Kohelet: An Israelite Form of Meditation
Kohelet, also known as Ecclesiastes, is a puzzling scroll canonized in the Bible and read aloud in synagogues every year during Sukkot, in the early fall. The eponymous scroll takes its name from the pseudonymous author— קֹהֶלֶת (Kohelet) means something like “preacher” (as does the Greek translation ἐκκλησιαστής); it is not a real personal name.
The preacher Kohelet puts before us a collection of twelve chapters of ironic, enigmatic, chaotic, nonlinear and often paradoxical musings about the futility of existence. Such a scroll puts commentators and readers in a quandary: Is there any point to attempt to write something definitive, conclusive, linear, deductive, programmatic, or systematic about such a book whose repeated core purpose is, in a multiplicity of forms, to articulate life’s futility?
Separating Kohelet from Its Framing
Tradition teaches that Kohelet was written by King Solomon late in life (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:10). This idea does not come out of thin air, but connects to the opening verse of the book, which says that this scroll is:
קהלת א:א דִּבְרֵי קֹהֶלֶת בֶּן דָּוִד מֶלֶךְ בִּירוּשָׁלִָם.
Eccl 1:1 The words of Kohelet, son of David, king in Jerusalem.
The rabbis understand Kohelet, identified here as David’s son, as a penname specifically for Solomon. This was logical given the scroll’s descriptions of Kohelet’s great wisdom (Eccl 1:16) and his great wealth (Eccl 2:4–9), consistent with the descriptions of Solomon in Kings as extremely wise (1 Kgs 3:12, 5:9–14, 10:1–13) and wealthy (1 Kgs 3:12, 5:2–8, 10:14–29).
Given its refrain הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים, often translated as “vanity of vanities,” the book was read as the bitter and pessimistic reflections of the king late in life, expressing assessment of many aspects of human endeavor as futile and chasing after wind. Nevertheless, because of its language and content, critical evaluations of the work date it to about 250 B.C.E., many centuries after the reign of Solomon, and hence reject the prologue’s authorship attribution.
Kohelet’s closing epilogue also strongly affects how it is read, since, in contrast to most of the work, it stands on its own as a singular coherent statement of the non-futility of Israelite values:
קהלת יב:יג סוֹף דָּבָר הַכֹּל נִשְׁמָע אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים יְרָא וְאֶת מִצְוֹתָיו שְׁמוֹר כִּי זֶה כָּל הָאָדָם. יב:יד כִּי אֶת כָּל מַעֲשֶׂה הָאֱלֹהִים יָבִא בְמִשְׁפָּט עַל כָּל נֶעְלָם אִם טוֹב וְאִם רָע.
Eccl 12:13 The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind: 12:14 that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad.
This conclusion expresses a strident backtracking on the whole set of statements that precedes it. When read as an integral part of the work, it tends to color its meaning. From the traditional perspective, this becomes Solomon’s punchline: “as vain as everything feels, it remains important to keep God’s commandments.”
This framing, however, is likely not original to the book; perhaps it was added to tame it. Whatever the reason, the assorted voices of pessimism throughout the book, and its multiple expressions of negativity on the part of the preacher, come through loud and clear despite this framing.
A Philosophical or Wisdom Treatise?
Despite Kohelet being a Hellenistic-period work that includes philosophical observations, and one whose author may have been familiar with Greek philosophical discourse, I would be hesitant to classify Kohelet as a work of philosophy. Philosophical works are associated with sustained reasoning and analysis, but the inconsistencies and contradictions in Kohelet make it virtually impossible for it to lead a person to any substantive wisdom or consistent philosophical viewpoint.
Kohelet doesn’t even follow the standard contours of ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature, such as the biblical book of Proverbs, or the Aramaic Wisdom of Ahiqar. The content of Kohelet tilts much more to extended sets of pained groans, loud complaints and arbitrary dismissals that draw upon atomized philosophical sayings.
So many aspects of the book stand out to the reader as dismissive and sarcastic attacks on ways of life, not as a thoughtful philosophical reflection. Moreover, it is highly unusual for wisdom literature to dismiss the value of wisdom (see below).
But if the book is not functionally effective as philosophy, what then is its goal? Moreover, what possible religious value is there for a faith community to share, preserve, and yes, chant annually in public in its places of worship, on one of its major holidays, such a negative book?
A Multivocalic Text
A contemporary literary approach, sensitive to the multivocalic nature of Kohelet, was put forward by the Israeli rabbis Yoel Bin Nun and Yaakov Medan, who identify four distinct voices in the work. This does not mean it is a multi-character drama, however; the preacher is the only character, and he plays a dual role, expressing each of the four viewpoints, and then shooting each of them down by proclaiming the futility of life from his own perspective. Let’s look at each briefly.
A good example of a hedonistic voice comes in chapter 2, vv. 4–10, which closes with:
קהלת ב:י וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר שָׁאֲלוּ עֵינַי לֹא אָצַלְתִּי מֵהֶם לֹא מָנַעְתִּי אֶת לִבִּי מִכָּל שִׂמְחָה כִּי לִבִּי שָׂמֵחַ מִכָּל עֲמָלִי...
Eccl 2:10 I withheld from my eyes nothing they asked for, and denied myself no enjoyment; rather, I got enjoyment out of all my wealth….
Even before offering this description, however, the speaker dismisses the value of an indulgent life with the proclamation that it was all vain (vv. 1–3):
קהלת ב:א אָמַרְתִּי אֲנִי בְּלִבִּי לְכָה נָּא אֲנַסְּכָה בְשִׂמְחָה וּרְאֵה בְטוֹב וְהִנֵּה גַם הוּא הָבֶל.
Eccl 2:1 I said to myself, “Come, I will treat you to merriment. Taste mirth!” That too, I found, was futile.
Following the description of his attempts at amassing and enjoying his wealth, the speaker offers a quick dismissal of the value of toiling:
קהלת ב:יא וּפָנִיתִי אֲנִי בְּכָל מַעֲשַׂי שֶׁעָשׂוּ יָדַי וּבֶעָמָל שֶׁעָמַלְתִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת וְהִנֵּה הַכֹּל הֶבֶל וּרְעוּת רוּחַ וְאֵין יִתְרוֹן תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ.
Eccl 2:11 Then my thoughts turned to all the fortune my hands had built up, to the wealth I had acquired and won—and oh, it was all futile and pursuit of wind; there was no real value under the sun!
Later in the chapter, he returns to this theme, again not allowing for the “toiler” to express his own voice, instead reiterating the pointlessness of it:
קהלת ב:יח וְשָׂנֵאתִי אֲנִי אֶת כָּל עֲמָלִי שֶׁאֲנִי עָמֵל תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ שֶׁאַנִּיחֶנּוּ לָאָדָם שֶׁיִּהְיֶה אַחֲרָי. ב:יט וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ הֶחָכָם יִהְיֶה אוֹ סָכָל וְיִשְׁלַט בְּכָל עֲמָלִי שֶׁעָמַלְתִּי וְשֶׁחָכַמְתִּי תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ גַּם זֶה הָבֶל.
Eccl 2:18 So, too, I loathed all the wealth that I was gaining under the sun. For I shall leave it to the man who will succeed me, 2:19 and who knows whether he will be wise or foolish? and he will control all the wealth that I gained by toil and wisdom under the sun. That too is futile.
In between these two critiques of the value of toil, Kohelet takes on the question of wisdom. In this case, like with hedonism, he does give the voice of the wise room for self-expression, though brief:
קהלת ב:יג וְרָאִיתִי אָנִי שֶׁיֵּשׁ יִתְרוֹן לַחָכְמָה מִן הַסִּכְלוּת כִּיתְרוֹן הָאוֹר מִן הַחֹשֶׁךְ. ב:יד הֶחָכָם עֵינָיו בְּרֹאשׁוֹ וְהַכְּסִיל בַּחֹשֶׁךְ הוֹלֵךְ...
Eccl 2:13 I found that wisdom is superior to folly as light is superior to darkness; 2:14 A wise man has his eyes in his head, whereas a fool walks in darkness…
Kohelet immediately dismisses the benefits of wisdom as chimerical:
קהלת ב:טו וְאָמַרְתִּי אֲנִי בְּלִבִּי כְּמִקְרֵה הַכְּסִיל גַּם אֲנִי יִקְרֵנִי וְלָמָּה חָכַמְתִּי אֲנִי אָז יוֹתֵר וְדִבַּרְתִּי בְלִבִּי שֶׁגַּם זֶה הָבֶל.
Eccl 2:15 So I reflected: “The fate of the fool is also destined for me; to what advantage, then, have I been wise?” And I came to the conclusion that that too was futile.
Another critique of wisdom’s value appears already in the first chapter:
קהלת א:טז דִּבַּרְתִּי אֲנִי עִם לִבִּי לֵאמֹר אֲנִי הִנֵּה הִגְדַּלְתִּי וְהוֹסַפְתִּי חָכְמָה עַל כָּל אֲשֶׁר הָיָה לְפָנַי עַל יְרוּשָׁלִָם וְלִבִּי רָאָה הַרְבֵּה חָכְמָה וָדָעַת. א:יז וָאֶתְּנָה לִבִּי לָדַעַת חָכְמָה וְדַעַת הוֹלֵלוֹת וְשִׂכְלוּת יָדַעְתִּי שֶׁגַּם זֶה הוּא רַעְיוֹן רוּחַ. א:יח כִּי בְּרֹב חָכְמָה רָב כָּעַס וְיוֹסִיף דַּעַת יוֹסִיף מַכְאוֹב.
Eccl 1:16 I said to myself: “Here I have grown richer and wiser than any that ruled before me over Jerusalem, and my mind has zealously absorbed wisdom and learning.” 1:17 And so I set my mind to appraise wisdom and to appraise madness and folly. And I learned that this too was pursuit of wind: 1:18 For as wisdom grows, vexation grows; to increase learning is to increase heartache.
Kohelet even fails to find meaning in the idea of God’s justice:
קהלת ח:י וּבְכֵן רָאִיתִי רְשָׁעִים קְבֻרִים וָבָאוּ וּמִמְּקוֹם קָדוֹשׁ יְהַלֵּכוּ וְיִשְׁתַּכְּחוּ בָעִיר אֲשֶׁר כֵּן עָשׂוּ גַּם זֶה הָבֶל. ח:יא אֲשֶׁר אֵין נַעֲשָׂה פִתְגָם מַעֲשֵׂה הָרָעָה מְהֵרָה עַל כֵּן מָלֵא לֵב בְּנֵי הָאָדָם בָּהֶם לַעֲשׂוֹת רָע. ח:יב אֲשֶׁר חֹטֶא עֹשֶׂה רָע מְאַת וּמַאֲרִיךְ לוֹ כִּי גַּם יוֹדֵעַ אָנִי אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה טּוֹב לְיִרְאֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יִירְאוּ מִלְּפָנָיו. ח:יג וְטוֹב לֹא יִהְיֶה לָרָשָׁע וְלֹא יַאֲרִיךְ יָמִים כַּצֵּל אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ יָרֵא מִלִּפְנֵי אֱלֹהִים. ח:יד יֶשׁ הֶבֶל אֲשֶׁר נַעֲשָׂה עַל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יֵשׁ צַדִּיקִים אֲשֶׁר מַגִּיעַ אֲלֵהֶם כְּמַעֲשֵׂה הָרְשָׁעִים וְיֵשׁ רְשָׁעִים שֶׁמַּגִּיעַ אֲלֵהֶם כְּמַעֲשֵׂה הַצַּדִּיקִים אָמַרְתִּי שֶׁגַּם זֶה הָבֶל.
Eccl 8:10 And then I saw scoundrels being brought to burial coming from the Holy Site, while such as had acted righteously were forgotten in the city. And this too is futile: 8:11 the fact that the sentence imposed for evil deeds is not executed swiftly, which is why men are emboldened to do evil—8:12 the fact that a sinner may do evil a hundred times and his punishment still be delayed. For although I am aware that “It will be well with those who revere God since they revere Him, 8:13 and it will not be well with the scoundrel, and he will not live long, because he does not revere God”—8:14 here is a frustration that occurs in the world: sometimes an upright man is requited according to the conduct of the scoundrel; and sometimes the scoundrel is requited according to the conduct of the upright. I say all that is futile.
What we see above is repeated many times in the scroll, but the brief survey should be enough to appreciate how Kohelet reverberates one theme—the futility of life—in multiple ways.
A Verbal Meditation on Futility
While I agree with Medan and Bin Nun’s isolation of four voices, it is difficult to accept their description of the genre of the work as drama. Instead, I suggest that Kohelet is a collection of meditative chants on the futility of life, cast in a decidedly Israelite key.
This suggestion may seem counterintuitive, as the utterances sound more like complaints than reflective images; certainly the reflections in Kohelet do not fit with the meditative paradigms familiar to us from Eastern meditation. Nevertheless, suggestions of meditative components run throughout the book.
Cues for Visualization—Part of meditation is visualization used as cues. An illustration of such a visualization in Kohelet is the opening poem of chapter 3:
קהלת ג:ב עֵת לָלֶדֶת וְעֵת לָמוּת
עֵת לָטַעַת וְעֵת לַעֲקוֹר נָטוּעַ.
Eccl 3:2 A time for being born and a time for dying,
A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted;
ג:ג עֵת לַהֲרוֹג וְעֵת לִרְפּוֹא
עֵת לִפְרוֹץ וְעֵת לִבְנוֹת.
3:3 A time for slaying and a time for healing,
A time for tearing down and a time for building up.
The meditative quality of this piece was picked up in the song lyric by Pete Seeger, popularized by the Byrds in 1965 as the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!”:
To everything (turn, turn, turn) / There is a season (turn, turn, turn) / And a time to every purpose, under heaven.
Repetition—Although the book speaks with many voices, it returns again and again to variations on the same refrains, either with “under the sun,” such as:
- אֵין כָּל חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ, “There is nothing new under the sun” (1:9)
- וְאֵין יִתְרוֹן תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ, “There was no real value under the sun” (2:11)
Or, more commonly, the preacher dismisses human endeavors as הֶבֶל, futile or vanity:
- וְהִנֵּה גַם הוּא הָבֶל, “That too, I found, was vanity” (2:1)
- גַּם זֶה הָבֶל, “This is also vanity” (2:15, 5:9, 7:6, 8:10, 8:14)
- גַּם זֶה הֶבֶל הוּא, “This too, it is vanity” (2:23)
- כִּי הַכֹּל הָבֶל, “For all is vanity” (3:19)
Sometimes the preacher adds color to this by adding synonymous dismissals to the term “vanity” such as:
- וְהִנֵּה הַכֹּל הֶבֶל וּרְעוּת רוּחַ, “and I found that all is vanity and pursuit of wind” (1:14, 2:11)
- כִּי הַכֹּל הֶבֶל וּרְעוּת רוּחַ, “For all is vanity, and pursuit of wind” (2:17)
- גַּם זֶה הֶבֶל וּרְעוּת רוּחַ, “That too is vanity and pursuit of wind” (2:26, 4:4, 6:9)
- כִּי גַם זֶה הֶבֶל וְרַעְיוֹן רוּחַ, “That too is vanity and chasing after wind” (4:16)
- גַּם זֶה הֶבֶל וְרָעָה רַבָּה, “This is also vanity and a great evil” (2:21)
- גַּם זֶה הֶבֶל וְעִנְיַן רָע הוּא, “That too is vanity and an unhappy business” (4:8)
- זֶה הֶבֶל וָחֳלִי רָע הוּא, “That is vanity and a grievous ill” (6:2)
Robert Alter suggests that the constant repetition has an “incantatory power.” I would argue that this has some structural similarity to mantra meditation, which uses a group of words to reinforce the meditative state and focus a person’s energy.
Breathing—As noted, the most common word in the refrains about life’s futility is הבל, hevel, which appears 30 times. The meaning of the word in context is, as noted above, “vanity” or “futility,” but the literal meaning of the word is actually “breath.”
The classic biblical lexicon of Wilhelm Gesenius offers “breath” as his first definition of the word הֲבֵל as a noun, and his first definition of the word as a verb is “to breathe.” Similarly, the BDB (Brown Driver Briggs) Hebrew and English Lexicon offers “vapour, breath” as its first definition, while HALOT (Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament) offers “warm breath, vapour” first. In fact, Robert Alter translates the term hevel in Kohelet with this definition in mind:
קהלת א:ב הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים אָמַר קֹהֶלֶת הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל.
Eccl 1:2 Merest breath, said Qohelet, all is mere breath.
Awareness of one’s mere passing breath is often, if not always, the first step in the initiation of a meditation. Eastern meditation, for instance, uses breathing in a widely practiced meditation technique called anapanasati in Pali/Sanskrit.
The Purpose Is to Meditate on Purposelessness
Kohelet surely preaches, as Medan and Bin Nun propose, to various archetypal personalities, intending that all these diverse people can benefit from meditations on futility. The global takeaway of Kohelet is that every human effort ultimately can be futile. All of us are subject at times to the pains of those realizations.
And yet, Kohelet’s message is not entirely an expression of futility, for meditating on futility may be the one endeavor the book does not believe to be entirely futile. The compiler-editor of Kohelet makes this point not by directly discussing the value of meditation, but rather, through repeated contemplations, to expose the fruitlessness or vanity of any approach to life, thus allowing the person to free him/herself of the suffering that comes with endless striving.
Thus, while Kohelet persistently avows that so many endeavors are futile, the scroll itself has a coherent purpose. Through philosophical meditations and through descriptive scenes and visualizations, the book wishes to foster the inner affectations of the futility of all human endeavors, and by that intends to release a person from the sufferings of the strivings of life.
If this reading is correct, then seeking an encompassing theme and purpose to the book—to paraphrase Kohelet—may not have been a vain or futile effort after all.
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October 1, 2020
October 24, 2020
Prof. Rabbi Tzvee Zahavy (retired) taught world religions, Talmud, Jewish law codes, Jewish Liturgy, Jewish History, Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at several US research universities and seminaries. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Among his books are The Traditions of Eleazar Ben Azariah, God’s Favorite Prayers, and Talmudic Advice. He also published translations of various tractates of Mishnah, Tosefta, and Talmud in the Brown University Judaic Studies series and the University of Chicago Yerushalmi series. Visit www.tzvee.com for more details.
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