Shiur #16: Shir Ha-Shirim 8:1-7

  • Rav Tzvi Sinensky
Dedicated by Mr. and Mrs. Leon Brum for the Refua Sheleima of
Dana Petrover (Batsheva bat Gittel Aidel Leba)
and Marvin Rosenberg (Meir Chaim ben Tzipporah Miriam)
While chapter 7 is characterized by the seemingly pristine relationship between the two lovers, chapter 8 veers one final time toward the more emotionally turbulent relationship between the ra’aya and shepherd. She opens with a lament (8:1-2):
If only it could be as with a brother, As if you had nursed at my mother’s breast: Then I could kiss you When I met you in the street, And no one would despise me.
I would lead you, I would bring you To the house of my mother, Of her who taught me — I would let you drink of the spiced wine, Of my pomegranate juice. 
As earlier on in the sefer, here the ra’aya experiences anxiety about the viability of their relationship. Yet if we read our verses closely, we recognize that she is not concerned about her own ability to engage in the relationship, but about the limitations on her ability to publicly demonstrate her love for her beloved. This represents a more mature stage in the ra’aya’s process of self-development: she is no longer concerned about her relationship with the dod per se, but with public perception.
Further, the invocation of the brothers is ironic and returns us to the beginning of the sefer. In chapter 1, she had excused her own appearance by indicating that her brothers coerced her to guard their gardens instead of her own, presumably at once a literal and symbolic accounting of her inability to care for her beauty.
Yet here, she is no longer concerned with what her brothers have done to her in the past or with her own beauty. Instead, she fears that her relationship with her beloved is not respectable enough to bring him home or to project in the public sphere. In expressing the wish to “go public” with her relationship, she invokes brotherly love as an ideal, wishing that her beloved could “be like a brother to her” so that she might legitimately be seen in public with him. By invoking a brotherly relationship as a model for a healthy, ideal one, she demonstrates that she has moved beyond the trauma of her relationship with her brothers. If anything, in wishing that her beloved could be like a brother to her, she seems to suggest that he serve as a sort of substitute for the healthy sibling relationships she never enjoyed. More broadly, the fact that she can comfortably assert that her brothers suckled from the same mother’s breasts as she implies a certain equality between them and demonstrates a dramatic shift in her maturity and willingness to assert her independence.
Further considering the contrasts to chapter 1, it is striking that at the end of the opening scene in chapter 1, she seems to have been spurned by the shepherd, who recommends that she (aimlessly?) roam the countryside and inquire as to his whereabouts. Here, she does not fear or experience rejection, as her only concern regards the public perception of their relationship.
Finally, her invocation of “spiced wine” and “pomegranates” again confirms the sense that whatever her concerns, she feels fully ready to cement their relationship.
We then move to verses 3-4, and encounter the vow of the Benot Yerushalayim one final time:
His left hand was under my head, His right hand caressed me.
I adjure you, O maidens of Jerusalem: Do not wake or rouse Love until it please!
Looking at the transition between verses 1-2 and 3-4, we encounter, not for the first time in Shir Ha-Shirim (see, for example, 1:2-4), a shift from first to third person. As noted in earlier contexts (and by Da’at Mikra here, p. 67), this suggests that the dod is likely not present at all throughout all four verses. This is reinforced by verses 3-4, which hearken back to previous sections of her adjuration of the Daughters of Jerusalem, particularly 2:4-7, in which she is daydreaming. Once again, we find ourselves in the mind of the maiden rather than in the throes of the relationship per se.
Yet, despite their similarities, our vow is not a carbon copy of the earlier ones. There are two key differences between the formulation of the vow here and previously. First, the ra’aya uses the term “mah, what,” instead of “im, if,” in adjuring her friends. Second, in this final vow there is no reference to the animals of the field. Are these differences significant? If so, what are we to make of them? While one might see the shift in language as merely stylistic in nature, this seems difficult, particularly since the previous two vows were identical to one another.
Further reinforcing the conceptual distinctiveness of this final vow, the Rabbis draw a distinction between its significance and that of the first two. While the notion that there were three vows regulating the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel is well known, less familiar are the Talmudic views that see the first two vows as comprising a distinct unit from the third. For instance, R. Yosi bar Chanina (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabba, parsha 2) maintains that there were only two shavuot, not the familiar three. Maharzu, a classical commentator on Midrash Rabba, explains that this is because only two of the three verses were written with precisely the same language.
Similarly, even according to the Talmudic view that there were three oaths, the first two are addressed by God to the Jews, and the final one to the gentiles (they may not subjugate the Jews overly much). Alternatively, Rashi on our pasuk (8:4, s.v. hishbati) explains that our verse is the response of the Jews to the nations, in which they declare that their Beloved stands with the Jewish People throughout their suffering.
Returning to the peshat of our text, what are we to make of the shifts in emphasis between the previous adjurations and ours? Malbim suggests:
She concludes her words: You Daughters of Jerusalem, whom I have adjured regarding our lives numerous times, and I always adjured you by the fawns and hinds. But I no longer fear you, for what shall you awaken or rouse? You cannot stop the love in any fashion.
In other words, the shift to “mah” and omission of the animals suggests that she is not demanding of her friends that they not attempt to interfere with her emotions, but rather that she declares that at this point that there is simply no way for them to interfere. This fits with Malbim’s overall interpretation of the sefer, which sees Shir Ha-Shirim as culminating in the ra’aya’s having broken free from the young ladies who wish to take her away from her beloved farmer and compel her to be with King Shlomo. By the final chapter, she has now overcome them and asserts that they have no sway over her.
Even if we don’t accept Malbim’s larger reading of the story, his reading of our verses seems compelling. As Da’at Mikra (p. 67) notes, the shift from “im” to “mah” suggests a greater deal of confidence on her part. She no longer needs to adjure her friends at all, and certainly not by the hinds or other wild animals. If that is the case, we might take this shevua as conveying an entirely different message than the previous ones. Earlier she was asking them to allow her to continue dreaming and not wake her up to the harsh realities of “real life”; now she is saying that they should leave her alone to resolve these difficulties independently.
If this reading of the final vow is correct, it follows directly from the opening two verses of our chapter and is reminiscent of our discussion of the events of chapter 5. While initially she was hesitant to open the door for her beloved, she wakes up to the realization that if she does not pursue him, the opportunity will be lost. She even discourages her friends from assisting her, as she wishes to be able to reunite with her beloved on her own terms and without anyone else possibly developing a relationship with him in her stead.
The opening verses of chapter 8, in not so many words, suggest much the same, but at an even later stage in the ra’aya’s personal development. Initially, despite her renewed self-confidence, she fears the consequences of bringing their relationship into the public domain. Yet in the end, she refuses to allow this to dissuade her. No matter what her friends try, she will find a way forward. This is the spirit of her final vow, and it will ultimately be the spirit of the sefer’s conclusion.
After the ra’aya completes her final adjuration of the Daughters of Jerusalem, the next set of verses opens with the familiar refrain, “Mi zot”:
Who is she that comes up from the desert, Leaning upon her beloved? Under the apple tree I roused you; It was there your mother conceived you, There she who bore you conceived you.
The phrase “Mi zot” also appears in 3:6, which opens the cryptic set of verses describing Shlomo’s wedding canopy. As we argued in explaining those verses, the ultimate conclusion of that section was the ra’aya’s rejection of her proposed marriage to a king or a wedding in that fashion. Here she continues in that spirit by instead finding love beneath the apple tree – in nature, not under an elaborate man-made canopy.
Yet despite this seemingly pastoral opening, there is a subtle dark side to this opening verse as well. The word chavala, which is used twice to refer to childbirth, also alludes to violence. Indeed, the seemingly peaceful setting of verse 5 quickly gives way to a stormy scene thrust upon us by the next verse:
Let me be a seal upon your heart, Like the seal upon your hand. For love is fierce as death, Passion is mighty as Sheol; Its darts are darts of fire, A blazing flame.
While Shir Ha-Shirim generally maintains a high emotional pitch throughout, these verses seem out of character in their intensity. Indeed, the gemara (Ta’anit 4a) suggests that God criticizes the Jews for the request embedded in verse 6:
And the Congregation of Israel further entreated God unreasonably in another context, saying before Him: Master of the Universe, “Set me as a seal upon Your heart, as a seal upon Your arm” (Shir Ha-Shirim 8:6). The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to her: My daughter, you ask that I be manifest to you in a matter that is sometimes visible and sometimes not visible, as the heart and arm are not covered. However, I will act so that I manifest Myself for you like a matter that is always visible, as it is stated: “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of My hands, your walls are continually before me” (Yeshayahu 49:16).
Ironically, the Talmud seems to suggest that the Jews, in requesting that God be like a seal upon the arm, were trying to cloud God’s visibility to them, and God responds by insisting that He is continuously visible to the Jewish People. Either way, the Talmud certainly is picking up on the intensity of the relationship that is captured in these verses.
To illustrate the extreme language this verse invokes, it is worth relating to a few of the terms that appear.
Kina refers to jealousy. Shir Ha-Shirim Rabba (9:9) explains this verse as alluding to Moshe’s love for the Land of Israel and his jealousy of Yehoshua, who merited to lead the Jewish People to the Land. Few were more jealous than Moshe, whose every fiber craved to enter the Land of Canaan.
Reshafim can refer to arrows or fire (see Metzudat David, s.v. reshafeha). Yet here it may well refer to both at once, evoking fiery arrows. This too is far-reaching in its emotional intensity.
Perhaps most revealing, the commentaries debate whether or not shalhevet-yah is a reference to Hashem. Rashi (s.v. eish) and Malbim (8:6, s.v. simeni) render the word “the shalhevet of Hashem,” meaning the fire of Gehinnom. Ibn Ezra (s.v. shalhevet) refers to a debate among the ba’alei mesora as to whether shalhevet-yah is one word or two. He sides with the view that it is two distinct words, the second of which refers to Hashem. Ben Asher, whom we generally follow in determining the correct Masoretic text, has it as a single word with a heh rafeh, which suggests that it might not refer to the name of Hashem. Minchat Shai and Rashbam say the same, which suggests that they too do not see it as a divine reference. Whether or not there is a clear reference to Hashem may well impact on the degree to which the peshat itself points to Shir Ha-Shirim as a mashal.
Yet there is another, underappreciated aspect of this verse: If, as Minchat Shai and Rashbam indicate, this is not a reference to the divine, what is the significance of the final two Hebrew letters in shalhevetyah? Most simply understood, it is a reference to the strength of the fire. Thus, whether or not the suffix refers to the divine, it certainly reinforces the sheer intensity of the love-flames described in this striking verse.
The unit concludes with verse 7, which reads:
Vast floods cannot quench love, Nor rivers drown it. If a man offered all his wealth for love, He would be laughed to scorn.
The phrase “melo beito, all his wealth” parallels the language Bila’am initially used in declining Balak’s invitation to curse the Jewish People (Bamidbar 22:18). Of course, Bila’am ultimately was willing to curse the Jewish People. Indeed, this may well serve as a basis for the rabbinic view that Bila’am’s hatred of the Jewish People ultimately led him not to think straight and to break his commitment. The verse in Shir Ha-Shirim suggests the converse: The couple is fully committed to one another, and their love will lead them to indubitably maintain their commitment to one another.
It is also worth noting the parallels between this pasuk and Yeshaya 43:2, perhaps alluding to the explanation that this refers to the love between Klal Yisrael and Hashem: “When you pass through water, I will be with you; Through streams, They shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire, You shall not be scorched; Through flame, It shall not burn you.”
Additionally, the term “boz yavuzu, he would be laughed to scorn” is particularly noteworthy, for it returns us to the opening of our chapter, where the ra’aya had expressed concern that the public might not support the couple’s relationship. Yet she now contends that she has complete disregard for anyone else’s opinion. They have come around to simply not caring anymore. Apparently, the intensity of their relationship has led her to the conclusion that the (seemingly baseless) opprobrium of the public ought not to stand in the way of their relationship.
This, then, is now the more mature love: imperfect but intense as can be. It is precisely through her personal struggle that the woman had achieved the emotional intensity – not just physical intensity – that is so clearly evident in the concluding chapter of Shir Ha-Shirim.