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    Shir HaShirim: Fact or fantasy?

    Pesach is marked by the reading of Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs. Solomon Schechter called it “one of the finest pieces of religious poetry in existence”. Rabbi Akiva said it was “holy of holies”.

    How can it be holy if it neither mentions God or religious practice and ethics? If it is religious, either the author masked its nature or it is an allegory – but of what?

    Its content is the love of a shepherd boy and girl despite all the hindrances that come between them.

    There are two main interpretations, literalist and secularist. The literalist interpretation is that the narrator is telling us what the young couple dream of. The secularist interpretations see it as a drama, a wedding song, a love song, or a fertility rite.

    But a third category of interpretation sees the book as an allegory of the love between God and the people of Israel with the Torah as the ketubah, the contract between them. Or perhaps the allegory is about the love between God and his Torah. In Christianity there is also an allegorical view, though the details are not the concern of the Jewish reader.

    Rabbi Akiva’s characterisation of the book as supremely holy assures us that though the language is sometimes daring, the book brings us into the deepest love affair there is in religion, the spiritual closeness of God and Israel.

    In Judaism the book is not a mere song or entertainment, not titillation but inspiration, an articulation of holiness.

    Whatever interpretation you choose, there is a dimension that should never be overlooked – the dignity and beauty of nature, which is the setting of the story and shows the splendour with which God has clothed His Creation.

    Rebbe Nachman of Breslov said he prayed that every day he would be able to go outdoors among the trees and flowers and open his heart and tongue to acclaim the Creator. He said, “May all the foliage of the field awake at my coming, and send the power of their life into the words of my prayer.”

    AJ Cronin said that an old gardener in Italy told him, “I see my cherry trees in bud, then in flower, then in fruit. And then I believe in God!”

    The more you read Shir HaShirim, the more you see God’s smile shining from every leaf in nature and every loving impulse in the human heart.

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