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Marty Lockshin





Kohelet: The Earth Versus Humanity



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Marty Lockshin





Kohelet: The Earth Versus Humanity






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Kohelet: The Earth Versus Humanity

Kohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes, complains about almost everything. The medieval commentator in MS Hamburg 32, however, argues that in his opening discourse, Kohelet is contrasting earth’s permanence with humanity’s transience, presenting the world, if not humanity, in a positive light.


Kohelet: The Earth Versus Humanity

The medieval commentary on Kohelet in Hamburg's Codex hebraicus 32 (fol. 87b). Above the commentary appear the words פי' של ר' שמואל "the commentary of Rabbi Samuel," believed by many to be a reference to Rashbam.

In 1855, Adolph Jellinek (1821–1893) published a commentary on Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) from a late 13th century manuscript in Codex hebr. 32 (henceforth, “Hamburg 32”). The copyist opens the commentary with the words פי' של ר' שמואל “the commentary of R. Samuel,” whom Jellinek, among others, identified as Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, c. 1080 – c. 1160), Rashi’s grandson. Other scholars, including the great Rashbam scholar of the nineteenth century, David Rosin (1823–1894), did not accept the attribution (see appendix for more discussion).[1]

The Real Beginning of Kohelet

In his gloss on verse 2, Hamburg 32 argues that Kohelet does not begin at the beginning, since the first two verses of Kohelet were a later addition:

שתי מקראות הללו—"דברי קהלת " "הבל הבלים"—לא אמרן קהלת כי אם אותו שסידר הדברים כמות שהן.
These two verses (Kohelet 1:1–2), “The words of Kohelet,” [and] “Utter futility,” were not said by Kohelet but by the person who edited the words as they stand.[2]

If we accept this reasonable suggestion—an early example of what modern scholarship calls redaction criticism[3]—then Kohelet originally opened with:

קהלת א:ג מַה יִּתְרוֹן לָאָדָם בְּכָל עֲמָלוֹ שֶׁיַּעֲמֹל תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ.
Eccl 1:3 What real value is there for people in all the gains[4] they make under the sun?

After expressing this grievance about the pointlessness of human toil, Kohelet continues:

קהלת א:ד דּוֹר הֹלֵךְ וְדוֹר בָּא וְהָאָרֶץ לְעוֹלָם עֹמָדֶת.
Eccl 1:4 One generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains forever.

The logic of the grievance in the second half of verse 4 is unclear. Is Kohelet perturbed by the fact that the earth remains forever, and if so, why? And what is the connection between the earth’s permanence and the lack of “real value” in human efforts?

In modern commentaries, this verse is commonly understood as describing the futility and senselessness of human effort. To convey this idea, NJPS adds two English words that do not appear in the Hebrew to their translation of וְהָאָרֶץ לְעוֹלָם עֹמָדֶת: “the earth remains the same forever.”

In other words, no matter what we do, nothing changes. This is also how most modern commentators read the rest of the opening discourse.

Continuing the Description of the Unchanging Earth

After making the general statement that the world is static, Kohelet presents a series of examples of how the world stays the same:

קהלת א:ה וְזָרַח הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וּבָא הַשָּׁמֶשׁ וְאֶל מְקוֹמוֹ שׁוֹאֵף זוֹרֵחַ הוּא שָׁם. א:ו הוֹלֵךְ אֶל דָּרוֹם וְסוֹבֵב אֶל צָפוֹן סוֹבֵב סֹבֵב הוֹלֵךְ הָרוּחַ וְעַל סְבִיבֹתָיו שָׁב הָרוּחַ. א:ז כָּל הַנְּחָלִים הֹלְכִים אֶל הַיָּם וְהַיָּם אֵינֶנּוּ מָלֵא אֶל מְקוֹם שֶׁהַנְּחָלִים הֹלְכִים שָׁם הֵם שָׁבִים לָלָכֶת.
Eccl 1:5 The sun rises, and the sun sets—and glides back to where it rises. 1:6 Southward blowing, turning northward, ever turning blows the wind; on its rounds the wind returns. 1:7 All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full; to the place [from] which they flow the streams flow back again.

Kohelet, according to the common modern understanding, then turns to a general complaint, continuing the futility theme:

קהלת א:ח כָּל הַדְּבָרִים יְגֵעִים לֹא יוּכַל אִישׁ לְדַבֵּר לֹא תִשְׂבַּע עַיִן לִרְאוֹת וְלֹא תִמָּלֵא אֹזֶן מִשְּׁמֹעַ.
Eccl 1:8 All such things are wearisome: No man can ever state them; the eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear enough of hearing.

Nothing New Ever Happens

Kohelet then, according to this interpretation, sums up the problem, noting that there is never anything new in the world because nothing changes:

קהלת א:ט מַה שֶּׁהָיָה הוּא שֶׁיִּהְיֶה וּמַה שֶׁנַּעֲשָׂה הוּא שֶׁיֵּעָשֶׂה וְאֵין כָּל חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ. א:י יֵשׁ דָּבָר שֶׁיֹּאמַר רְאֵה זֶה חָדָשׁ הוּא כְּבָר הָיָה לְעֹלָמִים אֲשֶׁר הָיָה מִלְּפָנֵנוּ.
Eccl 1:9 Only that shall happen which has happened, only that occur which has occurred; there is nothing new under the sun![5] 1:10 Sometimes there is a phenomenon of which they say, “Look, this one is new!”—it occurred long since, in ages that went by before us.

In his commentary on Kohelet,[6] Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto; 1800–1865) explained:

בכל עמל שיעמול האדם, לא יוכל לתקן מצבו כלל, מפני שעולם כמנהגו נוהג, והטבע לא יקבל שום שנוי ותקון.
No matter what efforts people make, they are unable to improve their situation at all. The world stays the same; nature accepts no change or improvement.

Similarly, Professor Michael V. Fox of the University of Wisconsin writes in his commentary on Kohelet:

If the unending labors of nature accomplish nothing new and lasting (1:4-11), surely no human exertions, however protracted or intense, can do so (1:13).[7]

Fox explains further that Kohelet is bemoaning the fact that nature never changes:

Koheleth chooses to regard this [the fact that all the rivers flow into the sea but it does not fill up] as an example of frustrated efforts rather than as an accomplishment or a process of renewal.[8]

And No One Is Remembered

The opening discourse ends with a statement that returns us to the fate of people:

קהלת א:יא אֵין זִכְרוֹן לָרִאשֹׁנִים וְגַם לָאַחֲרֹנִים שֶׁיִּהְיוּ לֹא יִהְיֶה לָהֶם זִכָּרוֹן עִם שֶׁיִּהְיוּ לָאַחֲרֹנָה.
Eccl 1:11 The earlier ones are not remembered; so too those that will occur later will no more be remembered than those that will occur at the very end.

Is this modern-sounding idea—that life without progress is meaningless—really Kohelet’s worldview? Is Kohelet really bemoaning the fact that the sun continues to rise and set, and that rivers flow into the ocean and the ocean is not full?

Hamburg 32’s Different Understanding of the Opening Discourse

Hamburg 32 offers a surprising and attractive understanding of Kohelet’s first discourse, suggesting that the key to understanding Kohelet’s argument lies in separating the framing about people in the beginning and the end of the discourse from the middle of it (vv. 4b–10) about earth. The frame reads:”:

  • מַה יִּתְרוֹן לָאָדָם בְּכָל עֲמָלוֹ “what do people gain from all their efforts” (v. 3);
  • דּוֹר הֹלֵךְ וְדוֹר בָּא “one generation goes and another comes” (v. 4a);
  • אֵין זִכְרוֹן לָרִאשֹׁנִים “no one remembers the ones who lived before” (v. 11).

In other words, Kohelet indeed opens with a decidedly negative description of human life. Hamburg 32 explains:

מה יתרוןאיזה שכר וריוח יש לו לאדם בכל עמלו שהוא עמל תחת השמש, שהרי סופו עבר ובטל מן העולם, ושוב לא יהיה לו.
“What real value”What reward or gain do people have in return for all the labor in which they engage under the sun, since at the end they pass out of the world and will no longer have [anything].

In the middle section of the discourse, though, Kohelet describes the world’s permanence, which he sees as a positive trait, contrasting it with the ephemeral nature of human life:

ועל סביבותיו שב הרוח—וכן חוזר וסובב חלילה לעולם, בכל היקיפותיו וסיבוביו, שהוא שב והולך בכל הרוחות שבעולם. אבל אדם, היום כאן ומחר בקבר, ומעשיו נפסקין, שלא יזכר עוד, על כן נאמר: מה יתרון לאדם
“And on its circuits the wind returns”—Thus forever it is repeatedly circling round in its circuits, in that it continually travels all the points of the compass. But people are here today and in the grave tomorrow; all that they do stops, and they are remembered no more. Therefore, it is said, “what does man gain” (1:3).
...שלא יניחו הנחלים מנהגן ומרוצתן. אבל אדם מניח מנהגו ווסתו להיות בטל מעולמו
...For rivers do not abandon their habit and their flowing, but people abandon their habits and ways when they pass from this world.

Then, in the discourse’s final verse, Kohelet returns to humanity, emphasizing the theme of death:

לראשונים—בני אדם שנבראו לפנינו בעולם, אין להם זכרון, שכבר מתו ואבד זכרם.
“The ones who lived before”—There is no remembrance of people created before us in the world, for they are already dead and memory of them has perished.

We can sum up Hamburg 32’s reading as follows: Everything in the world continues the way it has always continued and that is a wonderful thing. The only thing in the world that does not continue is the lives of individual humans. That is the hevel, the frustration, senselessness, and absurdity of the human experience.[9] For Hamburg 32, then, the stability and permanence of nature and of most of its creatures is something positive. His complaint is that unlike the natural world, human life is not stable or permanent.[10]

Kohelet’s Final Speech

Support for this reading of Kohelet comes from another observation made by Hamburg 32, in a gloss on the final verses of Kohelet (Eccl 12:8):

עכשיו נשלם הספר, ואותן אשר סידרוהו אמרו מיכאן ולהבא
This is the [original] end of the book. Those who edited it added the text that follows.

According to this understanding of the book’s composition, Kohelet’s final passage is 12:1–7, a poetic meditation on how human bodies break down as we age and approach death:

קהלת יב:א וּזְכֹר אֶת בּוֹרְאֶיךָ בִּימֵי בְּחוּרֹתֶיךָ עַד אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָבֹאוּ יְמֵי הָרָעָה וְהִגִּיעוּ שָׁנִים אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵין לִי בָהֶם חֵפֶץ... יב:ז וְיָשֹׁב הֶעָפָר עַל הָאָרֶץ כְּשֶׁהָיָה וְהָרוּחַ תָּשׁוּב אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר נְתָנָהּ.
Eccl 12:1 So appreciate your vigor in the days of your youth, before those days of sorrow come and those years arrive of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”… 12:7 and the dust returns to the ground as it was, and the lifebreath returns to God Who bestowed it.

Combining Hamburg 32’s observations on Kohelet’s original opening with his observation about the original ending of the book, we see one aspect of the book’s literary structure: Kohelet, which is traditionally seen as the work of an unhappy old man,[11] unsurprisingly opens and closes with concerns about death, its finality, and the ignominy of old age.

At Least the World Survives

Hamburg 32’s positive way of understanding Kohelet’s description of the earth’s permanence, including his famous statement “there is nothing new under the sun,” may represent the most natural reaction of an audience in the biblical world to the idea that the world doesn’t change. In our own age, with concerns about climate, nuclear war, and other ways that humans are changing our planet, such optimism is not a given.


Was the Kohelet Commentary in Hamburg 32 Written by Rashbam the Livestock Farmer?

In the war laws of Deuteronomy 20, officials make a speech before the soldiers, allowing men who have just built a house, planted a vineyard, or betrothed a woman to avoid going to war (vv. 5–7). The officials then give general amnesty to any man whose heart is weak because of the battle:

דברים כ:ח וְיָסְפוּ הַשֹּׁטְרִים לְדַבֵּר אֶל הָעָם וְאָמְרוּ מִי הָאִישׁ הַיָּרֵא וְרַךְ הַלֵּבָב יֵלֵךְ וְיָשֹׁב לְבֵיתוֹ וְלֹא יִמַּס אֶת לְבַב אֶחָיו כִּלְבָבוֹ.
Deut 20:8 The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, “Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his.”

In his Torah commentary, Rashbam explains this last verse not as a separate case of exemption from service, but as a summary of the previous three exemptions that extends them to anything else of a similar nature:

ושלשה מעשים הזכיר: בית ואשה וכרם, ולבסוף כולל כל הדברים: מי האיש הירא ורך הלבב (דברים כ':ח') – בין באלו שאמרנו בין בדברים אחרים.
The text mentions three examples: a house, a wife and a vineyard. Then at the end [of this section, in vs. 8,] it makes a more general statement about all factors: “Anyone who is afraid and disheartened,” meaning [that he is fearful] either for one of the [three] reasons mentioned already or for any other reason.

Rashbam compares this style of writing—a list of specific examples followed by a general statement—with Kohelet’s first discourse:

וכן בקהלת מונה שלשה דברים וחוזר וכולל:
Similarly in Kohelet [we find another section (1:3–11) with the same literary structure as the passage discussed in Deuteronomy]. The text mentions three examples and then makes a more general summary statement.
מה יתרון לאדם (קהלת א׳:ג׳), הלא גרוע הוא מכל, שהרי: דור הולך ודור אחר בא (קהלת א׳:ד׳), שאין הבנים בדמות אבות, ואין זה זכרון, אבל הארץ לעולם עומדת כמו בששת ימי בראשית, וכן השמש (קהלת א׳:ה׳), [וכן הנחלים (קהלת א׳:ז׳)],
[The section begins with the statement (1:3):] “What real value is there in human life?!” In fact, humans are worse off than everything [else created]. For (1:4) “A generation passes on and a” different “generation comes.” This is because children do not look just like their parents, so they, (1:11) “the earlier ones, are not remembered.” On the other hand (1:4) “the earth remains forever” as it was since the six days of creation. So also does the sun [and so also do the streams].
וחוזר וכולל: כל הדברים יגיעים – כל מעשי העולם כך הם כולם כמששת ימי בראשית, אבל טורח ויגיעה הוא להזכיר כולם, ולא יוכל איש לדבר ולא תמלא אזן משמוע (קהלת א׳:ח׳) – אם יספרו לו
Then [after giving specific examples of things that stay the same,] the text makes a generalizing summary statement (1:8), “All such things are wearisome,” meaning: all things created in this world are all as they have been ever since the six days of creation, but it is burdensome and wearisome to mention all the examples.[12] [If an attempt were made to mention them all, (1:8)] “No man could ever state them [all], and no ear could ever hear enough,” if all [the examples] were told.
אלא זה הכלל אין כל חדש (קהלת א׳:ט׳) ולכולם יש זכרון, אבל אין זכרון לראשונים (קהלת א׳:י״א), שאין הילוד דומה למוליד.
But the [summarizing] general principle is (1:9), “There is nothing new under the sun.” [Accordingly,] all things are remembered, except [for human beings, about whom it is said (1:11),] “The earlier ones are not remembered.” This is because those who are born do not resemble those who gave birth to them.

The similarity between Rashbam’s comment here in Deuteronomy and Hamburg 32’s gloss on this section of Kohelet is obvious. Avraham Grossman of Hebrew University, however, notes a number of significant differences.

Hamburg 32’s Version: Humans vs. Animals

One example: While both Rashbam, in his Torah commentary, and Hamburg 32 note that no newborn human looks exactly like their parents, Hamburg 32 glosses Ecclesiastes 1:11:

וגם לאחרונים—שיבואו אחרינו בעולם, "לא יהיה להם זכרון" ...כי כולם ימותו ולא ייזכרו עוד. שאם ימות אדם אחד היום, לא יוולד לעולם אדם כמוהו, שאין בני אדם דומין זה לזה.
“And also the later ones”—who come into the world after us, “will have no remembrance”... For they will all die and be remembered no more. For if one person dies today, another like him will never be born, for people are not identical to each other.
אבל שאר בריות מתות יש להם זכרון, שאם תמותו אילו היום, תיוולדו[13] למחר דוגמתן בעול[ם]. ועל כן יאמרו הרואים ברייה זו דומה לברייה פלונית שעברה מן העולם. נמצא שיש להם זכרון לשאר בריות מה שאין כן לאדם. על כן נאמר מה יתרון לאדם.
But other creatures who die are remembered, for if some die today, others like them are born tomorrow in the world. That is why people say, “this creature is identical to such and such a creature who passed away.” Thus other creatures are remembered, but not people. That is why it says, “What do people gain?”

The reference to animals here is significant because one of the few biographical facts that we know about Rashbam is that he raised sheep and goats.[14] As Grossman points out, someone who raises animals would never claim that young animals are identical to their parents, at least no more than human young resemble their parents.[15] So perhaps a disciple of Rashbam, who read the passage the same way as his master did, but who did not raise animals, was the author of this interesting Kohelet commentary.


October 13, 2022


Last Updated

January 26, 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.