A scholar’s interpretation of Ecclesiastes

 

The biblical book Kohelet, Ecclesiastes in English, is read in synagogues during the holiday of Sukkot. Why? The traditional answer is that a major theme of Kohelet is the futility of mundane pursuits and pleasures. Sukkot demonstrates this theme by the commandment to live in temporary dwellings. We move outside our homes, which provides a sense of permanence and comfort, and instead dwell in flimsy huts. This prompts us to think about the transience of physicality, as does the book of Kohelet., and hopefully both encourage people to seek to live a meaningful life and encouraged by the Torah.

Actually, this explanation is backwards. The book was not attached to Sukkot for the reason given, the reason came after the book was included in the Sukkot service. This is how it happened. In ancient times. Either Moses, according to tradition, or another instituted the practice to read the Torah on Shabbat, a practice that was later extended, according to tradition by Ezra, to be read also on Monday and Thursday morning services, and later on Saturday night as well. Still later, the practice arose to read portions from the prophetical books at the end of the Torah readings. This left out the books of Ketuvim, the Writings. The idea developed to read five of these books on various holidays. Books were attached to the holidays and reasons were developed to explain why a particular book was read on a particular holiday, such as Ruth is read on Shavuot because, among other reasons, Ruth was the ancestress of King David who is said to have been born and died on Shavuot (even though this dating is not in the Bible).

This issue aside, what is Kohelet about?

“Kohelet, The Man and his World, A Study of Ecclesiastes,” by Robert Gordis, is a readable translation by a highly respected scholar of the biblical book Kohelet, with comprehensive explanations and extensive notes. Both the Hebrew and English names mean “collector” or collection.” Kohelet is a difficult book, usually misunderstood, often purposely. Dr. Gordis tells readers that “there is scarcely one aspect of the 222 verses [in the book], whether of dates, authorship or interpretation, that has not been the subject of wide differences of opinion.” Yet the book was extremely popular. No less than 122 out of the 222 verses in the book are quoted in rabbinic Talmudic and Midrashic sources, in whole or in part.

The “Jewish Midrashim and the Aramaic Targum [authoritative translation] saw in it the penitent reflections of a [King] Solomon grown worldly-wise and sorrowful in the evening of life.” In contrast, Church Fathers, also enamored by the book, “found in the book definite teachings of the Trinity and the Atonement.”

Gordis and most scholars are certain that Solomon was not the author of this book and “Kohelet [its author] may have lived between 500 BCE and 100 CE – no less a span than six centuries.”

True, the book begins by saying “the words of Kohelet the son of David, king in Jerusalem [but] the view that Solomon is the author has been universally abandoned today.” Scholars contend that the introductory sentence was attached to the book by a later editor who wanted to give this heterodox volume an aura of prestige and sanctity. This is also why this editor, or another editor like him, added a conclusion to the book saying, “In sum, having heard everything, fear God, and keep His commandments for that is man’s whole duty. For God will bring every deed to judgment, even everything hidden, whether it is good or evil.” This added ending is a non-sequitor, for the body of the book has an altogether different skeptical, non-traditional, hedonistic thrust.

We know little about the real author, the person called Kohelet. In the last six verses of the book (12:9-14), the editor added that Kohelet was a wisdom teacher and a collector and composer of wisdom literature. He was from his earliest youth endowed with intellectual and emotional faculties that were exceptionally keen. He had a passionate love of life, and enjoyed the tang of living. He enthralled in the sight of the sun, the breath of the wind, and the good things available in this world. He loved material comfort, beauty, and women. He wrote: “Enjoy life with the woman you love” (9:9). Yet he pours out vials of bitterness against them, proof that he had loved and lost them or that he was a confirmed bachelor, for he wrote “I find woman more bitter than death, for her heart is full of traps and snares” (7:26). His yearning for justice and wisdom brought him sorrow and disillusion. Since justice and wisdom are unattainable, he concludes, contrary to the added end and contrary to the current Orthodox belief of life after death, that striving for happiness is the only reasonable goal of life. “For if a man lives many years, let him rejoice in them all, and remember that the days of darkness will be many, and that everything thereafter is nothingness” (11:8).

Gordis tells readers that “The idea of a future life [after death] is passed over in silence in [the biblical book] Proverbs, probably because of the early date of its material [written before the idea of an after-life entered Judaism]. It is explicitly negated in Ben Sira, Job, and Kohelet.”

Many expressions in Kohelet are misunderstood or overlooked. For example: “Everything has its appointed time…A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them” (3:5) is a phrase having a sexual connotation. God has “placed the love of the world in men’s hearts…. I know that there is no other good in life but to be happy while one lives. Indeed, every man who eats, drinks, and enjoys happiness in his work – that is the gift of God” (3: 11-13) and “the fate of men and the fate of beasts is the same” (3:19). These hedonistic views are overlooked because of misplaced pious reasons.

Kohelet’s work opens and closes with his judgment of life, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (1:2 and 12:8). The petty strivings of people are folly. God endowed people with the desire for happiness, failure to enjoy God’s gift is ungrateful egregious rebellion against God.

In the second century of the Common Era, the rabbis debated whether to include Kohelet in the Hebrew Bible canon. Some rabbis opposed it, but it was given a pious interpretation and included. Later traditional commentaries of the book are based on the views of Rashi (1040-1105) and the Aramaic translation of the book. Rashi relied on the Aramaic translation, which was most likely composed after the completion of the Babylonian Talmud in the mid-sixth century and before the Arab conquest of Israel in the seventh. They portray Kohelet as a very religious man who is encouraging his readers to accept and follow the proper way to serve God and to act with moral behavior. These and similar commentaries read into the text what the text does not say or even imply. Thus, for example, although Kohelet doesn’t mention punishment after death for misdeeds, they read it into his words. Rashi, to cite another example, interprets the misogynistic statement about women – “a woman is bitterer than death. She is a trap. Her heart is a snare. Her hands are chains. He who has God’s favor avoids her” –  as referring to heretical “beliefs,” not women, that must be avoided. Also, the Aramaic translation frequently reads into the text that Kohelet is speaking of past events that should be emulated, such as some religious act performed by the patriarch Abraham.

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