Adin Steinsaltz saves the honor of Ecclesiastes

The Hebrew volume Chameish Megillot, published by Koren Press,[1] is part of a series of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s commentaries on the Bible called Hatanakh HaMevoar. This volume contains commentaries to the five Megillot, “scrolls,” biblical books that are read in synagogues on five holidays; the books of Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), and Esther.

Steinsaltz gives a general introduction to the five books and a chart showing the traditional dating of each of the books. For example, Song of Songs and Kohelet according to the tradition upon which he relies were composed by King Solomon between 836 and 796 BCE, Ruth 973 BCE, Lamentations 422 BCE, and Esther between 367 and 353 BCE.[2] Steinsaltz gives the text of each of the books, the Masoretic musical notes, an additional separate introduction to each book, and two commentaries: one simply an explanation of words and what the verses mean; the other  a deeper discussion of various issues the books raise. He divides each book into logical parts, in addition to the usual chapter divisions, and explains in still another brief introduction the contents of each part so that the text is clearer. This book also has eighteen pages of notes and sources.

In his introduction to Kohelet, for example, he states that the book was not intended to be a volume presenting religious ideas. It is designed to describe human problems, frustrations, and experiences. Thus, it is not clear in the book itself why it was fit to be accepted in the Canon.[3] He notes the traditional view that Solomon wrote Song of Songs Proverbs, and Kohelet, that the rabbis saw significant differences between them in language and views, which seem to show that each had a different author, and that the rabbis therefore suggested that he wrote the first in his youth, the second in his middle years, and the third in his old age.[4]  He states that he sees in Kohelet a belief in a human spirit existing prior to the birth of a person and that this spirit returns to God when a person dies.[5] He also sees in the book that Kohelet’s view is that life leads people to give up hope of finding a solution to life’s difficulties, and people should accept the advice in the book’s final chapter to fear God and keep the divine commandments.[6]

In his second commentary to Kohelet, the in depth one, he explains that the book reflects his interpretation, among much else:

When Kohelet mentions in 1:3 the phrase “under the sun,” a phrase that also appears in Genesis 6:17, Exodus 17:14, II Kings 14:27, he is hinting that what he is about to say only applies on earth, but not heaven or the divine plans and requirements.

Kohelet’s statement that he acquired wisdom in 1:16 and 2:9 confirms that the author was Solomon because I Kings 3:9 states that God gave this king wisdom.

When 3:16 states that Kohelet saw evil in the courts it was because many people think that courts should just implement the law and ignore justice. But God rules with justice and mercy.

Steinsaltz insists that chapter 12 suggesting fear of God and the observance of the divine commands is not a positive addendum to an otherwise pessimistic book, but is the conclusion that flows from what was stated previously. What precedes is what people see “under the sun,” but the book, according to Steinsaltz concludes that one must look higher, look to God and what God requires.

 

[1] Jerusalem, 2017.

[2] Modern scholars disagree with each of these dates. Solomon, for instance, is dated around 960 BCE.

[3] He refers readers to Mishna Yadayim 3:5, Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 28:1, and Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 1:4, where the rabbis discuss this issue.

[4] He cites Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah 1:10 and Nachmanides discourse on Kohelet.

[5] This is not explicit in the text and what is actually stated is just the opposite.

[6] Many scholars assert that the final chapter was composed by another author who attached it to the pessimistic book to give it a somewhat religious outlook.

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