(Re)reading Shir ha-Shirim during Covid-19

This year’s confluence of Passover and a pandemic has spurred countless halakhic questions. Among them: given that synagogue services are impermissible, should one praying individually still read Shir ha-Shirim on Shabbat Hol ha-Moed?

On one level, this can be analyzed as a strict halakhic matter. The question hinges on whether we view the custom of reading the five Megillot (except for Megillat Esther on Purim, which we can assume occupies a category unto itself) as incumbent upon the individual or the community. R. Hershel Schachter, for instance, recently ruled on the basis of a comment of the Vilna Gaon, that while the reading of Megillat Esther on Purim is an individual obligation, the readings of the other four Megillot (as well as weekly Shabbat Torah readings) devolve upon the community. Accordingly, he rules that an individual need not read Shir ha-Shirim this year. R. Schachter even discourages such private readings, citing his teacher R. Soloveitchik’s opposition to the observance of customs that lack halakhic basis. Following R. Schachter’s ruling (although arguably softening R. Schachter’s discouragement of private readings), the Rabbinical Council of America publicized a luah (calendar) for this year, which instructs that “the custom to read Shir HaShirim on Pesach was clearly instituted only for a tzibur. Nonetheless, there is nothing prohibited about reading Shir HaShirim on Pesach without a tzibur. One should be conscious of the fact that such a reading would not constitute a fulfillment of the original minhag.”

On the other hand, one might argue that the initial presentation in Masekhet Sofrim (14:18) seems to suggest that Shir ha-Shirim was originally read privately on the last two nights of Pesah, unlike the current Ashkenazic practice to read it in shul on Shabbat Hol ha-Moed, lending support to the view that it is a private obligation and should apply this year. Further, one might maintain that even if the custom does not formally hold this year, it is best for us to approximate a typical Pesah experience so as to retain the flavor of the holiday – of course, while reading (even from a kelaf) without a berakhah.

Of course, given the high stakes of the many burning questions confronting us this year, this issue seems relatively minor. Yet the question of the recitation of Shir ha-Shirim must be considered not only on halakhic grounds, but also concerning whether its recitation is congruous with the mood of this Pesah. As one friend put it, referencing Kohelet and Shir ha-Shirim,“This Pesach הבל הבלים seems more appropriate than ישקני מנשיקות פיהו.” Setting aside the question of individual versus communal obligation, doesn’t the youthful love story of Shir ha-Shirim stand in stark contradistinction to the grim scenes emerging from New York City hospitals and throughout the world?

Two answers come to mind immediately. First, we might insist while Shir ha-Shirim does not match our mood this year, our responsibility as halakhic Jews – or as Halakhic Men – is to experience Pesah fully as the holiday of redemption, no matter the circumstances.

Second, we might claim that Shir ha-Shirim, far from being a youthful love song brimming with verdant optimism, is in fact a far more complex story about the intense struggle of the Jewish people (or individual spiritual seeker) and our burning desire for redemption. Indeed, one group of commentators – including Rashi, Rashbam, Metzudat David, Lekah Tov, and Akeidat Yitzhak – see the book as the Jewish People’s retrospective, in which they reflect from exile and aspire to be reunited with their beloved God.[1] On this reading, Shir ha-Shirim is a sober work, one that ultimately offers a glimpse of hope into an otherwise dark and gloomy world. This reading is perhaps best exemplified by the verse, “My beloved is like a gazelle or like a young stag. There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the window, peering through the lattice” (Shir ha-Shirim 2:9). It is perhaps in this spirit that we can appropriately read Shir ha-Shirim in the throes of a pandemic.

Yet there is another response, one which opens the path toward a novel understanding of Shir ha-Shirim, as well as its relevance to Pesah, both in general and particularly this year. Ask the average reader, and he would likely say that, at least on the peshat level, the central drama of Shir ha-Shirim is the love story between the dod and ra’ayah. In fact, however, a closer reading of the sefer suggests that the real drama takes place inside the female protagonist, who undergoes a profound process of self-transformation throughout the course of Shir ha-Shirim.

To explain, let us briefly review Shir ha-Shirim from 10,000 feet. Many read Shir ha-Shirim as a single extended drama involving a dod and ra’ayah. Others insist that the book is more convincingly read as a series of distinct, loosely-related scenes that are bound together in a single work. In between these two positions, I would contend that there are two narratives that run in parallel throughout the sefer, one between the ra’ayah and a prince, and the other between the ra’ayah and a shepherd. Let us review the contours of each narrative in short.

The first, which is detailed in greatest depth in chapters 2-4 and 7, is blessed with “smooth sailing”: the couple does not grapple with any tensions, and consummates their relationship with marriage (chapter 4). The verses detailing this relationship focus on the physical aspects of their mutual attraction, particularly the beauty of the ra’ayah, as well as the couple’s communion in nature. The ra’ayah has no friends that we know of; we hear only of the women who unsuccessfully call upon her to rejoin the dance (7:1). She lacks a clear-cut biography. Finally, this relationship seems to climax in chapter 7 with an intensification of that physical attraction. This relationship is lacking in drama or complexity, and typifies an uncomplicated love story between man and woman.

The second narrative tells a different story, a bildungsroman of sorts. The woman’s beloved is a shepherd, and their relationship is plagued by drama. We are privy to both the physical and especially the emotional aspects of their relationship, and we know much more about the woman’s biography. Looking especially at the opening chapter of Shir ha-Shirim, we learn that she apparently has no relationship with her father; he has either died or is no longer involved in his children’s lives. Her brothers have taken advantage of her, subjecting her to brutal physical conditions by instructing her to guard their vineyards and not tend to her own. Her appearance and self-confidence suffer as a result. She begins the book as a self-conscious young woman, convinced that she is better off dreaming about a romantic relationship than actually attempting to engage in one, and twice adjures her friends, the Daughters of Jerusalem, to precisely this effect: “Do not wake or rouse love until it please” (2:7, 3:5). She wanders the streets searching for her beloved, but is physically harmed by the city’s watchmen (5:7).

Yet despite the considerable challenges she confronts, the woman ultimately recognizes that her beloved will disappear from her grasp if she does not act swiftly. After he knocks on her door and she opens it too late, she becomes determined not to allow him to disappear. Instead of satisfying herself with an idealized imaginary relationship, she passionately describes the shepherd’s qualities to her friends and begins to overcome her initial reservations.

By the end of the sefer, she has transcended her brothers’ abusive treatment, asserting her physical and emotional maturity. Setting aside any concern about the public propriety of the relationship, she determines that her love is too valuable to squander over the possibility of social opprobrium. She declares her love to be as intense as death and that she prefers this love (represented by her vineyard) to a royal relationship (represented by Shlomo’s vineyard). Most crucially, the dod recognizes her internal transformation: “Then I became in his eyes as one who had found peace” (8:10). Having reached a healthy self-understanding, she does not require the status of owning a royal vineyard in order to find internal validation; she is perfectly satisfied with the vineyard of her own (8:12).[2]

Of course, the woman’s ability to find herself emerges not while in solitude, but through a series of interactions with others. But in the end, it is her own inner world, her determination not to permit her childhood traumas to interfere with her self-confidence and capacity to establish healthy relationships, which is the axis around which the true drama of Shir ha-Shirim revolves.

This reading of the sefer not only offers an innovative reading of the biblical book, but also opens a path toward a new appreciation of the connection between Shir ha-Shirim and Passover. The night of 15 Nissan centers on the gratitude with which we shower God for the redemption. This parallels the relatively uncomplicated relationship between the woman and the prince, and focuses on the loving intimacy between God and his beloved people. Indeed, some have the practice to read Shir ha-Shirim following the Seder (Hayyei Adam 130, Kitzur Shulhan Arukh 119), accentuating this dimension of the sefer.

But as we enter Hol ha-Moed and the final days of Pesah, the focus begins to shift from God’s miraculous activities to the Jewish people’s internal world, which was, to put it gently, a work in progress. From the moment they left Egypt, the Jews were wracked by internal doubts owing to the slave mentality they had imbibed. The very opening verse of Parshat Beshalah, which immediately follows the Exodus, explains that “God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer [to Canaan]; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt” (13:17). As Ibn Ezra (Peirush ha-Katzar s.v. “ve-ta’am”) notes, “They had not previously encountered war, and were enslaved under the hands of others. And when Pharaoh would emerge after them, none of this [people] would lift a hand [in self-defense]. Similarly, Amalek came out against Israel with a small number, and snaked around [Israel], and [Israel] would have been weakened before [Amalek] if not for Moses His chosen one.”[3]

Ibn Ezra (14:13 s.v. “va-Yomeru”) reiterates the point a bit later on in the same narrative:

One has to wonder: How can a camp of six hundred thousand people fear from those who chase after them, and why not fight for their lives and their children? The answer: Because the Egyptians were masters of Israel, and this generation that came out of Egypt learned from its youth to suffer the burden of Egypt, and its soul was depressed, and how can he now fight with his masters? And Israel was weak and not skilled at war. You can see this, inasmuch as Amalek came with a small group of people, and if not for Moses’ prayer, would have weakened Israel.

This also helps to explain the curious conclusion to the Torah reading on the seventh day of Pesah. Instead of concluding with the end of the Song of the Sea, we read five more verses:

Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water.

They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah.

And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?”

So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet. There He made for them a fixed rule, and there He put them to the test.

He said, “If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer.” (15:22-26)

The seemingly unnecessary inclusion of this section in the keriat ha-Torah intimates that even after the Splitting of the Sea, the Jews still struggled to tear themselves away from psychological enslavement, disbelieving in God’s ability or desire to provide materially for them. This, of course, is part of the purpose of Sefirat ha-Omer, which, as R. Soloveitchik explains, was intended to enable to Jews to gain mastery over time.[4] For this reason, it is appropriate that the Omer count toward Shavuot begins on the night of 16 Nissan, immediately following the day of the Exodus: as soon as we leave Egypt, we begin the internal work of gaining self-mastery. The story of the Jews’ march from Egypt is the beginning of their tortured attempts to shake themselves free of the psychological terror inflicted by a 210-year-long trauma.

The parallels between the stories of the ra’ayah and the Jews of the Exodus are as unexpected as they are tantalizing: both are coerced to engage in difficult work in the heat of a Middle Eastern day; both are subject to physical violence at the hands of enforcers; both struggle to act upon the obvious good of their beloveds; and, above all, both must struggle to achieve psychological freedom from youthful trauma. While Shir ha-Shirim and the larger arc of the Exodus end with intimacy (in the latter case, Matan Torah), both begin with an inner odyssey toward psychological freedom and self-discovery.

Seen from this perspective, we may appreciate a new dimension of the affinity between Shir ha-Shirim and Pesah. Each of these two storylines features not only relationships between caring parties, but an internal struggle in which one party (the woman or the Jewish people) struggles to overcome trauma in order to enter into a healthy relationship with her beloved. Shir ha-Shirim and the aftermath of the Exodus remind us that the process toward building healthy relationships, with God and any other loved one, begins from a journey within.

The past number of weeks have posed profound difficulties for nearly all of us, and trauma for far too many. In seeking to confront the sense of isolation so many of us are experiencing this year, perhaps there is at least something of a silver lining in the custom of reading Shir ha-Shirim on Pesah. We may turn to the model of the ra’ayah and the Jewish people, who were forced to turn inward in order to find the spiritual strength to establish full relationships with those surrounding them.

[1] This reading of Shir ha-Shirim is reinforced by the lesser-well known opinion in a well-known midrash regarding Shlomo’s age when he composed Shir ha-Shirim. A classic opinion (Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 1:10) asserts that Shlomo was a youth, but another view maintains that he composed the three books attributed to him in the rabbinic tradition, Shir ha-Shirim, Mishlei, and Kohelet, at the same time. To this midrash we may add that the Gemara Bava Batra 14b, in listing the sefarim in Tanakh, enumerates Mishlei, Kohelet, and then Shir ha-Shirim. Rashi (s.v. shir), seeking to account for the language of the Gemara, writes that it appears Shlomo composed Shir ha-Shirim close to his old age. This view may lend itself toward a more sober view of the challenges posed throughout Shir ha-Shirim, and toward seeing it as a work written out of a place of pain that desperately anticipates a period of reunion.

[2] See my discussion, https://www.etzion.org.il/en/shiur-18-understanding-sefer-according-our-reading.

[3] See Alex Israel, https://www.etzion.org.il/en/beshalach-slave-mentality.

[4] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on Pesach, Sefirat ha-­Omer, and Shavuot, 147.