It’s a curious thing, hearing men read the Song of Songs—and in Orthodox communities it is almost invariably men who read it. Even in the most egalitarian Orthodox synagogues, where women may read from the Torah, it is usually the Torah they read from; you seldom hear an old woman, let alone a young one, singing the Song of Songs on Friday nights or at the Sabbath during Passover—even though half of the poem is made up of a girl speaking to her beloved.
No, it is men who mainly recite or sing this poem, particularly old men. The first time I heard it, in Jerusalem, was in the courtyard of a small synagogue on a side street not far from Abu Tor, the Jewish neighborhood where we lived. In that courtyard on the afternoon of the Sabbath of Passover, an old man stood—not a Yemenite, or anyone else from those eastern communities whose renditions, to my Israeli ear, lend an authentic specificity to the Hebrew phrasings, but just a plain, old, white Ashkenazi Jew whose youngest son had just gone off to the army and had his beautiful long hair buzzed off, just a man singing with a cracked voice from the back of his throat. Singing, as Lorca said in his essay on Spanish deep song, without caring for the external beauty of the performance but for the sake of the song itself. Singing for love.
for a touch from you is sweeter than Champagne.
Your oils sweet to the scent
your name like fragrant oil on the tongue
that is why maidens have fallen for you.
Draw me after you and we will run
let the king bring me to his chambers
we will rejoice and make a feast for you
remember your touches for longer than the wine
that those who drank it loved you for.
I am dark and fair
daughters of Jerusalem
as the tents of dark goat hair
as the sheets of Solomon.
Do not see me as I am dark
for the sun has bronzed me.
My mother’s sons snorted at me
set me to guard the vineyards
my own vineyard I did not guard.
Tell me, one whom my soul loves
where will you herd
where will you lay them down at noontime?
Shall I be cloaked like a lambing girl
for one of the herds of your friends?
If you do not know for yourself
most beautiful of women
go out yourself after the herd
and herd your own lambs
where the shepherds lodge.
To my mare in the chariot of Pharaoh
I’ll compare you, my lady.
Your cheeks are fair with studs
your neck with telling beads.
We shall make you coils of gold
with balls of silver.
By the time the king is at his feast
my spikenard shall give its scent.
The bundle of myrrh my lord has given me
will sleep between my breasts
a bundle of henna is my lord to me
in the vineyards of Ein Gedi.
You are fair my lady
you are fair
your eyes are doves.
You are fair my lord
and our bed shall be lush
the walls of our house shall be cedars
our beams juniper.
There is something moving about old men singing love songs. Philip Larkin writes about women’s night wear as it is displayed on dummies in department stores and how, as a result, women are always dreamed of as somehow other: “synthetic, new,/ And natureless in ecstasies.” I suspect that they are other and natureless in ecstasies to boys, or even to men who have not lived with women long enough to have children. To them, women are body parts, nightgowns. To old men who have married wives, seen children grow inside their bellies, seen those children slide out of them and begin to suck, seen those children walk away and the belly recede, recede, then hum to start making new life again—to those old men, women are not a foreign country and the girl walking out of the dunes in the Song of Songs is not anonymous. She is the woman of their youth who never stopped haunting them, then was replaced by that woman in the kitchen at night taking her pills, and who is ill sometimes when they hold her hand. On Friday nights, in Sephardi synagogues, they sing, the old men, about love and about the girl’s beloved, who always seems to be fleeing something. Perhaps he is fleeing the old man he will one day become.
the rose of the valleys.
As a rose among thistles
is my bride to other girls.
As an apple in the thicket
is my lord among the boys
his shade I longed for and sat in
his fruit sweet to my mouth:
bring me to the house of wine
and let his gaze hang on me with love
put honeyed lentils by me
fill my bed with apples
for I am sick with love
his left hand under my head
and his right squeezing me close
I have your oath daughters of Jerusalem
by deer or by does in the field
lest you should wake
lest you should disturb
love before it seeks
here comes my lord’s voice
leaping over mountains
skipping over hills:
my lord is like a stag
or a buck of the deer
he’s the one that stands
outside our walls
watching from windows
peeking between the rails.
My lord replied
and said to me,
rise my lady, my beauty,
for see autumn has gone,
and rain has been and wandered on
the buds are seen in the land
the time of the nightingale is here
and the sound of the dove is heard in our land:
the date has swelled its tiny fruit
and the vines’ seedlings given their perfume
rise my lady, my beauty
my dove, in the cracks of the rock
in the hidden incline
let me taste your looks
let me have the sound of your voice
for your voice is dulcet
and your looks comely;
little foxes are in our traps
little foxes that raid vineyards
and our vineyard seeds.
My lord is mine and I am his
the one who grazes in the roses:
until day is blown
and the shadows flown
turn and be still my lord
like a stag or a buck of the deer
on the mountains’ limbs.
There is nothing like an old Sephardi man whose voice is hoarse and not sweet like a boy’s, whose own breasts are soft now like a woman’s breasts under his white shirt. In the synagogue on Friday night those old men trade verses, singing a chapter of the Song each, calling up the girl, her lover, the guards who hunt her through the city, the vapor rising over the desert road. It is impossible to stay indifferent, to stay outside the Song, while listening to the Song.
In London, already with three children beside me, I used to sit in the Persian synagogue at the top of the huge barn of a synagogue across the road from our tiny flat in Finchley, and I would hear every man of them sing, and when my turn came around I would sing, too, essaying their melodies as best I could. One night the old gabbai Jack, in his seventies, a rug merchant, said to me: “My son-in-law was here today. He asked me: who is that man with the beard, singing? I said, He’s a nice Ashkenazi boy, but he sings Sephardi very well!”
When I started translating the Song I was fortunate to come across the commentary of the late scholar Yehuda Feliks, author of Nature and Man in the Bible. Feliks thinks the poem is a zoological and botanical study of the life cycle of the doe and deer of Israel, and believes their unique mating cycle of staggered coming together and falling apart is what dictates the unique structure and odd chase motif of the poem. I don’t know about the theology of Feliks’s theory. Along with his own commentary he reprints the commentary of Rashi (1040-1105), which he regards as possessing a lyric beauty rivalling that of the poem itself—though he does hold that, as to the color of the girl’s hair, Rashi is mistaken in suggesting it was blond like that of a French goat and not brunette like that of an Israeli goat.
Perhaps it’s about the deer, perhaps not. But I do believe it is a poem about the life cycle, of flowers budding, trees in fruit, the garden, and the wait for the beloved.
my soul longed for him
and I could not find him:
I rose and roamed the town
in the markets and lanes
I sought what my soul loved
I sought him and could not find him.
The guards found me
who patrol the town
“The one my soul loves, have you seen him?”
I’d just got past them
before I found
the one my soul loves
I grabbed him and will not let go of him
until I’ve brought him to my mother’s house
and the room where I was raised.
I have your oath
daughters of Jerusalem
by deer or by does in the field
lest you should wake
lest you should disturb
love before it seeks:
Who is that rising from the desert
like pillars of smoke
wreathed in myrrh and frankincense
and every trader’s powder?
Here is the bed which is Solomon’s
sixty warriors stand in circle round it
from the warriors of Israel:
all bear a sword
and are learned in war
each bears his sword on his hip
for fear at night.
Solomon the King made himself a divan
out of cedars of Lebanon:
its pillars he made silver
its upholstery gold
its saddle of taffeta
and its inside all stuffed with love
by the daughters of Jerusalem:
come out and see, daughter of Zion
King Solomon in the wreath
his mother wreathed him with
on the day of his wedding
and the day his heart was glad.
I actually felt I was translating a music video, what with the start-stop rhythm and the glories of King Solomon’s wedding divan as a glamorous set for a love story to play out against. I tried to get the faint, tinkling echo of a 1920s dance tune into my lyric version, because popular songs from back then still have an antique tinkle in my ear while still being living song, at least to me. Cole Porter would have been a fine translator of the Song of Songs. That is what the Champagne is doing there, though it has nothing to do with the court of Solomon. I suppose you could also set the poem as a folk ballad or series of folk ballads, which is what some scholars think it is, though then the voice would have to be more mournful; the ballad tradition is more about murder and lost love than about lovers who fall apart and then come together again, forever.
The old men are the key, finally, to hearing the poem, their voices calling the beloved across time. It is the voice of men calling their wives out of the Bible, men who have left their dreams behind long ago, but still live with love.
The commentary of Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Mikhel Weiser (1809-1879), commonly known by his acronym Malbim, has for my purposes the unique virtue of balancing traditional learning with a keen eye for the nuances and particularities of the text. The traditional rabbinic reading of this poem is that it is an allegory or symbolic rendering of the love between the Almighty (the beloved) and Israel (the girl). While adhering to that scheme, the Malbim lovingly constructs a running “plot” for the Song, which he summarizes thus:
I have always found the usual allegorical reading—that the poem is about the relationship between God and the Jewish people—a little forced. To be convincing, a metaphor must spring to mind readily—that is, it must work upon the emotions and not the mind. At least the Malbim gives us a story, and an emotionally convincing one. But I still fail to see how this collection of sometimes frankly erotic lyrics can evoke the relationship between the rather querulous and irrepressibly turbulent Jewish people and the rather turbulent and irrepressibly bad-tempered Deity who roams the verses of the Pentateuch.
For my part, the Malbim’s plot summary calls to mind something I once heard a rabbi in Leeds say at a holiday meal. Each year, he noted, after the High Holy Days and the festival of Sukkot are over, the community goes its separate ways for the coming months. There are Sabbath gatherings, certainly, but the long dark winter is descending. Hanukkah will come along to light the darkness for a week, but basically, after the excitement and sustained communal unity of the fall, people are closing in on themselves for the winter.
And there, for me, lies the personal reading of the Song that comes through in Malbim’s allegory. Throughout the winter the girl, who loves and yearns for the shepherd, is imprisoned in the palace of the king who plies her with food and drink, just as winter forces us all to turn inward and comfort ourselves with food and drink as we hunker down to get through the darkness.
Passover, the spring week when you’ll hear the Song chanted in the synagogue, is when you clean your house, spiritually and emotionally, after the sleepy indulgence of winter. You ask yourself: Am I alert? Am I still listening to my soul and to the call from above? If God were to ask me—just for instance—to slaughter a lamb, the Egyptians’ sacred animal, in broad daylight and daub the blood on my door in front of their very noses, would I do it? If I had been in Egypt, would I have been one of those who stayed behind next to their pot of meat, or would I have gone out with Moses, would I have let myself be free? Would I have gone into the desert, as Jeremiah and the Malbim put it, like a besotted girl, trailing after God? Would I have dared to go?
That is what the girl in the Song of Songs is fleeing to. She is fleeing to be free, and she is fleeing to her love.
your eyes doves
beyond your plait
your hair a herd of goats
flowing down the hill of Gilead:
your teeth like a row of sheep all white
risen from the wash
all are fit
and not a barren one among them:
your lips a scarlet ribbon
and your speech apt
your cheek a slice of pomegranate
glimpsed through where your hair parts:
your neck like the tower of David
built for a school of war
a thousand shields hang upon it
all the banners of the brave:
your two breasts like two young deer
twins of equal beauty
grazing in the roses:
till day is blown
and shadows flown
I’ll go to the mountain of myrrh
and hill of frankincense:
you are entirely beautiful my bride
and there is no flaw in you:
with me from the Lebanon a bride,
with me from the Lebanon you’ll come,
you’ll gaze from the peaks of the Snir and Hermon
from the abode of lions
from the tigers’ layers on high.
You took my heart—my sister, my bride
you took my heart with one look of your eyes
with one drape of your tunic collars.
How beautiful your touches— my sister, my bride
how much better your touches than Champagne
and the scent of your oils than all the perfumes.
Your lips will drip honey—my bride
milk and honey under your tongue
and the smell of your tresses
like the smell of the Lebanon.
A locked garden—my sister, my bride
a locked well, a sealed spring.
Your channels water a pomegranate field
with sweet fruit
bushes of henna with spikenard.
Spikenard and crocus
sugar cane and cinnamon
with whole trees of frankincense.
Myrrh and aloe wood
with all their nubs of fragrance.
A spring for gardens
a well of water fresh
and free flowing from the Lebanon.
Awake north wind
and come Yemenite south
and blow through my garden
let its perfumes drip down.
Let my lord come to his garden
and eat the fruit of its dainties.
So when I hear old men singing those verses on Friday night, or when I hear them sung on the Sabbath of Passover, what I think about isn’t eating bread again. It’s the air, and the wind in your clothes, and the heat of the desert, heat that stays in your heart, stays until maybe even that moment when, as Shakespeare says of the old and dying Falstaff, every part of you is cold, “as cold as any stone.”
I rose with light to catch
my myrrh and balsam
I ate my honey in the comb
drank my wine with my milk
drink and be merry kin.
I am sleeping but my heart wakes
the voice of my lord is knocking:
Open up to me my sister
my bride, my dove, my innocent one
for my head is filled with dew,
my tresses with the fragments of the night:
I’ve stripped off my tunic
how will I wear it again?
I’ve washed my feet
how shall I get them dirty?
My lord put his hand through the hole
and my belly stirred for him
and my hands dripped myrrh
and my fingers
myrrh ran over
the palm of the lock:
I got up to open for my lord
and my lord slipped away
my soul went out at his words
I sought him and could not find him
I called him and he did not reply:
the guards that patrol the city found me
they beat me and wounded me
they tore my cloak off my back
the guards on the walls:
I have your oath
daughters of Jerusalem
if you find my lord
what shall you say to him?
How is your lord not like another lord
most beautiful of women?
How is your lord not like another lord
that you make us swear so?
My lord is fair and ruddy
a cut above the rest.
His head is bright as gold,
black as the crow.
His eyes like doves
washing in the foam
and sitting in the gullies.
His cheeks like beds of spice,
towers of balm,
his lips roses
running with myrrh, overflowing.
His hands gold rings
filled with precious stones
his belly ivory
girded with sapphires.
His thighs are pillars of marble
founded on golden pedestals,
he looks like the Lebanon
tall as the cedars.
His mouth is full of honeyed words
and he is all sweetmeats
When all is said and done, the Song of Songs, just like Ecclesiastes, tells you to rejoice and enjoy while you still can, because the beloved is always fleeing—and because what he is fleeing cannot be escaped. So love, and be free, because both love and freedom are fleeting, even if like the old man singing you can still remember the love of your youth rising out of the desert, and the dripping flowers and the buds in bloom. Love, and run to the desert before the guards catch your soul and pat it down for crumbs. Run, before the guards catch you—don’t hesitate—run.
be like the stag
or buck of the deer
on the fragrant hills.
Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. His previous essays in Mosaic are “The Preacher’s Air” (on Ecclesiastes) and “Esther in Des Moines”(on the book of Esther), both accompanied by original translations.