The sublime Shir HaShirim, Song of Songs, has a unique status visà-vis the Tanakh. Rabbi Akiva grasped this when he said that “all the Scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies” (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5). And one midrash captured it when referring to Song of Songs as a “handle” or study aid for the Torah as a whole (Song of Songs Rabbah 1:8). An interpretive lens, a commentary, a poetic rendering: Shir HaShirim both belongs to, and transcends, the Torah as a whole. How else might we understand this dialogue, this interconnection?
Rabbis and scholars have parsed each and every word in the Song of Songs to argue that the work is an allegory for the romance of God and Israel as narrated in the Torah. In Midrash Tanhuma Toledot 18 (ed. Buber), for example, the words “I slept, but my mind was alert. Hark! my love knocks…” (5:2) are read as alluding to the Exodus from Egypt and redemption: “’My beloved knocks’—this is Moses, as it is said: ‘And Moses said: “Thus said the Lord: ‘Around midnight I am going out in the midst of Egypt…’” (Exodus 11:4).1
In a similar vein, Rabbi Moses Isserles wrote:
It is the custom to read Shir HaShirim on Shabbat of ḥol ha-moed pesaḥ [the intermediate days of Passover] because it speaks of the redemption of our people from Egypt, as is written: “To a mare among Pharoah’s cavalry/Would I compare you, my darling.” (Song of Songs 1:19). (Shulḥan Arukh Orakh Ḥayyim 490:9).
The widespread notion that the love poetry of Shir HaShirim is a metaphor for the spiritual love between God and Israel has always made perfect sense to me. As a young girl I could relate to it, I think, because I experienced God’s love, at home and in school. I recall discovering the Song of Songs at the back of my haggadah, and learning about the custom of reading it following the seder. I knew instinctively that the spiritual high of the seder, culminating with the jubilant singing of hallel, eḥad mi yodea, and ḥad gadya, could really only be followed by something like: “Kiss me, make me drunk with your kisses! Your sweet loving/is better than wine” (Song 1:2).2
The practice of chanting the Song in the synagogue on Shabbat ḥol ha-moed, the intermediate Shabbat of Pesaḥ, invites us to consider a more nuanced connection between the Song of Songs and the Exodus story. The period known as ḥol ha-moed, as its name suggests, is a liminal time—holy and earthly--much like the Song of Songs itself. Joy is commanded, as on the festival, but work is not entirely prohibited. Appropriately enough, the Torah portion for Shabbat ḥol ha-moed Pesaḥ describes the fraught encounter between Moses and God following the episode of the Golden Calf, between the shattering of the first tablets and the composing of the second tablets (Exodus 33:12-34:26). In this suspenseful back and forth, Moses implores God. Will God stay with this sinful people? Will Moses be granted a glimpse of God’s presence or “glory (kavod)”? Can the relationship be repaired? Will the partners find a way back to one another?
One verse captures the emotional dance of God, Moses, and Israel during this confusing period. “And so, when My glory passes over, I shall put you in the cleft of the crag and shield you with My palm until I have passed over. And I shall take away My palm and you will see My back, but My face will not be seen” (Exodus 33:22-23).3 I try to visualize the scene, but in vain. Nevertheless, the symbolism of Moses in this vulnerable, feminine space, both hidden from and seen by God, viewing God but only modestly from behind; and being shielded by God’s own hand—this Moses, far more than the Moses at the Burning Bush, on Mount Sinai, in Pharaoh’s palace, or at the Sea of Reeds—epitomizes for me the love between God and Israel that we commemorate on Passover, and that infuses the Torah as a whole.
The Song of Songs recapitulates God’s and Moses’ desire as follows:
The Song of Songs is a love poem, and the Torah is a love story. But rather than call the Song an allegory, I read it as a parable (mashal) about God’s love for Israel. A mashal is an ambiguous, independent tale that aims to have a strong rhetorical impact. In lieu of a one-to-one correspondence, the mashal only implies its teaching (nimshal); every listener must come to her own conclusions. Above all, the bridge between the parable and its message is a two-way street. Thus, the Torah too can be read as a parable about the desire for connection described throughout the Song of Songs.
Which is to say, the Song of Songs is not only the ultimate mashal, the parable; it is also the nimshal, the teaching.
Encountering the Song of Songs on Pesaḥ reminds us that Torah, the story of God redeeming Israel, is itself a collection of interrelated mini-parables about desire, love lost and found, and the struggle for relationship.
1Tanchuma (ed. Buber) Toledot 18
2Translation from Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch, Song of Songs (New York: Random House 1995).
3Translation by Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses (New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 2004).