Interpreting Kohelet

purple vaporAt Sukkot, it is traditional to study the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). The original reason for this tradition is mysterious — as is the book of Kohelet, penned by an unknown author in an unusual style.

The author says, “I, Kohelet, am a wise, wealthy king in Jerusalem.” One might identify Kohelet with King Solomon, but the book’s language is half a millennium too modern, and Kohelet is too critical of royal justice.

The book of Kohelet has no story; no characters except the narrator; no discussion of the history of Israel or the future of the Jews; and no role for revelation. It encourages us to observe life and create meaning for ourselves. Some read pessimism in this teaching; others see optimism.

Here are some of the words that frame the book, beginning and end.

The words of Kohelet, son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Havel Havalim, said Kohelet. Utterly insubstantial! All is insubstantial.

What yitron, real value, is there for a human in the gains he or she makes beneath the sun? (1:1-3)

The sun rises and the sun sets, and glides back to where it rises. Southward blowing, turning northward, ever-turning blows the wind; on its rounds the wind returns. (1:5-6)

I observed all the happenings beneath the sun and I found that all is hevel, futile, and re’ut ruach, pursuit of wind. (1:14)

My thoughts turned to appraising chochma, wisdom, as well as madness and folly. I found that chochma, wisdom, has more yitron, more profit, than folly, as light is more profitable than darkness. A chacham, a wise person, has eyes in her head, whereas a fool walks in darkness. But I also realized that the same fate awaits them both. Alas, the chacham, the wise person, dies, just like the fool. And sometimes a person she’amalo, who toiled, with chochma, wisdom, knowledge and skill, must hand it on to be the chelek, portion, of someone who did not amal, toil, for it. (2:12-14, 16, 21)

There is nothing worthwhile for a person except to eat and drink and and enjoy amalo, his toil. Even that, I noted, comes from God. (2:24)

Last week, in our course on Wisdom Literature, I studied Kohelet with our mostly Christian students at the Vancouver School of Theology.

“What wisdom does Kohelet offer?” I asked.

Trevor said, “God is at work, but we cannot exactly know God’s plan.”

Tuyvec said, “We see only what is finite, but God’s wisdom is infinite.”

Glenn said, “Learn to live within your limitations.”

Vikki said, “When we are in right relationship with reality, we are in right relationship with God.”

Linda said, “We come to know God through reasoned investigation into life.”

Kirstin said, “Wow, these interpretations are really subjective!”

“Thank you Kirstin,” I said, “for that perfect segue into a deeper look!”

“Yes,” I continued, “there are more and less subjective ways to interpret texts. We just used a subjective, reader-centered method. We allowed the text to trigger spiritual musings. And we understood our musings to be the message of the text.

“Let’s try something a bit more scientific, and examine Kohelet on his or her own terms. While we don’t know Kohelet’s identity, time, or place, we can literally look at Kohelet’s terms.

“Kohelet uses a special vocabulary to express her or his philosophy. A few favorite words appear more in Kohelet than in any book of the Tanakh. Let’s identify those words, examine them in context, and draw conclusions. What philosophical teaching is presented through each word?”

Here are our findings.

Chelek refers to our portion in life; Yitron is the profit we derive from it. For Kohelet, the value of our portion and the quality of our profit is measured by our attitude.

Amal describes all our toil, on the physical, emotional and intellectual levels. Because our toil brings no lasting result, says Kohelet, the best way to derive value is to enjoy life’s tasks for what they are.

Chochma is wisdom. Wisdom, Kohelet teaches, is powerful, but not infinite. Empirical observation and analysis teach us about life, but we cannot know everything.

Hevel means breath or vapour. Ruach means wind and spirit. Re’ut ruach is the activity of chasing wind or chasing spirit. Life, says Kohelet, is breath, an unending pursuit of ruach. All life is animated by spirit.

Thus, Kohelet teaches:

Be aware; spirit surrounds you.

Keep your eyes and your mind open.

Accept every present moment as a gift.

Work for the good of the world, even though achievements are temporary.

That’s how one lives well on this planet under the sun.

***

More about Kohelet at the following links:

I, Kohelet

Opposites in Tension

Book of Breath

Re-discovering Cynicism

Translations of Kohelet adapted by me from NJPS. Scholarly guidance on Kohelet’s terms from Michael V. Fox, Ecclesiastes: The JPS Bible Commentary (Philadelphia: 2004). Image: rockymoutainvapor.com

0 Comments
  1. Fantastic! I’m going to quote this blog in my Tuesday Kohelet class. I’ve been approaching this from Kohelt’s near chronic depression, and certainly a sense of deep uncertainty and almost hopelessness. And yet through it shines his genius of a trans-temporal consciousness and how the cycle of opposing forces seem to repeat themselves, and how the future and past are intimately linked. Thank you Rabbi Laura!

    1. Thank you, David! It’s amazing how much this book invites re-read after re-read, and has a different message depending on your perspective. – Laura

  2. Excellent..and I enjoy the dynamic interchange between Jews and Christians when I teach this text in a “mixed” group, and especially when we consider it in the context of nascent Buddhism and “shunyata” — emptiness…and perhaps the Stoics and Cynics of the Hellenistic period. Would enjoy hearing what you think about those connections.
    Reb Yonatan

    1. Thanks, Yonatan. It’s a fascinating thing that we don’t know enough about the text to trace a Hellenistic influence, and a convergence of ideas doesn’t necessarily mean communication between cultures…and yet we know there was communication! – Laura

  3. Thanks for the post. Glad to see you don’t push the tradition that says Solomon wrote the book when he was a cranky old man.
    I do find it a bit odd that people find the wisdom of Kohelet so difficult to understand. People give their opinions of the book but from what is said it seems they have not read it. Kohelet is clear throughout his book that he is writing to discuss what lasting benefit we can gain from our hard work. He says it throughout the book yet people keep coming back to thoughts about the meaning of life or nihilism. A while back I wrote a tongue in cheek bit about Kohelet showing up in a modern university classroom.

    “My name is Kohelet and today we are going to look at what lasting benefit humans can gain from all their hard work.”
    Immediately a hand shoots up in the front row. “Professor, I have read and heard from other professors that you instruct people on how meaningless life can be.”
    Kohelet shakes his head, looks down at his notes and says, “I have examined everything people work at under the sun and it is all as futile as chasing the wind, for we could never straighten everything that is twisted, nor could we even begin to count all that is lacking.”
    A second hand goes up. “So you are telling us that life has no meaning because it cannot be fixed?”
    Kohelet shakes his head again. “No, for when I looked back over all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, it was as futile as chasing after the wind, for I had gained nothing of lasting benefit under the sun. The only reward for all my labor was the joy my heart found while I was working.”
    The student nods and interrupts “That’s what I said. Its all meaningless.”
    Kohelet steps around the podium. “You are not listening to my words. What others say I teach about and what I say is very different. This is the question I wrote down many years ago – So what do we gain from all the toil and anxious striving with which we labor under the sun? I clearly taught that each of us has been given the opportunity to eat and drink and find satisfaction in our work. My teaching is to show you about the lasting gain you can expect from your life’s work. To warn you about wasting it chasing after the wind.”
    From the back of the room someone calls out. “It sounds like hedonism to me.”
    “If that is so, why would I teach that one handful with rest is better than two handfuls with toil and grasping for the wind.”
    Another voice chimes in, “Its not hedonism. It nihilism and he is right, nothing matters.”
    Kohelet steps closer to the students. “I believe we should enjoy our food and find satisfaction in our work during each day of life God gives us—for this is our lot. If God provides us with money and possessions and also grants the ability to enjoy them by accepting our lot and being happy in our work, this is God’s gift to us. If we accept it, we will seldom look regretfully on our past, because God will keep us occupied with joyful hearts.”
    Before he can continue a woman stands up in the middle of the class. “You guys aren’t listening to him. Kohelet is one of the greatest existentialists that has ever lived. Listen to his words.” She sits down.
    Kohelet gives a wry smile and says, “My words say this. Follow the desires of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but do not forget that God will call you to account for how you live.” He turns back to the podium and reads from his text. “My days had been dedicated to a careful observation of all the work people do upon the earth. I hardly slept as I tried to figure out God’s intent for us, but no one can fully comprehend everything that takes place under the sun. Despite my best efforts to search it out, I could not understand it. Even if a wise person claims to know what God is doing, no one can truly know the mind of God.”
    He looks up at the students. “I am here to talk to you about what you are pursuing and what you hope to gain from all your hard work. If you are seeking an end goal instead of enjoying the journey even your time here pursuing an education will end up being futile, as futile as trying to catch the wind.”
    Silence falls on the classroom. Kohelet continues, “If you would like to learn more about your search for lasting gain from all you work under the sun please feel free to remain and engage in the discussion. However, if you have already decided that I am hear to teach something else you are free to go.”
    Slowly the classroom empties out amidst mumbling and grumbling about a depressed old man who has nothing good to say about life.
    Kohelet rolls up his notes and departs out the side door. Truly there is nothing new under the sun. His wisdom has received the same response for the past 2000 years. He has no delusions that modern people might now be wise enough to hear what he has to say.

    1. What a terrific midrash on Kohelet! Thank you so much. I’ll share it with my class. – Laura

  4. Glad you enjoyed it. I wrote it for a professor who was teaching the book but finding it hard to communicate Kohelet’s primary search. I used to try and teach the book but now instead I have memorized it and recite it while cook Mirza Ghesemi over a brazier. It seems to be the best way to get the themes to come through clearly. I have many older people who will come up and tell me they have been reading Kohelet all their lives but when I spoke it out loud they finally understood his message. It seems that most of the teaching on the book reads into the text instead of letting Kohelet’s wisdom emerge on its own.
    All the best with your class.

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