Why do we read Song of Songs at Pesach?

There are five books in the Hebrew Bible that known as Megillot. The word means scrolls, because that is how they were originally written. We read each scroll in a cycle throughout the year.

Esther is read at Purim because it tells the festival’s story; the scroll even contains the instruction that Purim is when it should be read. Lamentations, bewailing the destruction of Jerusalem is read on the 9th of Av, the anniversary of the city’s fall. The story of Ruth, which is set at harvest time is ideal for the agricultural festival of Shavuot. And Ecclesiastes is linked to Sukkot because of an ancient tradition. Every seven years, when the land lay fallow and the people had time on their hands, the nation is said to have gathered at the festival of Sukkot to hear the Torah read. The person who read them the Torah was known as Kohelet, the one who gathers. The book of Ecclesiastes opens with “the words of the Kohelet”. Ecclesiastes, also known as Kohelet in Hebrew, is clearly the appropriate for reading Sukkot.

As for the Song of Songs, it is a love story that is set in Spring: “For behold the winter is passed, the rain has ceased, it is gone. Buds are seen on the earth, the time of the birds’ singing has arrived and the voice of the turtle dove is heard in the land. The figs put forth their young fruit, the tender grapes on the vines give off their fragrance, arise my beloved, my beautiful one and come with me.” Passover, which of necessity coincides with the onset of Spring is the season to read Song of Songs.

One of the striking things about this cycle of megillah readings is that it echoes the annual reading of the Torah. The five books of the Torah are also read in an annual cycle and like the five megillot the Torah is written in a scroll. But whereas the Torah is clearly masculine in character, written by Moses, its heroes and villains nearly all men and its society strictly patriarchal, the megillot are all feminine. Ruth and Esther are obviously so. The Jerusalem of Lamentations is also female: “How she sits alone, the city once full of people is become a widow.” And the theme of Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, is wisdom; hochma in Hebrew, sophia in Greek. Wisdom is regarded, at least in Western traditions, as feminine. While the Song of Songs is a romance in which the principal character is a love ravaged young woman. The five megillot seem to represent a feminine counterpoint to the male Torah.

The Song of Songs is a beautiful yet highly erotic love poem, a superb example of biblical poetry at its best. It tells the story of a young woman who has fallen deeply in love with a man who speaks to her in ravishingly seductive terms, yet who tends to slip away unexpectedly whenever the mood takes him, leaving the distressed maiden to frantically search the city for him. A naïve country girl, she does not have the sophistication of the young Jerusalem women who mock her for seeking her lover. She, who has known a love they may never know, warns them not to give themselves freely; “Do not stir up love until it pleases.” “What makes your lover different from any other” they scornfully reply.”

Despite his flighty behaviour, the young woman has faith in the steadfastness of her lover. Refusing to submit to the mockery of the Jerusalem women and the taunts of the city’s watchmen, she hears the “voice of her beloved as he comes, leaping over mountains, bounding over hills. My beloved is like a gazelle, or a young stag”.

Time and again her lover seduces her, both with his touch and with his words. And it is these words which make us wonder how such an erotically graphic book, astonishing poetry as it is, ever made it into the bible.  “Awake, O north wind, Come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, that its perfume may spread. Let my beloved come to his garden to eat the fruits of its delights”… “I have come to my garden, my own, my bride; I have plucked my myrrh and spice, eaten my honey and honeycomb, drunk my wine and my milk”.

Ever since the time of Yohanan ben Zakkai, who lived during the first century CE, the Song of Songs has been considered as an allegory for the love between God and Israel. Origen, the 3rd century Christian theologian agreed, except he saw the poem as allegorising the love between God and the Church. Throughout the Middle Ages, Jewish and Christian commentators followed the same line. Abraham ibn Ezra, the most rational of mediaeval biblical commentators had no problem in seeing the Song of Songs as an allegory. And yet there is an explicit Talmudic principle that no matter what allusions, moral lessons or legal principles one may derive from a biblical verse, it can never forsake its plain meaning. The Song of Songs may be considered an allegory of spiritual love. But it can never be divested of its plain meaning, as an erotic love poem. So what is it doing in the Bible?

To understand this we have to turn to Rabbi Akiva, the greatest of all the Talmudic rabbis and the man who insisted that Song of Songs be included in the Bible. Round about the year 100 the rabbis were debating which books were sacred and which were not. They defined a sacred book as one which was not to be touched; to do so would ritually defile one’s hands. The rabbis agreed on all all the books which defiled the hands, apart from two; Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. It was Akiva who spoke up passionately for the Song of Songs. All the books under discussion, he said, were holy. But Song of Songs was the Holy of Holies.

This wasn’t just a pun on the words Song of Songs, Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies was the most sacred chamber in the Temple, into which only the High Priest could enter, and even then only on one occasion in the year, on the Day of Atonement. By calling Song of Songs the Holy of Holies, Akiva elevated the book to a status of the highest possible sanctity. He placed it on a par with the Torah itself.

Akiva’s statement ensured a place in the canon for the Song of Songs. But why was he so insistent? What did he see in this erotic poem that made it so special?

To appreciate this we have to turn to Akiva’s theology. Akiva’s theology was one of love. “Beloved is humanity, since it was created in God’s image.… Beloved are Israel, since they are called children of God…. Beloved are Israel, because a precious instrument (the Torah) was given to them.” (Avot 3,18). When he read the words in Leviticus “Love thy neighbour as thyself” Akiva proclaimed “this is the fundamental principle of the Torah”. (Sifra Kedoshim 12).

Akiva took the premier biblical text of love, the Shema, with its injunction to love God with all one’s heart, soul and life and placed it at the centre of Jewish belief. The Mishna, which was edited by Judah the Prince based on an earlier version that Akiva himself wrote, opens with a discussion on when to read the Shema. Another of his pupils interpreted the unusual spelling of the word ‘heart’ in the Shema, to mean that love for God has to be with every aspect of one’s existence. And when Akiva was martyred by the Romans, he went to his death proclaiming the Shema, the love of God.

Akiva’s theology was one of love. And while human love may only be a pale reflection of divine love, it is love nevertheless. Unlike many modern commentators, such as the editors of the ArtScroll books who cannot bring themselves to translate Song of Songs literally, Akiva did not regard the profound eroticism of Song of Songs as an embarrassment. It is a celebration of human love. And if human love can be so powerful, how much greater therefore is divine love. Song of Songs is not erotica. It is the Holy of Holies. It deserves to be in the Bible. And to be read literally on Pesach.