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Reading Shir Hashirim in the (Karaite) Synagogue

April 2, 2015



Hakham Tobias Levi-Babovich was the last of the true Karaite Hakhamim. Born in Crimea to a poor family of Karaite Jews. He was invited to serve the large Karaite community in Cairo until his passing there in the 1950s.

In this excursus on the Song of Songs (excerpted from R’ Yosef El-Gamil’s תולדות היהדות הקראית, חלק ב), Babovich relates the general Karaite consensus- which is unsurprisingly the same as the Rabbanite one; Song of Songs is an allegorical work that portrays the intimate love between God and his people.

In the excerpted footnote he relates a somewhat humorous episode wherein he reminisces about the time he spent among Russian Sabbatarian peasants who had recently converted to Karaite Judaism. The custom among the Karaites is to recite Song of Songs on the seventh day of the holiday of Passover (referred to as שביעי עצרת) Yet the aforementioned community refused to carry out this custom, aghast that a book containing such profane content could be recited in a sacred place. No amount of cajoling could switch their resolve.

I personally experienced something similar several years ago when I attended the Shebi’i Aseret prayers at the Anan Ben David synagogue in the old city of Jerusalem. As we sat down in the traditional manner and began reading Shir Hashirim, I noticed the then caretaker of the synagogue (who was a fairly recent returnee to the faith-of Egyptian Karaite extraction) become increasingly uncomfortable until he could hold back no longer. “I can’t read this!” he exclaimed. “Reading about breasts and kisses in the Synagogue?! No!”. The others (including a fairly learned member of the community) relented and so it was, that year Song of Songs was not recited in the Jerusalem Karaite Synagogue.



בקהילות אשכנז נקראת מגילת שיר השירים בבתי הכנסת בשבת החלה במהלך שבעת ימי הפסח, בהתאם למנהג הכללי במסורת האשכנזית לקרוא בכל אחת משלוש הרגלים מגילה המתאימה לאווירת החג. תיאורי האביב המופיעים בשיר השירים הם הסיבה לקריאת המגילה בפסח, הוא חג האביב. מאותו טעם נהוג בקהילות אחרות לקרוא את מגילת שיר השירים בשביעי של פסח,

היום האחרון של החג נקרא שביעי של פסח, ועל פי חז”ל הוא נחוג כיום טוב כיון שבאותו יום נקרע ים סוף. מסיבה זו יש שקוראים ביום זה את שירת הים. הקראים קוראים ליום השביעי שביעי עצרת, על פי הפסוק “שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תֹּאכַל מַצּוֹת וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי עֲצֶרֶת לַה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה מְלָאכָה”‏


*For more on Tobias Levi-Babovich see the 2 volume biography on him by Yusef El-Gamil here

*On the canonicity of Shir Hashirim, the Rabbis were not one of one mind until the 2nd Century CE. Opinions wereput forth both pro and con famous among them is the proclamation by Rabbi Akiva in defense of the work:

“God forbid! […] For all of eternity in its entirety is not as worthy as the day on which Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, but Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”

~Tractate Yadayim

One Comment
  1. Interesting (as always).

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