1:2] ‘for your loving [dodekha] is better than wine,’ or ‘for your breasts [dadayikh] are better than wine’?” [R. Ishmael] said to him “‘For your breasts are better than wine.’” [R. Joshua] said to him, “This is not the correct, for its fellow (=the next verse, Song 1:3) clarifies [that the addressed is a man]: ‘Your anointing oils are fragrant... [and so the young women love you].’”
R. Joshua answers that since before this phrase and after this phrase the woman is speaking to the man, the woman must be speaking this phrase too, and the word dadim in Hebrew refers only to a woman’s breasts. Saul Lieberman (1898–1983), in his Tosefet Rishonim commentary on the Tosefta (2.248–249), notes that according to the Talmud, R. Ishmael spent time in Rome when he was young, and thus would have been exposed to the Greek and/or Latin translations of biblical texts, and thus R. Joshua was checking on whether he was influenced by this in his reading of the Song.
The dadim reading also appears in the Midrash collection known as Song of Songs Zuta, which some scholars date to the Tannaitic period, where we find this homily on Song 1:2:
ד"א כי טובים דודיך מיין, זה הלומד תורה בילדותו כיון שנגמל מדדי אמו לתוך התורה....
Another interpretation: “For your loving (dodim) is better than wine,” this refers to someone who learns Torah in his youth, since he was weaned from the breasts (dadei) of his mother into Torah study…
The midrash here offers a play on words between dodim and dadim, implying at least that the author sees the possible repointing, or perhaps that he is aware of the Christian reading.
In addition, R. David Solomon Sassoon notes that an unnamed collection of midrashim contains a gloss to Genesis 30:14–16, which mentions דּוּדָאִים (dudaʾim)—the mandrakes that Reuben picks and that his mother, Leah offers to Rachel—which is close in its spelling and pronunciation to dodim:
קאלו (=אמרו) פי' בראש' רבא דודאים מלשון דדין ועל זה אמר שלמה כי טובים (דודיך) [דדיך] וכו'
They said in Genesis Rabbah: Dudaim (mandrakes) comes from the word dadin (breasts), and regarding this Solomon said “For your breasts (dadayikh) are better than wine…”
The Genesis Rabbah quote does not appear in our versions, but it fits with what we saw above from Song of Songs Zuta. It is not surprising that midrashim from the rabbinic period would be familiar with the dadim reading, given that Greek was spoken and Jews were still familiar with the LXX. Thus, while we can fairly say that Jewish tradition for the most part follows the Masoretic reading, the alternative is found in various obscure works. (See also discussion of Rokeach in the addendum).
Which Reading Is Original?
Several factors suggest that the MT reading is correct.
1. Speaker—As discussed above, R. Joshua notes that in the first passage, context implies that the woman is the speaker, which would discount the possibility of reading dadim, at least in this instance, since dadim is only ever used to describe female breasts. Nevertheless, since the speakers often change abruptly in the Song, it is possible that in Song 1:2b the man is speaking to the woman.
2. Beloved—Elsewhere in the song, the root דֹד is used to express the noun “beloved.” For example, in the well-known romantic declaration recited by women in some Jewish weddings (Song 6:3), אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי “I am my beloved and my beloved is mine.” “Breast” is not a possible translation in this phrase, and here the LXX uses the calque or neologism ἀδελφιδός (adelphidos), derived from the Greek word adelphos “brother.” The term seems to mean “kinsman” as opposed to “beloved,” which yields “I am my brotherkin and my brotherkin is mine.”
That the LXX offers this unromantic and unpoetic translation implies that the translator of the Song—different books had different translators—is unaware that the root, pointed as dod, can refer to love. What he did know was its meaning as “uncle.” As uncle made no sense in context, the translator invented a term for kinsman.
As for the four verses surveyed above with the term dad instead of dod, the LXX translator chose what he saw as his best option. “Your brotherkin is better than wine” and “there I will give you my brotherkin” are nonsensical and thus not possible readings. As the translator did not know “loving” was an option, he went with the only remaining possibility, dadim.
3. Context: Shadayim vs. Dadim—The MT Song of Songs consistently uses a different term for breasts, שָׁדַיִם (singular שַׁד), which appears eight times: Once it is found when the woman is speaking of nursing from her mother (8:1), and five times, it is used in the physical description of the woman (4:5 [=7:4], 7:8, 8:8, 8:10). Only twice is physical intimacy implied, and in both cases the writing is delicate and poetic. The first is the woman’s description of what sounds like post-coital cuddling or sleeping:
שיר השירים א:יג צְרוֹר הַמֹּר דּוֹדִי לִי בֵּין שָׁדַי יָלִין.
Song 1:13 A sachet of myrrh is my lover to me, all night between my breasts.
The second is the man’s description of his desire for sex through a playful allegorical description of her body:
שיר השירים ז:ח זֹאת קוֹמָתֵךְ דָּמְתָה לְתָמָר וְשָׁדַיִךְ לְאַשְׁכֹּלוֹת. ז:ט אָמַרְתִּי אֶעֱלֶה בְתָמָר אֹחֲזָה בְּסַנְסִנָּיו וְיִהְיוּ נָא שָׁדַיִךְ כְּאֶשְׁכְּלוֹת הַגֶּפֶן וְרֵיחַ אַפֵּךְ כַּתַּפּוּחִים. ז:י וְחִכֵּךְ כְּיֵין הַטּוֹב...
Song 7:8 Your stature was like a palm tree, and your breasts were like clusters. 7:9 I thought: I will climb the palm, I will grasp its stalks, and let your breasts be like grape clusters and the scent of your breath like quince 7:10 and your mouth like goodly wine…
The man expresses his desire through euphemism: He analogizes breasts to grape clusters and sex to climbing a palm tree. The four verses from the Song surveyed above, when understood as referencing dadim instead of dodim, are neither subtle nor poetic, but express a starkness of imagery and expression we don’t see elsewhere in the Song. This is especially true in 7:13, in which the woman’s gentle offer in MT that “there, among the blooming flowers, I will give you my loving” becomes an explicit offer of giving him her breasts in LXX.
Indeed, the term דַּד seems to be crass language. The only time it appears in the Hebrew Bible not in error (see postscript on Proverbs below) is in Ezekiel 23. The chapter is a long parable about sisters—Oholah, representing Samaria, and Oholibah, representing Jerusalem—who fornicate, meaning that Israel and Judah worship idols. The parable is incredibly vulgar, some go so far as to say pornographic, and its misogynistic style is quite offensive to the modern ear. For example:
יחזקאל כג:ג וַתִּזְנֶינָה בְמִצְרַיִם בִּנְעוּרֵיהֶן זָנוּ שָׁמָּה מֹעֲכוּ שְׁדֵיהֶן וְשָׁם עִשּׂוּ דַּדֵּי בְּתוּלֵיהֶן.
Ezek 23:3 And they played the whore in Egypt, in their youth, they played the whore there. Their breasts were squeezed and there were their virgin teats fondled.
By using the crass term dad in addition to more common term shad, and offering this graphic description of sexual activity, Ezekiel is trying to be shocking. As Robert Alter writes in his commentary (2:1118):
Nowhere else in the Bible does one find this sort of direct reference to fondling breasts in sexual play… Ezekiel looks distinctly like a man morbidly obsessed with the female body and female sexuality, exhibiting a horrified fascination with both.
Alter’s observation strengthens the argument made throughout: the Song of Songs does not make use of Ezekiel’s crass style of talk. It is meant to be poetic and delicate, and makes use of more subtle imagery. It seems clear, therefore, that the word dad never appears in the Song, and in all four instances, the root דד is meant to express loving.
Postscript—Proverbs: When the Masoretes Made the Same Error
A passage in Proverbs describing the importance of remaining loyal to one’s love and not searching for other women includes the word dad in MT while LXX seems to be translating as if it read dod—the reverse of what we saw above:
משלי ה:יח יְהִי מְקוֹרְךָ בָרוּךְ וּשְׂמַח מֵאֵשֶׁת נְעוּרֶךָ. ה:יט אַיֶּלֶת אֲהָבִים וְיַעֲלַת חֵן דַּדֶּיהָ יְרַוֻּךָ בְכָל עֵת בְּאַהֲבָתָהּ תִּשְׁגֶּה תָמִיד. ה:כ וְלָמָּה תִשְׁגֶּה בְנִי בְזָרָה וּתְחַבֵּק חֵק נָכְרִיָּה.
Prov 5:18 Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth. 5:19 Love’s doe, a graceful gazelle, her breasts ever slake your thirst, you will always dote in her love. 5:20 And why dote, my son, on a stranger-woman, clasp an alien woman’s lap?
We have here explicit imagery involving breasts, unusual for Proverbs and not really in keeping with the more delicate, or at least euphemistic, imagery of the passage. Robert Alter (whose translation I used above) defends MT in his commentary, ad loc. (3.368):
Some interpreters revocalize dadim, “breasts,” as dodim, “lovemaking,” in keeping with the language of Song of Songs. But given the emphasis in this poem on drinking, the physical image of drinking from the breasts may be more likely.
The LXX reads the phrase in bold above as: “and may your own one (idia) guide you and be associated with you at all times.” The word “your own one” is strange here, and Michael Fox, in his critical edition of Proverbs, suggests:
The translator correctly understood דדיה “her love” to mean her lovemaking, which he euphemized as “your own one.”
Moreover, this exact expression, “drinking love,” appears later in Proverbs, and MT and LXX both read it as dodim:
משלי ז:יח לְכָה נִרְוֶה דֹדִים עַד הַבֹּקֶר נִתְעַלְּסָה בָּאֳהָבִים.
Prov 7:18 Come, let us drink deep of loving till morn, let us revel in love’s delights.
Thus, in Proverbs 5:19, the LXX reading appears to be original, and the MT is a mispointing. This is Fox’s view as well, who translates “let her lovemaking ever slake your thirst.” As noted above, dad is likely a vulgar word, and the explicit imagery is too stark for the more delicate expression of Proverbs, which shares much more stylistically with the poetic Song of Songs, then with the course, low-brow storytelling of Ezekiel.
Christian and Jewish Allegorical Interpretation of the Two Versions
In Jewish and Christian tradition, the Song of Songs is interpreted as a theological allegory. The allegorist’s understanding of the term דד affects not only the simple reading but how the allegory will work.
While the Masoretic pointing forms the basis of Jewish interpretation, for the most part, the Greek LXX is the canonical version for the Orthodox Church, the Latin Vulgate is the canonical version for Catholics, and the Peshitta (which has breasts in two of these verses) is the canonical text for the Syriac Church. Thus, the Christian tradition as a whole inherited the dad understanding.
A good example of how these readings lead to different allegories is how Secundum Salomonem, a 13th century Latin commentary by a Christian commentator trying to follow the approach of Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040–1104), is forced to explore different allegories in these passages, since his text reads “breasts” while Rashi’s reads “loving.”
For example, in his commentary on 4:10, “how beautiful is your loving” in the MT, said by the male lover (=God) to the woman (=Israel), Rashi writes:
מה יפו דודיך – כל מקום שהראית לי שם חיבה, יפה הוא בעיניי: גלגל שילה נוב וגבעון ובית העולמים.
“How beautiful is your loving”—Everywhere that you showed me your love is beautiful in my eyes: Gilgal, Shiloh, Nob, Gibeon, and the permanent dwelling (=Jerusalem).
Rashi allegorizes the act of the woman’s loving the man as the act of Israel offering sacrifices to God, which was conducted in multiple worship sites. In contrast, Secundem Salomonem must find an object for the woman’s dadim in his allegory:
“How lovely are your breasts my sister, spouse”—This was said about the breastpiece that the High Priest wore on his chest. “Your breasts are better than wine”—because the breastpiece was made from different types of stones whose color was reddish…
Given where breasts are on the body, Secundum Salomonem decides on the High Priest’s breastpiece as a fitting allegory.
Looking at earlier Christian interpretation, Hippolytus of Rome (ca. 170–ca. 235), who wrote the earliest extant Christian commentary on the Song (Treatise on the Song of Songs 2.3) sees breasts in Song 1:2 as an allegory for heart:
When it says “your breasts are better than wine,” it signifies that the commandments of Christ delight the heart like wine. For, as infants suck upon breasts in order to extract some milk, so also all who suck on the law and the gospel obtain the commandments as eternal food.
In the next appearance of this term, however, Hippolytus understands “breasts better than wine” as a reference to nursing, and offers a different allegory (Treatise on the Song of Songs 3.1.4):
“We loved your fonts of milk more than this wine” because breasts were the commandments given by Christ; they delight but certainly do not inebriate.
Notably, R. Eleazar of Worms (1176–1238), known as the Rokeach, in his commentary on the Song of Songs, builds (it would seem) on the Song of Songs Zuta passage quoted above, and offers a Jewish version of the nursing imagery we saw in Hippolytus:
כי טובים דֹודֶיךָ מיין—קרי ביה דַדַיִךְ, להניקם ד[ברי] ת[ורה].
“For your loving (dodekha) is better than wine”—read instead “your breasts” (dadayikh), to nurse them with words of Torah.
On the final verse (Song 7:13), Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185–253), one of the most important allegorizers among the Church Fathers, understands the breasts as a reference to the two Testaments, Old and New:
She communes with her Bridegroom saying, “There I give You my breasts.” In a sense, she is telling Him, “I render my love for Your love. You offered me Your breasts, the Old and the New Testaments, and now Your word has become fruitful in me; so I consecrate them back to You. I offer my breasts, i.e. the two Testaments, for Your Book has become my Book!” But how does she offer Him her two breasts? She practically witnesses to the Word of God before others.
The allegories surveyed above, though they have a distinct Christian flavor, are similar to how the rabbinic interpreters read the word shadayim (breasts) elsewhere. See, for example, Rashi’s gloss in Song 4:5:
שני שדייך – המניקים אותך זה משה ואהרן.... דבר אחר: שני שדייך – על שם הלוחות,
“Your two breasts”—that nurse you, this refers to Moses and Aaron… Another interpretation: “your two breasts”—referring to the tablets [of the Decalogue]…
Moreover, R. Eleazar of Worms, who we noted is familiar with the dadayikh reading for Song 1:2, offers this same interpretation as a gloss there:
דדיך—הן משה ואהרן המניקים תורה לישראל.
“Your breasts” (dadayikh): These refer to Moses and Aaron who nursed the people of Israel with Torah.
Thus we see that Jewish and Christian allegorists were familiar with similar tropes, and each tailored them to the specifics of their own tradition. Theologically speaking, Jewish interpreters could have easily accommodated a reading of these verses that replaced “loving” with “breasts,” but the vast majority of interpreters were familiar only with the MT, and thus didn’t contemplate this reading.
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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