Old Jewish Commentaries on «The Song of Songs» II

The Two Commentaries of Tanchum Yerushalmi- Text and translation

by Joseph Alobaidi (Author)
©2014 Others XII, 322 Pages


This book contains two commentaries on The Song of Songs by Tanchum Yerushalmi (c. 1220-1291), one of the best representatives of rational exegesis in the Middle Eastern rabbinical school of thought. His in depth knowledge of the Bible as well as his acquaintance with Greek philosophy, added to familiarity with his own Jewish tradition allowed him to write rich biblical commentaries. In so doing he showed himself as a worthy disciple of Saadia Gaon, Hai and Ibn Janah whom he mentions in his commentary on The Song of Songs. The extent of his knowledge can easily be seen in both his philological and philosophical commentaries on one of the most intriguing books of the Bible.

Table Of Contents

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This is the second of four volumes concerning medieval Jewish commentaries on the Song of Songs. Yefet Ben Eli’s commentary was published in volume one, issued more than three years ago. This second volume, containing two commentaries of Tanchum Yerushalmi, will be followed by a third with two shorter and anonymous commentaries. A synopsis of the translations with an evaluation of five commentaries, plus one by R. Saadia Gaon, recently published, will form the contents of the fourth and final volume of this series. My preference goes to a full volume of a comparative study rather than a theological and philological introduction to each commentary.

Tanchum Yerushalmi was certainly aware that while the Books of the Hebrew Bible have symbolic parts, The Song of Songs is entirely symbolic. This particularity of The Songs played a role in the organization of Tanchum’s work. At first, he starts with a global commentary; an explanation of all the elements of the Book: The obvious meaning of words, philological difficulties, and symbolic meaning of expressions. This can clearly be seen in his commentary on Song 1-2:7. It was an attempt to comment on the totality of elements he found important to explain. Certainly for reason of clarity and in order to make his commentary more accessible that Tanchum opted, albeit well in his commentary of chapter two, for another method: Writing two commentaries on the Song of Songs. Yet, he did not follow the rule he himself established. Instead of writing a philological commentary, followed by another more theological and philosophical, he often in his second commentary returned to explain a word or an expression he left out in his first commentary. Furthermore, it happened that having finished the commentary on a chapter and ← IX | X → starting the next one, he returns to the preceding chapter to reexamine a word he ignored. All this led to duplicate commentaries: The first, a complete explanation of all the chapters; the second a commentary covering the whole Book, but starting at Song 2:8.

Two particularities made the edition of Tanchum’s commentary arduous. The first concerns the philological and grammatical nature of his explanation, making it impossible to avoid inserting Hebrew words into the translation. A non specialist of the Biblical Hebrew will therefore find certain parts of the second commentary, almost impossible to grasp. The second particularity is the absence of translation on the commented verses. This fact forced the editor to examine the explanation of each verse in order to reach a translation as faithful to Tanchum’s opinion as possible. In two or three cases Tanchum does not appear to decide between two different translations, making the rendering of the verse very difficult. However, it was possible to accomplish such task, inspired by the translation of R. Saadia Gaon, recognized by Tanchum as one of his masters.

I am indebted to Fr. B. Dupont O.P. who had the kindness and the patience to read the English translation of so specialized a commentary. I am also grateful to Fr. J. Langlois O.P. whose friendly support was vital for the issuing of this volume.

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The Manuscript

The Ms. Oxford, Neubauer 363 (Poc 320) of 68 folios, edited in this volume, is part of Tanchum’s a commentary on the Megilot. Indeed, the Ms. Starts by the following:

איש נעמי (רות 1:4 ) אי זוגהא. כאשׂר שנים (רוא 1:4 ) בכאף אלתשביה אי קריב מן דֹלך.
ותשאר האשה משני ילדיהא (רות 1:5 ) יריד שכולה או יחידה או מא שאבה דֹלך. ושדה אלשין ותשאר לאנגדֹאם נון אלאנפעאל.

The man of Noami (Ru 1:4) or her husband. (1:4 כאשר שנים (רוא with the comparative כ. In other words, closer to [ten years]. And the woman was left ותשאר without her two sons (Ru 1:5) designating her widowhood, her loneliness or what is similar to that. The doubling of the ש is due to the dropping out of the נ of nifal.

This is the beginning of an extremely brief commentary on the Book of Ruth that ends by explaining Ru 4:7. In fact, it is a partial commentary on Ruth, where Tanchum chooses to clarify particular expressions, neglecting the major part of the book. The part of the Ms that deals with Ruth is almost two folios and (1r-2v stops at the 14th line) and contradicts the much developed commentary on The Songs. In line 15 of folio 2v Tanchum starts his commentary on The Songs by an attempt to identify the beloved woman.

The end of Tanchum’s commentary on The Songs (Fol. 68v) is as follow:

משכני אחריך נרוצה הביאני המלך חדריו נגילה ונשֹמחה בך וג’ (ש"הש 1:4 ). בריך רחמנא דסייען אמן.

Make me follow you and we will run, the king introduced me into his chamber; we will rejoice and be glad in you (Song 1:4). Praise the Merciful for his help. Amen

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The Two Commentaries of
Tanchum Yerushalmi
on the Song of Songs

The ]udeo-Arabic Text

Words written in bold letters are Hebrew words.
They usually are Bible quotations.

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The English Translation of Tanchum Yerushalmi’s Two Commentaries on the Song of Songs

The First Commentary A

This is not a direct translation of The Masoretic Text of The Song of Songs. Tanchum did not translate The Hebrew text; he directly commented on the text. The translation of The Hebrew Text is founded on Tanchum’s commentary and may diverge, sometimes significantly, from modern understanding and translations.

English text written in standard letters translates Judeo-Arabic text. English text written in italic letters translates Hebrew text.

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The First Commentary of Tanchum of Jerusalem On the Song of Songs
Chapter 1 A

[…] As to the metaphorical discourse addressed to the beloved woman, some people think that [the text] refers to Wisdom, according to what it is written in the Book of Proverbs: A loving hind and graceful mountain goat, let her breasts satisfy you at all time (Pr 5:19).1 It is also said in her name: I am counsel and stability,2 understanding belongs to me and courage is in me, through me kings reign and rulers give right laws, through me princes rule, noble men and all the righteous judges. I love those who love me and those who look for me will find me (Pr 8:14-16); to give existence to those who love me and to fill their treasures (Pr. 8:21). It is also written: The Lord created me at the beginning of his way; he had chosen me from eternity; at the beginning… He fashioned me while there was no depth (Pr 8:22-24); I was there when He gave form to the heavens (Pr. 8:27). It was also said in the name of Wisdom:3 With him I was an architect,4 his delight, day after day, rejoicing before him at all times (Pr. 8:30) according to the meanings that we have explained in their passages. ← 93 | 94 →

Some people believe that the author means5 the assembly of Israel, in other words, their multitude. According to their interpretation the Israelites in Egypt were in a distressful condition and excessive humiliation. So God, the most high,6 aware of their great nostalgia for him, their quest and their desire to reach him, brought them [from there] and established them in a place near him. He brought them closer to his noble presence and positioned them in the designated meeting place on Mount Sinai. He made them drink the wine of his affection, eat the delightful food of his Law and communicated to them his decrees. He walked them in the desert, protected by the cloud as it is said: Who is she that comes up out of the wilderness, surrounded by cloud, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense from all the powders of the merchant (Song 3:6). It forms the contents of the Lord’s expression: The one who walks you in the great wilderness (Dt 8:15) without surety. Then He accomplished for them the promises he previously gave them and their fathers, according to what the Bible says: Not a single word has failed from his good promise (1Kgs 8:56). Then, whenever there was a veil that, later, separated them from Him, because of their preference for something he forbade, they put a distance between them and his Law and cut themselves from his protection, as it is said: On the distant mountains.7 This meaning maybe symbolized by the thickness [of the mountain], its density and its compactness [on one hand] and by its lightness and flexibility [on the other hand]. He details these meanings, rendered by different expressions, illustrating what they imply by different examples. Its narration is fluid, exciting, rejoicing hearts with chosen words and poetical expressions corresponding to all the nuances of meaning. It is ← 94 | 95 → similar to what Ezekiel had said: then I passed by you and saw you downtrodden in your blood, so I said to you, in your blood, live… (Ez 16:6)8 and I passed, I saw you and, behold, you have reached love time (Ez 16:8) indicating the time of deliverance. [Then he added]: I spread my robe over you and covered your nakedness (Ez 16:8). He saved them from the humiliation of captivity and the taunt of enslavement. I entered into covenant with you (Ez 16:8) on the summit of Mount Sinai. He took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people (Ex 24:7). It appears to me that their expression: We will accomplish and obey (Ex 24:7) describes their excellent food, their silken clothes, their prosperity, their possession of the country that hand them its advantages. Therefore he said: Flower, honey [and oil] you will eat and you will become very beautiful, ready for royalty (Ez 16:13). Then your name will be great, your reign expand, your commands obeyed and you will make a name because of your beauty (Ez 16:14). He also describes in the narration the construction of the Tabernacle9 in their midst and the dwelling of the Shekinah in it as well as the extension of the [divine] providence through it. This is designated by his expression: I will cloth you with an embroidered garment, shod you with leather sandals, bound you with linen and cover you with silk (Ez 16:10), I decked you with finery (Ez 16:11) and you decked yourself with gold and silver (Ez 16:13). These are the materials of which the Tabernacle was made. There are fifteen different elements contributing to the [building of] The Tabernacle. They are gold, silver, copper, purple-blue wool, purple garment and the total of what is mentioned. Plus, the stones of Shoham and stones to be set for [the ephod] (Ex 39:9). Likewise is the kind of things he graciously handed them through Ezekiel. In such way he enumerates many things, using comparisons, with the help of stimulating words and discourses, in a poetical style, since it is the most beautiful of discourse, the closest to the soul and the most exalting for the heart. ← 95 | 96 →

Others explained this book as the longing of the wise and logical soul in her request for intellectual greatness that constitutes her principle, her initial universe and her original matter. It is also to make known that darkness and opacity that appear to belong to her are foreign to her essence and do not pertain to her substantial aspects. They are accidental aspects and material conditions she acquired while being close to the corporal forces and following their arrangement in the time of the union [with bodily elements]. This happens in order that the body survives in accord with divine wisdom and the Lord’s wish. As to her essence, it is extremely beautiful and spotless: I am dark yet beautiful (Song 1:5); don’t look at me because I am dark; the sun stared at me. My mother’s sons are angry with me; they made of me a vineyards guard (Song 1:6). Her longing is great, her regrets for being separated from such high honor are numerous and her pain is full. The Intellect, which is her principle, her nature and the one who bestows upon her his light once he acknowledges the truthfulness of her intents, illumines her by his splendid light, the invincible brightness and the shining radiance, in keeping with her initial capacity then, gradually, she will increasingly receive from him perfection, discernment and illumination. Because whoever settles in a dark place cannot suddenly stare at the bright light. Therefore he proceeds step by step till [he reaches a degree of] improved capacity to see by the accumulation and the merger with him of radiance and light. Indeed, the relation of intellect to soul is similar to that of sun light to eyesight. For when eyesight is dissociated from sun light it is potency10 that it sees. But when sun light dawns on eyesight it is by act11 that it sees. Likewise, the relation between intellect and perception of the soul: It is either in potency or in act. This meaning will appear clearer in the book of Qohelet in a saying more easily understood than this one. So he explains in this book that intellect never cease to transfer and move her from one stage to the next, allowing her to approach him steadily and to be near him. But once she inhaled the gasp of her own world, perceived her homeland that she forsook, tasted some ← 96 | 97 → of its fruit, enjoyed the perfumes of his illumination and lights, found delight in the beauty of its scenery and landscape, remembered what she had forgotten, and started to distaste what became familiar to her, she then started to live after being put to death and found the way back after having been lost.12 At that moment she started to look, to be illumined. The veil that covered her was taken away so she began to shine and glow. At that moment she also knew that she is like a dove between a peacock over her, that she cannot see, but he can see her and crow under her whom she can see while he continues courting her. She befriended him, fell in love with him, spent time with him and associated herself with him. Her feathers became dark because of his characteristic and his muddiness. She totally devoted herself to his service, reserving herself to him alone, enjoying him even while he eats from the dirt and busies himself with useless things. So she took off the beauty of her garment, the jewelry and the clothes. Because of her deep infatuation with him she did not pay attention to herself and much less to what is above her. One day, however, she looked at herself and noticed, suspended at her neck, a brilliant ring, skillfully made. Amazed, she thought that such splendid print is unlike the prints of her infamous friend and the renowned companion that she befriended and became his acquaintance. The amazement pushed her to investigate and meditate upon the reason for the ring [surrounding her neck] and the beauty of its radiance and brilliance. She inquired and, behold! The radiance is a suggestion of the peacock’s brilliance and his beauty. Then she understood that her perfection and beauty come from him; that he is the reason for her deliverance and her life; that by maintaining the relation with him her gladness will ← 97 | 98 → increase. Therefore she became taken by his beauty and looked to serve him and to follow him. His companionship suited her and she found his friendship pleasant. She also hated the friendship of the crow and regretted her previous companionship to him. She understood what she had lost by being his friend. His imperfection and defects became obvious to her and his deception and cheating gradually became clear to her. She then tried to cut herself from him little by little. Each step she put between herself and the crow’s friendship is a step closer to the peacock. Each time she looks to be closer to the peacock he himself comes closer, and each time she puts distance between herself and the crow he move himself farther. While she continues her involvement in his friendship, pursuing her attraction toward him, looking to acquire his qualities and to be like him, even as her desire for him increases, she ended by a safe union with him and a promising relationship. So she confirmed who he is and recognized him. She remembered what she had forgotten and understood that he is her father; that she comes from him; that he is her origin from whom she was taken and that she got her nature from him. She became certain that his discontinuation to the relationship with her and his apparent refusal of her is due to the fact that she has chosen, instead of him, the crow who exploited her and that she was satisfied to be nourished from the dirt that constitutes his food. So she put more distance between her and the crow and remembered him no more. Once she had left him completely because of being certain of his deception, she realized that he was an enemy in the form of a friend, a harmful being vested as benefactor, looking to do evil under the pretext of counseling for the good. So she directed her attention to the true council and to the eternal and solid profit, whose benefit is guaranteed and whose promise will be realized sooner or later. Therefore she gave herself totally to his love and her desire to be with him intensified. Her sorrow and her pain of being separated from him and being involved with another increased too.13 Her desire led her to the fount of life, the pure light, the incessant pleasure, the continual happiness, the illumination that will not be followed by darkness and the ← 98 | 99 → presence that will know no absence. It is for all this that the soul in this book was compared to the dove and to the dove’s eyes: Your eyes are doves (Song 1:15; 4:1); like doves on the stream side (Song 5:12); my dove in the clefts of the rock (Song 2:14); my dove my perfect one (Song 5:2) according to what will be fully explained in its place.

Solomon continued to invest in this theme and meanings through different expressions, refined qualities, comparisons and repeated and delicate intentions according to its many purposes. Therefore, he sometimes speaks in the name of the soul and it’s longing. Some other times he speaks about the intellect, its praiseworthy and noble aspects and explains the different degree of achievement,14 the reasons that hinder from [such achievement] and the others that make it impossible. [this is accomplished] through a harmonious discourse, exciting, stimulating, more than what is usually heard and composed in the delicate universe of poetry and rhetorical comparisons that excite and stir up desire, whether [such desire] is stimulating, motivating, inspiring what is good or bad to be rejected, which what he will repeat at any occasion. Because no comparison could be set up or analogy to be established, or anything to be contrasted without reference to an acknowledged, well known and recognized element and not unrecognized element, whose essence remains indefinite, its identity unidentified and its existence unnoticed. Such [comparison] will rise to make known something existent through something that does not exist, or something known by what is unknown, or something hidden by another more hidden than the first and less imaginable. This is not how wise men proceed. But due to the difficulty of theses meanings, their ambiguity and their unfamiliarity for simple men, since these elements are different from what they usually know15… for the material realities are different from the spiritual ones. For this reason the observable crowd refuses such meanings, despises what leads to them and declares insane and senseless anyone who is familiar with them. Don’t they say about the Prophet: Why did this crazy man come to ← 99 | 100 → you? (1 Kgs 9:11). He answered them saying: You know the man and his chattering (1 Kgs 9:11). As to the meanings pertaining to the intellect, they are proper to those who are perfect. Indeed, these meanings are not understood and their benefit is not fully evaluated except by unclouded spirit; untouched by what is trivial. For this [purpose] they used metaphor and sought refuge in riddles and symbols. They had to use allusions, comparisons, images and metaphors in order to explain them. We referred to these meanings globally and uncovered their goal in a broad way, without insisting on the details, even if detailing them is an easy task, once they were mentioned in their totality. Yet, it is our task to explain the difficult words, their etymology and their declinations. In fact this is the first goal of writing this book. It is imperative to speak in these two commentaries16 about what pertain to this purpose. Otherwise the discourse will be incomplete. Therefore, with God’s help we say:


Song of Songs by Solomon.17

This word, ריש song, has a vowel in its midst: … that he sung רש to the Lord (Ps 7:1). The noun is םירש and תורש18. The heavy [form] is like in: Then Moses sang רישי (Ex 15:1) whose origin is רישהי.19 The past is רישה. The past is רישה as in it enlightens ריאהו its front side (Ex 25:37).20 The future is ריאי as in the seven lamps will illumine וריאהיthe nightstand (Nm 8:2). The origin is וריאהי.21 This form has ← 100 | 101 → the meaning of a hymn.22 [For example:] Then Deborah sang (Jgs 5:1), then Israel sang (Nm 21:17). Another meaning is glorification:23 Glorify God (Ex 15:21; Is 42:10; Ps 96:1, 2; 98:1; 149:1; 1Chr 16:23). Praise and description24 are also meanings that are close to its original [sense]: Women will consider me happy (Gn 30:13).25 A derivative from [the same meaning] is: Happy are those who dwell in your house (Ps 84:5); happy are you Israel (Dt 33:29). In the same way: Women will consider me happy(Gn 30:13). Which means they will say about me that I am happy הרישא.26



XII, 322
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (March)
Greek philosophy knowledge rational exegesis
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. XII, 322 pp.

Biographical notes

Joseph Alobaidi (Author)

Joseph Alobaidi is professor of Bible Theology and Languages at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, Dominican House of Studies, Washington, D.C. USA. His publications deals mainly with the Judeo-Arabic literature.


Title: Old Jewish Commentaries on «The Song of Songs» II
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