The Three Books of Solomon

Image: Woman reading a book. Photo by Lucia Parillo via pixabay.com.

The tradition teaches that Solomon is the author of three books of the Bible. The first is the book Shir haShirim [Song of Songs] a love song written when he was a young man. The second one, Mishlei [Proverbs] was supposedly the product of middle age. The third is Qohelet [Ecclesiastes] which he wrote as an old man who had become cynical. As a description of the contents, it works. In fact, all three books were likely written or assembled long after Solomon’s death. We know this because there is Aramaic in each, and that language did not come into use among Jews until after the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century BCE.

Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes are read for Passover and Sukkot, respectively, but Proverbs does not have a fixed use in the Jewish calendar. The most famous part of the book is Eshet Chayil [Woman of Valor], Proverbs 31: 10-31, which is read or sung in some Jewish homes on Shabbat evening.

A capable wife who can find?
    She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
    and he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good, and not harm,
    all the days of her life.
She seeks wool and flax,
    and works with willing hands.
She is like the ships of the merchant,
    she brings her food from far away.
She rises while it is still night
    and provides food for her household
    and tasks for her servant-girls.
She considers a field and buys it;
    with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength,
    and makes her arms strong.
She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
    Her lamp does not go out at night.
She puts her hands to the distaff,
    and her hands hold the spindle.
She opens her hand to the poor,
    and reaches out her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid for her household when it snows,
    for all her household are clothed in crimson.
She makes herself coverings;
    her clothing is fine linen and purple.
Her husband is known in the city gates,
    taking his seat among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them;
    she supplies the merchant with sashes.
Strength and dignity are her clothing,
    and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
    and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household,
    and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her happy;
    her husband too, and he praises her:
“Many women have done excellently,
    but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
    and let her works praise her in the city gates.

 

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Love in the Time of Elul

We are now in the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year. Elul is spelled thus in Hebrew:

אלול

Aleph – Lamed – Vav – Lamed

There is a tradition dating from ancient times that Elul is an acronym for a passage from Song of Songs:

I am my beloved and my beloved is mine. – Song of Songs 6:3

But that raises the question: what on earth can a piece of erotic poetry teach us about this time of year?

Song of Songs is a long love poem, and it is usually associated with springtime. However, at this time of year opposite the springtime, we read it as an analogy: it is also an expression of the longing of Israel and God for one another.

I can hear the screech of brakes through my modem. Some of you, my readers, are thinking, “Oh! I cannot stand it when she does that God-talk!” So let’s talk about that.

There’s a lot of God-talk during this season and the upcoming High Holy Days. If you are the sort of rational person who finds that off-putting, it’s a tough time of year to be Jewish. So here’s an idea: try hearing “God” and all those metaphors for God as “Mystery.”

As chaotic and mean as this world often is, occasionally goodness breaks through the fog of chaos and meanness. That goodness is a Mystery to us: we experience it in the love of a little dog, the kindness of a stranger, the patter of unexpected rain in a drought.

We sometimes also experience Mystery in moments of terror and grief: a natural disaster, a tragic loss, an experience of fathomless pain.

The common element between these two is that human hearts cry out “WHY?” at them, and it seems as if the question has no rational answer. That’s the moment when we can step out of the rational world and into something my old theology professor Langdon Gilkey used to call “the theological circle.” That which we call “God” is the answer to the “WHY?” poured from the human heart.

So try substituting “Mystery” for “God” and see if it helps.

OK – let’s get back to that acronym and the love poem! This is the time of year when we explore the mysteries of existence, the questions and the secrets in our hearts. The sages connected the letters of Elul with the Song of Songs because this is the time of year that we search out our connections to the Mystery that is God, and they believed that the Mystery of God was searching for us, too. Like lovers, we and the Mystery at the heart of the universe are searching for one another, hoping for a reunion that will heal our hearts.

I wish you a good journey through this month of Elul!

What’s a Megillah?

A megillah (meh-gee-LAH or meh-GILL-ah) is a scroll. Usually, the term refers to one of five specific scrolls (megillot) read on specific days of the Jewish calendar:

Song of Songs (Shir ha Shirim)- read on the Shabbat during Passover.

Ruth – read on Shavuot

Lamentations (Eicha) – read on Tisha B’Av

Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) – read on the Shabbat during Sukkot

Esther – read on Purim

The megillot are not merely read, they are chanted to a particular tune or trope for the day of observance. This is not the same tune used for Shabbat Torah readings – it’s quite distinctive. I’ve linked each of the titles above to recordings, so that you can get a little taste of the trope.

Listening to a recording is a poor substitute for the experience of hearing a megillah chanted in person. Each reading takes place in the context of a community, and in the case of Lamentations and Esther the congregation also has a role to play. You’ll get a sense of that, too, from the recordings above.

Have you ever heard a megillah chanted live? What was that experience like for you?