Ecclesiastes is About the Fleetingness of Life
Yesterday, Tzvi Kilov published “On The Mysteries Of King Solomon And Koheles”, in which he wonders why we Jews have a custom to read the book of Ecclesiastes/קהלת (Kohelet or Koheles) during the Shabbat amidst the holiday of Sukkot. In the essay, he describes the book of Ecclesiastes in such a way to make it seem as if nothing is worth doing, as Kilov decribes it as the “most nihilistic of all twenty-four scriptures.” Moreover, he describes it as “a book about how everything is purposeless and achieves nothing.”
While everyone is entitled to their opinion, I do not subscribe to Kilov’s opinion that Ecclesiastes is a book that has the view that “everything is purposeless and achieves nothing.” Nevertheless, we do agree upon one thing, his identification that “the non-subtle theme of Koheles is laid out at the beginning.”
It is hard to read the book of Ecclesiastes without noticing the words at the beginning of the book, at the close of the book, and many places in between, which is הבל or, more emphatically, הבל הבלים. One cannot properly understand this book without understanding this term of הבל. So what does it mean?
As I pointed out a decade ago, there is a really great article about this term, in particular, and the book of Ecclesiastes, in general.1 In the article, the author describes the term הבל as “‘transience’, referring strictly to mortality and the fleeting nature of human life. ‘Fleeting transience (hevel havalim),’ says Kohelet, ‘All is fleeting'” (74). This yields to us that “We now understand the significance of Kohelet’s opening proclamation that ‘all is hevel.’ He seeks to confront his listeners with man’s own mortality — the underlying premise of any inquiry into the meaning of life in this world” (75).
Kilov, however, translates the opening of הבל הבלים הכל הבל as “vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. However, points out Dor-Shav, “The reading of hevel as ‘vanity’ is not only misleading, but, in some cases, it makes the text impossible to read” (75). Instead of everything being vanity, the new understanding is fleeting, meaning that everything passes and that there is nothing that is always permanent. This is most clearly seen at the beginning of chapter 3 (3.1-8) in which there is no one modality in which one should always live. The thing that vexes Kohelet is how to connect to something permanent?
The answer: God. God is permanent and enduring. This is most clearly seen in the following lines: “He brings everything to pass precisely at its time; He also puts eternity in their mind but without man ever guessing, from first to last, all the things that God brings to pass. Thus, I realized that the only worthwhile thing there is for them is to enjoy themselves and do what is good in their lifetime; also, that whenever a man does eat and drink and get enjoyment out of all his wealth, it is a gift of God” (3.11-13).2 Clearly, God is eternal, so how can one enjoy that of the eternal – by enjoying the gifts of God.
This can also be seen elsewhere in the book: “Also, whenever a man is given riches and property by God, and is also permitted by Him to enjoy them and to take his portion and get pleasure for his gains – that is a gift of God. For [such a man] will not brood much over the days of his life, because God keeps him busy enjoying himself” (5.18-19).3
In brief, Ecclesiastes is not so much about being depressed about the lack of meaning in life and the vanities that encompass it, but rather about the fleeting nature of time and how we have to enjoy it.
When we read this book tomorrow, it will be a fitting book to read about enjoying life and שמחה, which makes sense since Sukkot is זמן שמחתינו.
1. Ethan Dor-Shav, “Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and Timeless”, Azure No. 18 (Autumn 2004): 67-87. This article was later re-published in two parts: “Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and Timeless, Part I”, Jewish Bible Quarterly 36:4 (October-December 2008): 211-221 and “Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and Timeless, Part II”, Jewish Bible Quarterly 37:1 (January-March 2009): 17-23.↩
2. Translation from Tanakh: A New Translation of The Holy Scriptures According to the Traditional Hebrew Text (Philadelphia and Jerusalem: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985), 1444.↩
3. Translation from Ibid., 1447.↩