Rashi’s grandson’s commentary of Ecclesiastes

Sara Japhet and Robert B. Salters, two highly respected scholars’ editing and translation of Rashbam’s commentary on Qoheleth (also spelt Kohelet, Ecclesiastes in English) is excellent. Rashbam was one of Jewry’s most supreme rational Bible commentators, part of a trio of top Jewish medieval rationalist, along with Maimonides and Abraham ibn Ezra. He was the grandson of the famed Bible and Talmud commentators Rashi (1040-1105), who based his commentaries in large part on fables and parables drawn from midrashim, and who Rashbam argued vociferously against in his own commentary.[1]

Rashbam was born between 1080 and 1085, and died around 1158. He probably made his living from sheep-raising, in conformity with the then existing custom of rabbis not requiring payment for teaching or other rabbinical work, but having an independent source of income. He wrote brilliant commentaries on almost all the books of the Bible, but most of his writings have been lost. He stressed the “literal” method of interpretation, what the biblical words actually mean in the context of the section in which they appear.

Rashbam was the first scholar to recognize that the first two sentences of Qoheleth and the last seven were not written by the book’s author, but were added to the book by its editor. The editor summed up the book’s message as he understood it in the introductory two verses and the last seven.

Many scholars today accept Rashbam’s understanding. However, although not discussed by Japhet and Salters, arguably the first seven verses of this last chapter were also added by the editor, making the entire last chapter an addition to what the original author wrote. For while the first eleven chapters of Qoheleth speak about the vanities of life, the tone, message, and even wording of the final chapter is radically different from what precedes, and seems to contradict what is said there. In the former chapters, as will be seen, the author mentions the benefits of wisdom more than once and stresses that this is the kind of life that should be lead. He never speaks of benefits from keeping God’s commands. He even seems to deny the existence of life after death. In contrast, chapter 12 warns the reader to remember God, people should repent, and a person’s spirit (ruach) will return to God.[2]

Rashbam explains that the name Qoheleth means “assemble, gather,” He writes “Solomon is called Qoheleth because he gathered wisdom from all the people of the East, and became wiser than any man.” This view of Rashbam is contrary to the notion of many ultra-Orthodox Jews today who insist that Jews should not study secular matters and certainly not the views of non-Jews. However, it reflects the opinion of Maimonides, “The truth is the truth no matter what its source.”[3]

Rashbam notes that the phrase “this is vanity” occurs twenty-four times in the book’s twelve chapters and he explains that the author is describing his experiences and concludes that each is vanity.

Remarkably, in his commentary to 3:20, as previously mentioned, Qoheleth seems to deny life after death, for he explains that humans have no advantage over animals; when they die they “go to the same place, for they came from the dust and shall return to the dust.” This, as previously mentioned, is in stark contrast to chapter 12.

Qoheleth parallels Maimonides when he stresses the value of wisdom: “there is nothing in the world as important as wisdom.” It is “a strong tower to a wise man.” “The wisdom of a man makes his face light up and makes him glad.”[4]

Unfortunately, Qoheleth reflected the bias of his age: “I have found one man out of a thousand men, who is perfect in deeds, but I have not found a woman who is perfect and blameless in her actions, among all of these, that is, a thousand women.”

Another problematical Qoheleth belief is: “whoever keeps his (God’s) commandments shall neither experience any evil nor shall any evil happen to him.” Yet, there is a contradictory view in 9:3 where he states that both the good and bad people suffer misfortunes and calamities.[5] The first statement is contrary to the experience of virtually everyone.

Whether one agrees with the author of Qoheleth or not, the author’s view is worth considering, and this is most likely why the book was included in the Bible, and the interpretation of Rashbam’s commentary on his book by Japhet and Salters is enlightening.


[1] See references in E. E. Urbach, The Tosaphists: Their History, Writings and Methods. Jerusalem, 1968, page 45 notes 3-4, page 22 note 25.

[2] This last statement does not necessarily imply that there is an afterlife. Many scholars understand that the author is simply saying he dies and this is the end of him.

[3] Maimonides wrote in his Introduction to his Guide of the Perplexed that this is why he could draw knowledge from the Greek philosopher Aristotle.

[4] Rashbam also notes that when people strive to know things that are beyond their keen, they will fail (8:16); this too is vanity.

[5] The rabbis note more contradictory statements in the book.

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