Shiur #15: Shir Ha-Shirim 7:1-14
The opening verse of chapter 7 is unusual in that it seems to suggest a sharp shift from previous chapters:
Turn back, turn back, O maid of Shulem [HaShulamit]! Turn back, turn back, That we may gaze upon you. “Why will you gaze at the Shulammite in the Mahanaim dance?”
Apparently, the young ladies are calling for the ra’aya to turn back and join them at a dance. The clear implication is that she has turned her back on them and is walking away.
This verse is notable for a number of reasons.
First, for the first time, the ra’aya is given a name of sorts, “Ha-Shulamit.” The commentators debate the precise meaning of this appellation. Ibn Ezra (s.v. Ha-Shulamit) and Da’at Mikra (p. 58) explain that it is short for Yerushalmit, a Jerusalemite, much as her friends are referred to as the daughters of Jerusalem. Others suggest that it means she is from Shunem and is an allusion to her true name, Avishag Ha-Shunamit, who was first David’s assistant in his old age and then the subject of the love of Shlomo’s brother and rival, Adoniyahu. On this basis, some scholars have seen Avishag as the ra’aya in Shir Ha-Shirim. Yet others (most convincingly, in my view) hold that Shulamit is a nickname describing the ra’aya’s character as well-rounded. For example, Rashi (s.v. shuvi) cites a Midrash Tanchuma that Shulamit refers to the sheleima, the one who is complete. Metzudat David (s.v. shuvi) similarly says that Shulamit denotes the complete one.
We may also note that the repetition of shuvi, shuvi – “return, return” – parallels the verse in Shoftim in which Devora is urged to awaken and sing her sing (Shoftim 5:12). We will return to this parallel later in this shiur.
Yet perhaps even more striking is that this is the first larger social setting in which the ra’aya finds herself: a dance. (It should be acknowledged that some, such as Rashbam 7:1. s.v. ve-hi, hold that this scene does not actually occur at a dancing event; instead, the verse means that she refuses to be shown off as if she is at such a dance. But this is not the simplest reading of the text.) Of course, dance festivals seem to have been common in the Ancient Near East. For instance, we read about precisely such a dance toward the end of Sefer Shoftim, and the mishnayot (Ta’anit, ch. 4) regarding the festival of Tu Be-Av reflect this ancient practice as well. Still, it is a striking scene in the context of Shir Ha-Shirim, which otherwise transpires in the intimacy of nature and private homes.
This setting, in turn, provides us with the key to our passage. Whereas typically the repetitive requests of the other ladies might have coaxed her to return, the ra’aya simply walks away from them, instead focusing her attention solely upon her beloved. As Da’at Mikra (p. 57) puts it, “They call to her, but she refuses to respond to their call and continues turning away from the dance circle.”
Instead, she continues walking toward her beloved, who showers upon her a paean that ascends from toe to head in verses 2-7:
How lovely are your feet in sandals, O daughter of nobles! Your rounded thighs are like jewels, The work of a master’s hand.
Your navel is like a round goblet— Let mixed wine not be lacking!— Your belly like a heap of wheat Hedged about with lilies.
Your breasts are like two fawns, Twins of a gazelle.
Your neck is like a tower of ivory, Your eyes like pools in Heshbon By the gate of Bath-rabbim, Your nose like the Lebanon tower That faces toward Damascus.
The head upon you is like crimson wool, The locks of your head are like purple— A king is held captive in the tresses.
How fair you are, how beautiful! O Love, with all its rapture!
Consistent with earlier patterns of praise that the dod offers in Shir Ha-Shirim, these verses start with detailed, orderly praise, and then conclude with a more general description of the ra’aya’s physical beauty. Yet, as opposed to earlier depictions, in which the dod describes her beauty from head to toe, here, presumably due to the context (a dance), he begins by describing her feet and goes up from there.
It is also worth noting that this section seems to be more sexually explicit than earlier sections in the sefer, perhaps reflecting the fact that we find ourselves in the penultimate chapter of the book.
Yet, even as his peroration reaches new heights, the dod’s references echo numerous praises he heaped upon her earlier in Shir Ha-Shirim. For example, the phrase “mah yafu dodayikh” echoes the appearance of this phrase in 1:15-16, a similar set of descriptions that begin and end with similar phrases in 4:1-7, and similar locutions that appear in 4:10, 5:9, and 6:4. The term “shadayikh,” “your breasts,” appears in 1:13 and 8:10, as well as in 4:5. “Tzavarekh,” “your neck,” is used similarly in 4:5 and 7:5.
Further, what is true of his physical descriptions of the ra’aya is also true of his references to locations in Eretz Yisrael. Levanon, mentioned here in 7:5, also appears in 3:9, 4:8, 4:11 and 4:15
Taken as a whole, while there are parallels to multiple sections throughout the sefer, the similarities to chapter 4 are especially striking, suggesting a conceptual parallel between these two sections in particular, to which we will return below.
Unlike these already-familiar terms, the phrase “melekh asur ba-rehatim,” “a king bound in tresses,” proved particularly perplexing to the commentators. Some (Perush of Chachmei Tzorfat, s.v. melekh; Metzudat David 7:6, s.v. melekh; Malbim 7:6) explain that she is so beautiful that the king himself desires to be caught in the tresses of her hair. Rashbam (to 7:1), alternatively, explains that the king has wrapped himself in the golden brooch she uses to tie her hair. (Ibn Ezra, s.v. ve-khol, raises both possibilities.) Yet others compare her head to a king, explaining that he means to laud the stately appearance of her head.
Finally, the verses come full circle, concluding with a return to the phrase “mah yafu.” Strikingly, the opening verse of chapter 7, in which the women urge her to dance, is omitted from this literary unit. And that is precisely the point: She ignores the women’s invitation to participate in the dance, which is aimed at helping her to identify a mate. The ra’aya has no interest in participating. She is already in a committed relationship, as is amply evident in the six following verses.
How does the first half of chapter 7 fit into the sefer as a whole? Given the striking parallels between this chapter and chapter 4, which portrays the pristine, uncomplicated relationship between the prince and ra’aya, it would appear that the same can be said of ours as well: Chapter 7 returns to the model of the perfect relationship, which, as Shir Ha-Shirim nears its conclusion, seems to be increasing in pitch.
This reading helps us account for a number of the other unique aspects of these verses. The allusion to the song of Devorah we noted above, which appears in response to a military victory, is reminiscent of our verses, in which the woman’s relationship with her beloved has already been fully established.
Moreover, as noted in previous shiurim, the term benot Yerushalayim only appears in context of the scenarios in which the woman is unsure as to the strength of her relationship with the dod. Thus, although other ladies address her in 7:1, calling upon her to participate in the dance, it is telling that they go unnamed. Further, as opposed to her interactions with the daughters of Jerusalem, with whom she always engages in dialogue, here she completely ignores the women who attend the dance. Indeed, there is no reason to think that she and the women enjoy any meaningful relationship whatsoever.
The word Shulamit, certainly as understood by Midrash Tanchuma and others (the complete one), further reinforces this reading: The dod calls her the complete one, for their relationship is indeed impeccable.
Finally, the allusion to the king (“melekh asur ba-rehatim”) may further reinforce this reading; he is of royal stock, not a mere shepherd. As we have contended throughout our discussion of the sefer, the royal relationship is more pristine, while her relationship with the shepherd is more complex.
The second half of chapter 7 features perhaps the most explicit sections in the entire sefer. Assuming that this chapter as a whole depicts the climax of the “one-dimensional” relationship between the ra’aya and the royal, as we suggested, it makes sense that our section seems to portray the height of the physical relationship between the two. Accordingly, in verses 8-10, the dod continues to outline the physical descriptions that we found in the first half of chapter 7. But here, instead of depicting the beauty of different parts of her body, the dod offers a different set of metaphors:
Your stately form is like the palm, Your breasts are like clusters.
I say: Let me climb the palm, Let me take hold of its branches; Let your breasts be like clusters of grapes, Your breath like the fragrance of apples,
And your mouth like choicest wine. “Let it flow to my beloved as new wine Gliding over the lips of sleepers.”
It is worth noting that the usage of the word “meisharim” (translated by JPS as “choicest wine”) helps to clarify the meaning of this phrase, which also appears at the beginning of the sefer (1:4, “meisharim aheivukha”). While many meforshim (Rashi, s.v. holekh; Metzudat David, s.v. ve-chikekh; Seforno, s.v. holekh) read it as referring to the yashrut, or integrity, of their relationship, others (see Da’at Mikra, ibid.) suggest that it is a synonym for wine, in turn suggesting that the phrase in 1:4 means, “I have loved you like choicest wine.”
If meisharim denotes wine, how are we to understand the concluding phrase of verse 10, “dovev siftei yesheinim,” “gliding over the lips of sleepers?” The commentators variously translate “dovev” as a reference to speech or moving. The Sages (Yevamot 97a) read this verse as a homiletical reference to the possibility of metaphorically keeping the dead alive by teaching their Torah posthumously. Analogously, we may say that instead of putting people to sleep, a common effect of wine, here the “wine” is so compelling that it awakens the one who slumbers.
We then read in verse 11:
I am my beloved’s, And his desire is for me.
It is worth noting the Hebrew terminology: “Ani le-dodi ve-alay teshukato.” This language, particularly the latter two words, is highly reminiscent of the language used in regard to the woman’s punishment in Gan Eden. On the basis of this striking parallel and others, we will dedicate a full shiur later in the series to delineating the relationship between Shir Ha-Shirim and the story of the Garden of Eden.
This verse is not only significant as a point of comparison to verses in other books of Tanakh; it also offers a crucial compare and contrast with a locution that appears earlier in Shir Ha-Shirim. The phrase previously used in the sefer was “Ani le-dodi ve-dodi li” (6:3). Why is it that here, suddenly, we find the emphasis on desire in lieu of pure reciprocity?
Apparently, this reinforces our reading of chapter 7 as focused on the purely physical relationship between the prince and ra’aya. Verse 11 implies that a relationship of full equality can only come about when effort is required for the relationship to thrive, a characteristic of the relationship between the shepherd and the ra’aya. As the purely physical descriptions of beauty between the two suggest, the seemingly effortless relationship of the prince and ra’aya is ultimately driven more by pure desire than undergirded by a truly equal emotional relationship. Accordingly, the only growth here is in the physical intensity of the relationship. In chapter 7, there is no true character development. It is, instead, the height of the two-dimensional Shir Ha-Shirim, soon to be eclipsed by chapter 8, which will portray the final stages in the three-dimensional relationship between the shepherd and ra’aya.
Chapter 7 concludes (verses 12-14):
Come, my beloved, Let us go into the open; Let us lodge among the henna shrubs.
Let us go early to the vineyards; Let us see if the vine has flowered, If its blossoms have opened, If the pomegranates are in bloom. There I will give my love to you.
The mandrakes yield their fragrance, At our doors are all choice fruits; Both freshly picked and long-stored Have I kept, my beloved, for you.
The beginning of verse 12, Lekha dodi (“Come, my Beloved”), was to become the basis for the recitation of Lekha Dodi on Friday night. Indeed, Shir Ha-Shirim was particularly important to the kabbalists of Tzefat, who implemented the practice of reciting it on Friday prior to the onset of Shabbat, then walking outside to greet the Shabbat queen. Indeed, it was the kabbalists who saw Shabbat as the most propitious time of the week for the unity of the male and feminine as outlined in Kabbala, and it is no coincidence that a verse in Shir Ha-Shirim, particularly toward the end of the book, was taken by R. Shlomo Ha-Levi Alkabetz, author of Lekha Dodi, as the basis for his song.
The meaning of the end of verse 12, kefarim, is not entirely clear. Most simply understood, it is a reference to towns. Yet in context, it would seem to refer to intimate places in which the couple can be alone together. JPS renders it “henna shrubs,” a symbolic location in nature which similarly allows for privacy. Alternatively, kefarim can also refer to a type of spice, as in the fragrance kofer; the latter usage appears earlier in Shir Ha-Shirim (1:14, 4:13).
In verse 13, the ra’aya invites the dod to see whether or not the vine is in bloom. The phrase “parcha ha-gefen” is clearly a metaphor for determining whether their love is in full blossom. As ever in Shir Ha-Shirim, nature is not only the immediate context of, but also the most powerful metaphor for, the love between the dod and ra’aya. Yet, it seems clear that the woman does not mean to genuinely inquire whether or not the plants have fully ripened. Instead, this is simply her playful way of suggesting that just as the fruits have ripened, so too has their relationship.
Having now examined the final section of chapter 7, we may fruitfully compare its two sections. The dod speaks from verses 2-10, focusing on the woman’s physical beauty (first from foot to head, then focusing on her midriff), and the woman responds positively (11-14) by invoking nature as a context/symbol for the consummation of their relationship. In verse 11, she pivots to the second section by describing her beloved’s desire for her (“ve-alay teshukato”). As noted, the chapter, though a climax of sorts, is animated by the same motifs that have characterized the princely relationship from the outset – a relationship not ridden by tension or self-questioning; one divorced from the larger narrative of their lives; one fully in harmony with nature (as if to suggest that “all the stars are aligned”); and one focused on the physical aspects of the relationship between the two. The contrast to chapter 8, as we will see next shiur, could not be more conspicuous.