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Passover and Shir HaShirim

Shir HaShirim

Passover and the Song of Solomon...

During the Shabbat of Passover week it is customary to read the ancient "love song" of King Solomon called Shir Ha-Shirim (שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים), or the "Song of Songs." In Jewish tradition, since Passover marks the time when our "romance" with God officially began, the sages chose this song to celebrate God's love for his people. And since Passover is also called Chag Ha-Aviv, the festival of spring, the Song is also associated with creativity and hope associated with springtime (Song 2:11-12).

The author of the Song of Songs is King Solomon (מֶלֶךְ שְׁלמה), as indicated by the song's opening verse: "The Song of Songs, written by Solomon" (Song 1:1). Interestingly, in 1 Kings 4:32 it is stated that "He (Solomon) also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005." Since the Book of Proverbs contains far less that 3,000 proverbs, it is likely that only his best were selected for the book, and while there is a psalm attributed to King Solomon (i.e., Psalm 72), the only other song we have bearing his name is the great "Song of Songs," which in Hebrew might be rendered "the greatest of songs." The other songs of Solomon, however, have apparently been lost to us...

The Song is usually interpreted as an allegory of the love affair between God and His  people. The Beloved (representing God) therefore says, "As a lily among the thorns, so is my love for you among among the daughters;" and the maiden (representing God's people) replies, "Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men. I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to my taste" (Song 2:2-3). The Jewish scholar Maimonides argued that the song was intended to teach about ahavat HaShem (אַהֲבַת יהוה), the love of God. The Talmud reports that Rabbi Akiva argued for the inclusion of Song in the canon of the Hebrew Bible by saying that if all the other Books of the Bible are considered to be regarded as "Kedoshim" (holy), then Shir Ha-Shirim must be considered "Kodesh Kodoshim," the Holiest of the Holy (Megillah 7a). Akiva is reported to have further said, "The whole world attained its supreme value only on the day when the Song of Songs was given to Israel" (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5). Rashi agrees and therefore states that all the references to King Solomon (שְׁלמה) in the song refer to the LORD, the King of the Universe who creates peace (שָׁלוֹם) in His high places.  Soren Kierkegaard likens the Song to a parable about the disguise of love, the tender passion that is hidden so as to elevate the identity of the beloved.

Rashi interpreted the song as an allegory of a young and beautiful woman (the "Shulamite") who becomes engaged to and then marries a king. However, some time later, the woman became unfaithful to him, and the king then sent her into exile to live "as a widow." Despite his heartache, the king's love for her remained constant, and he secretly watched over her and protected her from "behind the shutters." When she finally resolved to return and to be faithful to him alone, the king took her back, with a love that was fully restored. For Rashi, the Jewish people were "engaged" to God when He took them out of Egypt. At that time, Israel pledged love and loyalty to God alone at Sinai (a type of "chuppah" or marriage canopy), but later proved to be unfaithful, first with the sin of the Golden Calf, and then through subsequent acts of infidelity. Indeed, her infidelity proved to be so great that God reluctantly sent her into exile. According to Rashi, the opening verse, "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine" (Song 1:2), is allegorically spoken by Israel in her exile, as she pines away for the former intimacy she once enjoyed with God.

Rashi's interpretation follows the theme of the Hebrew prophets who sometimes refer to Israel as the wife of the LORD. According to the prophet Hosea, for instance, idolatry among Israel is likened to adultery that breaches the marriage contract between God and His people. Messianic believers interpret the song as a picture of Yeshua and his followers, collectively called kallat Mashiach, the "bride of Messiah" (Eph. 5:23, 25), or as a picture of Yeshua as the "Bridegroom of the soul" that personally knows and trusts in His love...

When we read this book in our Bibles, it's important to remember that we are listening to a song, not to a story being recounted... The song is not recited in any sense of chronological order, but rather uses flashbacks and "antiphony" (responsive verses) that come from the Shulamite woman (a Cinderella figure who worked in the vineyards and tended the sheep), the daughters of Jerusalem, the bridegroom, the family of the Shulamite, and so on. Because of this, the Song of Songs has been difficult to interpret, leading Delitzsch to describe it as "the most difficult book of the Old Testament" to understand. Literally interpreted, the song seems unworthy of inclusion into the canon of Scripture, and at times even appears to be written in "bad taste." Why would such ambiguity attend to a Book that is called "the noblest song," or "the crown of all songs" in Hebrew? Why would natural love (alone) be so exalted to be regarded as inspired by the Holy Spirit? Mystically understood, the Song is sung to those who are in a loving relationship with God. It describes the interior meaning of the "Holy of Holies," and therefore is reserved for those who access the sacred region of Divine love, "the secret place of the Most High."

Some people interpret the song as an idealized version of wedded love. A famous verse from the Song is often inscribed on traditional Jewish wedding rings: "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine" / ani l'dodi v'dodi li (אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי), symbolizing the devoted union of the two lovers...  

אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי
הָרעֶה בַּשׁוֹשַׁנִּים

a·ni · le·do·di · ve·do·di · li
ha·ro·eh · ba·sho·sha·nim

"I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine;
he grazes among the lilies.

(Song 6:3)


The song speaks of sexual love, but in terms that are holy, not carnal. It should be noted that the allegorical interpretation (i.e., as being about God's love for his people) is stretched when we consider some of the erotic language found in the song, and some commentators warn that we should never mix erotic language with the language of worship... Notwithstanding, the mystics have clearly preferred to regard the song in terms of God's intimate love for the soul, and the various stanzas are thought to picture the Beloved as God who woos the soul.... He (the beloved) brought me to the banqueting house, "and his banner over me was love" (וְדִגְלוֹ עָלַי אַהֲבָה).

One day the mysterious shepherd, who traveled with no sheep, told the woman he was leaving but promised he would return for her. The days passed and she waited, but her family and friends began to ridicule her hope. Nonetheless, she loved the shepherd and dreamed of being with him: "On my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not" (Song 3:1). She longed to be with her beloved; she missed him, and dreamed of the day they would be together... There were even strange visitations, a fragrance of her lover in the air, that she could not explain. Surely this longing represents the soul's homesickness for heaven and the Presence of Yeshua... "Make haste, my beloved, and be thou like to a roe or to a young hart upon the mountains of spices."

Some time later, as she was working in the vineyard, she saw a caravan approaching, and the cry went forth: "King Solomon is coming!" (Song 3:6-7). Then someone ran to her and said, "The King is asking for you!" But why would the King ask for her? Because the mysterious shepherd had wooed her in disguise - in "garments of lowliness" - to win her heart before he revealed his true identity (for more on this, see Kierkegaard's parable of the King and the Maiden). The Voice of the Good Shepherd speaks: "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; O my dove, you are in the clefts of the rock" (Song 2:13-14). Like the Shulamite woman, we are hidden in the "clefts of the rock," though we are not forgotten. The hope of our salvation is fulfilled in God's love and in our response to that love...

בְּרַח דּוֹדִי וּדְמֵה־לְךָ לִצְבִי
אוֹ לְעפֶר הָאַיָּלִים עַל הָרֵי בְשָׂמִים

be·rach  do·di  u·de·meh-le·kha  litz·vi,
or  le·o·fer  ha·ai·ya·lim, al  ha·rei  ve·sa·mim

"Make haste, my beloved! Be like a gazelle
or a young stag on the mountains of spices." (Song 8:14)


Finally it should be noted that the Song of Songs is sometimes linked to the "lilies" (i.e., shoshanim: שׁשַׁנִּים) mentioned in Psalm 45, which presents a Messianic vision of the Divine Bridegroom and offers an "ode" for a forthcoming wedding.  The imagery of "lilies" appears frequently in the Song of Songs, and similar poetic devices are used in this psalm. "Hear, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear: forget your people and your father's house, and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him" (Psalm 45:10-11). Soon the LORD will return for His betrothed, and then we will finally celebrate the great "marriage" with our King...

Postscript: The Five Megillot

The "five megillot" (i.e., chamesh megillot: חָמֵשׁ מְגִלּוֹת) that are traditionally assigned for various Jewish holidays are as follows:

  1. The Song of Songs (שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים) is read during Passover Week, in the early spring, to commemorate the "betrothal" of the Jewish people at the time of the Exodus.
  2. The Book of Ruth (מְגִלַּת רוּת) is read during Shavuot (Pentecost), the time of the spring harvest and the time traditionally associated with the giving of the Torah to Israel. Like Israel, Ruth gave up everything to accept the Torah.
  3. The Book of Lamentations (אֵיכָה) is read during Tishah B'Av, the traditional date that commemorates the destruction of the Temples, in the summer...
  4. The Book of Ecclesiastes (קהֶלֶת) is read during Sukkot (Tabernacles) in the fall, usually to counteract the exuberance of the holiday and to remind Israel that even in the most joyous of times, there is need for reflection about the meaning of life.
  5. The Book of Esther (מְגִלַּת אֶסְתֵּר) is read during the holiday of Purim, in the winter, to commemorate God's hidden hand in saving the Jewish people from disaster.


Chag Sameach, chaverim!

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