… Qohelet.1 And the verse states, He composed three thousand proverbs. (1 Kings 5:12) And it states [that] his songs numbered one thousand and five. (Ibid.) Thus, he states here that this book is an epitome of his other works (khulāṣat sāʾir muṣannafātihi), and the quintessence of his total wisdom (wa-zubdat jamīʿ ḥikmatihi), and the purpose of all the sciences that came before it (wa-’l-ghāya min jamīʿ mā taqaddama bihi min al-ḥikam).2 This indicates that his compilation of wisdom in this book was at the end of his life. And I shall explain to you at the end of Qohelet why3 he placed it before Qohelet in Scripture,4 when it is fitting that it should be after it.5
The loftiness of this book, and its elevated rank in lofty meanings, and its exalted station, have already become well-known among the religious community (al-milla). They know that it is the furthest limit of his wisdom, and the [ultimate] destination (wa-maḥall al-wuṣūl),6 and the arrangement of its ranks and his various stations (wa-ikhtilāf maqāmātihi) are according to their beginnings and ends.7 However, the interpretations of it vary, and the explanations differ
[The allegorical valence of the male beloved:]
For everybody is in agreement that the [male] beloved alluded in this book is the Real, exalted is He, and any majesty in it8 is derived from His majesty, and any beauty or loveliness – however great – is from9 that which is acquired of His venerable attributes, as one scholar (baʿḍ al-fuḍalāʾ) said when he was asked to say something of His attributes and perfection. He answered, saying, “He is the King who, whenever you call beauty unmixed with ugliness to mind, or if you call perfection untarnished by deficiency to mind, you have attained a complete picture of him.10 Every perfection is in reality his, and every defect – even be it metaphorical – must be entirely denied him. His beauty has a face, his generosity a hand. One who serves him gains the utmost felicity (al-saʿāda al-quṣwā); one who forsakes him forfeits the hereafter and the [temporal] world (al-ākhira wa-’l-dunyā).”11
Therefore, the human soul’s ultimate felicity, and its perfection and its life, is to come to know His splendor, and to delight in witnessing Him according to one’s rank. However, concerning the highest of the ranks of supernal existent beings – the celestial spheres and the stars, not to mention the angels – their ultimate felicity and the telos of their delight and the eternity of their subsistence lies in that which they grasp of His sublimity, and in that which they behold of His dominion, each rank according to that which comes to them according to the grasp of His sublimity that its faculties can bear, and that which comes to them through its utmost exertion. And all of them declare their worship and praise and exultation, and their tremendous desire, saying Blessed is the glory of the Lord, in His place. (Ez. 3:12)
[The allegorical valence of the female beloved: A. Wisdom]
Concerning the [female] beloved to which [the book] refers, speaking of her in figurative language,12 there are those who say that it alludes to wisdom,13 as he said in Proverbs, A loving doe, a graceful mountain goat. Let her breasts satisfy you at all times. (Prov. 5:19) He said in her name, Mine are counsel and resourcefulness; I am understanding; courage is mine. Through me kings reign, and rulers decree just laws. Through me princes rule, great men and all the righteous judges. Those who love me I love, and those who seek me will find me. (Prov. 8:14–17) I endow those who love me with substance; I will fill their treasuries. (Ibid. v.21) He said, The Lord created me at the beginning of His course, as the first of His works of old. In the distant past I was fashioned, at the beginning, [at the origin of earth.] (Ibid. vv.22–23) and, There was still no deep when I was brought forth, [no springs rich in water]. (Ibid. v.24) I was there when He set the heavens into place; when He fixed the horizon upon the deep. (Ibid. v.27) Then, He said in her name, I was there with Him as a confidant, a source of delight every day, rejoicing before Him at all times. (Ibid. v.30) [The matter is] as we explained some of the meanings of these verses in their respective places.
[B. The Collective of Israel]
There are those who say that it refers to the Community of Israel (keneset yisraʾel) – that is, the whole of them. They interpret it as referring to [the Israelites’] presence in Egypt in a most confined condition, and tremendous disgrace. But when the Real, exalted is He, perceived the strength of their desire for Him, and their search for Him, and their wish to reach Him, He took them and restored them to a place of nearness to Him. He brought them near to His sublime flank, and caused them to stand at Mount Sinai, and gave them to drink the wine of His love, and delighted them with the fare of his Law, and announced His commandments to them through His Book. He guided them through the wilderness under the shelter of the Cloud, as He said, Who is she that comes up from the desert like columns of smoke, in clouds of myrrh and frankincense, of all the powders of the merchant? (Song 3:6) This is the meaning of His statement, exalted is He, Who led you through the great and terrible wilderness [with its seraph serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it, who brought forth water from you from the flinty rock]. (Deut. 8:15) … You lacked nothing. (Deut. 2:7)14 He brought them to all that He had promised them and their prophets, as [Solomon] said, not a single word has failed of all the gracious promises. (1 Kings 8:56) Thereafter, whenever there appeared a veil which separated them from Him – if they strayed after that which He had forbidden them – they became distant from his door and cut themselves off from his providence, as it says, upon distant hills.15 (Song 2:17) And this is all according to the coarseness and grossness of the veil, or its delicacy and subtlety.
So He provided a detailed elaboration of these meanings, modeling them with diverse expressions, and enshrining their meanings in various parables, and in a manner speech that might be welcome [to them], desirable to the soul, polished for the heart, with figurative expressions and poetic names – each according to its purpose from among these meanings.
This is just what Ezekiel did:
When I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you: “Live in spite of your blood.” [Yea, I said to you, “Live in spite of your blood.”] (Ezek. 16:6) Then, I passed by you [again] and saw that your time for love had arrived. (Ibid. v.8) This alludes to the moment of release.
So I spread My robe over you and covered your nakedness … (Ibid.) [This refers to] their deliverance from the disgrace of captivity and the heritage of servitude.
… and I entered into a covenant with you … (Ibid.) at the gathering at Mount Sinai. And he took a record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. (Ex. 24:7) … Thus you became Mine (Ezek. 16:8) through their statement, “We will do and obey.” (Ex. 24:7)
Then He described their nourishment, the delicacies, their silken attire, the comfort, the acquisition of [their] country, and the delivery of its bounty to them. He said, Your food was choice flour, honey, and oil. You grew more and more beautiful, and became fit for royalty. (Ezek. 16:13) At that time your name became great, and your dominion was prolonged, and your decrees were fulfilled: Your beauty won you fame among the nations … (Ibid. v.14)
In the course of the narrative, the construction of the Temple and the dwelling of the light of the Divine Presence in it, and [God’s] providence for them on account of this, were described allegorically. This is [the meaning of] His statement, I clothed you with embroidered garments, and gave you sandals of dolphin leather to wear, and wound fine linen about your head, and dressed you in silks. I decked you out in finery [and put bracelets on your arms and a chain around your neck]. (Ibid. v.10–11) You adorned yourself with gold and silver, and your apparel was of fine linen, silk, and embroidery. (Ibid. v.13) These are the materials from which the Tabernacle was constructed. He enumerated fifteen different kinds of voluntary gifts to the Tabernacle. They are gold, and silver, and bronze; blue and purple (Ex. 25:3–4), and the others mentioned there until lapis lazuli and gemstones. (Ibid. v.7) Similar is the enumeration through which he showed them favor through Ezekiel, who enumerated them in a similar fashion. But here they are enumerated allegorically, ascribing a figurative sense to the expressions, and [they are employed using] desirable rhetoric after the manner of poetic discourse. For [poetry] is the most pleasant of rhetorical methods, and that towards which the soul is most inclined, and the most desirable to the heart.
[C. The condition of the human soul]
Others have interpreted this book concerning the wise rational soul’s desire to reach the place of intellectual exaltedness, which is [the soul’s] place of origination, and her first world, and her fundamental elemental substance.
[They interpreted the book] as a communication of her spiritual state, that the blackness and grossness that are appear from her are not essential to her, and do not belong to her intrinsic attributes. Indeed, they are accidental traits and material states that [the soul] acquired through]her[proximity to the bodily faculties, and through being bound by their governance throughout the period of [her] connection [to the body], so that the body may continue to exist as long as is possible, according to that which Divine Wisdom and Supernal Will require.
As for [the soul’s] essence, it is the utmost beauty and purity. I am black, but beautiful, [O daughters of Jerusalem – like the tents of Kedar, like the pavilions of Solomon]. Do not stare at me because I am swarthy, because the sun has gazed upon me. My mother’s sons quarreled with me, they made me guard the vineyards; my own vineyard I did not guard. (Song 1:5–6) Her desires are tremendous, and many are her sighs over being separated from the [Divine] flank, and her pains are great.
Now the intellect – which is her place of origination, and her source, and which emanates its lights upon her – when it apprehends that she is sincere in her plea, reveals itself to her in dazzling brightness, and overwhelming light, and radiant illumination, according to her ability to bear it at the beginning; then, perfection and [intellectual] apprehension and brightness grow as a result of [the Intellect], bit by bit, towards the telos.
For one who remains in a dark place is unable to gaze at a light that shines forth suddenly. Rather, one must become progress gradually until one’s eyesight becomes strong enough through the light and brightness which is added to it and merged with it.
For the position of the intellect vis-à-vis the soul is [comparable to] the position of the sun’s light vis-à-vis the eye. As long as the eye is not comingled with sunlight, one sees only in potentia; but when the light of the sun shines upon it, it becomes seeing in actu. Similarly, the relationship of the intellect to the soul’s [intellectual] apprehension [may be either] in potentia or in actu. That this matter will be explained in [the commentary to] Qohelet more simply than in the present account.
This book describes how the intellect constantly advances and moves [the soul], rank by rank, it drawing nearer and approaching [the intellect] bit by bit. When it smells the scents of its world from [the intellect], and it perceives its homeland from which it has grown foreign, and it tastes but a little of its fruits, and it delights in the breeze of its light and radiance, and it grows luminous in its shimmering light and its many rays, and it savors the beauty of its views and its vistas, it remembers who it once was, but had forgotten. And it despises that to which it had become accustomed. So does it live after death, and return [to its homeland] after passing away. It can see clearly, and it is illuminated, and its covering is removed, and it glows and shines.16
[Tanḥum’s allegory of the dove:17]
At this moment it knew that it is like a dove between a peacock above her – she forgets him, but he perceives her – and a crow below her. She gazed at [the crow], and he enticed her. She became intimate with him, and loved him. [The period] her companionship with him grew long, and she comingled with him, her feathers acquiring blackness from his attributes (wa-khālaṭat|hu fa-ʾktasaba rīshuhā iswidād min ṣifātihā), and acquiring his stupor. She served him with all of her [might], taking pleasure and delighting in him. [All the while] he ate in the dirt and occupied himself with illusory matters.
She had been stripped of the beauty of her attire, and her finery, and her garments (wa-hiya qad ʿariyat min ḥusn al-kiswa wa-’l-ḥilya wa-’l-thiyāb). As a result of the depth of her absorption with him, she did not behave with proper respect towards herself, let alone did she look above herself. Then, one day, she turned her attention to herself, and saw a glimmering adornment and elegant finery around her neck. She looked at her necklace, and found it strange. She said that this wondrous trace (athar) is unlike the traces (āthār) of this repugnant fellow. This disgusting, black, torpid drinking companion, the companion and drinking partner of whom is compelled by this strangeness to investigate and reflect upon the cause of this adornment (al-baḥth wa-’l-tafakkur ʿan sabab dhālik al-taṭwīs), and the beauty of this brightness and this luster. She looked … and due to the peacock’s sheen and beauty that shone upon her, she knew that her perfection and beauty must have come from him, and that he was the cause of her wings and life. [She knew that] through conjoining with him, her happiness would increase.
She became infatuated with his beauty, and inclined towards his service, and she clung to his plume. His companionship was pleasant for her, and his friendship was enjoyable.
She despised the friendship of the crow, and regretted having been his com- panion. She came to know what she had lost by being his friend, and his defects and faults were revealed to her. His cunning and deception became gradually more obvious to her. Gradually, she cut [her ties to] him. And whenever she became a degree removed from his friendship, she approached the peacock by a degree. The nearer she became to the peacock, and the further she became from the crow, she continued to progress in her friendship [with the peacock], and she continued to be drawn after him, and to be absorbed in loving him, and she strove to acquire his attributes and become like him (wa-tudāwimu al-injidhāb khalfahu wa-tastaghriqu fī maḥabbatihi wa-taḥriṣu ʿalā al-ittiṣāf bi-ṣifātihi wa-’l-tashabbuh bihi).
All the while, she was in a state of ever-increasing desire, to the point that she achieved a firm reunion with him, and a favorable encounter (ijtimāʿ akīd wa-ʾttiṣāl mufīd). She confirmed [his true nature] and knew him, and remembered that which she had forgotten. She knew that he is her father, and that her wellspring is from him, and that he is the root from which she has been cut off, and her source from which she has been severed.
She became certain that the cause of the discontinuance of [the peacock’s] aid to her, and [the reason that] it appeared as if he was shunning her, was that she had exchanged him for the crow, and made him the object of her service, and had been pleased to eat of the dirt from which [the crow had derived] his nourishment.
Thus did she grow further from the crow, and cut off [all] memory of him. When she abandoned him entirely, when she became certain of his deceit towards her and came to know that he had been an enemy in the form of a friend, harm in the guise of benefit, a delegate of evil in the form of a sincere counselor … she turned to true counsel, and lasting, enduring benefit, whose goodness is guaranteed, who fulfills his promise now and in the future. So she became absorbed in his love, and her desire to cling to him grew greater, as did her distress and pain at his separation [from her], and [whenever she] was occupied with anything other than him – even for the most fleeting moment.
This desire led her to the fountain of life, and to pure light, and to attain delight, and lasting happiness, and the illumination with which there is no darkness, and the presence after which there is no absence.
Therefore, the soul is compared to a dove in this book, and with the eyes of doves:
Your eyes are doves (Song 1:15); like doves by watercourses (5:12); O my dove, in the cranny of the rocks (2:14); my dove, my perfect one (5:2) – according to the specific interpretations that will be offered in their respective places.
Solomon was constantly shifting towards this purpose, and [returning] to these themes with diverse expressions, charming descriptions, figurative designations, and meanings layered, pleasant, and agreeable – each according to its purpose.
Sometimes he articulates the soul’s condition in figurative terms and her desire (yatakallamu bi-lisān ḥāl al-nafs wa-tashawwuqihā),18 and sometimes [he speaks] of the intellect and its praiseworthy and noble attributes. He explains the differences between the ranks of spiritual union (wuṣūl), and the causes that prevent [union] or sever it, in a rhetorical, desirable, and arousing style. Of that to which one is accustomed and habituated in the sensible world are poetic attributes, and rhetorical, desirable, arousing, positive metaphors; or depraved, distancing, far-fetched, despicable ones – each one according to its purpose.
If no parable or exemplary prolegomena are presented, and the [topic] is not communicated in a familiar, commonly known, generally accepted manner – not in an unfamiliar manner – its true meaning will not be understood, nor its quality grasped [in the mind], nor will its existence become apparent. For this is like one who learns that which is through that which is not, or the known through the unknown, or the hidden by that which is yet more hidden and more difficult to grasp. This is not the way of the wise.
Indeed, due to the difficulty of these matters and their obscurity and remoteness from the minds of the masses, and their variance from that to which they have become accustomed – for all corporeal habituations are at variance with these spiritual matters – therefore you see that the masses always reject these meanings, and consider their way to be inferior, and consider anyone who is at all preoccupied with them to be crazy and dull-minded, to the point that you can see what they said about the prophet, “What did that madman come to you for?” (2 Kings 9:11)
He said to them, “You know the man and his ranting!” (Ibid.)
Now as for these intellectual concepts (hādhihi al-maʿānī al-ʿaqliyya), they are particularly intended the perfect, for only souls pure of torpor that have escaped their habituations can understand their meanings and know the extent of their excellence. Therefore have they been compelled to make comparisons, and conceal [these concepts] in riddles and hints (aḍṭarrahum al-amr ilā al-tamthīl wa-’l-ikhfāʾ bi-’l-alghāz wa-’l-rumūz). In order to elucidate them, they employed allusions, similes, comparison, and metaphor (wa-ʾstaʿmalū fī tabyīnihā al-ishārāt wa-’l-tashbīhāt wa-’l-tamthīl wa-’l-istiʿāra).19
Now, we have already provided guidance concerning the [book’s] meanings in a general sense, and we have revealed its purpose as a whole, as a summation without detailed explication – although its detailed explication is very easy after this general account. Thus, it remains our duty to explain the difficult expressions (sharḥ al-alfāẓ al-mushkila)20 from an etymological perspective and [in the light of] linguistic form, for this was the initial intention in composing this book (awwal al-qaṣd min waḍʿ hādhā al-kitāb).21 [In addition,] one cannot avoid a discourse upon these two interpretations according to that which befits the [book’s] purpose, lest the discourse be deficient.
The beginning of Tanḥum’s introduction to his commentary, insofar as it is extant, is based exclusively on MS Evr. Arab. I 4249 in the National Library of Russia at St. Petersburg (reel F 58035 in the Hebrew University microfilm collection). The remainder is based primarily on MS Pococke 320, and is transcribed in its entirety in Zoref, Tanchum Ha-Yerushalmi’s Commentary on Canticles, vol. 2, 6–11.
The Arabic ḥikam (wisdom) is in the plural form, and most probably refers to the philosophical sciences. See discussion above, p. 168–169 fn. 124.
Arabic: fī al-kitāba. In Judeo-Arabic, this term often indicates the written form (ketib) of Scripture, as distinct from the reading tradition (qeri) – see Blau, Dictionary of Mediaeval Judaeo-Arabic Texts, 588. In the present context, it appears to refer to the standard written form of Scripture according to its traditional canonical order. Cf. the use of this form to describe the proper order of biblical passages in the tefillin in a query addressed to Maimonides, in Blau, Responsa, responsum #139, 267. For Song as preceding Qohelet in the normative rabbinic canonical order, see Maimonides’ Mishneh torah, Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzot, and Torah Scrolls, 7:15; for the order in the Spanish and Oriental MS tradition (which differs slightly), see Wechsler, Strangers, 11–14.
In his commentary to Qoh. 12:9, Tanḥum states that “it would be proper to place [the Song of Songs] after Qohelet, just as the scholars (al-ḥukamāʾ) do. They place the divine science (al-ʿilm al-ilāhī) after physics (al-ʿilm al-ṭabīʿī) in accord with the curriculum [al-taʿlīm; lit. instruction, education], calling it metaphysics (mā baʿd al-ṭabīʿa) in this respect. In truth, they call it ‘that which precedes physics’ (mā qabl al-ṭabīʿa) due to its nobility and the fact that it precedes nature. Similarly was [the Song of Songs] placed before Qohelet. [This was] also so that one would not pass directly from it to the Book of Lamentations (sefer ha-qinot), whose sense is contrary [to that of Song]. But the transition from Qohelet – on abstinence, one’s ultimate fate, and death […] – to Lamentations is appropriate.” (MS Pococke 320, 191a; Zoref, Tanchum Yerushalmi’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes, 111–112.) The view that metaphysics should properly be called mā qabl al-ṭabīʿa is that of Ibn Sīnā: “As for the name of this science, it is [metaphysics], ‘that which is after nature (mā baʿd al-ṭabīʿa).’ […] The meaning of
‘[that which is] after nature’ [involves] posteriority relative to us. For, when we first observe existence and get to know its states, we observe this natural existence. As for that which this science, if considered in itself, deserves to be named, [this] is to speak of it as the science of what is ‘prior to nature (mā qabl al-ṭabīʿa),’ because the matters investigated in this science are, in [terms of] essence and generality, prior to nature.” (For this translation and the Arabic original, see Marmura, Metaphysics of the Healing, 16–17.) While Tanḥum’s use of the term taʿlīm evokes educational practice, Ibn Sīnā’s discussion focuses more fundamentally on the movement from knowledge of the material and particular to knowledge of the abstract and general.
The Arabic simultaneously evokes the final station on a journey – maḥall signifying a place, and wuṣūl “arrival”; and union with the divine beloved – maḥall being connected with ḥulūl/dwelling, and wuṣūl being understood in its technical sense as mystical union. For this sense of wuṣūl in Tanḥum, see above, p. 128, p. 134, p. 259, p. 333–334. For the association of Song with wuṣūl in his commentary to Qohelet, see above, p. 172.
Arabic: al-mabādī wa-’l-nihāyāt. These terms also imply fundamental principles and teloi respectively.
I.e., any majesty described in the book. Zoref understands the pronominal suffix to refer to the human being; see Zoref, Tanchum Ha-Yerushalmi’s Commentary on Canticles, vol. 1, 155.
Until here is based exclusively on the St. Petersburg MS. From here forward is based primarily on MS Pococke 320.
Due to this citation’s original allegorical context (for which, see the subsequent note), I have not capitalized the pronouns.
This is a citation from the concluding passage of Risālat al-ṭayr by Ibn Sina. I have translated it in consultation with Peter Heath’s English translation in, “Disorientation and Reorientation in Ibn Sina’s Epistle of the Bird,” in Intellectual Studies on Islam, eds. Mazzaoui and Moreen, 167, paragraph 24; cf. also Henri Corbin, Avicenna and the Visionary Recital, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton University Press: 1988), 191–192; Arabic in Mehren, Traités Mystiques, fasc. 2, 47.
Arabic: al-mukhāṭib bi-lisān ḥālihā. For the expression lisān al-ḥāl in Tanḥum and his predecessors, see Shy, “Ha-signon ha-ishshi,” 565–567; Shy, “Perusho shel tanḥum ha-yerushalmi la-miqra be-hashvaʾah le-millono le-mishneh torah,” 537–539; Solomon Munk, Commentaire de R. Tan’houm de Jérusalem, sur le livre de ‘Habakkouk, publié pour la première fois, en arabe, sur un manuscript unique de la bibliothèque Bodleïenne, et accompagné d’une traduction et de notes (Extrait du t. XII de la Traduction de la Bible de M. Cahen) (Paris: 1845), 94; Zoref, Tanchum Ha-Yerushalmi’s Commentary on Canticles, vol. 1, 159, fn. 8. Cf. Zoref’s translation u-medabberim be-lashon piyyuṭit bi-shemah (Zoref, Tanchum Ha-Yerushalmi’s Commentary on Canticles, vol. 1, 156.) Cf. in particular Maimonides’ use of this expression in Guide II.5 (Munk, Dalāla, 180, line 18), and Pines’ problematic translation (Guide, 259).
To the best of my awareness, there are no extant commentaries that reflect such an interpretation. This reading, according to which Song depicts the love between God and hypostatized wisdom, is somewhat reminiscent of kabbalistic interpretations that understand Song to reflect the interaction of the sefirot, the ten hypostatized divine modes of being or attributes. For this understanding, see Rosenberg, “Philosophical Hermeneutics,” 134. For wisdom in general in the Hebrew Bible, including its personification, see Roland E. Murphy, “Hebrew Wisdom,” in Journal of the American Oriental Society 101:1 (1981), 21–34.
The juxtaposition of these verses suggests that Tanḥum was transcribing them from memory. The full text of Deut. 2:7 reads:
Tanḥum sets up an opposition between hare bater and hare besamim, the former denoting distance from the Divine and the latter nearness. See above, p. 305.
For a detailed discussion of Tanḥum’s bird allegory, its philosophical valence, and its literary background, particularly in the works of Ibn Sīnā, see above, p. 306–322.
For the expression lisān al-ḥāl, see above, p. 406 fn. 12. Tanḥum’s subsequent emphasis of the “rhetorical, desirable, [and] arousing style (kalām khiṭābī mushawwiq muraghghib)” of Solomon’s discourse increases the likelihood that he is employing the formulation in its technical sense, indicating figurative expression.
Here, Tanḥum emphasizes that, just as the biblical authors encoded certain concepts in their works, there is a method by which those concepts may be deciphered. Note that this interpretation is not affected by the identity of the subject of the verb istaʿmalū, which is ambiguous. If the subjects are the prophetic authors, the statement refers to the tools encoded in the text, that alert the reader to the intended meaning; if the subjects are the readers, it refers to the methods of which they were aware when interpreting prophetic texts.
For the sharḥ al-alfāẓ as an exegetical genre, see above, p. 279 fn. 76. For Tanḥum’s allusion to this terminology in his commentary to Jonah, see the passage translated above in Appendix A, p. 410.