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The Book of Kohelet - 5773

by Rabbi Yaakov Grunewald

During Sukkot, we read the Scroll of Kohelet, which is one of the five scrolls, to be found in the third Biblical section which is called Writings. In Hebrew the section is called Ketuvim. The Hebrew word for the Bible is Tanach, which is an abbreviation for Torah, Neviim, the prophets, and Ketuvim.  The section of the Writings contains the books of the Bible which were not written by the prophets and which were written in the end of the Biblical era, in about the fifth century BCE. Bible scholars classify the Book of Kohelet as part of the collection of the Wisdom Literature.

The meaning of the name KOHELET is quite obscure. In English the name is in Ecclesiastes. The name Kohelet is connected with the Hebrew word KOL which means voice. It is also connected with the word Kehilah, which means congregation. The Hebrew name of the United synagogue is, in fact, Kehilah Kedoshah, which means holy congregation. It is usually written in an abbreviated form, with the letters KOF-KOF.

Following from this, we may infer that the meaning of the title of the scroll is the Preacher, the Rabbi or teacher who convenes the congregation and teaches them a lesson in Torah. The problem with the name is that with the letter Taf at the end, appears to be a feminine form. Yet, the first verse of the scroll, describes it as the work of the son of David, who was King in Jerusalem. Jewish tradition, which accepts fully the evidence of this first verse, ascribes the work to King Solomon, who was famous for his incomparable wisdom in the ancient world. According to Jewish tradition, King Solomon wrote three books of the Bible. In his youth, he wrote the scroll of the Song of Songs about love. In the middle of his life he wrote the book of Proverbs, giving advice about life and, at the end of his life, roundabout age 50, he wrote this book which expresses his discontentment with life.

Because of the grammatical difficulty in that the word Kohelet is in the feminine form, some scholars think that the name means a collection of wise sayings.  Others advance the theory that the name is linked to an Arabic word which means old age. Therefore, the title means: The words of the old man.

In the book, the author expresses his ideas about life. They are the product of his experiments and researches over a long period. He wonders about life. He is puzzled about its purpose and he cannot understand the ultimate difference between wisdom and folly. In the end of his reflections and investigations, he repeats, many times, his findings that everything in life is pointless. The Hebrew word for pointlessness is Hevel, breath, or wind. Breath and wind symbolise nothingness, for they are invisible and vanish in a split-second. So the most famous sentence in the book is verse 2 in chapter 1 which says: Vanity of Vanities, says, Kohelet, Vanity of Vanities everything is Vanity.

The style and language of the book indicate that it was written by one author at one time. But the problem is that it contains many significant contradictions. The most glaring contradiction is the fact that, throughout the book, the author argues that life has no purpose because everything is fixed and determined in advance and that human beings have no power to change anything. Yet, in his concluding remarks he says that if we listen to the message of the book, we will come to the conclusion that life’s purpose is to fear and obey God. Our rabbis expressed a similar thought in the famous maxim in which they declared that everything depends on heaven, with the exception of the Fear of God.

The commentators, over many centuries, have pondered hard to work out what to make of the contradictions in this book. Our rabbis almost gave up and, in the early period, the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, they were not at all sure whether it deserved to be included in the Bible. Many rabbis were opposed to its inclusion. At the end, they came to the conclusion that it deserved to be included because its ultimate advice to us is to fear God. This may also be the reason why we read it during this Festival. Our rabbis were anxious to emphasise this message during Sukkot in particular. Sukkot was the Festival of joy par excellence. There was always concern in rabbinic circles that the joyous atmosphere might lead to unworthy conduct. Moreover, Sukkot celebrates the success of the harvest season. Jewish tradition has always maintained that success can lead to pride and arrogant rejection of religious values.

According to one theory the reason for the contradictions in the book are due to the fact that this book is not a philosophical treatise which was written according to a fixed plan known in advance. Rather, it is a collection of ideas and thoughts which the author expressed and wrote down in various periods in his life. His thoughts were determined by his moods and feelings at each of those periods. Towards the end of his life, the author, or one of his pupils, collected all his written reflections into one single book. Other commentators have advanced the view that the book is a report of various conversations that took place between the author and others who did not agree with him.

One observation is most important. The book repeatedly says that the world under the sun or under the heavens is extremely monotonous and purposeless. It seems to imply that he meant to emphasise that the world which we can see and experience is, indeed, completely repetitious and uninspiring. We can't understand the world as we see it. But there is another world, which is above the sun and the heaven. In that world things are much clearer.   In order for human beings to attain life in another world, in the Heaven, side-by-side with the divine, he needs to keep the commandments, fully, without any doubt and questioning. We are entitled to have doubts about this world but let us not question the World to Come in which we reap the reward for all our good deeds during our lifetime on this Earth.

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