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A Literary Analysis of Shir Ha-shirim

Great is repentance motivated by love (teshuva me-ahava), for it brings man closer to God, and great is the love and compassion of the Almighty for His people!
Gazelles

Gazelles

I. The Need for a Literary Approach

Each year, as we read the magnificent love story of Shir Ha-shirim, we encounter the sacred flames of passion between the Jewish people and the Almighty expressed in the work. Whose heart wouldn’t be stirred by the depiction of the Dod (male lover), symbolizing God, knocking at his beloved’s door, begging her to let him in, or by the riveting drama of the Re’aya (female lover) – the Jewish people – returning to her beloved as the mutual bonds of affection are restored?

The gripping emotional experience of reading Shir Ha-shirim each Pesach leaves little time for a systematic study of the literary and poetic detail of the work, particularly the plethora of imagery contained therein. A deeper understanding of the poetic style, language and form allows us to more fully appreciate how the words and images blend with the emotional development of the drama and contribute to the narrative flow.

It is therefore worthwhile to undertake this study now, prior to the reading of the Megilla, so that the stylistic techniques can work their literary magic and intensify our emotional participation in the reading of Shir Ha-shirim. This Megilla is, after all, the “Poem of Poems,” and, given its poetic nature, we must approach the text accordingly, from the perspective of poetic analysis.

In his introduction to “Moreh Nevuchim,” the Rambam already noted the relationship between human aesthetic sensitivity and the Scriptures, thus encouraging the implementation of literary techniques in the study of Tanakh:

The key to understanding all that the prophets said, and to the knowledge of its truth, is the understanding of the parables, of their import, and of the meaning of their expressions. You already know that which God said, “I spoke parables through the prophets” (Hoshea 12:11) and “Propound a riddle and relate an allegory” (Yechezkel 17:2). Furthermore, because of the frequent use made of parables by the prophets, one prophet says, “They say of me, Is he not a maker of parables?” (ibid. 21:5). You know how Shlomo began his book, “For understanding proverb and epigram, the words of the wise and their riddles” (Mishlei 1:6).

II. The Re’aya’s Impulsiveness and the Dod’s Restraint From the moment the curtain rises, the Re’aya finds herself struggling to reach the long-awaited reunion with her lover (the Dod). She passionately yearns for him, and she runs after him through the hills and valleys. The only pursuit occupying her at this time is meeting her Dod and capturing his love.

However, he is less than quick to respond. He stands behind the fence, peering in from beyond the window and through the cracks in the wall, but refuses to appear. She cries, “Tell me, you whom I love so well; where do you pasture your sheep? Where do you rest them at noon?” But all he can reply is, “Go follow the tracks of the sheep.” She wants to locate him immediately, but all he tells her is to follow his tracks he left behind. She is confused and frustrated: why won’t her Dod come to greet her and take her into his arms?

As readers, we, too, cannot understand this game of hide-and-seek. Why does her Dod retreat, slip away, resist her pressure and deny her advances? Why does he seem to appear and then hide, begin to approach and then flee?

The answer lies in the unique character of the Re’aya. She is infused head to toe with unbridled passion; she is bursting with boundless emotional energy. She does not calculate her steps – she simply charges forward in a stream of uncontrolled love. The text describes not a gradual process of emotional development, nor a systematic progression of a relationship and its internalization for the long-term. Rather, she drives headlong straight towards the most intense levels of affection. This passion drives her relentless pursuit of her Dod, but also creates a stumbling block before the realization of her fantasies. So physically and emotionally drained is she from her frustrating pursuit of her Dod, from her races through the hills and valleys in the scorching sun (1:7), from the late, nighttime hours (3:2) of impassioned, premature yearning, that when the long-awaited moment finally arrives, she cannot get out of bed to let her Dod inside.

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One Response to “A Literary Analysis of Shir Ha-shirim”

  1. That's some powerful, beautiful poetry.

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