Summary of Ancillary Meanings - (Analysis of Shir Ha-Shirim 4:8)

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman


By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman


Lecture #08:

Summary of Ancillary Meanings

(Analysis of Shir Ha-Shirim 4:8)



Poetry and Prophecy


Although this series is dedicated to the structural forms of biblical narrative, because our previous lectures were dedicated to the various and sundry ancillary meaning of every word, it would be unfair to conclude without touching briefly on another literary form common in Scripture: poetry/ prophecy.  The employment of ancillary meanings in order to shape the structure of a literary unit is very prominent in poetic language, where we must view ancillary meanings an integral part of the definition of this literary genre. It is possible to see in this one of the most basic definitions of poetry — a meaning-rich lexicon.  This is how Leah Goldberg expresses it:


Poetry does not describe the world in detail - it compresses it...  But in this compressed expression, as in a spool, are concentrated all of the threads which extend to the varied ends of our world.[1]


Therefore, as a general summary of our analysis over the last lectures of the contribution of each individual word to transmit the hidden meanings of the verse, let us analyze one verse from the "Song of Lebanon" in Shir Ha-Shirim (4:8-11). We will focus our analysis on the perspective of the current discussion — the meaning that every word holds within it — although, understandably, there are additional parameters that one must take into account in the analysis of a poem.

This summary all serves as a warning sign against exaggerations of the phenomenon of ancillary meanings. It is clear to me that some readers are already shaking their heads at me, claiming that I have gone too far, that one cannot heap so much on so little. Indeed, the question of the relationship between the author and the reader that comes up in every literary analysis is particularly prominent when we talk about associations that change from one reader to another and from the author to the readers. Even so, in order to demonstrate these issues, we will analyze the following verse from the nuptial poem in Shir Ha-Shirim (and whoever wants to complain may send me a sharply-worded e-mail). 


"With Me from Lebanon, Bride"


With me, from Lebanon, bride,

With me, from Lebanon, come.

Skip from the top of Amana,

From the top of Senir and Chermon,

From the lions’ dens

And the mountain haunts of the leopards. 


The following lines (vv. 9-11) complete the poem, al though we will not deal with them at this point:


You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride;

You have stolen my heart

With one glance of your eyes,

With one jewel of your necklace. 

How delightful is your love, my sister, my bride!

How much more pleasing is your love than wine,

And the fragrance of your perfume than any spice!

Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride;

Milk and honey are under your tongue;

Your garments' fragrance is like the fragrance of Lebanon. 


It is easy to determine the boundaries of this poem because of its inclusio (the same term at the opening and closing of the unit) - the mention of Lebanon: "With me (itti), from Lebanon, bride...  Your garments' fragrance is like the fragrance of Lebanon."[2]  In fact, the word "Lebanon" is particularly prominent in the opening verse of the poem, in its use of broad parallelism – that is, the repetition in the first couplet: "With me, from Lebanon, bride/ With me, from Lebanon, come."  The full meaning of the sentence is the synthesis: the groom is asking the bride to come with him from Lebanon. Starting each line with the same words (as opposed to relying on anaphora) stresses this opening in a unique way, putting an exclamation point after each of these phrases. 


Furthermore, since the verb "come" appears only in the second line, it is not at all clear in the first line what the poet's intent is. One can only try to divine the meaning from the previous words, "with me," "Lebanon," and "bride." The lover is alluded to in the first phrase, his beloved at the end, and in the middle, a place name: Lebanon!  The lover turns to his beloved and asks her to come with him. But what does the poet see to tie his bride to Lebanon specifically?  Why is his bride located in Lebanon, so that the groom must ask her to join him?


Lebanon: Cycles of Meaning


Let us examine “Lebanon” in light of the different cycles of meaning which we have discussed in the previous lectures. First of all, Lebanon has a clear and simple conceptual definition: "A high mountain range on the northern border of the land of Israel."[3]  Already at this point, one can see the basic meaning of the words of the beloved in poetic terms: his love is not found at his side in a central locale in the land of Israel; rather, she is at the northern border, far away from him, and she is asked to come from there.  However, Leah Goldberg points out:


It may be that it knows certain facts, but poetry is not based on facts, nor does it deal in facts; it deals with truth, and the truth is always greater and deeper, and it supersedes the facts, which are only a pretext for it.[4]


It is logical that the real Lebanon is only an excuse for the poet to say something true about his beloved. In this context, we enter a cycle of meaning which is more internal, the symbolic cycle which springs from the associative world attached to Lebanon. Ya'ir Zakovitch suggests[5] that Lebanon represents "an exotic and distant place;" however, it is hard to imagine that if the poet wanted to emphasize a distant place, he would pick specifically the bordering territory of Lebanon, when Tarshish or Kush could have been chosen. It must be that the symbol of Lebanon is tied to associations linked to Lebanon in other places in Tanakh: an especially verdant, fertile place, with intoxicatingly fragrant flora and strong and beautiful cedar trees. (For example, "Like a cedar in Lebanon he will grow" [Tehillim 92:13]; Shelomo's glorious palace is termed "the House of the Forest of Lebanon" [I Melakhim 7:2]).[6] Indeed, in Shir Ha-Shirim itself, Lebanon is mentioned many times in these contexts (3:9, 4:15, 5:15, 7:5). 


Additionally, in terms of its location, Lebanon is found on the border, a place where it is difficult to define what is "in" or "out."  Naturally, when the lover who speaks in the poem asks his beloved to come with him from Lebanon, he launches their joint journey and their encounter from a place which has a cornucopia of blessing but is beyond one's reach. Since the real place of Lebanon is like this, this is also its meaning as a symbol in the poem: an expression of a cornucopia of blessing and fecundity, but a cornucopia which is still not available on the side of the speaker. The request of the lover is that the beloved join him from this place of blessing.


However, is this all that Lebanon represents in its specific integration in this poem? It may be that we should also take into account the sound of the word, which may in this case influence the reader from two different points of view.


First, we must note the end of the previous poem (4:6): "I will go by myself to the mountain of myrrh/ And to the hill of frankincense (levona)." This word reminds us of Lebanon (Levanon) at the beginning of the poem that we are discussing. Thus, a connection is created between the place to which the lover comes ("the hill of levona") and the place from where his beloved wants to come to him ("Levanon"). The reader almost expects them to meet at the halfway point, as one comes to meet the other, as in the words of R. Yehuda Ha-levi: "When I went out towards you, towards me I found you."


Although this is impossible to prove, perhaps "Levanon" was chosen because of its similarity to the word "lev," heart. The lev takes an explicit role in the poem's continuation; just as the first stanza starts with "Levanon," the second stanza opens with, "You have stolen my heart (libbavtini), my sister, my bride/ You have stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes."[7]  Since the poem in front of us is part of the nuptial liturgy for the royal bridegroom "on the day of his heart's (libbo) joy" (3:11), it is appropriate that a lev would stand in the background of the poem, even if only in its aural quality. If the lover's request from his beloved to come from Lebanon is tied to the lover's lev, which she has stolen, his request is clear - he wants his lover to bring his heart back.


In the end of the poem, some of the associations which accompany Lebanon are revealed: "Your garments' fragrance is like the fragrance of Lebanon."  Here, the reader sees Lebanon in all of it associative glory, recalling the pleasant smell of verdant fertility. However, since at the end of the poem, the lover returns to Lebanon — from which his bride is emerging and coming to him — the reader feels perhaps that although the lover may be able to take the bride out of Lebanon, he cannot take Lebanon out of the bride. The fragrance of Lebanon remains upon her. Is there a hidden problem alluded to which the lover will be forced to contend with? Is his bride with him, but with the scent of her old world clinging to her garments?


"With Me, From Lebanon, Come"


I do not want to trouble the readers of this lecture overmuch, and therefore I will point out only briefly that the word that opens the line of the poem which we are discussing — "itti" — conceals within it a dual meaning. The simple meaning of "itti" is, as we have noted, "with me;" however, as we have already pointed out, the first line is missing the verb that appears in the second line, "come." Does the word "itti" contain an allusion to a verb parallel to the verb in the second line? It may certainly be so in light of the Aramaic, in which the same spelling can be read "ati," meaning "come."  This is how the early translations (the Septuagint and the Vulgate) read the verse. In other words, the poet opens the poem with the word "itti," including in this word the actual travel and the conjugality inherent in it, containing the phrase "come with me" in one word!


"Skip from the Top of Amana"


The verb which opens the next line — "tashuri" — is also deserving of special analysis. The medieval commentators explain this in the sense of seeing. Rashi renders, "Look and understand," and the Ibn Ezra compares it to "ashurennu," "I see him" (Bamidbar 24:17). The geographic description is also appropriate for such a vantage point, as the place where the beloved is performing this action is "from the top of Amana," that is, a high mountain, a good place for reflection. Nevertheless, the modern commentators tend to explain this on the basis of the Aramaic - "Skip."[8]  This is a logical reading, as in the previous verse, the explicit verb is "come," and it is fitting that this sentence parallels its predecessor.  Indeed, this reading is expressed by the modern translators of Shir Ha-Shirim, such as Pope:[9]


Come from Lebanon, bride,

Come from Lebanon, come,

Skip to me from the peak of Amana


As we have said, the great advantage of this reading is the straight line of description of the bride's travel, as her lover requests - from "With me, from Lebanon, come," to "Skip to me from the top of Amana."


Pope’s translation demonstrates clearly the gap between the source material and the translation.  According to the English translation, one might think that the shared verb of all three lines is "come," while in the Hebrew source, this word appears one time only.[10] Another way of saying this is that Pope's translation only stresses the surprising choice of the poet, using the rare verb "tashuri" in order to describe running or skipping, and the question arises - why does the poet choose this verb?  It may very well be that even according to this explanation, this word has within it an allusion to an alternative verb — "See!" "Look!" — for even this definition is appropriate to the context of the poem.  In either case, the wordplay between two words that are next to each other, "tashuri me-rosh," is noticeable to the eye and ear,[11] and perhaps because of this it is fitting to pick such an uncommon word.   


"Skip from the Top of Amana/ From the Top of Senir and Chermon"


Practically, the twisting path to reach the meaning of the words in this poem does not end here.  Even in the description of this place, "from the top of Amana," there is a place for ambivalence whether there is no intent of the author to add an additional meaning. Amana denotes a mountain range in southern Syria, the general geographic domain of Lebanon which was mentioned above (see II Melakhim 5:12), as are Senir and Chermon, which are mentioned immediately thereafter. Nevertheless, does the fact that this is the actual name of a mountain obscure the most common meaning of this root in Hebrew – “true,” “stable,” “faithful,” as in, "and his hands were steady (emuna) until the sun set" (Shemot 17:12)? Indeed, the Septuagint explains this expression accordingly when it translates "from the top of Amana" as "from the beginning of faith" (cf. Nechemia 10:1, 11:23). Thus, the neutral geographic site becomes a metaphor for the relationship between the lover and the beloved, a relationship which the lover hopes will be stable, faithful, and true.


Also in this line, the poet comes back to one word twice, thereby stressing it: "Skip from the top (me-rosh) of Amana/ From the top of Senir and Chermon."  In the context of the simple conceptual meaning, speaking of the summit of a mountain is appropriate, because the poet wants his beloved (at least according to one meaning of "tashuri") to reflect there, and the summit is a good outlook.


It is still difficult to free oneself from the impression that the "rosh" mentioned here twice is meant to indicate in a specific way the outlook from which one may see boundless expanses, impressive scenery spread out before the observer. The lover is not satisfied with the mountains of Senir and Chermon, which are lofty in any case; he refers to the summit of the mountain specifically.  The feeling that the reader receives is that the beloved is standing on high mountain peaks to gaze far away, with the dramatic scenery spread out before her. 


This is important in the context of the next sentence, in which the beloved describes himself, once again, in the context of eyes: "You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride/ You have stolen my heart/ With one glance of your eyes/ With one jewel of your necklace."  Unlike the beloved, who gazes from mountain peaks, the lover feels that his heart is captured by his beloved because of his encounter with her eyes (even one of them!) or with one jewel on her neck.[12]  It is difficult to free oneself from the impression that there is a gap between him and her, between her wide outlook of many views from the top of a high mountain and his focus on one of her eyes, on one jewel of her necklace. Is the lover disappointed by this gap? Does he feel that his beloved is not a partner to the intimacy which he is interested in? Or perhaps he is saying this out of deep respect for her broad vision and perspective, which includes within it boundless expanses?  What does it mean that she lives on a high mountain range, and this is her point of view on reality?


"From the Lions’ Dens/ And the Mountain Haunts of the Leopards"


The last couplet is a description of the location of the beloved, which becomes more and more focused. In the beginning, Lebanon; then the poet focuses on a certain mountain range; and in the end he describes a certain spot, where the big cats lie down. I assume that many of the readers of this poem through the generations have raised an eyebrow at this point, thinking of the place from which the lover expects his beloved to come to him (or look at him). What is the beloved doing in lions' dens and leopards' haunts?  Longman[13] is correct when he reminds us that this is not a narrative, but poetry, and we should not expect that this women leaps among crags and lies down with lions.  This is, of course, self-evident, and naturally the reader is invited to interpret these lines according to the meanings that accompany the conceptual definition. 


Apparently, the poet is using the emotional meaning that accompanies the mentioning of these animals; the literary role of the lions and the leopards in our context it is to arouse in the reader a feeling of danger and insecurity.  The emotional impression of these animals is great, whether because of their strength or the fear that a person feels upon encountering them. Naturally, the beloved must come to the lover skipping and jumping, and only in his embrace may she find security and tranquility: "With me, from Lebanon, bride/ With me, from Lebanon, come."  According to the point of view of the lover who waits for her, as long as she is in the expanses of Lebanon, she is in danger!  In this we find the lover's true aim, which goes far beyond the associative domain of Lebanon, which is impressive in its fragrances and the strength of its cedars.  The summits of Chermon and Senir from which one may look in every direction suddenly turn into lion and leopard-infested heights, a dangerous place, a place in which a human being is fragile and imperiled. 


To summarize our analysis of ancillary meanings, I must say that in my humble opinion, the reader reacts to many of the peripheral senses against his or her will, and often unconsciously. This is part of the immersive, subversive experience of reading. 


Indeed, another part of the ancillary meanings is tied to the emotions of the reading and the preparation of the reader beforehand to give free rein to its associative world. In these cases, it is possible to expect different, conflicting reactions, which will land the reader in an ambiguous state and make it difficult to hone in on the original intent of the author.  Does the reader already feel in the verse "And God prepared a big fish to swallow Yona" (Yona 2:1) that Yona will be saved (as Landes believes),[14] or perhaps Wolff is justified in his claim that Scriptural connotations that accompany the verb "to swallow" are tied to distress, and the reader is supposed to feel that Yona has been torn apart by the fish.[15]  With this, and despite the different emotional and mental realities of different readers, one may point generally to the agreed ancillary meanings which words have, and they take a real role in shaping the narrative and its theme.


Our next analysis will be dedicated to literary repetition within a narrative unit and its allusive meaning. 


(Translated by Yoseif Bloch)

[1] L. Goldberg, Chamisha Perakim Bi-Yesodot Ha-Shira (Jerusalem, 5717), pp. 12-13.

[2] As Zakovitch notes in Shir Ha-Shirim, Mikra Le-Yisrael (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 5752), p. 91.

[3]  M. Z. Kadari, Millon Ha-Ivrit Ha-Mikra'it, p. 553.

[4] L. Goldberg, Chamisha Perakim Bi-Yesodot Ha-Shira (Jerusalem, 5717), p. 39.

[5] Zakovitch, Shir Ha-shirim, p. 92.

[6] M. Z. Kadari, Millon Ha-Ivrit Ha-Mikra'it, p. 553.  See in particular the prophecy of Hoshea (14:6-8):

I will be like the dew to Israel;

He will blossom like a lily.

Like a cedar of Lebanon

He will send down his roots;

His young shoots will grow.

His splendor will be like an olive tree,

His fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon. 

Men will dwell again in his shade.

He will flourish like the grain.

He will blossom like a vine,

And his fame will be like the wine from Lebanon.

[7]  R. Avraham ibn Ezra explains the unusual term libbavtini as, "You have taken my heart."

[8] Zakovitch, Shir Ha-Shirim, p. 92.

[9] Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs, (AB, New York, 1977), p. 452.  One must note that he translates the opening word "with me" in light of this proposal, as a verb saying "Come with me" (following the Septuagint and the Vulgate). 

[10] Also according to the Septuagint, which Pope relies on in his translation, this verb does not appear in the third statement.

[11] Zakovitch, Shir Ha-Shirim, p. 92.

[12] Meir Malul proposes that the eye being discussed here alludes to an intentional duality: the eyes of the beloved on the one hand, and on the other hand, a different ayin, a spring or well, in light of the continuation of the metaphor, in which the woman is compared to a water source (4:15): "You are a garden fountain, a well of flowing water streaming down from Lebanon." See M. Malul, "Janus Parallelism in Biblical Hebrew: Two More Cases (Canticles 4:9.12)", BZ 41 (1997), pp. 246-249

[13] T.  Longman III, Song of Songs, (NICOT, Grand Rapids, 2001), p. 149

[14] G. M. Landes, "The 'Three Days and Night' Motif in Jonah 2:1", JBL 86 (1967), pp. 446-450.

[15] H. W. Wolff, Obadiah and Jonah: A Commentary, (trans. by M. Kohl (Minneapolis, 1986), p. 132.