No more powerful testimony to the significance of marital love and faithfulness in Judaism is required than the fact that the prophets of Israel use the love of husband and wife as a great parable for the relationship between God and Israel. Best-known is the exquisite description in Hosea: "And I will betroth you unto Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you unto Me in righteousness and in justice, and in loving kindness and in compassion. And I will betroth you unto Me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord.(1) This verse is recited when wrapping oneself in a tallit (prayer shawl) before reciting one's prayers.


An astute passage from the Talmud applies an epigram describing human love to the relationship between God and the Jewish people. In his reinterpretation, Rav Huna demonstrates a deep understand of the difficult stages of marital love. "When our love was strong, we could have lain together on the edge of a sword edge [i.e. a narrow bed would suffice]; now that our love is not strong, a bed sixty cubits wide is not big enough for us."(2)

Rav Huna reinterprets this epigram as the cooling relation between God and Israel. In the early stage of the "relationship," i.e., during the period in the wilderness following the liberation from Egypt, God meets with and speaks to Israel from above the cover of the Ark,"(3) a distance the Rabbis to be ten tefahim or handbreadths from the ground. God's presence is thus quite close to the people; this is the period of great love, when God and Israel husband and wife can share a very small space together.


This is the period of which Jeremiah spoke nostalgically in God's name: "I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride — how you followed Me in the wilderness."(4)


Later, when Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, the dimensions of "God's abode" grew. "And the house which King Solomon built for the Load, the length thereof was three-score cubits, and the breadth twenty cubits, and the height thirty cubits."(5) Rav Huna concludes with a verse from the days of the prophet Isaiah, following the destruction of the Temple: "Thus saith the Lord, the heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool; where is the house that you may build unto me?"(6) According to rabbinic theology, the people have sinned, and have thus been estranged from God; the Divine Presence cannot even be contained even within the larger Temple. In our analogy, God and Israel husband and wife are no longer in love; they are uncomfortable together even in a very large bed.


In this same vein, the sages interpreted the series of lyric love songs and poetic dialogues and monologues in Song of Songs as expressive as the relationship of God and Israel. Given the secular and erotic nature of Song of Songs, its canonization was opposed by some; it was accepted into the canon only in the second century CE(7) on the basis of the allegorical interpretation of R. Akiva, who identified the protagonists not as human lovers but as God, the male-lover/groom, and Israel, the female-beloved/bride.

"All the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies." (R. Akiva, 2nd CE)

The love between man and woman in Song of Songs is thus viewed as symbolic of the covenant of God and Israel. The Midrash goes further in creating an expansive text that understands Song of Songs as a complete record of Israel's sacred history in biblical times: the exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the entrance into Canaan, the subjugation to the kingdoms and the coming redemption by reason of Israel's faithfulness to the covenant.

The Christian exegetes adopted this traditional of allegorical interpretation, assigning Jesus the role of bridegroom and the Church that of the bride. In the late Middle Ages, both Christian and Jewish interpretation of Song of Songs took on a more individual/mythical bent, with the bride and the groom symbolizing the human soul and its divine beloved respectively.


[1] Hosea 21:22 [back]
[2] Sanhedrin 7a [back]
[3] Ex 25:22 [back]
[4] Jeremiah 2:2 [back]

[5] I Kings 6:2 [back]
[6] Isaiah 66:1 [back]
[7] Yad 3:5 [back]

From: Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz, Swimming in the Sea of Talmud Lessons for Everyday Living, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1998), pp. 256-258.

"Masculine and feminine in Judaism," by Jacob Neusner in Vol. 2 of The Encyclopedia of Judaism (eds., Neusner, Avery-Peck, & Green), Brill Publishers (2000) in collaboration with the Museum of Jewish Heritage, NY. Brill has the copyright.

Werblowsky and Wigoder, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, Copyright Oxford University Press, 1997.

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