Saving the soul by knowing the soul: A medieval Yemeni interpretation of song of songs

Y. Tzvi Langermann

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Some of the richest and most variegated allegorical interpretations in the Jewish tradition were contributed by Yemenis writing in Judaeo-Arabic, particularly during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. However, for reasons that can only be surmised, Song of Songs attracted little attention. Zekharya ben Shlomo, one of the outstanding Yemeni authors of this period, authored the only commentary that is now fully extant. He read Song of Songs as an allegory of the soul; in this he surely followed the lead of Moses Maimonides. The details of Zekharya's interpretation, however, reveal his allegiance to psychological doctrines that held sway in the eastern reaches of Islam and were for the most part unacceptable to Maimonides. The eastern psychological tradition contained a preferred narrative framework as well, whose key image is that of a bird in flight, by means of which ideas concerning the soul's nature, origin and destiny could be expressed as a story rather than in dry exposition. This complicated Zekharya's exegetical task; in fact, it seems to be the chief reason that his message hangs rather tenuously to a relatively few selected verses from Song of Songs. The only other Yemeni commentary to that biblical book roundly criticizes Zekharya on this point; that is, his failure to stand up to the exegete's task of interpreting the text in its entirety. If I were pressed to encapsulate the message of the eastern psychological tradition within a single, categorical imperative, that imperative would surely be, “Know your own soul!” It is thus not surprising, then, that Zekharya cites this maxim no less than three times in the course of his commentary, each time offering a different interpretation. The literary framework of the biblical commentary notwithstanding, Zekharya evinces far more concern for the proper elucidation of the Delphic maxim than he does for the book of King Solomon.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)147-166
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2003

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© 2003 Brill Academic Publishers. All right reserved.


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