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During the past week, we marked the beginning of the month of Nissan, the beginning of the festival cycle, and also the new year for kings of Israel (Rosh Hashana 1:1). We read in the maftir last week that this was to be the first month of all the months of the year. It is the month of redemption in the season when the earth awakens from its winter slumber. In Shir HaShirim, which many people have the custom to begin reading from Rosh Chodesh Nissan, Shlomo writes about this time of year in the Land of Israel. “Behold,” he says, “the autumn has passed. The rain has ended and is gone. The first shoots are seen in the land, the time of the pruning is upon us. The voice of the turtle dove can be heard in our land” (Shir HaShirim 2:11-12).

The Vilna Gaon in his commentary follows the Midrash associating the autumn with exile and the spring with redemption. He distinguishes between the autumn and the rain referred to in our passage. Autumn evokes the cold, and human beings can’t long endure cold without shelter and a source of heat. But the rain, although it might be inconvenient when it comes down on us, doesn’t cause any lasting harm.


When Avraham was warned at the Brit bein haBetarim of the difficulties in store for his offspring, there were two types of misfortune indicated to him. His offspring would be strangers, and they would be enslaved and persecuted (Bereishit 15:13). The exile itself, the strangeness of our situation, is like the rain. It causes us discomfort but it doesn’t endanger us. But the persecution and abuse at the hands of the nations of the world could destroy us if not for the miraculous protection granted by Hashem as He promised to Avraham.

The Gaon stresses that the following passage says that the rain has gone, meaning that before the time of the final redemption, the “strangeness” – our sensation of being out of place when we are scattered among the nations – will have long since ceased to bother us, but we will still suffer from the physical oppression when they torment and enslave us.

The first shoots appearing in the land, the Vilna Gaon teaches, refer to the merit of our forefathers that works to our benefit because their bodies are planted in the land as seeds or bulbs might be. Even when we have no merit of our own, as the winter passes and the first shoots of spring emerge, the sanctity of our patriarchs works to our benefit to bring about the end of the exile. Also, the ruins of the Beit HaMikdash, long buried beneath the Temple Mount, are being stirred and exposed and plowed and tilled, as it were, giving rise to the new “crop” of the future temple to be built soon in that “field.” The Gaon reminds us that Yom Kippur, when the second set of luchot were given, was the happiest day of all (Taanit 30b) because they signify that there is forgiveness and there is rebirth and they and the covenant with Hashem that they represent endure forever.

We are suspended between this first emergence of the new year’s crop and the “voice of the turtledove” that the Vilna Gaon associates with the giving of the Torah on Shavuot. This is the time of the pruning, when we prepare ourselves individually and collectively for the effusion of light and blessing that has been prepared for us. The word translated here as pruning, “hazamir,shares a common root with the Hebrew word zemer, a melody. So this phrase might also refer to the return of migrating songbirds to the land. The Vilna Gaon reads it as a reference to The Song of the Sea, sung on the seventh day of Pesach, during the month of Nissan. Malbim relates this to our experience of being redeemed – that as we behold the miracles and the revelation of Hashem’s plan to bring about our salvation, we will sing “new songs” as we pray for the merit to experience it at the conclusion of Maggid during the Seder.

Rabbi Yisrael Sarug was the first of the major students of the Arizal, who first brought his teachings to the Ashkenazi communities of Europe while the Arizal was still alive. He wrote very few books (not unlike his master, the Arizal) and is best known through the teachings of his disciples. Among the only writings definitively attributed to the Arizal are his poems preceding each of the Shabbat meals, following the Zohar’s formulations that state Atkinu Seudata, I am preparing my feast. The first of these, introducing the Friday night meal begins Azamer bishvachim, I make melodious praises. Rabbi Yisrael Sarug connects the root of that word azamer, back to its other meaning of pruning. He says that at the beginning of Shabbat when the corrupting influences of the rest of the week want to follow us into Shabbat and detract from our spiritual fulfillment we use our songs to prune away the unwanted growth. May we and all of Israel merit to sing new songs, in this time of the Zamir, to prune away the last vestiges of our exile so we can enjoy the company of our beloved. “My beloved answered and he said to me: raise yourself up my dear one, my lovely one and go for your own sake” (Shir 2:10).


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Avraham Levitt is a poet and philosopher living in Philadelphia. He writes chiefly about Jewish art and mysticism. His most recent poem is called “Great Floods Cannot Extinguish the Love.” It can be read at He can be reached by email at [email protected].