Song of Songs: A Comparison of Texts
Partly a reading and partly a d’var-Torah for Shabbat Pesach 2005 by David B. Brooks
Song of Songs (Hebrew Shir ha-Shirim) is one of the five megillot in the Hebrew Bible, each of which is read on a specific holiday. Presumably because of its many references to springtime, Song of Songs is traditionally read on Shabbat Pesach.
There are many interpretations of the eight short chapters in Shir ha-Shirim. They range from the literal: a physical love story between a young man and a young woman (Christian texts say that they are a married couple); to the allegorical: a spiritual love story between God and God’s people Israel. It has been seen as a collection of love songs, as a short novel, as a drama with two or three leading characters and a chorus, as an enactment of the wedding feast. At one extreme, Shir ha-Shirim has been read as a pagan love story between the sun god and the moon goddess; at the other, it has been described as the very heart, chef-d’oeuvre of Kabbalah. The only point of agreement is that it is a beautiful love poem, and one that has for centuries inspired writers in many languages and artists in many media.
From the first, Shir ha-Shirim was controversial, so much so that many rabbis argued against including it in what we now know as the Tanach or Hebrew Bible. Certainly the language is earthy, the images sensual. And, together with Esther, it shares the distinction of never mentioning the name of God, though it does seem infused with a sense of the divine. Fortunately for the diversity that is a highlight of our Bible, Rabbi Akiva argued forcefully for its inclusion. His words, cited in Mishnah are memorable:
God forbid that it should be otherwise! No one in Israel ever disputed that the Song of Songs defiles the hands. For all the world is not worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies" (Yadayim 3:5)
Given this statement, it almost goes without saying that Akiva accepted the allegorical interpretation. However, if there is any doubt, he is also quoted in Tosefta as follows:
He who trills his voice in the chanting of the Song of Songs in the banquet-halls and makes it a secular song has no share in the world to come. (Tosefta Sanh. 12:10)
Enough of introduction. What I want to do today is to compare five different translations of the original Hebrew text into English, and to see how they differ. The first three are translations:
The next two stray from the original Hebrew and are not strictly translations:
• Some 10 years ago Ariel and Chana Bloch published what they called “A New Translation,” but what I would describe as an interpretive translation.
• And, rewritten several times over the past quarter century, is the version by Marcia Falk; it is also called “A New Translation,” but I think it is really interpretation.
To start with, I will choose what is perhaps the best known verse from the poem (6:3):
This verse is identical in the Orthodox and the Reform versions:
I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.
The Conservative version is more physical
I am my lover’s and my beloved is mine.
I have no idea why this version does not say “lover” in the second half of the verse.
The Blochs add explicit gender to emphasize that it is the maiden who is speaking:
My beloved is mine, and I am his.
And Falk writes something equally beautiful but quite different:
I turn to meet my love,
He’ll turn to me,
Let us go on to another well-known verse (1:5):
The Orthodox version is:
I am black, but comely,
O ye daughters of Jerusalem,
As the tents of Kedar,
As the curtains of Solomon.
The Reform version is identical but for deletion of “ye.”
The Conservative version is similar but a bit awkward at the end:
Swarthy I am, but comely, O daughters of Jerusalem
Swarthy as Kedar’s tents,
Comely as Solomonic Hangings.
The Bloch version carries the same sense but flows more easily:
I am dark, daughters of Jerusalem, and I am beautiful!
Dark as the tents of Kedar, lavish as Solomon’s tapestries.
Falk writes in quite a different mood:
Yes, I am black! and radiant –
O city women watching me –
As black as Kedar’s goathair tents
Or Solomon’s fine tapestries.
And she adds a very modern note when, in the next verse, she changes the usual “Do not look down on me” or “askance at me” to:
Will you disrobe me with your stares?
Now for some of the highly sensual verses in Chapter 7; verse 2b reads:
The Orthodox version of verse 4 contains what is for me a truly awful metaphor:
The roundings of thy thighs are like the links of a chain,
The work of the hands of a skilled workman.
The Reform version modernizes the language and improves the metaphor:
The curves of your thighs
Are like jewels,
The handwork of a skilled craftsman.
The Conservative version is similar to the Reform:
The roundings of thy thighs are like jewelled links,
The handiwork of a craftsman.
The Blochs stray further from the text: The gold of your thigh shaped by a master craftsman.
And Falk lets loose her imaginative mind:
Your thighs – two spinning jewels,
Your hips – a bowl of nectar brimming full
Another famous selection, verse 4 in Chapter 7, reads:
In this case, when the young lover compares his beloved maiden’s breasts to young gazelles, the five translations are almost identical. The Orthodox version reads:
Thy two breasts are like two fawns
That are twins of a gazelle.
And the Falk version reads:
Your breasts – two fawns, the twins of a gazelle.
Evidently, no one has been able to improve on the original imagery.
I hope that is enough to give you an idea of what different people have done with what the Encyclopaedia Judaica calls the “Bold imagery and striking hyperbole . . . [the] extravagant expressions and incongruous comparisons” of Shir ha-Shirim. Each translator and interpreter produces a next text. Which is the best? They all are – different strokes for different folks! As for me, when I want to read Shir ha-Shirim, I pick up Ariel and Chana Bloch’s interpretive translation because it is both movingly beautiful yet faithful to the original text.
The Five Translations
A. Cohen, editor, The Five Megilloth (New York: The Soncino Press, 1946).
Robert Gordis, The Song of Songs: A Modern Translation and Commentary (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1954).
Central Conference of American Rabbis, The Five Scrolls (New York: CCAR Press, 1984), translations edited by R. Albert H. Friedlander.
Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch, The Song of Songs: A New Translation (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1995).
Marcia Falk, The Song of Songs: Love Lyrics from the Bible (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1973).
Carlo Suares, The Qabala Trilogy: The Cipher of Genesis; The Song of Songs; The Sepher Yetsira (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1985).
R. H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, editors, Midrash Rabbah: Song of Songs (London: The Soncino Press, 1939).
Encyclopaedia Judaica has about 20 entries that refer to Song of Songs, including one longish entry where it is the focus.