Song of Solomon & Shulamite III

Scott Alexander Gabriel Reiss

7 September 2004

3. Phonetic Structure

A. Vocalization

The Aleppo Codex (c. 930), written in or around Tiberias (on the shores of the Sea of Galilee) by Shlomo ben Buya’a under the direction of Aaron ben Asher (flourished first half of tenth century), the Jewish scribe and philologist, was the earliest extant complete vocalized Bible until 1947, when Syrian rioters burnt down the synagogue where it had been housed and diligently copied for five hundred years, since its removal from Jerusalem via Cairo. Jews managed to rescue about sixty percent of the manuscript and smuggle it back to Israel. The source text for virtually all subsequent editions, the Aleppo Codex is the single most important document in the three-thousand-year history of the Hebrew Bible. In his guidelines for biblical scribes Moses ben Maimon (1135-1204), aka Maimonides, the Rambam, the Jewish Spanish physician and theologian, writes of this text:

The scroll on which I relied on for (clarification of) these matters was a scroll renowned in Egypt, which includes all the 24 books (of the Bible). It was kept in Jerusalem for many years so that scrolls could be checked from it. Everyone relies upon it because it was corrected by ben Asher, who spent many years writing it precisely, and (afterward) checked it many times.

Mishneh Torah, translated by Eliyahu Touger (1990). Translator’s notes in parentheses.

The spiritual leader may be prescribing more than describing, but his words carried a strong influence.

Hebrew (like other Semitic languages) was originally and is still written without vowels. Sometime between Jerome (c. 347-420), the Dalmatian theologian and author of the Latin translation of the Bible, and Saadia ben Joseph (892-942), aka Gaon, the Jewish Egyptian philosopher and author of the Arabic translation, who testify respectively to the absence and presence of vowels, three rival schools of vocalization arose, the Babylonian, the Palestinian (proto-Tiberian), and the Tiberian, with the last (and latest) eventually prevailing.1 Moreover, beginning in the second half of the eighth century amid political turmoil in the caliphate of Baghdad, the Karaites, a schismatic Jewish sect, posed a grave threat to rabbinical authority by opposing traditional biblical commentary in a back-to-the-text movement. The besieged Tiberian rabbis fought back by creating a textual standard that they called מסורה, the Masorah or tradition.  The Palestinian school under ben Naphtali (flourished c. 890-940, given name either Jacob or Moses), the Jewish scribe and philologist, produced its own standard, but it has not survived, although many of its readings are known through secondary sources.

Aleppo Codex (c. 930)

Aleppo Codex (c. 930)

Tradition attributes the vowels either to Sinaic origin or to Ezra2, a priest and legal scribe in the Great Synagogue (established under his jurisdiction c. 444 BCE). None however is attested until the High Middle Ages, more than five hundred years after Hebrew had ceased to be a native language (gradually replaced by Aramaic and other vernacular tongues as the spoken languages of the Jews).

The authors of the Masorah have exerted more influence on the history of biblical scholarship than all of the Talmudists and exegetes put together, for they in large part determined what following generations of readers and philologists would understand as the words of the Bible. In adding vowels to the text, eliminating polysemy by suppressing homonymy, they essentially rewrote it. Since the Septuagint (translated from lost sources c. 250-150 BCE) preceded the vocalized Masorah by a thousand years, its readings must be regarded as at least as authoritative. Philo (c. 20 BCE-50 CE), the Jewish Egyptian diplomat and philosopher, describes the circumstances of the Greek translation:

He [Ptolemy II (c. 308-246 BCE), aka Philadelphus, king of Egypt], then, being a sovereign of this character, and having conceived a great admiration for and love of the legislation of Moses, conceived the idea of having our laws translated into the Greek language; and immediately he sent out ambassadors to the high-priest and king of Judea, for they were the same person. And having explained his wishes, and having requested him to pick him out a number of men, of perfect fitness for the task, who should translate the law, the high-priest, as was natural, being greatly pleased, and thinking that the king had only felt the inclination to undertake a work of such a character from having been influenced by the providence of God, considered, and with great care selected the most respectable of the Hebrews whom he had about him, who in addition to their knowledge of their national scriptures, had also been well instructed in Grecian literature, and cheerfully sent them.

Life of Moses, II, 31-32, translation by Charles Yonge (1854-1890).

Much of this tale may be deemed apocryphal, but the authors of the Septuagint spoke and wrote a language fairly close to Ancient Hebrew. The authors of the Masorah spoke medieval Aramaic, and learned to read Mishnaic (c. 100-300 CE) and Biblical Hebrew.

The vocalization of the Bible ignited a controversy that burned for more than five hundred years, until the advent of moveable type3 allowed the advocates of the Masorah to impose its readings definitively. The tradition of printing the Bible with vowels, while almost all other Hebrew texts (including books and newspapers) lack them, is not a quaint usage benevolently conceived on behalf of Diaspora Jewish readers less skilled in the Hebrew language, but an ideological tactic to shrink the plethora of biblical variants down to one unique vision. Indeed this seemingly innocuous practice amounts to censorship, as may be the case in 1:2. The actual Torah is manuscripted without vowels precisely because it is kept in the synagogue between the hands of the rabbis, and shown to the layman only under supervision. Modern Jewish women have fought for the right to touch the scrolls not merely as a symbolic gesture, but in a legitimate demand to read the unadulterated text of the Bible.

The Moroccan cantor Solomon Amzallay sings 1:1-4 with musical accompaniment.

The song of songs, which [is] Solomon’s.

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love [is] better than wine.

Because of the savour of thy good ointments thy name [is as] ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins love thee.

Draw me, we will run after thee: the king hath brought me into his chambers: we will be glad and rejoice in thee, we will remember thy love more than wine: the upright love thee.

Vocalized Masoretic Printed Text in Ezra SIL SR Unicode font

Vocalized Masoretic Printed Text in Ezra SIL SR Unicode font

1:2-4 are diversely attributed among the characters, with 1:1 generally deemed to be the postscripted title. Unvocalized Hebrew second-person singular personal (object case) and possessive pronouns are gender neutral, so no linguistic markers help to determine who is being addressed, and therefore, by process of elimination, who is speaking. (The Masorah adds vowels indicating a masculine antecedent, thus implying that the speech is addressed to Solomon.) The subject and object of the imperative משכני “Draw me” are both singular, but unmarked for gender. Ascribing the verses to the Daughters of Jerusalem allows Shulamite to figure in the second person (ך‑), and Solomon (absent or silently present) in the third: ‑י “him”, ו‑ “his”, and המלך “the king”. It also resolves the grammatical difficulty of the third- to second-person shift in 1:2, ישקני “Let him kiss me”, פיהו “his mouth”, דדיך “thy love”. Solomon could not say this, and Shulamite could only say it if she addresses the first clause to a third party, the second clause to her lover. This interpretation does not account for the coordinating conjunction כי “for”, indicating a causal link. Moreover it may be based on a corrupt reading of דד in 1:2. If the masculine noun שמך refers to Shulamite’s name, then the solecism of the feminine verb inflection (‑ת) may be understood as syllepsis, an agreement of sex rather than of gender.

The attribution of the whole speech to the Daughters of Jerusalem makes better dramatic sense as well, with the chorus speaking a prologue or argument, introducing the plot and characters, setting the stage for Shulamite’s stunning entrance: שחורה אני “Black I am”, to render the rhetorical inversion. The formalized, theatrical language of the verses suggests just such an exposition, and the bridesmaids, perhaps led by a first maiden, speak of themselves in the first person singular (ני‑) or plural (‑נ), and third person plural (עלמות “the virgins”, מישרים “the upright”). The bride would hardly refer to herself as I, we, and they. The Daughters of Jerusalem address Shulamite (either present or invoked by prosopopoeia), to whom all of the second person pronouns refer, teasing her about her fiancé, fantasizing about their love life. Such light-hearted banter would shock no one at a bridal shower.

The Septuagint renders דד in 1:2 and 1:4 as “breast” (μαστος), as in Proverbs 5:194, whose imagery strikingly recalls that of the Song of Songs. Saadia voices an interesting minority opinion “saliva”, as the exchange of bodily fluids in a deep kiss, according to Abraham ibn Ezra (c. 1092-1167), the Jewish Spanish mathematician and philologist, who references Proverbs 7:185. The Masorah reads דוד “love” in 1:2. This form occurs throughout the text (35 instances), generally understood as “lover”. The Hebrew vowel ו is often suppressed in writing due to the presence of certain suffixes, hence the ambiguity. The noun שד “breast” occurs eight times (1:13, 4:5, 7:3, 7:7, 7:8, 8:1, 8:8, 8:10), however Ezekiel 236 shows that it can coincide with its synonym דד, one or the other assuming the nuance of nipple (cf. the Vulgate “uber” and “mamma” in 4:10). The form דד occurs twice more, both in 4:10, where the Septuagint reads “breast” (μαστος) each time. A significant variant occurs in 6:12,

Or ever I was aware, my soul made me [like] the chariots of Amminadib.

לא ידעתי נפשי שמתני מרכבות עמי נדיב

There I will give you my breasts: my soul knew it not: it made me as the chariots of Aminadab.

εκει δωσω τους μαστους μου σοι ουκ εγνω η ψυχη μου εθετο με αρματα αμιναδαβ

The Masorah reads עמי נדיב “my noble people” where the Septuagint understands the name of an unknown horseman, a homonym.

Another interpretation of דוד sees a reference to Dod (aka Shelem7, Osiris, Attis, and Adonis), the Assyrian name of Tammuz8, the Babylonian God of the sun9 and of the flock, who loved Ishtar (aka Shalmith10, Isis, Cybele, and Aphrodite), the Babylonian Goddess of the moon and of fertility. According to this hypothesis the Song of Songs derives from ancient Canaanite celestial rites of agriculture.

The paronomasic metaphor in 1:3 composed of the tenor 11aשם “name” and the repeated vehicle 11bשמן “ointments or effluvia” confirms this introduction to the physical aspects of love.

Jewish Yemenite Bride in Tiberias, Israel (1999)

Shulamite apologetically refers to herself twice as שחורה black (1:5, 1:6). The adjective was used long before Othello, and has been in many places ever since, in describing the skin color of people of almost any hue to stigmatize the object of social ostracism. Shulamite’s complexion may have been anything from the olive of Mizrahi (Near Eastern) Jews (derogatorily referred to as “black” 12שחור), to the tawny of Jewish Yemenites, to the sienna of Jewish Ethiopians. Both Yemen and Abyssinia have been designated by partisans of the Queen of Sheba hypothesis for the identity of King Solomon’s bride.13 The pejorative black may simply have been an epithet used by southern Judeans to refer to northern Israelites.

Jewish Ethiopian in Accho, Israel (1999)

Jewish Yemenite Bride in Tiberias, Israel (1999)


Jewish Ethiopian in Accho, Israel (1999)

Song of Solomon & Shulamite II

Song of Solomon & Shulamite IV


1 Saadia, for example, was a vehement holdout for the Babylonian school of vocalization, and an outspoken opponent of the Karaites and of ben Asher, who some believe may have belonged to the sect. At odds with the Exilarch (the political leader of the Babylonian Jews), deposed as gaon (headmaster of the Jewish Academy at Sura), Saadia suffered professionally for his convictions. The isolated linguistic community of Jewish Yemenites followed the Babylonian tradition for eight hundred years, until their exposure to outside influence. [Back]

2 Ezra 7:10-11, “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do [it], and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments. / Now this [is] the copy of the letter that the king Artaxerxes gave unto Ezra the priest, the scribe, [even] a scribe of the words of the commandments of the Lord, and of his statutes to Israel.” [Back]

3 It is no accident that many of the first books printed in Europe were bibles, including Gutenberg’s Mazarin Vulgate (1455), the vocalized Hebrew Soncino folio (1488), and the vocalized Hebrew Brescia quarto (1494), a copy of which Luther used for his translation. The humanists of the Reformation and the rabbis had the same goal, to fix the text of the Bible and, in doing so, to impose their interpretation. The Roman Catholic hierarchy employed a different tactic in the service of the same strategy. Instead of making their dogmatic Bible more accessible, they made it less so by leaving it in Latin, which few layman could read. [Back]

4 Proverbs 5:19, “Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love.” The homiletic message of the poem, an injunction to avoid intermarriage (זרה “strange woman”), could have arisen from Solomon’s considerable experience with foreign-born brides. Cf. 1 Kings 11:1. [Back]

5 Proverbs 7:18, “Come, let us take our fill of love until the morning: let us solace ourselves with loves.” [Back]

6 E.g. Ezekiel 23:3, “And they committed whoredoms in Egypt; they committed whoredoms in their youth: there were their breasts pressed, and there they bruised the teats of their virginity.” [Back]

7 Cognate of שלם “offering” and of שלום “peace”. Cf. Leviticus 3 passim. [Back]

8 Ezekiel 8:14, “Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the Lords house which [was] toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz.” Tammuz is also the name of the fourth month of the Hebrew calendar (late June to late July in the Gregorian calendar). [Back]

9 דוד also refers to “caldron”, as in Modern Hebrew דוד שמש “solar boiler”. Cf. 2 Chronicles 35:13, “And they roasted the passover with fire according to the ordinance: but the [other] holy [offerings] sod they in pots, and in caldrons, and in pans, and divided [them] speedily among all the people.” [Back]

10 Cognate of שלום “peace”. [Back]

11 The Hebrew letters ם and מ are allographs, the former final, the latter initial or medial. The final form of letters was introduced to help separate words in manuscripts written without spaces. [Back]

12 The film The Black Panthers (in Israel) Speak (2003) by Eli Hamo and Sami Shalom Chetrit shows that the adjective does not primarily refer to pigment. [Back]

13 Cf. 1 Kings 10:1-13 passim. [Back]

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