A kiss may have many meanings-as a greeting or a sign of welcome or empathy, a farewell, even a betrayal. But a lover’s kiss, long and deep, is a promiseopening, penetrating, sealing-a foretaste of further joys, a pledge of caring. We can see, then, why the Song of Songs opens longing for a kiss-and why the Rabbis read the Song as emblematic of God’s love affair with Israel. Things heard, R. Judah taught, may be forgotten, but a kiss endures. The Rabbi meant the Torah: A lover’s kiss promises commitment, as far from a peremptory peck as a covenant is from a contract. 1

The Song of Songs flows with passion. Origen calls it an epithalamium and sees it as a drama. Rabbi Akiva declared: “All the ages are not more precious than the day Israel received the Song of Songs. All the Scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies” (M. Yadaim 3.5). The great rabbinic rationalist 2 was playing on the work’s title, so familiar now as almost to reduce his trope to mere hyperbole. But the title announced in the poem’s opening line links the songs that paint its scenes-dream sequences, tatters of dialogue, soliloquy, choric responses. To call this work the Holy of Holies is to expect much more of it than snatches of old love songs.