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Song of Songs 1:2-3

יִשָּׁקֵ֙נִי֙ מִנְּשִׁיקֹ֣ות פִּ֔יהוּ כִּֽי־טֹובִ֥ים דֹּדֶ֖יךָ מִיָּֽיִן׃

לְרֵ֙יחַ֙ שְׁמָנֶ֣יךָ טֹובִ֔ים שֶׁ֖מֶן תּוּרַ֣ק שְׁמֶ֑ךָ עַל־כֵּ֖ן עֲלָמֹ֥ות אֲהֵבֽוּךָ׃

(YLT) Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth, For better [are] thy loves than wine. For fragrance [are] thy perfumes good. Perfume emptied out — thy name, Therefore have virgins loved thee!

(DRB) Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth: for thy breasts are better than wine, Smelling sweet of the best ointments. Thy name is as oil poured out: therefore young maidens have loved thee.

(KJV) Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine. Because of the savour of thy good ointments thy name is as ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins love thee.

It seems that there are three different ways to the view the bolded phrase:

  • As it's own sentence (i.e. Young's Literal)
  • As finishing the sentence started in verse 2 (i.e. Douay-Rheims)
  • As the beginning part of a sentence (i.e. King James)

Which of three ways (if any) are plausible?

And what gramatical function does the lamed prefix serve?

  • “Your anointing oils have a wonderful fragrance” ‭‭Shir-HaShirim (Sng)‬ ‭1:3‬ ‭CJB‬‬. I prefer this rendering, thought you might like to consider it – Nihil Sine Deo Jan 2 '19 at 1:19
  • Good question. Grammatically, all three are plausible, though I suggest that the second accounts for the lamed least satisfactorily (even though the meaning is the most coherent, which is itself not a bad point in its favour). I agree with the commentary cited below that the lamed would more likely characterize what came before it, but on the other hand, many rules are flexible in Biblical poetry. – Luke Sawczak Jan 21 '19 at 19:13
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+50

First of all, remember that this is poetry, erotic poetry, and the writer's intent is to be slyly suggestive, so trying to nail down a precise single meaning is not going to be super productive.

Secondly, you should have backed up and asked what the prepositional mem (מ) "from" is doing before menishikot (נשיקות) in verse 2. What does "from the kisses" or "more than the kisses" mean!? The verse would be simpler without the mem as in Proverbs 27:6:

נֶאֱמָנִים פִּצְעֵי אוֹהֵב וְנַעְתָּרוֹת נְשִׁיקוֹת שׂוֹנֵא

Looking at verses 2 and 3 we see the following paired alliterative balance:

  1. verse 2: מִנְּשִׁיקוֹת, מִיָּיִן
  2. verse 3: לְרֵיחַ, עַל כֵּן עֲלָמוֹת

That is, two mem expressions in verse 2 followed by three lamed expressions in verse 3.

The second mem, before yayin (יין) "wine" is clearly a comparative, meaning "more than" wine. Since wine is itself a superlative figure, this is a super-superlative expression. When you get to the the end of verse two, and look back at the beginning of the verse, you are left with the feeling that the first mem, which at first glance looks superfluous, might also be intended as a comparative and the suggestive reading is therefore

Let him kiss me more than his kisses, for your love is [more] better than wine.

The mem and lamed prepositional prefixes are often opposites, denoting "from" and "to". There is a hint of this in these couplet verses 2 and 3. Verse 2 is "from" and "more than", and verse 3 is "to" or "for".

The cantillation indicates that לְרֵיחַ שְׁמָנֶיךָ טוֹבִים is an independent phrase. This implies that the literal translation is as rendered by Young's Literal Translation and the meaning in current American usage is

Your [perfumed] oils are great for (ל) fragrance,

or

[As] for [your] fragrance, your [perfumed] oils are great

Think of this as "Your aftershave thrills me".

The author of Song has changed the normal word order to put the lamed prepositional "for fragrance" at the beginning of the verse so that the placement of the lamed alliterations in the verse matches the placement of the mem alliterations in verse 2.

Verse 3 has an additional alliterative pattern based on the the letter pair shin-mem ; שְׁמָנֶיךָ, שֶׁמֶן, שְׁמֶךָ "your oils [perfumes]", "oil", "your name", reminiscent of a similar alliterative pattern, טוֹב שֵׁם מִשֶּׁמֶן טוֹב, in Ecclesiastes 7:1 (KJV)

A good name is better than precious ointment;

Therefore, in verse 3, the next phrase, שֶׁמֶן תּוּרַק שְׁמֶךָ is also independent, the literal translation being

Your name (reputation) is [as] oil poured out

and the intent in current American usage is

You are the very image of opulence, and that's why the bachelorettes are crazy about you

Note that there are no "virgins" (בטולות) in these verses, only young women (עלמות).

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  • Very good analysis, even though I would disagree with your interpretation of טולות. (If I were the Sponsus of the Canticle, I would rather be loved by "young virgins" instead of merely "young women." The first sounds more impressive, as it emphasizes that even the best of the women love the Sponsus. Maybe they're even willing to preserve their virginity for him. Of course, owing to Isaiah 7:14, translation choice will be controversial.) Your conclusion that the phrase לְרֵ֙יחַ֙ שְׁמָנֶ֣יךָ טֹובִ֔ים is independent and means "Your oils are good for the purpose of fragrance" was very helpful! – Pascal's Wager Jan 22 '19 at 0:25
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The KJV establishes it as all one sentence, beginning with לְרֵ֙יחַ֙; from Keil and Delitzsch's Commentary,

To smell thy ointments are sweet shows that when this song is sung wine is presented and perfumes are sprinkled; but the love of the host is, for those who sing, more excellent than all. It is maintained that ריח signifies fragrance emitted, and not smell. Hence Hengst., Hahn, Hlem., and Zck. explain: in odour thy ointments are sweet. Now the words can certainly, after Joshua 22:10; Job 32:4; 1 Kings 10:23, mean "sweet in (of) smell;" but in such cases the word with Lamed of reference naturally stands after that to which it gives the nearer reference, not as here before it. Therefore Hengst.: ad odorem unguentorem tuorum quod attinet bonus est, but such giving prominence to the subject and attraction (cf. 1 Samuel 2:4; Job 15:20) exclude one another; the accentuation correctly places לריה out of the gen. connection. Certainly this word, like the Arab. ryḥ, elsewhere signifies odor, and the Hiph. הריח (araḥ) odorari; but why should not ריח be also used in the sense of odoratus, since in the post-bibl. Heb. הריח חושׁ means the sense of smell, and also in Germ. "riechen" means to emit fragrance as well as to perceive fragrance? We explain after Genesis 2:9, where Lamed introduces the sense of sight, as here the sense of smell. Zckl. and others reply that in such a case the word would have been לריח; but the art. is wanting also at Genesis 2:9 (cf. Sol 3:6), and was not necessary, especially in poetry, which has the same relation to the art. as to asher, which, wherever practicable, is omitted.

According to their commentary, the Lamed introduces the sense of smell, but it is to be noted "fragrance" and not mere smelling is the authorial intent. To view the fragrance separately is to merely value it's scent, not the overall effect of the fragrance, which is as "oil poured out" which stirs the hearts of the maidens.

It is important to note that although schools of thought have contradicted each passage with inserted scribal meanings, the overall sense is allegorical, and therefore to be compared, and not stated directly. When we read "שְׁמֶ֑ךָ"(šə-me-ḵā; your name is) the author is telling us the Name is like the fragrance of scented oils. And if we follow traditional Hebrew commentary, this is a "Love Song" between God and His Chosen people, to make it anything else is to defile the text. So one must parse the text with this view in mind, and not stumble over the idioms which make the comparisons.

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