Shiur #24: When Did Shlomo Write His Works?

  • Rav Tzvi Sinensky
This shiur will consider the classic Midrashic debate as to when in his lifetime Shlomo authors his three books: Mishlei, Kohelet and Shir Ha-Shirim. We contend that this Midrashic dispute may well reflect dueling interpretations of the message and literary significance of Shir Ha-Shirim.
First, let us cite the classic dispute, as recounted in Shir Ha-Shirim Rabba 1:10:
[Shlomo] wrote three books: Mishlei, Kohelet and Shir Ha-Shirim.
Which of them did he write first?
This is a matter of dispute between Rabbi Chiya the Great and Rabbi Yonatan.
Rabbi Chiya the Great says that he wrote Mishlei first, then Shir Ha-Shirim, then Kohelet. And he offers a proof from the following verse (I Melakhim 5:12): “The parable (mashal) he spoke was three thousand” — mashal refers to the Book of Mishlei. “And his song (shiro) was one thousand and five” — this is Shir Ha-Shirim. Then he wrote Kohelet at the end [of his life].
The baraita of Rabbi Chiya the Great disputes this teaching: the baraita says that he wrote all three at the same time, and our teaching says that he [wrote] each one on its own.
Rabbi Chiya the Great taught: Only toward the end of his life did the divine spirit rest upon Shlomo, and he composed three books: Mishlei, Kohelet and Shir Ha-Shirim.
Rabbi Yonatan says: He wrote Shir Ha-Shirim first, then Mishlei, then Kohelet. And he brings a source from the way of the world: [it is] just as a youth recites words of song, when he matures, [he recites] parables, and when he grows old, [he recites] words of vanity.
Rabbi Yannai the brother-in-law of Rabbi Ami says, “All agree that he composed Kohelet last.”
Four views appear to emerge from the Midrash:
  1. Shlomo wrote all three books at the same time.
  2. Shlomo wrote Mishlei, Kohelet and then Shir Ha-Shirim.
  3. Shlomo wrote Mishlei, Shir Ha-Shirim and then Kohelet.
  4. Shlomo wrote Shir Ha-Shirim, Mishlei and then Kohelet.
Perhaps most memorable is the view of Rabbi Yonatan, author of the fourth opinion in our list, who maintains that Shlomo was following “the way of the world” in composing Shir Ha-Shirim at a young age, Mishlei in middle age and Kohelet in his twilight years.
While this view is memorable and oft-cited, the other opinions are less regularly considered. What is the basis for this dispute?
To this Midrash we may add another significant source. 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. He also refers to Mishlei and Kohelet as Sifrei Chokhma (Wisdom Literature). This seems to be a variation on the second opinion we noted in our summary, which holds that Shlomo composed Shir Ha-Shirim last.
What differentiates Rashi’s reading of Bava Batra from the view cited in Shir Ha-Shirim Rabba, however, is that whereas the Midrash suggests that Shlomo composed all three books while elderly, Rashi seems to see the Gemara as implying that only Shir Ha-Shirim was composed during Shlomo’s later years. This seems to be the inverse position of Rabbi Yannai, who maintains that everyone agrees that Kohelet was composed last. It emerges that according to Rashi's reading of the Gemara, we have an additional perspective that requires consideration.
How, then, are we to understand this range of views, particularly the difference of opinion as to whether Shir Ha-Shirim was composed while Shlomo was young or old?
Let us begin with Rabbi Yonatan’s explanation, which refers to Shir Ha-Shirim as “divrei zemer” (words of song). The suggestion seems to be that Shir Ha-Shirim is a youthful, perhaps almost carefree work.
This may offer insight into those who challenge Rabbi Yonatan’s timeline. Perhaps they maintain that Shir Ha-Shirim is not nearly as innocent as Rabbi Yonatan suggests. After all, Shir Ha-Shirim not only records the ups and downs in the couple’s relationship, but is also a complex coming-of-age narrative in which the raaya overcomes her own tragic past. Far from a youthful love song, Shir Ha-Shirim mixes ecstasy with real-life struggle in a way that cannot be characterized as “zemer.”
Seen from this perspective, we may begin to draw a larger distinction between the concept of zemer and that of shira. While Rabbi Yonatan sees Shir Ha-Shirim as a form of zemer; others disagree and refer to Shir Ha-Shirim not as a zemer but as a shir. What is the difference between a shir and a zemer? A zemer is a song, but a shir is something far more sophisticated, approaching the status of poetry.
This leads us to a second, related explanation for the dispute between the two views. Shir Ha-Shirim is a complex work of literature that requires tremendous sophistication to appreciate. Despite the depth of Mishlei and Kohelet, Shir Ha-Shirim is unique among the three, as encapsulated in its status as shira.
As Rashi notes, Mishlei and Kohelet fall clearly under the rubric of what is commonly termed Wisdom Literature. Both books are clearly didactic in nature. While each, in its own way, poses considerable interpretive challenges and contains profound pearls of wisdom, neither approaches the literary and interpretive brilliance of Shir Ha-Shirim. Shir Ha-Shirim is more challenging to grasp inasmuch as it does not obviously present itself as part of the Wisdom Literature, lending it a literary sophistication that suggests that it is the product of an extremely mature mind.
This also helps to account for the different introductions of each book. Kohelet is introduced with “The words of Kohelet, son of David, King in Jerusalem.” Similarly, Mishlei opens, “The proverbs of Shlomo, son of David, King of Israel.” Only Shir Ha-Shirim begins with the double language, “the Song of Songs,” alluding to its unique status as a particularly profound shira.
The distinction between shira and zemer might help to illuminate a passage in BT Sanhedrin (101a), which declares:
Whoever reads a verse from Shir Ha-Shirim and renders it a form of song (zemer) and whoever reads a verse at a banquet house in an untimely manner bring evil to the world, as the Torah girds sackcloth and stands before the Holy One, Blessed be He, and says before Him: Master of the Universe, Your children have rendered me like a harp on which clowns play.
The Gemara draws a distinction between shira and zemer. This fits nicely with our suggestion that zemer refers to a mere song, while shira is a type of artistry. This connects as well to the view expressed in Da’at Mikra, cited in Shiur #21, that we recite Shir Ha-Shirim on Pesach owing to its status as shira.
A brief consideration of the term shira lends support to this thesis. The most sublime biblical songs are called shira and are laid out in unique fashion when written down by scribes. Shira is often associated with divine inspiration. In fact the entirety of the Torah is famously called a shira.
Rabba said: Even if one has inherited a Torah scroll, there remains a duty to write a scroll for oneself, as it says (Devarim 31:19): “And now, write for yourselves this shira.” (BT Sanhedrin 21b)
This is surely a testament to the breadth and depth contained in the Torah.
Beyond these questions regarding the uniqueness of Shir Ha-Shirim, there may be a final debate between Rabbi Yonatan and his rabbinic peers. Rabbi Yonatan assumes that Shlomo acted as we might expect of anyone, perhaps becoming increasingly cynical as his life progressed and his youthful idealism dimmed. Rabbi Yonatan’s colleagues, however, may see Shlomo as embodying a rather different quality. Instead of discussing “words of vanity,” is it possible that despite all of life’s challenges, Shlomo never lost his vigor, retaining his passion until the end?
In the end, the rabbinical question as to when Shlomo composed Shir Ha-Shirim underscores not only issues about Shlomo’s own life; more pertinent for our purposes, it expresses significantly differing perspectives on the meaning of Shir Ha-Shirim.