Monday, October 17, 2005

Shir HaShirim 1:2 and Drinking Kisses Multivalently

The second pasuk of Shir HaShirim, which many regard as the first actual verse of the Song, reads (Shir HaShirim 1:2):
ב יִשָּׁקֵנִי מִנְּשִׁיקוֹת פִּיהוּ, כִּי-טוֹבִים דֹּדֶיךָ מִיָּיִן. 2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth--for thy love is better than wine.
One oddity that immediately strikes the reader is the shift in person - from third person singular to second person singular - "Let him kiss me" to "for thy love." This is strange, but a feature of the poetry that is not too irregular, so we need not be troubled by it if we wish not to be.

Is the lover standing before her? The first portion of the verse suggests that perhaps not - or at least that she is speaking to someone other than him - while the second portion of the verse has her speaking to him. Some would suggest that in the first half of the verse, she is being coy, or modest, and dares not voice her desires directly to him, for that would be crude. Thus, she directs it as if towards others, even as her lover stands before her. I believe such is reading too much into the verse - it seems more a modern notion, or a modern poetic construction. I would rather say this awkward change is a normal feature of the poetry, though I will keep this issue in the back of my mind when considering the next aspect of this verse.

While our Masoretic text reads יִשָּׁקֵנִי מִנְּשִׁיקוֹת פִּיהוּ, "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth," many modern academic scholars would revocalize the first word as yaskeni, "Let him cause me to drink from the kisses of his mouth." (See Gordis, pg. 78 - and Gordis accepts this as well.) Why? It is easy to surmise. yishakeni means "Let him kiss me," which would parallel neshikot, but yashkeni, "Let him cause me to drink" parallels the second half of the verse. His love is better than wine, which one drinks, and thus it is fitting that she would be metaphorically drinking his kisses in the first half of the verse.

I am willing to go along with this to an extent. Either keeping the Masoretic text or adopting the revocalization, there is the possible interplay between drinking and kisses. To better demonstrate what I mean, let us digress to the tale of our ancestors Yaakov and Rachel, on the occasion of their first meeting. Yaakov had just arrived in Charan, and there was a large rock on the mouth of the well, which all the shepherds would typically remove in concerted effort. Here, Yaakov sees Rachel and, inspired, lifts the rock single-handedly, waters all the flocks of Lavan, Rachel's father, and then kisses Rachel. The most relevant verses (Bereishit 29:10-11):
י וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָה יַעֲקֹב אֶת-רָחֵל, בַּת-לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ, וְאֶת-צֹאן לָבָן, אֲחִי אִמּוֹ; וַיִּגַּשׁ יַעֲקֹב, וַיָּגֶל אֶת-הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר, וַיַּשְׁקְ, אֶת-צֹאן לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ 10 And it came to pass, when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother's brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother's brother, that Jacob went near, and rolled the stone from the well's mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother's brother.
יא וַיִּשַּׁק יַעֲקֹב, לְרָחֵל; וַיִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלוֹ, וַיֵּבְךְּ. 11 And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept.
Here we encounter a wonderous dual pun. First Yaakov waters (vayashk) the flock of sheep, and then he kisses (yishak) Rachel. Further, etymologically, Rachel means sheep, so both verbs act on nouns meaning sheep. Different roots lie at the base of "kiss" and "drink," but the forms are such that slight revocalization of the same consonants conveys either one meaning or the other.

Thus, this word-play between "kiss" and "drink" is not unknown, and was presumably known to the author of Shir HaShirim as well, at the least in the back of his mind.

Assume for a moment that the word in Shir HaShirim should be revocalized as yashkeni, connoting causing to drink. It would not mean drink to the exclusion of kiss, for the very next word is מִנְּשִׁיקוֹת. One might at the least say there is artistry in using the two similar words which mean different things entirely, but one might say even more. That is, the influence of the next word מִנְּשִׁיקוֹת would cause one to think יִשָּׁקֵנִי even as one hears yashkeni, even without knowledge of the Yaakov-Rachel word-play. In other words, even the word yashkeni resonates with the possibility that the verse could have said yishakeni. Multivalence in general is the assertion that of multiple possible interpretations of a verse, all were intended by the author, perhaps in the form of deliberate ambiguity in order to show complexity of thought. While I have my doubts about the truth in a wide application of multivalence, here is one instance of multivalence I can get behind, especially since the genre is that of poetry. I would rather call it resonance, though.

Assume now that the word in Shir HaShirim should not be revocalized, but should be kept as the Masoretic text. Thus, "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth," something which makes eminent sense though lacks the extra artistry of metaphor. Yet the word-play is already in the cultural mind, either from the Yaakov-Rachel story or from the sound similarity. Even vocalized יִשָּׁקֵנִי, the word resonates with the potential vocalization yashkeni. This resonance is bolstered by the reference to a quaffable liquid in the second half of the verse, to which love is compared. One great evidence that the word thus resonates is the eagerness with which modern scholars see this connection and are willing to emend the text to incorporate a vocalization and thus meaning which is there, even where is is not.

Thus, whether one should or should not revocalize the word matters little in terms of final semantic meaning, since either way the word means both.

Now I will stop going along with this supposition and play devil's advocate. These modern scholars are willing to emend the text - well, not the text but the vocalization - because they see a tempting connection to be made with the end of the verse. But how enmeshed are the first and second part of the verse anyway?

We find this phrase, in varied forms, twice elsewhere in the book. Once is two verses later:
ג לְרֵיחַ שְׁמָנֶיךָ טוֹבִים, שֶׁמֶן תּוּרַק שְׁמֶךָ; עַל-כֵּן, עֲלָמוֹת אֲהֵבוּךָ. 3 Thine ointments have a goodly fragrance; thy name is as ointment poured forth; therefore do the maidens love thee.
ד מָשְׁכֵנִי, אַחֲרֶיךָ נָּרוּצָה; הֱבִיאַנִי הַמֶּלֶךְ חֲדָרָיו, נָגִילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה בָּךְ--נַזְכִּירָה דֹדֶיךָ מִיַּיִן, מֵישָׁרִים אֲהֵבוּךָ.
4 Draw me, we will run after thee; the king hath brought me into his chambers; we will be glad and rejoice in thee, we will find thy love more fragrant than wine! sincerely do they love thee.
Once again love is compared to wine, though here for fragrance. נַזְכִּירָה is taken to mean "we will inhale," though earlier it is the ointment (oil) which relates to smell. נַזְכִּירָה could also mean "we will mention/praise," and there is of course the resonance of the meaning "we will become drunk" - and this meaning resonates without the need that some modern scholars have of actually emending the text.

We find it again in 4:10:
י מַה-יָּפוּ דֹדַיִךְ, אֲחֹתִי כַלָּה; מַה-טֹּבוּ דֹדַיִךְ מִיַּיִן, וְרֵיחַ שְׁמָנַיִךְ מִכָּל-בְּשָׂמִים. 10 How fair is thy love, my sister, my bride! how much better is thy love than wine! and the smell of thine ointments than all manner of spices!
Once again we have a comparison of the love to wine, and (notice) separately, her pleasant smell to that of spices, and not to that wine. In this last instance, there is no mention of causing to drink.

In all three cases, the comparison of love to wine is made in second person singular. Perhaps it forms a sort of refrain, and an oft-repeating phrase in love-poetry. It would be a refrain akin to ki liOlam Chasdo in Tehillim. If so, perhaps we can account for the abrupt shift in the second verse from third-person singular to second-person singular - it is formulaic, for that is the famous refrain. If so, we might rightly divorce the first half of the verse from the second, for the second half is a refrain in the genre of love-poetry, and bears no direct semantic relationship to the first portion of the verse. Then, יִשָּׁקֵנִי might remain unmolested by those who would emend her. Note - we would still have to account for the continuation of the poetry in the second-person singular in the subsequent verses, but perhaps we could attribute this shift to influence of the phrase כִּי-טוֹבִים דֹּדֶיךָ מִיָּיִן rather than a real, intended, shift in person and focus.

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