The opening verses of the Song of Songs from the Rothschild Mahzor.
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
Passover is fast approaching. With all the fuss and hard work involved in preparing for it, we sometimes forget the meaning and importance of this holiday.
Originally, it is actually a composite of two festivals – the festival of Pessah, the first evening when the paschal lamb was eaten, and the festival of matzot, the seven-day period of unleavened bread.
Both of these have agricultural origins, the one celebrating the new lambs born in the spring, and the other the new wheat harvested at that time. Of course, both of these were given historical meaning as well, the lamb connected to the events of the eve of leaving Egyptian slavery, and the matzot to either the poor food eaten when they were slaves or the food eaten in haste when leaving Egypt.
The holiday also has a historical name, hag haherut (festival of freedom), and an agricultural name, hag ha’aviv (festival of spring).
Aviv was the ancient name of the month of Nisan.
Two books have become associated with Passover: the Haggada and the Song of Songs. The first is a rabbinic compilation of readings about the connection of the holiday to the Exodus and expressing thanksgiving for our freedom.
The second is a biblical book that originally had no connection to Passover, but was later designated as the megila to be read at that time mainly because it, too, is connected to springtime, and also because of the rabbinic interpretation of the book as symbolizing God’s love for Israel, which resulted in God’s readiness to redeem Israel in ancient times and to do so again in the future.
Thus both the pshat, the original, simple meaning of the Song of Songs, celebrating love blossoming in the spring, and the drash, the rabbinic interpretation of it, indicating God’s love and redemption of Israel, make it an appropriate book to read during the spring holiday of freedom.
As I discovered when writing a book about Rabbi Akiva, the Song of Songs really owes its important position in traditional Judaism to Akiva’s obsession with that book.
When discussions were held during the first century CE questioning the status of both the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, he exclaimed: “Heaven forbid! No one in Israel ever suggested that the Song of Songs was not canonical. For the entire world is not as precious as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all of the writings are holy, and Song of Songs is the holy of holies!” (Yadayim 3:6).
Of course, it is not true that no one in Israel ever questioned the status of the Song of Songs. Akiva exaggerated to make a point. Notice his use of the term “was given” – an expression otherwise used only in regard to the Torah itself.
God gave the Torah to Israel and, according to Akiva, God gave the book Song of Songs to Israel as well. Both were direct divine revelations of equal sanctity.
Whatever possessed Akiva to make such a comparison? It was his belief that love was the basis of the relationship between God and Israel, and that the supreme example of love is the love between man and woman, as described so beautifully in the Song of Songs. It is only by making that comparison and using that human terminology that we can understand what it means for humans to love God and what it means when we say that God loves us. And – strange and audacious as it may sound – that relationship of love must be mutual and must be equal. “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3). “My beloved is mine and I am his” (ibid. 2:16).
Although both the Book of Deuteronomy and prophets Jeremiah and Hosea use terms connected with human love to describe our relationship with God, there is no biblical book entirely devoted to that theme other than the Song of Songs. Therefore it was of utmost importance to Akiva that it be part of Hebrew scripture.
Akiva was vehement that the Song of Songs be seen as a divine text that teaches love of God and God’s love, and spoke harshly about those who recited it at drinking feasts or banquets and used it as a profane poem (Tosefta Sanhedrin 12:10). He may have been concerned that it should not be seen as an endorsement of lust as opposed to love.
Nevertheless, it would be a pity if we were to forget the simple meaning of the book and ignore the glories of nature in the Land of Israel and the beauty of a loving relationship between man and woman, which are so well described there.
Passover itself is a combination of the celebration of nature – the renewal of life in the springtime – and history, our redemption from slavery under divine guidance.
Reading the Song of Songs both as poetry that celebrates human love and the beauty of spring and as a parable that celebrates our loving relationship with God, which results in our redemption, deepens our understanding of the meaning of this wonderful holiday. Hag same’ah! The writer, a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, a Jerusalem lecturer and author, is a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award. His most recent book is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (JPS).