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SBL e-journal

Marty Lockshin





Is Kohelet’s Wisdom Vanity of Vanities?





APA e-journal

Marty Lockshin





Is Kohelet’s Wisdom Vanity of Vanities?








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Is Kohelet’s Wisdom Vanity of Vanities?

In his idealistic youth, Shadal argued in favor of the earlier rabbis’ contention that Kohelet is heretical and should have been suppressed. With age, he came to appreciate it as a lesson about the search for happiness and meaning in life.


Is Kohelet’s Wisdom Vanity of Vanities?

King Solomon in Old Age (detail, colorized), Gustave Doré 1866. Wikimedia

Disputing the Canonization of Kohelet

The Mishnah (m. Yadayim 3:5) makes clear that the inclusion of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in the biblical canon engendered more opposition than other biblical books.[1] Unfortunately, we don’t have a detailed record of the rabbinic discussions about Kohelet, pro and con, but hints survive.

The Talmud states that due to its many internal contradictions, בקשו חכמים לגנוז את ספר קהלת, “the rabbis wanted to suppress the book of Kohelet” (b. Shabb 30b).[2] For example, is happiness (שמחה) a worthy pursuit (8:15) or not (2:2)? A different Talmudic passage explains that the opposition to Kohelet was: מפני שחכמתו של שלמה היא, “because the book presents Solomon’s [own] wisdom [i.e. it is not divinely inspired]” (b. Meg 7a).[3]

Is There Divine Justice?

Kohelet Rabbah (c. 6th–8th C.E.) contains more of a discussion, including pointed criticisms that Kohelet promotes a heretical worldview, first by implying that divine justice does not exist:

קוהלת רבה א אמר רבי שמואל ברבי יצחק בקשו חכמים לגנז ספר קהלת על ידי שמצאו בו דברים שמטין לצד מינות, אמרו כל חכמתו של שלמה כך שאמר (קהלת יא, ט): שמח בחור בילדותך ויטיבך לבך בימי בחורותיך והלך בדרכי לבך ובמראה עיניך.
Eccl. Rab. 1:3 Rabbi Shemuel b. Rabbi Yitzhak said: The rabbis wanted to suppress the book of Kohelet as they found words in it that leaned toward heresy. They said: “Is all of Solomon’s wisdom intended to teach (11:9) ‘O youth, enjoy yourself while you are young; let your heart lead you to enjoyment in the days of your youth; follow the desires of your heart and the glances of your eyes’?”
משה אמר (במדבר טו, לט): ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם ואחרי עיניכם, ושלמה אמר: והלך בדרכי לבך ובמראה עיניך, התרה הרצועה, לית דין ולית דין.
“After Moses said (Num 15:39), ‘Do not follow your heart and eyes [in your lustful urge],’ how could Solomon say, ‘Follow the desires of your heart and the glances of your eyes’?! Has every restraint been removed?![4] Is there no judgment, no judge?!”
כיון שאמר: ודע כי על כל אלה יביאך האלהים במשפט, אמרו יפה אמר שלמה.
But when [Solomon] said “but know well that God will call you to account for all such things” (ibid.), they [the rabbis] said “Solomon spoke well.”[5]

Is There Value in Any Human Toil?

Kohelet Rabbah also reports that some rabbis were concerned about Kohelet’s implication that human effort had no value:

קוהלת רבה א אמר רבי בנימין בקשו חכמים לגנז ספר קהלת מפני שמצאו בו דברים מטין לצד מינות, אמרו הרי כל חכמתו של שלמה שבא לומר מה יתרון לאדם בכל עמלו, יכול אף בעמלה של תורה.
Eccl. Rab. 1:3 Rabbi Binyamin said: The rabbis wanted to suppress the book of Kohelet because they found words in it that leaned toward heresy. They said: “Is all of Solomon’s wisdom intended to teach: ‘What profit is there for people in all their toil?’ One might [think that he meant that] even in the toil of Torah [people find no profit].”
חזרו ואמרו לא אמר בכל עמל, אלא בעמלו, בעמלו אינו עמל אבל עמל הוא בעמלה של תורה.
They then said: “he did not say ‘in all toil,’ but rather ‘in all their toil’; they do not [profit from their own] toil, but they do [profit from their] toil in Torah.”

These midrashic dialogues were compiled well after the book had been admitted into the Bible and may not reflect an actual discussion from when the book was first canonized. There may have been other arguments against canonizing that were not recorded. In fact, for a traditionalist, these two verses are not the most problematic ones.[6] But the common theme appears to be the rabbis’ concern that while rabbinic Judaism teaches that human effort based on the teachings of the Torah is the path to a meaningful life and to divine reward—and that that is the consistent message of the Bible—Kohelet seemingly does not agree.

A millennium after the book of Kohelet entered the biblical canon, traditional medieval Jewish commentaries worked to smooth over the difficulties and show that Kohelet’s message is consonant with the rest of the Bible and with later Jewish values. For example, Gersonides (1288–1344) admits that the book seems to include דברים מושכים האדם לאהבת הבלתי ראוי, “ideas that encourage people to love what is inappropriate.” His commentary concentrates, however, on showing that Kohelet promotes only “kosher” ideas.

Shadal and His Radical Commentary

Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal; 1800–1865) was a prolific poet, thinker, linguist, and scholar who composed Bible commentaries that, while rejecting most of the teachings of 19th century biblical criticism, had a decidedly modern flavor. Most of his life, he taught Bible in the modern Orthodox rabbinical seminary in Padua.

When he was 20 years old, he wrote a commentary on Kohelet which he did not publish. Thirty-six years later he sent it to the editor of the periodical Otzar Nehmad, instructing him to publish the commentary, should he so desire, while warning the editor that he had changed his mind about some issues in Kohelet over the course of time. Otzar Nehmad published it in 1860.[7] It includes Shadal’s standard high-level linguistic and literary analysis, and more.

In his introduction to the commentary, Shadal expresses his disappointment with previous traditional commentaries on Kohelet; he writes that in these commentaries he could find nothing but:

…פירוש ממושך ומורט, ימאן השכל לקבלו, לאמר כי בעל הספר לא כיוון לו, רק המפרשים עוותו דבריו בזרוע נטויה, ואין המפורסמות צריכות ראיה.
…strange and distorted[8] explanations, logically unacceptable, since they are not what the author of the book intended. Rather, the commentators have high-handedly twisted his words. This phenomenon is so well known that we need not bring proof.

But Shadal does bring proof, citing verses where, in his assessment, traditional Jewish exegesis misrepresented the meaning of the text כדי שלא יובן מהם דבר מינות, “so that the text of Kohelet would not be understood as promoting heresy.”

Survival of the Soul

For example, traditional commentators translate the following verse in Kohelet, based on the vocalization of the phrases in bold, as containing two relative clauses:

קהלת ג:כא מִי יוֹדֵעַ רוּחַ בְּנֵי הָאָדָם הָעֹלָה הִיא לְמָעְלָה וְרוּחַ הַבְּהֵמָה הַיֹּרֶדֶת הִיא לְמַטָּה לָאָרֶץ.
Eccl 3:21 “Who knows [i.e., Who impresses upon himself] that it is the spirit of man that ascends on high [for judgment] and the spirit of the beast that descends below, to the earth [(free of all accounting, and that he should not conduct himself as a beast, which gives no thought to its acts)]?”[9]

This translation from The Rashi Ketuvim, by Shraga Silverstein, highlights the challenge of reading the verse this way, as the translation strays considerably from the plain sense of the words. Among other problems, the entire final section, “that he should not conduct himself as a beast, which gives no thought to its acts,” finds no support in the Hebrew text and, arguably, is foreign to what Kohelet is arguing in this chapter.

According to Shadal’s understanding, and that of most modern scholars, the forms הָעֹלָה (with a kametz under the heh) and הַיֹּרֶדֶת (with a patah under the heh) which we find in our Bibles do not reflect the original reading. He and most moderns suggest that the forms originally were הַעוֹלָה and הֲיוֹרֶדֶת—the correct forms if the letter heh here is interrogative.[10]

Koh 3:21 Who knows whether a person’s spirit rises upward and whether an animal’s spirit descends downwards?

The preceding verses, which declare that humans are merely animals, support Shadal’s interpretation:

קהלת ג:יח אָמַרְתִּי אֲנִי בְּלִבִּי עַל דִּבְרַת בְּנֵי הָאָדָם...וְלִרְאוֹת שְׁהֶם בְּהֵמָה הֵמָּה לָהֶם. ג:יט כִּי מִקְרֶה בְנֵי הָאָדָם וּמִקְרֶה הַבְּהֵמָה וּמִקְרֶה אֶחָד לָהֶם כְּמוֹת זֶה כֵּן מוֹת זֶה וְרוּחַ אֶחָד לַכֹּל וּמוֹתַר הָאָדָם מִן הַבְּהֵמָה אָיִן כִּי הַכֹּל הָבֶל. ג:כ הַכֹּל הוֹלֵךְ אֶל מָקוֹם אֶחָד הַכֹּל הָיָה מִן הֶעָפָר וְהַכֹּל שָׁב אֶל הֶעָפָר.
Eccl 3:18 So I decided, as regards people…to face the fact that they are beasts. 3:19 For in respect of the fate of people and the fate of beasts, they have one and the same fate: as the one dies, so dies the other, and both have the same spirit; people have no superiority over beasts, since both amount to nothing. 3:20 Both go to the same place; both came from dust and both return to dust.

Shadal argues that both בעל הנקוד—the person that was responsible for vocalizing the biblical text[11]—and traditional commentators were trying to make Kohelet’s theology more orthodox:

אך בעל הנקוד ועמו כל המפרשים פירשו הכתוב בדרך רחוקה, פן יהיה הדבר למכשול ולפוקה.
The one who vocalized the biblical text, and with him all the commentators, explained the text in an implausible manner, so that the verse would not be a stumbling block and a snare.[12]

In other words, traditional commentators took convoluted steps to avoid portraying Kohelet as expressing doubt about the survival of human souls after death. Shadal argues, though, that that is what Kohelet is doing.

Providence versus Predestination

Shadal also argues that Kohelet rejects divine personal providence and feels that what happens to people is a result of fate. He bases his argument, in part, on the fact that the question—מַה־יִּתְרוֹן הָעוֹשֶׂה בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא עָמֵל, “What value do people get from any of their efforts?” (v. 3:9)—appears right after Kohelet’s famous poem (3:1–8) that says there is a season for everything and a time for every purpose under heaven:

וכן לכל זמן...אין להם ענין עם מה יתרון העושה זולתי בדרך מתנגד לעקרי תורת משה, והוא דעת האומרים, כי כל מעשי האדם נגזרים. ומלבד זה עוד מקומות רבים בספר קהלת, המקיימים זאת האוֶלת.
Similarly, there is no way of understanding the connection of “For everything there is a season” (3:1)…with [the verse that follows immediately (3:9)], “What value do people get from all their efforts?” except in a manner that negates Moses’ Torah. The verses reflect the opinion of those who say that all human affairs are predetermined. Many more passages in Kohelet also support this foolishness.
כגון אשר הצדיקים והחכמים ועבדיהם, ביד האלהים גם אהבה גם שנאה אין יודע האדם הכל לפניהם, ונמשך מזה כי הגמול הוא דבר מדומה, כמו שאמר מיד מקרה אחד לצדיק ולרשע לטוב ולטהור ולטמא.
For example, (9:1) “[For all this I noted, and I ascertained all this:] that the actions of even the righteous and the wise are determined by God. Even love! Even hate! People know none of these in advance.” As a logical result, [the idea of divine] reward is false, just as Kohelet says immediately afterwards (9:2), “the same fate is in store for all: for the righteous, and for the wicked; for the good and pure, and for the impure.”

Shadal further writes that the key phrase in Kohelet 11:9, וְדָע כִּי עַל כָּל אֵלֶּה יְבִיאֲךָ הָאֱלֹהִים בַּמִּשְׁפָּט, “but know well that God will call you to account for all such things,” which Kohelet Rabbah, cited above, had used to prove that Kohelet really did believe in divine providence, is a תקון סופרים, “a later addition to the text.”[13]

He explains further in his introduction:

מי יודע אם המלות הללו אינן תוספת שהוסיפו בספרו, חכמים שבדורו, כדי למתק דברי קהלת בקצת דברי משפט וצדקה, כדרך שמערבין בסמים המרים מיני מתיקה, ובאמת אין לתמוה אם עמדו בפרץ לגדור גדר, ויותר יש לתמוה למה לא הגיהו אותו יותר.
Who knows whether these words [11:9b and a few other lines in Kohelet] weren’t additions that the wise people in his [= Kohelet’s] generation made to his book to sweeten it a little with words of justice and righteousness, just as one might add sweetener to bitter medicine. Really one should not be surprised if they stood in the breach [and made such changes to the text] in order to build a protective fence [around traditional values]. In fact, one wonders why they did not make more emendations!


These and other considerations led Shadal to reject the attribution of Kohelet to Solomon (while accepting the traditional attribution of Proverbs to him):

האיש אשר כתב אולת אדם תסלף דרכו ועל ה׳ יזעף לבו, היתכן שיכתוב ספר שיהיה המכוון בכלו או ברובו, כי הכל בגזרת עירין, ושאין אנו בני חורין.
How could the same person who wrote “People’s own folly subverts their ways, but their hearts rage against the Lord” (Prov 19:3), have possibly written a book directed in its entirety, or in large part, towards proving that everything is predetermined and that we have no free will?

Kohelet Should Have Been Rejected

Shadal’s commentary reflects the brashness of youth, and may reflect his opinion that this book should indeed have been suppressed:

ושבחתי גם כן מי שבקש לגנזו, ומי יתן והחזיקו חבריו במעוזו.
I praise those [among the classical rabbis] who wanted to suppress the book. If only the rest of the rabbis had adopted that position!

Thus, the young Shadal opposes the final decision of the classical rabbis to include Kohelet in the canon, and he supports the earlier rabbis at the beginning of the first millennium, who, according to classical rabbinic literature, wanted to exclude Kohelet from the Bible, because “they found words there that leaned toward heresy.”

At the end of his commentary (12:14), Shadal writes:

לדעת קהלת שכתבו, הוא מלא חכמה וכליל יופי על פי עומק חכמת הפילוסופיאה; גם כי באמת כל משכיל יראה בעיניו כי הבל הבלים אמר קהלת.
In the opinion of Kohelet who wrote this book, it is full of wisdom and perfectly beautiful, based on profound philosophy. However, all wise people can see with their own eyes that “what Kohelet said is vanity of vanities” [a novel twist on Eccl 1:2].[14]

Embracing Kohelet Later in Life

At the age of 56, when Shadal sent the commentary for publication, he retreated slightly from the position of his youth, writing:

והנני מבקש מחילה וסליחה מבעל ספר קהלת (יהיה מי שיהיה), כי אז בימי עלומי...חם לבי בקרבי נגד קהלת שאמר הבל הבלים הכל הבל, מה יתרון לאדם בכל עמלו, כי זה היה מתנגד למה שהיה אומר לי לבי הבוער בתשוקתו ללמוד וללמד לפעול ולעשות.
I hereby apologize and ask forgiveness from the author of Kohelet (whoever he may be). For in the days of my youth…I was angry at Kohelet for saying “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What benefit do people receive from all their efforts?” (1:2–3) This approach was diametrically opposed to what my burning heart desired—to learn and to teach, to do and to act.

The more mature Shadal said that his attitude to the book had changed:

בכל המון הספרים שראיתי וקריתי, מעט מזער הם הספרים שהועילוני תועלת גדולה כספר קהלת, וזה ממש על ידי מאמר הכל הבל.
Of all the many books that I have seen and read, very few were as valuable to me as the book of Kohelet, specifically because of the line “all is vanity.”
כי ממנו בא בלבי משפט ההנהגה אשר דבקתי בו עד היום הזה, והוא כי מי שאינו חי אלא להנאת עצמו, הוא הבל, ומציאותו הבל, אבל מי שחייו ועמלו לתועלת זולתו, איננו הבל.
From it, I derived the approach that guides me to this very day, that for people whose lives are dedicated to their own benefit, they are vanity and their existence is vanity. But people whose lives and efforts are dedicated to helping others, their lives are not vanity.

I understand Shadal’s “compliment” to Kohelet as follows: “Kohelet tried many paths to a happy, meaningful life and found that all of them were vanity. I learned from this book an important lesson: not to try for happiness and meaning the way that Kohelet did. I learned that people should seek happiness and meaning by dedicating their lives to helping others.”


September 27, 2023


Last Updated

June 21, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.