In many Ashkenazi congregations, the Song of Songs is read publicly on the Sabbath that falls during Passover. This custom stems from the traditional rabbinic understanding that this book’s portrayal of romantic love is an allegory for the love between God and the people of Israel. But how did this allegorical reading establish a connection to Passover, first mentioned in the 13th century? Sheila Tuller Keiter points to a targum, or rabbinically approved translation:
Enter the Targum Song of Songs, the Aramaic “translation” of the Song. Some targumim, like the relatively well-known Targum Onkelos, offer fairly straightforward Aramaic translations of the underlying biblical text. However, some targumim, especially later ones, are not so much translations as interpretations, often digressing into creative and expansive exegesis.
Targum Song of Songs does exactly that. It seems to have originated in the 8th or 9th century, and adopts the same allegorical approach of [an earlier, but less widely read, midrashic work], interpreting sections of the Song as references to the exodus from Egypt. Yet the Targum takes the conceit one step further, being the first source to reimagine the entire Song of Songs (not merely isolated verses) as a history of the relationship between God and Israel as it progresses through distinct eras; from the exodus to the building of Solomon’s Temple; from the Babylonian exile until the building of the Second Temple; and from the Roman destruction of that Temple until the eventual messianic rebuilding of the Third Temple. The biblical Song’s cycles of the lovers’ separation, longing, and reunification become the Targum’s cycles of exile and redemption that permeate Jewish history. The Targum explicitly connects the Song to the national redemption that began with the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery, into the welcoming embrace of God.
Thanks to the Targum, Ashkenazim didn’t just read the Song of Songs as a generalized love allegory, but as the story of Israel’s repeated exile and redemption, starting with the redemption from exile and bondage in Egypt. The Targum’s elaborate historical allegory made Song of Songs the perfect Passover reading for Ashkenazim. And as they sat in shul all those centuries ago, they could hear the Song of Songs, and feel hope for the final redemption.