Kohelet: Book of Breath

Kohelet, the assembler.

Or, in English, Ecclesiastes, the Preacher.

At Sukkot, it is traditional to study the book of Kohelet, perhaps because Sukkot is the fall festival at which we harvest the fruits of summer — and Kohelet is written by someone in the autumn of their life, harvesting the fruits of their life’s search for meaning.

But it doesn’t seem to be a very fruitful harvest.

Hevel hevelim, hakol hevel.  This, in Hebrew, is the wisdom Kohelet has harvested.

What does Kohelet mean by this???

Hevel” in biblical Hebrew literally means “a breath, a vapor.”

So, literally, Kohelet is saying, “Breath of breaths, it is all a breath” or, in other words, life is no more substantial than a breath — drawn in for a few seconds, held, and then let go.

Because of Kohelet’s use of the word “hevel,hevel has come to mean, figuratively, “nothingness, insubstantiality, futility, vanity.”  And so the famous King James Bible translates Kohelet’s opening lines as “Vanity of vanities, it’s all vanity” – meaning that all of life’s accomplishments are in vain – because life is no more substantial than a breath – drawn in for a few seconds, held, and then let go.

Kohelet says that he has had quite a journey in life.  He has been King in Yerushalayim, where he tasted wealth, pleasure, and wisdom.  And none has been substantial.

Amassing wealth, he says, is futile: a person works and works, not even able to calm the busy mind at night, and then…what?  The money passes to someone else, or fortune makes it disappear.  And if you haven’t put time into making friends who can enjoy the profits with you, there’s no joy in them anyway.

The pursuit of pleasure is futile – for pain can easily replace pleasure without warning.

The pursuit of wisdom is the best of the three – but even wisdom is fickle, for one wrong choice based on poor judgment can annul the effects of a lifetime of careful thinking.

In the end, says Kohelet, find someone to love, because one body alone can’t get warm; enjoy life’s simple pleasures; and believe in God.

But to hope to build anything lasting, that is “havel u’re’ut ruach” – futile, and the shepherding of wind.

On Tuesday evening we will read the opening lines of the Torah, and of the book of Bereisheet, Genesis: Bereisheet bara elohim, et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz.  V’ha’aretz hayta tohu va’vavohu, v’choshech al p’nai tehom, v’ruach elohim merachefet al p’nay hamayim.  “In a beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was chaotic and empty, and darkness was over the face of the deep waters, and ruach Elohim – the wind, the spirit, the breath of God – was hovering over the face of the waters.”

The first appearance of God we see in the Torah is as wind, breath, vapor.  This is the form of the Being that pre-existed the creation of the world.  And, according to the tenth-century mystical midrash on Bereisheet, Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Formation, all of the words that God used to create the world were this ruach, this breath, this wind, manifesting in different shapes.  For that is what words are: wind passed through the tunnels of a mouth as the mouth takes on different shapes.  In a sense, the creation of the world is a “shepherding of wind.”

When Kohelet speaks of breath and wind, Kohelet speaks of deep emptiness.  Life is merely wind, Kohelet says, ultimate emptiness.

When Bereisheet speaks of breath and wind, it speaks of the source of all that is.  Life is wind, but wind is the source of fullness.

Should we say it is accidental that Kohelet and Bereisheet both use the metaphor of “ruach” – wind – and think of the two books as offering opposite lines of thinking — Kohelet saying that life has no ultimate meaning and Bereisheet saying that the world has a benevolent source and thus perhaps an ultimate purpose?

Or can we put these two great teachings about ruach together?

Do they draw a contrast between humans and God, suggesting that humans cannot create anything that lasts beyond their lifetime, but that God, who created the whole word, can create something lasting?  As Psalm 93 says, “God established the world, it cannot give way.”

Or do they seem to make a comparison between an individual life and the entire world: Just as an individual life is fleeting, like a breath drawn in, held, and let go…so is the life of the entire world like a divine breath drawn in, held, and let go?  Perhaps divine energy, the divine breath, exists always, but in ever changing forms, of which our world is but one – and to try to hold on to any particular form is futile. After all, Torah begins with the words “in a beginning,” not “in the beginning,” suggesting that there may have been other beginnings and there may yet be other beginnings.

Along those lines, are Kohelet and Bereisheet, taken together, offering an inspirational – pun intended — seasonal teaching: do not mourn the coming of winter, because the winds of fall that blow away the old will also bring new life?


— Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2005

Image: eclectic-shots.com

  1. Thank you for this very interesting article. I enjoyed reading it.

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