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Torah Commentary
Pesach (March 30, 2013)

Rabbi David M. Posner

Passover is not merely a commemoration of history.
It is also a festival of nature. The month of Nisan is called in Hebrew “Chodesh HaAviv” — “The Month of Spring.” Thus it is written, “Observe the month of Aviv and keep the Passover unto the Lord thy God.” (Deuteronomy 16:1) The term “aviv” designates the green ears of grain and thus refers to the beginning of the spring harvest. Passover, therefore, also was called “Chag HaAviv,” “the Festival of Spring.” Of course, as time passed, the agricultural theme of the festival became muted, and the historical aspect took precedence.

Nevertheless, the coming of spring augurs not only the flowers and the fields but also “the birds and the bees.” Yes, indeed and in fact, romance is in the air. No wonder that the Rama (Rabbi Moses Iserles — the great commentator on the Shulchan Aruch) noted that it became customary to recite the Song of Songs before the reading of the Torah on Shabbat Chol HaMo-eid Pesach. (Rama on Orach Chaim 490:9) This is why the Reform tradition itself is to suggest Song of Songs 2:7-17 as one possibility for the Haftarah on Shabbat Chol HaMo-eid Pesach. (The other is the Ezekiel 39:1-16.)

Song of Songs — the very title of the book teaches us the nature of the Hebrew “elative.” Grammatically speaking, the “elative” is a way of expressing “the greatest…the most.” In Hebrew, repeating the noun — that is, “Song of Songs” or “Holy of Holies” — does this. In both cases, these should not be taken literally. Rather, they should be translated as “the greatest song” and “the most holy.”

But grammar aside, let us return to our springtime theme and the Song of Songs. The book itself consists of a series of poems celebrating the mutual love of a Lover and a Beloved, now meeting, now parting, now seeking and now finding each other.

No book of the Hebrew Bible has been subjected to more diverse interpretations. The latest of these actually proposes an origin of the song in the cult of Ishtar and Tammuz and in the “divine marriage” ceremonies that, it is thought, the king performed as a substitute for the god. A rite of this sort — borrowed from the Canaanites — may have been practiced in ancient times as part of the cult of Yahweh — and the Song of Songs, if this is true, could be the revised libretto for this ceremony. Of course, this theory is beyond proof.

The allegorical interpretation is much more ancient and much better known. This interpretation became current in Judaism at the time of the second century of the Common Era. Its theme is the love of God for Israel and the love of Israel for God, conveyed under the imagery of a relationship between husband and wife — in other words, the marriage theme.

From a critical point of view, it appears that the Song of Songs does not follow any definite plan. It is, rather, a collection of songs that are united only by their common theme of love.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

A “Git’n Mo-eid” to all.

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