The great classical liturgist, R. El’azar Birabbi Killir (Land of Israel, 7th c.), composed a number of piyyutim (Hebrew liturgical poems) in honor of the Giving of the Torah. Among his greatest poetic works are the Kedushta’ot on Shavuot (a poetic embellishment of the Amida that introduces the Kedushah, Doxology, in the morning prayer). In one of his pieces written in honor of Shavuot, Killir, also known as The Kalir, quotes the Torah speaking in the first person about her origins and the world’s creation:
God formed me at the beginning of His way
Two thousand years I sweetened in His bosom
The world had not yet measure of breadth or length
Nor stretched to its elevation…
I amused myself upon His knee
Playing with the world like Him
Playing before Him in praise and blessing
To announce to all that there is none like Him
(Shulamit Elizur, Rabbi El’azar Birabbi Kiliri: Hymni Pentecostales, Jerusalem 2000, pp. 98-99 [Hebrew]).
The Torah is saying that it came into being 2,000 years before the creation of the world. At that time, before there were beings, she amused herself upon the knees of God and together they played with the world as if she was His daughter. In another piyyut by The Killir, also composed for Shavuot, the Torah is depicted as the King’s beloved and precious daughter:
Two thousand years she was hidden/making love under the wings of joyful song
Playing within the concealed home of God/in the shade of the fresh Divine presence
When she was given, mountains turned to flowing water/and it was she who instructed the people to move or to rest
The honor of the king’s daughter more precious than rubies/modest and hidden within like a virgin
(Shulamit Elizur, Rabbi El’azar Birabbi Kiliri: Hymni Pentecostales, Jerusalem 2000, p. 242 [Hebrew]).
These beautiful descriptions draw upon the familiar verses from the Book of Proverbs, 8:1, 22-31:
Doth not wisdom call, and understanding put forth her voice?…
God formed me at the beginning of His way, the first of His works of old…
Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth…
While as yet He had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the beginning of the dust of the world…
Then I was by Him, as a nursling; and I was daily all delight, playing always before Him,
Playing in His habitable earth, and my delights are with the sons of men.
Biblical wisdom is portrayed in these verses as a feminine, independent entity. In all three homilies in praise of wisdom found in Proverbs, wisdom appears in the guise of woman (Proverbs 1:20-33; 8:1-36; 9:1-6). She delivers her speech at the city gates, calling to passers-by to heed her words. Her authority rests on the fact that she is age-old and upon her special relationship with the Creator.
The Killir, drawing upon these verses, found a natural equivalence between wisdom and Torah. His words are based on an ancient hermeneutical tradition whose sources can be traced as far back as the Second Temple period and can be found also later in the Rabbinic literature. This perspective is the basis for the Sages’ statements that God “looked into the Torah and created the world.” (Genesis Rabbah 1:1).
The description of the Torah as a feminine, celestial image lends it a special dimension. The Torah is not only a vehicle for expression of the system of mitzvot and laws of God, but exists in its own right. It is a sovereign entity that has a love relationship with God. This explains one of the underpinnings of Rabbinic Midrash about the revelation at Sinai: the difficulty in the giving of the Torah that can be compared to the hardship endured in parting from a loved one. Thus, in Midrash Peskita Rabbati:
When God gave the Torah to Israel, the earth rejoiced and the heavens wept…This is compared to a parable about a King who arranged a wedding for his daughter. The city residents did not come and did not offer praise.
The villagers came and offered praise, with harps and violins and all kinds of music.
The King proclaimed: It is customary that the city residents, who are familiar with the King’s honor, should come to praise his daughter.
Thus God, when he gave the Torah to Israel, the earth rejoiced but the heavens did not.
God said to the heavens: You who reside above, you should be offering more praise to my honor and to my daughter than the earth!
They answered: Master of the Universe, it is fitting that the earth should give praise for she received the Torah. We, who are parting from the Torah, should we sing praise and not be sad? As it is written, “Lord, when You went forth out of Seir, when You marched out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled, the heavens also dropped, yea, the clouds dropped water. The mountains quaked at the presence of the Lord.” (Judges 5:4-5)
(Peskita Rabbati, Ish Shalom edition, Parasha 20)
This parable compares the giving of the Torah to the wedding day of the King’s daughter. The villagers celebrate and sing to them. But the city residents, who are more familiar with the King and his daughter, find it difficult to rejoice with her, because they know that they must part from her. The parable expresses the mixed feelings of the father and his daughter on her wedding day; the city residents and villagers represent the opposing emotions of the king. The verses brought from the Book of Judges describe the earth trembling with joy but the heavens crying (raining), lamenting the removal of the Torah from their midst. The Kalir must have had this midrash in mind when he wrote: “When she was given, mountains turned to flowing water.”
The revelation at Sinai is described in the parable as part of an ineluctable maturing process. Just as the King’s daughter must marry and leave her father’s palace, so must the Torah be given to Israel, despite the mixed emotions of the heavenly bodies.
A different resolution of the tension between heaven and earth can be found in the midrash of Song of Songs. The midrash brings a parable based on verses from Song of Songs 3:9-10: “King Solomon made a canopy chair of Lebanon wood; its poles were made of silver and it upholstery of gold, the chair was crimson and the floor laid with the love of the daughters of Jerusalem.”
Yuda son of R. El’ai interpreted the verse suggesting that “canopy” (apirion) is the “ark” (aron)….
This is compared to a parable about the King’s only daughter, who was handsome, righteous and praiseworthy.
The King said to his servants, My daughter is handsome, praiseworthy and righteous, and you would not make her a canopy? Make a canopy for her, for my daughter’s beauty should be seen from within the canopy.
Thus the Lord said: My Torah is handsome, righteous and praiseworthy, should you not construct for it an Ark? It is best that the beauty of My Torah be seen from within the Ark.
(Song of Songs Rabbah 3:8:2)
The parable depicts a King’s daughter who possesses many virtues. The King knows his daughter and her qualities well, but he wishes his people to also appreciate her and to enjoy her beauty as he does. He wishes her to appear in public, but it would not be honorable for her to do so plainly. The solution is the canopy chair, which affords visibility and at the same time concealment. The portable chair allows her to be seen, but only partially. She is thus presented to the public, maintaining a private space within the public one.
The King’s daughter, carried in the canopied chair, is compared to the Torah carried in the Ark. The Torah is accorded a human, feminine quality. The use of these verses from the Song of Songs emphasizes the special relationship of love and appreciation between God and His Torah. Nonetheless, God does not wish to keep her to Himself; He wishes others to enjoy her beauty as well. To this end the Ark, like the canopy chair, a four-sided structure made of wood, is carried from place to place using two poles, and the inner contents are hidden from view when it is on the move.
It seems that this parable deals with the tension between the ownership of the Torah by those on High and her being situated below; between her true belonging to God and her physical presence in the Mishkan (tabernacle). The parable in Song of Songs Rabbah resolves this tension nicely through the vehicle of the Ark, which allows the lofty to reside in the world below. Even being situated within the camp of Israel, the Torah still belongs to the King. The Ark is like a palace with the camp.
This parable does not use the image of a wedding, avoiding the idea of a separation between God and His Torah. It presents a different solution, in which God can share His Torah with Israel.
It is apparent that the use of feminine images allows the Rabbis to express a whole set of emotions and feelings towards the Torah: a bond of love, an admiration of beauty and great appreciation and honor. If God feels thus towards His Torah, how much more should the people of Israel value the presence of the King’s daughter, more precious than rubies, in their midst.
Tamar Kadari is a senior lecturer at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, where she serves as the head of the Midrash and Aggadah program.
* The article was translated from Hebrew by Penina Goldschmidt.
Thomas Zacharias – Giving of the law at Sinai, The image is taken from TALI Visual Midrash website
Tamar Kadari is the Dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and a lecturer for Midrash and Aggadah. She received her PhD in Midrashic literature from Hebrew University and was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at The University of Pennsylvania. In 2009 Dr. Kadari received a grant from the Israeli Science Foundation (ISF) to head a research group preparing a critical edition of Song of Songs Rabbah. Her research interests include biblical women in the eyes of the rabbis, aesthetics and beauty in rabbinic literature and literary readings of midrash. Dr. Kadari is also a sculptor whose work has been exhibited in galleries in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.