Tradition mandates that Jews should read the biblical book Kohelet, also spelt Koheleth and Qohelet, called Ecclesiastes in English, during the holiday of Sukkot. Both the Hebrew and English names mean “collector” or “collection.” We do not know why this mandate was made. Some say that since Sukkot is a very happy holiday, we need the sober thoughts of Kohelet to modify our joy and make it more reasonable.
The book was considered heretical by many ancient rabbis who wanted to exclude it from the Bible. Many theological teachings that are central to rabbinic Judaism are absent from the book, such as the teaching of the existence of a soul, life after death, reward and punishment after death (“the dead know nothing; they have no recompense” 9:5), and the need to observe the teachings of the Torah. There are also texts that seem to say that God is not involved in human affairs, in 8:10, 14,17 and 9:2-3, although 3:17, 5:5, 8:12-13, and 11:9 seem to tell about divine punishment, without explaining how this occurs. The divine name y-h-v-h is not used in the book, only the generic Elohim, which could mean God or a powerful natural force.
The book is also inconsistent. The author refers to himself in the first person throughout the book, but not in 1:1-2, 7:27, and 12:9-14, which raises the question whether these exceptions were inserted by one or more editors in an attempt to make the book somewhat, but not altogether acceptable.
There are many opposite assertions. The pursuit of pleasure, an idea vilified by the rabbis, is commended in 2:24-26 and 5:17-19, but asserted to be bad in 2:2-3, 10-11. Life is said to be good in 11:7, but bad in 9:4-6 and 2:17. Wisdom is praised in 2:13; 7:11, 19; 9:16-18, but denigrated in 1:17-18 and 2:15-16. The opening verse 1:1 seems to state that the book’s author was an Israelite king, the son of King David, yet the books epilogue 12:9-14 states that Kohelet was a sage, a teacher.
The term Kohelet is mentioned seven times in the book, inconsistently: 1:1, 2, 12; 7:27; 12:9, 10, and 8. In verse 8, the definite article “the” is attached to the term, hakohelet, “the Kohelet,” the first six could, if one wished, be taken as a name, but 12:8, seems to be an activity, which would be consistent with chapter 12’s inconsistent portrayal of the author, as a teacher, rather than a king.
The theme of the book appears to be reflected in the second verse of the book that all is haveil, as translated by Michael V. Fox in his The JPS Bible Commentary, Ecclesiastes, “Utter futility! – Said Koheleth – Utter futility! All is futile!” If this is the theme and message of the book, then it seems to contradict Genesis 1 which repeatedly states that all of God’s creations are good.
These seemingly heretical statements, omissions of fundamental rabbinic teachings, inconsistencies, and changes from first to third person raise the basic question: how should this book be interpreted.
Robert Gordis gives good explanations of Kohelet in his 1968 book “Koheleth, The Man and his world, A Study of Ecclesiastes.” He 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.
He tells us that 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.”
Dr. Gordis and most scholars are certain that Solomon was not the author of this book and “Koheleth [its author] may have lived between 500 BCE and 100 CE – no less a span than six centuries.”
True, he writes, the book begins by saying “the words of Koheleth 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, they say, 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-sequitur, for the body of the book has an altogether different skeptical, non-traditional, hedonistic thrust.
We know little about Koheleth. In the last six verses of the book (12:9-14), the editor added, contrary to the introduction, that Koheleth 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).
Kohelet advises people to enjoy life. 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). 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. Yet, on the other hand, God endowed people with the desire for happiness, and failure to enjoy God’s gift is ungrateful egregious rebellion.