Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther
Song of Songs is different from any other book in Tanach (the Bible). Our rabbis describe other books as “Kodesh” – holy, and Song of Songs as “Kodesh Kodashim” – holy of holies. What’s the difference between this book and the rest of the Bible? The other works have, despite their infinite depths of meaning, a simple, surface interpretation. Song of Songs, however, has no simple meaning. It’s all hidden.
It’s true that you can read the words of Song of Songs and come away with the feeling that you’ve just read something intelligible. When reading the words themselves, you might think that this book is a love story… But that can’t have been the point. Why would King Solomon – the wisest of all men – write such a mundane thing? Why would G-d want such a thing placed among His holy books? And why would generations of Jews bother reading it (not to mention write huge commentaries on it)?
Song of Songs has many levels of meaning, but it’s safe to say that the overall theme is of the relationship between G-d and His chosen nation, the Jews. That being said, it must be nearly impossible to see that theme in the words themselves without the help of the classic commentators. For those who are interested, Artscroll/Mesorah Publications has published a commentary to the book in English.
It is customary to read Song of Songs in the Synagogue on the Shabbos during the intermediate days of Passover.
Ruth is the story of Naomi, a Jewish woman who ended up with two non-Jewish daughters-in-law. When her two sons died, Naomi, herself the widow of one of the Judaism’s leading figures, decided to return to the land of Israel which she had left years before. The two young Moabite women who had married Naomi’s sons wanted to return with her – essentially, to convert to Judaism and remain with the mother-in-law they loved.
Despite Naomi’s efforts to talk them out of the move, one of the women, Ruth, insisted and indeed converted. Their lives were difficult, as the economic climate of Israel was not much better than it had been when Naomi had left the first time. With nowhere else to turn, Ruth was sent to collect the grain that was left in the fields of wealthier Jewish farmers as required by Jewish law.
While in the field of that generation’s Judge and leader, Boaz, Ruth’s unusual character was noticed and events led to her eventual marriage to Boaz himself. The final passage on the book describes how King David was descended from that couple. Thus, the book of Ruth provides us with a picture of the origins and some of the background to the eventual greatness of our greatest king.
It is customary to read Ruth in the Synagogue on the second morning of the holiday of Shavuos.
Lamentations is a book written by the prophet Jeremiah. It describes the destruction of both the Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of its people. The book was actually written prophetically some years before the destruction of the first Temple as a warning to the Jewish people. Tragically, the warning wasn’t heard and instead, the book became a commemoration.
Lamentations is read in Synagogues on the fast of Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the month of Av – usually falling some time in the mid-summer), the anniversary of the destruction of both the first (422 BCE / 3338) and second (68 CE / 3828) Temples.
Lamentations is much more than just an historical account of the military assault against the city of Jerusalem. Lamentations projects the pain and desperation of a nation cast off by G-d. Jews around the world and in every generation (including ours) sit on the floor and cry bitter tears while listening to Lamentations’ mournful tune. The loss of our Temple and holy land is a real loss for our people… and our real pain tells us that we haven’t given up hope for its return.
Ecclesiastes was the third and final book written by King Solomon (Shlomo). It was written towards the end of his life when he had perhaps become a bit jaded and cynical about many of the silly things people do to achieve “success.” As with many other books of Tanach (the Bible), Ecclesiastes gives the casual reader the impression of chaos and repetition. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much of an order to the work. One might think that it is limited to random mutterings and complaints.
Just as serious study of the other books of Tanach (the Bible) can wash away that first impression, so can Ecclesiastes be understood and appreciated only after making an investment of effort. A close examination of the work with the help of one of the classic commentators will reveal that Solomon has addressed many of the most important issues in Jewish philosophy:
The relationship between destiny and free will
Providence and effort
Reward and punishment
Ecclesiastes has shown us the Jewish path to living in peace with each of these concepts.
Solomon also uses his vast personal (and often bitter) experience to teach us about the emptiness of a life devoted to the search for physical comfort. We can believe what Solomon says, because his immense wealth was nearly unmatched. If anyone could say “I’d tried this world and it’s not worth it,” it was this man. As he says, there is nothing eternal, nothing of lasting value “beneath the sun” (i.e. rooted in this world). Our effort should be well spent “beyond the sun,” in the study of Torah and observance of G-d’s commandments.
In most Synagogues, Ecclesiastes is read on the Shabbos during the intermediate days of Succos. This comes out during harvest time – a time when we are most likely to be impressed with physical, this-worldly success.