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The Song of Songs and Tu B’Av Love Festivities

Dr. Tamar Kadari
| 12/07/2010
Rabbinic Literature
Symbols and Rituals
The Holidays

Tu B’Av – Festival of Love

Of the festivals and special days that we mark during the year, the 15th of Av has, in recent years, become known as the Holiday of Love. This Hebrew date belongs to lovers. Many a bride and groom seek to hold their wedding on this date, and married couples celebrate it with romance. What is the source of Tu B’av as a holiday of love, and what is its connection to the Song of Songs?

We first learn of this special date in the Mishna, Tractate Ta’anit:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel said:  There were no better days for Israel than the Fifteenth of Av and the Day of Atonement, when the daughters of Jerusalem would go out wearing white garments-borrowed so as not to embarrass those who did not have…   And the daughters of Jerusalem went out and danced in the vineyards.  And what did they say?  Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself.  Do not turn your eyes to beauty, but turn your eyes to family.  “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain;  a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Prov 31:30).  And it says:  “Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates” (ibid., 31).  And it also says:  “Go forth, O daughters of Zion, and behold King Solomon, with the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding, on the day of the gladness of his heart” (Songs 3:11).

“On the day of his wedding”-that is the Giving of the Torah.  “On the day of the gladness of his heart”-that is the building of the Temple-may it be built speedily in our days.  Amen (For a discussion of the different levels of this mishnah, see Paul Mandel, “‘There were no better days for Israel than the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement’:  On the Final Mishnah in Tractate Ta’anit and Its Development” (Hebrew), Te’udah  11 (1996), 147-178)  (Ta’anit 4.8)

Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel, who lived in the first century CE, described the holiday of the Fifteenth of Av, on which the young maidens used to dance in the vineyards in order to find a partner.Young women wore white clothes that they borrowed from one another, in order to blur class distinctions. The text continues to mention other considerations in choosing a partner: beauty and family connection. Young girls lacking in these tried to persuade the young men that other factors were equally important, such as being God fearing, or skilled in a livelihood. The Beraita in the Babylonian Talmud records the words of the maidens:

The daughters of Israel went out to dance in the vineyards. A rabbi (tanna) taught: He who sought a partner went there. The ones with breeding said, “Lift up you eyes, young man, and see what you will choose. The rabbis (tannaim) taught: The beautiful ones would say, “Choose beauty, for that is what woman was created for.” The ones of good families would say, “Family is everything, for woman was created to bring forth sons.” The unattractive among them would say, “Make your selections only for the glory of Heaven, but provide liberally for us.” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 31a).

The verse from Song of Songs is mentioned in Tractate Ta’anit in connection with the vineyard festivities: “Go forth, daughters of Zion, and gaze upon King Solomon, even upon the crown wherewith his mother has crowned him on his wedding day, and in the day of the gladness of his heart.” (Song of Songs 3:11). What purpose does this verse serve here and why is it cited in this context?

The words: “Go forth (zeena), daughters of Zion…” mirror the Mishna’s description “And the daughters of Israel went out (yozo’ot);” the words “and see” recall the text of the Mishna, “Lift up your eyes, young man, and see…;” and Solomon’s wedding serves as an inspiration for the entire event, which has marriage as its clear purpose. The primary subject of the verse, therefore, is a mortal bride and groom.

Before turning to the allegorical conclusion of the Mishna, I would like to further consider this interpretation. Was it usual in the time of the Rabbis to refer to Song of Songs in the context of human love?

Song of Songs as an Anthology of Wedding Songs

Several verses in the Song of Songs either refer explicitly to a wedding or allude to it.  Thus, the wedding of Solomon is mentioned in Song 3:9-11,   as cited in the Mishna above.  Songs 8:8-9 alludes to the wedding of the sister as an event to take place in the future: “We have a little sister, and she has no breasts.  What shall we do for our sister, on the day when she is spoken for?  If she is a wall, we will build upon her a battlement of silver  but if she is a door, we will enclose her with boards of cedar.”

There are other references or allusions to marriage as well.  For example, in Song of Songs 3:4:  “… Until I found him whom my soul loves.  I held him, and would not let him go, until I had brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me.” And in Songs 8:2:  “I would lead you and bring you into the house of my mother, she [or: you] will teach me.  I would give you spiced wine to drink, the juice of my pomegranates,” evidently expressing a hope for the future.

One ought to mention here an approach among biblical scholars which asserts that the book is indeed a collection of nuptial songs, recited before the bridegroom and bride during the week of the festivities. In support of this view, they note that the dialogue in Song of Songs is suitable to an appearance before an audience, and the numerous repetitions, which are likewise suitable to folk song.   There were even those who observed the resemblance between Song of Songs and the songs recited at the wedding ceremonies of Syrian peasants in Damascus. But was Song of Songs used to serve as a love song at weddings in the Rabbinic period? Did the Sages agree with the interpretation of Song of Songs as a love  song?

Song of Songs as a Wedding Song in the Rabbinic Period

An intense opposition to the use of Song of Songs at weddings, is expressed by Rabbi Akiva in the Tosefta:

Rabbi Akiva said:  One who raises his voice in the Song of Songs in the banquet house and makes it into a kind of [secular] song has no portion in the World to Come.  (Tosefta Sanhedrin12.10)

Rabbi Akiva opposes the phenomenon that existed in his day, in which verses from Song of Songs were used at drinking parties-i.e., at weddings.  He is opposed in principle to any use of Song of Songs such that it might be interpreted as a song of friends and lovers, as according to his approach, Song of Songs ought to be perceived in principle as the “holy of holies” (Mishna Yadayim 3:4). But from his words we may infer that in his day there were those who used Song of Songs as a song of praise to the bride and groom during the seven days of nuptial celebrations.

Even after the period of Rabbi Akiva one can identify those Sages who continued to interpret Song of Songs as referring to human nuptials.  Thus, for example, in the following saying of Rabbi Yohanan, a second-generation Palestinean amora:

“Let my beloved come into his garden and taste” (Songs 4:16).  Rabbi Yohanan said:  The Torah teaches one proper conduct, that the bridegroom should not enter the bridal chamber until the bride gives him permission.  What is the basis for this?  “Let my beloved come to his garden” (Songs 4:16) [and then] “I come to my garden” (Songs 5:1).

The  midrash presents us with the festive atmosphere of a wedding ceremony.  The Song of Songs portrays an exchange between the bride and the groom at a very significant moment during this occasion.  The bride addresses the groom and invites him with the words:  “let my beloved come into his garden,” which the bridegroom answers with the very same words, “I come to my garden, my sister, my bride.”  The use of the identical linguistic formula indicates that we have here a dialogue, or an invitation and response to the invitation.  If we read closely the words of the bride, “Let my beloved come into his garden” (and not “my garden”), we note that they properly reflect the reality of the situation, in which the two of them have already entered into a state of betrothal a number of months or years prior to that time.  During this period, the bride was committed to her groom, but forbidden sexually both to him and to any other man.  The wedding ceremony constitutes the final stage of connection between the two.

Yohanan uses the literal level of Song of Songs in order to teach the bridegroom how to behave in intimate matters.  From the halakhic viewpoint, the bride is “his garden”-she is his, as they are already betrothed.  But despite this, the bridegroom needs to know that he must ask the bride’s permission before he may “come” (in both senses) and consummate the marriage.  This request for permission is referred to here as “proper conduct” (derekh eretz):  one that is not a matter of formal halakhah, but falls within the framework of proper or suitable human conduct.  This is a piece of advice for successful marriage life.

Other evidence of the use of Song of Songs at weddings is found in songs that praise the bride and groom. Scholars have shown that, in songs of praise for nuptials in the Aramaic language from the Byzantine period, one finds expressions taken from verses of Song of Songs that are to be understood in the literal sense (Menahem Kister, “The Songs of the Children of the West-Aspects of a World of Forgotten Poetry” (Hebrew), Tarbiz 76 (2007), 168-170). Similarly, in Israeli piyyutim written in honor of the bride and groom who come to the synagogue on the Sabbath following their wedding, there are special Kedushtaot[liturgical poems introducing the Kedushah, or Doxology] elaborating verses from the Song of Songs (See Ezra Fleischer, Hebrew Liturgical Poetry in the Middle Ages (Hebrew) (Jerusalem, 1975), 158-159. R. Eleazar b. Kallir, Qedushtaot for the Day Giving of the Torah (Hebrew), ed. S. Elitzur (Jerusalem, 2000), 242-243).  Shaul Yahalom and Menahem Kister have shown that Birkat Betulin (the Blessing for Virginity), a poetic blessing bearing signs of great antiquity, makes use of verses from Song of Songs without turning them in an allegorical direction.

The use of Song of Songs in the context of weddings may indicate the extent to which this generic identification took root among all levels of the population.  The Rabbis  may have attempted to modify this phenomenon by using the verses from Song of Songs as an educational means, teaching how to choose a proper partner or the proper behavior between the partners [upon marriage].  Another means of dealing with this phenomenon was the transformation of the human wedding into an allegorical wedding.The Mishna in Tractate Ta’anit concludes with an allegoric homily: “on his wedding day” refers to the giving of the Torah, and “the day of gladness” to the building of the Temple. According to this interpretation, Song of Songs does not deal with an earthly wedding, but rather with an allegorical bride and groom, namely, God and Israel. It is clear that this interpretation became central in Rabbinic thought, and is prevalent still today. Nonetheless, we must bear in mind that the allegoric reading does not negate the previous use of Song of Songs as a human love song. To the contrary, the allegorical homily strengthens the primary meaning, as it also deals with a wedding and the union of two lovers.

In conclusion, it would appear from these sources that, notwithstanding Rabbi Akiva’s strict words, Song of Songs continued to be used in the context of marriage.  The imagery found in Song of Songs continued to serve as a source of inspiration for homilies dealing with marriage and for descriptions of the bridegroom and the bride and the love between the two, as well as a depiction of the vineyard festivities of Tu B’av mentioned in Mishna Ta’anit.

Dr. Tamar Kadari is the head of the Judaism and the Arts MA program,  a lecturer in Midrash at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and a recipient of an Israel Science Foundation grant for a critical edition  of  Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah, which will be published by Schechter’s Midrash Project.

Art Credit: Aquarelle painting by Aharon April “Song of Songs-Last”

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.

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