Song and Image: Veiling

Preface—This is the inaugural installment of an intended series of essays wherein I get to think in depth about certain images and poetic motifs which I consider essential to the symbolic vocabulary of the Song of Songs. In the interest of advancing a thesis on the lovers’ relation to phenomenal reality I’ve decided to limit these images to those with a physical, tangible referent: “veil,” then, rather than “love.”

These essays should serve as little entries into an imaginary encyclopedia canticorum, beginning with philological review (etymology; translation and reception history) and ending with some very basics gestures of theoretical speculation. Enjoy this first attempt.

There are two words in the Song of Songs which have been translated as “veil”: tsammah—צַמָּה (used in verses 4:1, 4:3. 6:7) and redid—רָדִיד (used once, in 5:7). With the important exception of the Douay-Rheims and the King James Version, instances of tsammah have been rendered in English almost universally as “veil.” Redid, by contrast, has been read with apparently equal distribution as either “veil” or a different outer garment; usually “cloak,” “shawl,” or “mantle.” The verb atah—עָטָה, meaning “enwrapped,” is also used in Song 1:7 in the form kehotyah (“enwrapped one”), likely an allusion to a prostitute—occasionally, as in the English Standard version, this phrase has been (mis)translated literally as “one who veils herself.”

Terracotta mask of woman to hips, East Greek, 4th-3rd c. BC. From Karl Galinsky: “A billowing veil rises behind her head; at her right breast she holds a flower with her right hand, and a small bird is perched on her left hand below her left breast. These iconographic details are not inconsistent with an interpretation of the figure as Aphrodite.”¹

I’ll copy my translations of the three instances of tsammah below. Notice that 6:7 offers a repetition of 4:3b.

For the mention of redid I’ll compare the KJV with both the JPS version and the version suggested by Chana and Ariel Bloch in their 1995 translation:

The case of redid’s many meanings can ultimately be attributed to the preference of its translators. The word means a light article of women’s clothing—a shawl or large, thin scarf—that may also have been used by women to veil their faces. According to Strong it comes from a root (רד) meaning “spread,” as in the “spreading” of a sheet over a door. The word is used occasionally in Modern Hebrew to refer to a “prayer shawl” (tallit) and also, apparently, aluminum foil. Jastrow calls it “a female’s wrap of fine texture; a veil.” Its inclusion in the list of women’s clothing in Isaiah 3:23 (“the lace gowns, the linen vests, the kerchiefs and the redidim”) implies a degree of luxury or uncommon finery. Thus all of translations listed above are legitimate and basically interchangeable.

For the sake of brevity and simplicity, then, I’ll focus my thoughts on the more allusive meaning of tsammah, specifically its use in Song 4:1. Compare my translation of the middle section of this verse to the versions copied below:

In the Blochs’ justification of their (relatively aberrant) choice of “thicket of your hair,” which can also serve as a defense of the KJV’s “locks,” they refer to the use of tsammah in Isaiah 47:2.² Here the Daughter of Babylon is described as being forced to “expose” or “uncover” (galli) various parts of her body, including her tsammah. The Blochs reason that it would be appropriate to imagine that the Daughter of Babylon (a distinguished noblewoman by all accounts) would resist “exposing” her hair, and that it would be odd for Isaiah to insist that she “expose her veil.” They also compare the word to a number of nouns with a similar form to tsammah (with a specific interest in its doubled middle-root consonant and -a ending) and note the frequency of its formal association with paired body parts—hands, arms, etc. This is meant to suggest that while a “lock” or “thicket” of hair is a kind of body part that may indeed very well be paired, a veil is decidedly not.

Here its worth remembering that both interpretations of tsammah find precedent in the word’s etymology: the root צַמ (tsam) primarily means restriction, constriction, and concealment. Many Hebrew words for restrictive things like “fasting,” “thirst,” and even “aperture” are rooted in tsam; cf. the Arabic صوم (sawm), meaning “fast.” This seems to imply that when tsammah is applied to a woman’s hair (as it is in the midrashic account below) it can, as my native Hebrew speaker friend points out,³ refer either to the “concealment” of hair via some external piece of fabric (a kerchief or veil) or the “constriction” of hair via its braiding, pleating, or arrangement into a bun (thought of as a way of “veiling” the hair using the hair itself). At the most basic and literal level, then, tsammah should be thought of as a means of concealment.

Thus while conceding that the meaning of tsammah remains ambiguous, the Blochs contend that the pieces of evidence listed above “tilt the scales” in favor of a “traditional” reading of tsammah as “thicket of hair.” By way of tradition they cite the comments of Abraham ibn Ezra, who uses “hair” for tsammah both in his plain-text commentary to the Song and in the religious poetry he wrote inspired by this verse. Much of the scholarship I’ve found on ibn Ezra’s commentary is quick to note the idiosyncrasy of this rendering, pointing out that most treatments of this verse (Jewish or otherwise) understand the word as “veil.”⁴ I should point out, furthermore, that ibn Ezra doesn’t seem to do much with this word or ascribe to it any particular meaning. For him tsammah-as-“hair” seems in other words to be a simple matter of translation, with little exegetical baggage attached.

I haven’t found any other Jewish sources that are as explicit as ibn Ezra in rendering tsammah as “hair”—then again, I haven’t looked very hard. As far as other “traditional” Jewish commentaries and translations go, the midrashic anthology Shir ha-shirim rabbah offers an opaque use of the word that can be read either as “veil,” “braid,” or perhaps even “conceals,” all depending on your definition of tsammah. The rabbis here note that “when a woman braids/veils [כְּשֶׁמְצַמֵּת, keshemtsamet] her hair behind her, it is an adornment for her” (SongR 4:1.3). In Michael Fishbane’s commentary on the verse (written exactly two decades after the Blochs’ translation) he cites renderings of the word in the Septuagint and the Targum Yerushalmi to support his claim that tsammah was understood by Jews to mean “a veil” since antiquity, though “this is not the common word for it.”⁵ Rashi, who happened to have been a contemporary of ibn Ezra, is unambiguous in his notes to 4:1: “[Tsammah]: An expression denoting an object which confines the hair so that it does not show.” Ibn Aknin, Tobiah ben Eliezer, Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz, and the Zohar Ḥadash likewise read the word as “veil.” Perhaps most important of all is the answer my rabbi gave when I asked him about this controversy—I quote verbatim: “tsammah means veil.”

Yemenite wedding photographed by Yehiel Haibi (San’a, 1930s)

Understanding the importance of “veiling” to the kabbalists just mentioned will help us better understand the importance of this word in the Song’s Jewish reception. May of you will have guessed by now that the kabbalists of the 16th century identified an etymological correspondence between tsammah and the Lurianic concept of tsimtsum, usually translated as “contraction.” For Luria the task of cosmic creation began with a process of divine tsimtsum—the contraction of God’s Being in order to make space for alterity, something otherwise-than-God in His essence, i.e. the universe. We, humanity, have the capacity in turn to exercise a kind of inverse-tsimtsum in our experience of phenomenal reality wherein within the otherness of creation we are able to discern creation’s source: the absolute unity of God. Thus the Beloved in this verse praises the lover’s sense of sight (“your eyes are as doves”) in her ability to “constrict” or “concentrate” (tsimtsum) visual attention to His essence—an ability symbolized by her tsammah, her veil. “Concealment” for the kabbalists is thus received as a particular form of sensuous spiritual discernment.⁶

Here I wish to return to the Douay-Rheims version of this verse, if only as a lean in to the Western Christian understanding of the Song’s veil. Again, the D-R reads this line as follows: “Thy eyes are doves’ eyes, besides what is hid [tsammah] within.” This rendering was apparently borne of the Septuagint’s poetic translation of tsammah as “out of thy silence.” Ellicott in his commentary complains that the LXX version is “strange and meaningless” whereas the Vulgate’s and D-R’s revision of it (“hid within”) instead provides “a fruitful source of moral allusion to the more hidden beauties of the soul.” Like the kabbalists’ reading of tsimtsum into this word, the Christian interpretation of tsammah tends to highlight the restrictive or concealing aspect of the veil as a mark of hidden virtue and encrypted wisdom. For Gregory of Nyssa this dynamic of concealment and revelation is read as a lesson in the disclosure of God, specifically as it pertains to theological speech. Of God’s Word, he writes,

there is a portion of it that is manifest … and there is a portion that is hidden and ineffable, seen only by God. He, therefore, who looks upon what is unfinished and discerns the things that are hidden testifies, regarding the subject of these praises, that what is kept in silence is greater than what is seen. Hence he says: Your eyes are doves outside your veil. For that which is marveled at in silence is set apart from that which has been praised.⁷

Gregory’s editors hasten to remind us that the (Septuagint) word for a veil, σιώπησις, means literally “a keeping of silence.” “For Gregory, then, what is ‘behind the veil’ is both hidden from sight and unspoken.” Thus veiling as a kind of mystic initiation, from μύω →μύστης (mystikos), “I shut [my mouth].”

(Note that for Origen—who does not include 4:1 in his comments to the Song—images of veiling and unveiling likewise serve as the metaphor for hermeneutical experience par excellence.⁸ Reading the Bride’s comparison in 1:7 to “the veiled ones” he thus casts her relative unveiledness as a symbol of complete disclosure between Christ and the Church; one is reminded of the description of a certain theologian as he “from whom God hid nothing.” Origen strikingly compares the Church’s unmediated correspondence with truth to the apparent opacity of philosophers whom are “said to be veiled, because with them the plenitude of truth is hidden and veiled. But the Bride of Christ says: But we behold the glory of God with open face.”⁹)

John Gorman, Three Studies of Moses, 2021. From Delphine Costedoat: “It [Moses’s heart] allows Moses to be naked, a not entirely nude figure. Veiled. Clothed in its nakedness.”

The veiledness of the female beloved has invited more modern scholars to remark on her “coy reserve” and her “wondrously inaccessible” nature.¹⁰ Sentiments like these are precisely what I imagine the Blochs were rebelling against in their deference to “thickets of hair,” and what they had in mind when in the introduction to their translation they bemoan the fact of the Shulamite having been “given” a veil in other versions of the 4:1 and 5:7. For them the impulse to veil the female lover’s face is the implicit mark of a prudish, patriarchal exegetical tradition which sought to sanitize the poem’s carnal essence. The enlightened translator must, accordingly, tear it off:

that incongruous veil, like the fig leaf of renaissance painting and sculpture, is a sign of the discomfort of the exegetes. When we lift the veil from her face, the Shulamite is revealed as a passionate young woman, as spirited and assertive as Juliet.¹¹

Readings like this, I contend, reduce and ignore the paradoxical logic of “veiling” which has symbolically served the mystics for centuries. Following Elliot Wolfson’s theory of the veil, concealment—revealing as much as hides—provokes interpretive desire: “not-showing is intrinsic to the showing.”¹² Citing motifs of veiling/unveling in both Sufi and kabbalistic sources Wolfson writes that “the veil — distinctly it seems — manifest qualities typically engendered as feminine and associated with an esoteric hermeneutic, allusive, concealing, masking … tempting one to imagine the face yet to be seen.”¹³ From another contemporary critic:

it is thus reasonable to assume that the poet makes use of the veil not to conceal but rather to draw attention to the mystery that lies behind the veil, to what is not quite or not yet seen. The veil arouses the viewer’s desire to see what lies behind it.¹⁴

Considered on a more “mystical” level, then, the Song (like its female protagonist) is interesting and ripe for interpretation precisely by virtue of its veiledness. One is reminded of the earliest students of Torah, to whom the logic of veiling has been described in terms of that which “generates the desire for dibbur, for language.”¹⁵ The veil of Moses was symbolic, in this reading, of the excitement for interpretation caused by the coyly encrypted nature of the text.

For a reader like Wolfson, following in the tradition of the kabbalists, the instinct to “unveil the bride” (as it were) is thus a misdirected one. The kabbalist-exegete seeks instead to preserve the erotic dynamic within the text precisely by maintaining and revering its “veil”; that is: its symbolic, apparent level of meaning. Hermeneutics, especially the hermeneutic of the kabbalist, becomes an erotics precisely through the paradoxical logic of the veil and its lifting. Far from a prim aversion to Eros, then, I contend that the maintenance of the Shulamite’s veil—considered on the level of both translation and hermeneutical strategy—is as fundamental to the maintenance of the Song’s erotic meaning as it is to its symbolic structure writ large.

(Postscript: In general I really enjoy the Bloch translation, it just happened to serve as a good foil for this theory. Also, I didn’t mention this above—mostly because I forget who wrote it—but there’s a suggestion that the King James Version did away with the “veil” of 4:1 mostly because it reeked far too much of the Orient for proper 17th century English sensibilities, which would have preferred to imagine the Song as being set in North Yorkshire. Much to think about.)

  1. Galinsky, Karl. Aeneas, Sicily, and Rome. Vol. 4135. (Princeton University Press, 2015), 206. Image from the Met website.
  2. Bloch, Ariel A., and Chana Bloch. The Song of Songs: A New Translation with an Introduction and Commentary (University of California Press, 1998), 166–168.
  3. Shout out to Emanuel (@ptsdboy).
  4. See Wacks, David A. “Between Secular and Sacred: The Song of Songs in the Work of Abraham Ibn Ezra.” Wine, Women and Song: Hebrew and Arabic Literature of Medieval Iberia (2004): 55.
  5. Fishbane, Michael. JPS Bible Commentary: Song of Songs (Jewish Publication Society, 2015), 102, 231 n. 3.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on the song of songs. Vol. 13 (SBL Press, 2012), 231.
  8. See Drake, Susanna. “Origen’s Veils: The Askēsis of Interpretation.” Church History 83, no. 4 (2014): 815–42.
  9. In his comments on 1:7, Book II section 4.
  10. Refer for instance to Munro, Jill M. Spikenard and saffron: the imagery of the Song of Songs. (A&C Black, 1995), 52.
  11. Bloch, The Song of Songs: A New Translation, 5.
  12. Wolfson, Elliot R. “Language, Eros, Being.” In Language, Eros, Being (Fordham University Press, 2009), 17.
  13. Ibid, 224.
  14. Exum, J. Cheryl. Song of Songs: A commentary. (Presbyterian Publishing Corp, 2005), 162
  15. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Moses: A Human Life (Yale University Press, 2016), 78.

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Theology, Hermeneutics, Jewish Mysticism | Oberlin 2022

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