A Valentine for the Ages: The Biblical “Song of Songs”

(The following post is by Ann Brener, Hebraic area specialist in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division.)

With its rich nature imagery and enigmatic dream-like sequences, the “Song of Songs” (also known as the “Songs of Solomon”) is surely one of the world’s great love poems and one of the most popular books in the Old and New Testaments. A few lines are enough to entice any reader into its magic:

The fig-tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines in blossom give forth their fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the cliffs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for thy voice is sweet and thy countenance comely.

Take us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards; for our vineyards are in blossom.

My beloved is mine, and I am his, that feedeth among the lilies.

Until the day ebbs and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a gazelle or a young hart upon the mountains of spices. (“Song of Songs” 2: 1-5)

"Song of Songs" from the First Rabbinic Bible. Venice, 1517..African and Middle Eastern Division.

“Song of Songs” from the First Rabbinic Bible. Venice, 1517. African and Middle Eastern Division.

Though scholars often demur, the “Song of Songs” is traditionally attributed to King Solomon himself, ruler of the Kingdom of Israel around 960 B.C. Yet even this exalted attribution was not enough to guarantee the “Song of Songs” a place in the canon of sacred writ.

Ancient Jewish lore tells us that in the dark days following the disastrous uprising against Rome and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the Jewish sages met to canonize the various books of Holy Writ into a single Hebrew Bible, fearful lest the sacred writings be lost. In the ensuing debate over what to keep in the Bible and what to keep out, it was the great Rabbi Akiba who answered critics of the poem’s undeniably sensual nature, saying that “if other books of the Bible were sacred, then the ‘Song of Songs’ is the most sacred of all.” Thus the exquisite poem became one of the 24 books included in the Hebrew Bible, and, along with Ecclesiastes and Proverbs, one of the three biblical books traditionally ascribed to King Solomon.

"Song of Songs" in micrography. Germany, 1920. African and Middle Eastern Division.

“Song of Songs” in micrography. Germany, 1920. African and Middle Eastern Division.

With the dawn of printing in the 15th century, the “Song of Songs” was amongst the first texts to roll off the press, and through the years it has served as a focus for artists and printers alike – all of which has resulted in the “goodly treasures new and old” now lining the shelves of the Library of Congress, to quote from the “Song of Songs” itself (7: 13). One of the most precious early editions is the one included in a Hebrew Bible printed in Venice, 1517, by the fabled Daniel Bomberg, printer of so many first editions of Hebrew classics. Known as the First Rabbinic Bible, this was the first printed Bible to incorporate the “masorah” – the body of ancient Judaic tradition relating to the correct textual reading of the Hebrew Bible.

"Song of Songs" illustrated by Ze’ev Raban. Berlin, 1923.  African and Middle Eastern Division.

“Song of Songs” illustrated by Ze’ev Raban. Berlin, 1923.
African and Middle Eastern Division.

A most unique edition of theSong of Songs” is a lovely example of Hebrew micrography created in 1920 Germany, by Abraham Stollerman. Micrography is the scribal practice of employing minuscule script to create abstract shapes or figurative designs and is an art form found in some of the most beautiful Hebrew manuscripts from the Middle Ages. The heart-shaped image, less than five inches tall, contains the “Song of Songs” in its entirety – all eight chapters.

This “Song of Songs” was printed in Berlin in 1923, but its illustrations were created by , Ze’ev Raban (1890-1970), an artist based in Jerusalem. Raban is perhaps the foremost representative of the Bezalel School of Art, founded in Jerusalem in 1906 and famous for its distinctive blend of Art Nouveau with motifs from the ancient Near East.

"Song of Songs" illustrated by Mordechai Beck. Jerusalem, ca. 1999. African and Middle Eastern Division.

“Song of Songs” illustrated by Mordechai Beck. Jerusalem, ca. 1999. African and Middle Eastern Division.

This magnificent limited-edition “Song of Songs” features the etchings of Mordechai Beck, whose sinuous shapes in black and white emphasize the sensual dimension of the text. Featuring the calligraphy of Yitshak Pludwinski, it was published in Jerusalem around 1999.

These four editions of the “Song of Songs,” each so different in style, offer a unique glimpse into Jewish culture and history across the ages. They are, however, only a sampling from the collections of the Hebraic Section, and it is our hope that readers will take the opportunity to come view these and other editions for themselves.

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