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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Rabi Akiva and Shir Hashirim

By Rabbi Sender Haber

The book of Shir Hashirim is one of the most unusual books in the Torah. It describes the love between two people and is an allegory for the love that exists between G-d and the Jewish people. This love song is background music to every single moment in our history, from our decent to Egypt to our exile to Babylon, to our redemption in the future and everything in between.

When we read about each of the events, when we celebrate on Chanukah and mourn on Tisha B’av we don’t think about this song playing in the background. Yet, it is there. Hashem yearns for us and how we, sometimes in our very deep sub consciousness, yearn desperately for G-d.

Most of the rabbis of the Mishna were of the opinion that Shir Hashirim is not as holy as the other books of the Torah. It doesn’t contain the same hallmarks of holiness and, in fact, contains information that we usually would not share in a holy setting. Rabi Akiva disagreed. He said “All of the songs are holy, but Shir Hashirim is the Holy of Holies”. Shir Hashirim is holier than the Torah, the prophets and the rest of the writings.

How is this possible?

We know that Rabi Akiva was always able to look below the surface. He was able to laugh while everyone else cried and perhaps it was that trait that allowed him to see holiness where others did not, but Rav Avigdor Miller, in the newly published book on Shir Hashirim has a different approach:

Rav Miller points out that Shir Hashirim is not just a backdrop to history. It is the reason that we still survive. Were it not for the strong love that exists between the Jewish people and G-d, Jewish history would have been a very short story. In the same way that a wife and a husband can support one another and survive anything, G-d has been there for us through thick and thin, always loving, always caring.

Who understood this more than Rabi Akiva?

Rabi Akiva was a simple shepherd. He was – according to many accounts – illiterate. He said he would bite a scholar if he saw him. He wanted to be a scholar but understood that Torah study was not going to come easily. He couldn’t do it on his own. It was his wife Rachel who believed in him and who inspired him. She was the one who gave up everything to marry him; she was the one who sent him away to learn Torah. She was the one who encouraged him when he didn’t feel like he was getting anywhere, and she was the one who lived in absolute poverty and was happy to do so that he could learn Torah.

Rabi Akiva understood the relationship between a husband and a wife. He understood how a wife can make her husband into a man and he saw how much she genuinely appreciated and enjoyed everything that he accomplished. (And by the way, a husband can do this for his wife as well). When Rabi Akiva came home after twenty-four years he refused to take any credit for his Torah. “My Torah”, he told his students, “and Your Torah, is all Her Torah”. He told them to treat her with the respect that they would give to him. The Mishna even tells us what jewelry Rabi Akiva bought for his wife, so strong and exemplary was their relationship.

Rabi Akiva understood Shir Hashirim better than anybody else. He understood how his wife had made him who he was. He understood how much he meant to his wife. And he understood that a key part of our existence is our relationship with G-d. There was no better parable than that of a man and a woman.

On the flipside, we find that Rabi Akiva’s students did not get the memo. They perished because they did not show proper respect for each other. They may have been great scholars, but they were not worthy of teaching the next generation. Relationships are essential to our existence as a people.

All the songs are holy, but in essence the song of Shir Hashirim is the Holy of Holies.

Rachel and Rabi Akiva taught us about relationships. Rabi Akiva taught us to Love our neighbors as ourselves. We mourn his students during Sefira because they did not have the proper respect for each other. Let’s cherish the relationships that we have and work to build model relationships so that people can look to us to understand the ultimate relationship that exists between G-d and his people.

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