Monday, May 09, 2005

Revising Shir Ha-shirim

On shevi'i shel pesach we read Shir Ha-shirim. I opened up the Artscroll Stone Chumash to the appropriate page and read the following explanatory note:

Without question King Solomon's Song of Songs, Shir HaShirim, is one of the most difficult books of Scripture - not because it is so hard to understand but because it is so easy to misunderstand. Not only is it a love song, it is a love song of uncommon passion. No other book seems to be so out of place among the twenty-four books of prophecy and sacred spirit.* nevertheless, one of the greatest and holiest of all the Sages of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva, said, 'All of the songs [of Scripture] are holy, but Shir HaShirim is holy of holies.' How is a 'love song' holy?

The question is perplexing only if Shir HaShirim is taken literally, but neither the Sages nor the commentators take it so. The Song is an allegory. It is the duet of love between God and Israel. Its verses are so saturated with meaning that nearly every one of the major commentators finds new themes in its beautiful but cryptic words. All agree, however, that the true and simple meaning of Shir HaShirim is the allegorical meaning. The literal meaning of the words is so far from their meaning that it is false.

That is why ArtScroll's translation of Shir HaShirim is completely different from any other ArtScroll translation. We translate it according to Rashi's allegorical interpretation.

I do not consider myself a gratuitous Artscroll basher. I have nice things to say about that publishing house. I fully recognize that it is legitimate to translate Shir Ha-shirim in an allegorical fashion, especially when upfront about it. It is also agreeable that Artscroll plainly states at the same time that it is a "love song of uncommon passion". How then could they say that because Chazal and the meforshim take Shir Ha-shirim to be an allegory that "the literal meaning of the words is so far from their meaning that it is false"?

Uhm, en mikra yotzi me-dei peshuto anyone?


  1. How can you interpret references to G-d's eyes, hands, head etc literally? G-d does not drink wine or eat.

    There are other verses ("eye for an eye") that are never interpreted according to their pshat.

    Ein mikra yotzei midei peshuto needs more explanation, but I think it's obvious that Shir haShirim cannot be read literally, though we can learn huge amounts from the metaphor the allegorical meaning was placed in.

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