Sunday, 16 April 2017

Passing over Allegories

On the shabbat (Saturday) during Passover we read the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem between God and the Israelites. It’s a poem pregnant with meaning and very explicit in its wording. However, rather than translate the literal meaning of the poem – one of the popular publishers of Jewihs prayer books has chosen another path:

“The Complete Artscroll Machzor: Pesach…

Without question, King Solomon’s Song of Songs, Shir HaShirim, is one of the most difficult books of scripture – not because it is so hard to understand but because it is so easy to misunderstand. Not only is it love song, it is a love song of uncommon passion. No other book seems to be so out of place among the twenty foud books of prophecy and sacred spirit. Nevertheless, one of the greatest and holiest of all the Sages of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva, said ‘all of the songs [of Scripture] are holy, but Shir Hashirim [Song of Songs] is the holy of holies.’ How is a love song holy?

The question is perplexing only if Shir Hashirim is taken literally, but neither the Sages nor the commentators take it so. The song is an allegory. It is the duet of love between God and Israel. Its verses are so saturated with meaning that that nearly every one of the major commentators finds new themes in its beautiful but cryptic words. All agree, however, that the true and simple meaning of Shir Hashirim is the allegorical meaning. The literal meaning of the the words is so far from their meaning that it is false.

That is why Artscroll’s translation of Shir Hashirim is completely different from any other Artscroll translation. We translate it according to Rashi’s allegorical translation..”

Personally speaking I found this very frustrating. The first thing I did was look for an older publisher and ready their translation. Sure enough it was much closer to the text. This attitude of trying to protect the uninformed reader from the text is something that unfortunately Artscroll also did in their translation of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides / Ramban) in his commentary of the Torah.

“Artscroll Series: Bereishis / Genesis
The Torah: with Ramban’s commentary translated, annotated, and elucidated.


One of Ramban’s greatest impacts upon Jewish thought lies in the fact that he was the first “mainstream” Jewish sage to include Kabbalistic (mystical) ideas into material that was intended for the general public. In his introduction, however, he issues a stern warning that his Kabbalistic comments cannot possibly be understood by the uninitiated and that any attempt to do so would result in distortion of the lofty theological matters. For this reason, we have not translated Ramban’s Kabbalistic comments into English (although they can be found in full in the all-Hebrew Ram ban text on the page)..."

In response to this – I did what any frustrated person would do and taught myself sufficient mastery of Hebrew to read the untranslated parts. Not only those parts but also books such as Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formation) along with at least 2 commentaries.

Then I added to my small library a Hebrew version of Sword of Moses, Key of Solomon, Rabbi Chaim Vital’s Sefer Pe-ulot, and a number of other texts that the editors & translators at Artscroll publishing would likely not approve of me owning – never mind actually translating and making use off. 

So I would like to conclude with a big THANK YOU to the staff at Artscroll for raising my frustration at my lack of Hebrew education to such a degree that I am now proficient enough to read the texts that they did not translate for me – as well as a host of other texts that they would likely not consider me qualified to read.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Frustration is the catalyst of aspiring golem builders the world over.