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Michael V. Fox

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2016

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Qohelet on Pleasure

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https://thetorah.com/article/qohelet-on-pleasure

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Michael V. Fox

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Qohelet on Pleasure

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TheTorah.com

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2016

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https://thetorah.com/article/qohelet-on-pleasure

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Qohelet on Pleasure

Qohelet says that simḥah (joy) is the best thing in life, but also that it is profitless and absurd. This essay will explore this fundamental contradiction.[1]

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Qohelet on Pleasure

Small Pleasures, Wassily Kandinsky, 1913. Guggenheim Museum. The composition is centered round two hills, each crowned by a citadel. On the right-hand side is a boat with three oars which is riding a storm under a forbidding black cloud. To the bottom left it is possible to make out a couple at a steep angle to the hill, and above them three horsemen arrested in full gallop. A fiery sun flashes out wheels of color. To read more about this painting, see this Link.

The Talmud (b. Shabbat 30b) tells that the book of Qohelet was almost withdrawn from public access because it is internally contradictory.[2] One such contradiction concern ssimḥah, which is traditionally understood to mean “joy,” as in the Soncino translation: “Then I commended joy” (8:15) but also, “and of joy (I said), ‘What doeth it?’” (2:2).

Before tackling the contradiction, it is crucial to explore the meaning of two key words in Qohelet.

The Meaning of Hevel (הבל) in Qohelet

Qohelet’s favorite word for condemning the world (“everything” [1:2; 12:8]) and a variety of different things within it is hevel. Hevel, literally “vapor,” is usually translated “vanity”/“vain” (in the sense of trivial or futile), “futile,” “ephemeral,” and the like. Although some things Qohelet calls hevel are indeed ephemeral, such as youth (11:10), others, such as death (11:8), certainly are not.

The best translation of hevel overall is “absurd,” in the sense of counter-rational, a violation of reason. Thus in 8:14, Qohelet observes that people often receive a fate the opposite of what they deserve. There is nothing in this fact that is trivial or ephemeral or even futile, but for one expecting justice, this event is absurd. In 2:18–26, it is not wealth that is called hevel but rather the fact that Qohelet’s wealth will go to someone who did not work for it. This violates Qohelet’s sense of fairness and reason. Qohelet sees numerous such contradictions in the world, and he calls them and the entirety of existence hevel (1:2; 12:8). Even some of the things he calls “good,” such as simḥah, are judged to be hevel.

The Meaning of Simḥah (שמחה) in Qohelet

The root used most often for the actions and experience Qohelet commends is s.m.ḥ. (ש.מ.ח), both in the noun simḥah and the verb samaḥ. Simḥah and samaḥ in Qohelet are usually translated “happiness”/“be happy” (or “joy”/“be joyous”). This translation turns Qohelet into a “preacher of joy,” as he has been called,[3] but he is no such thing. Qohelet has little happiness and no joy. But he does have much pleasure, at least of a superficial sort, and he decides to make do with this. In the end, he seems to arrive at a certain somber happiness, which consists of an acceptance and even an appreciation of his lot, but this is never called simḥah.

Simḥah in the Bible

Elsewhere in the Bible simḥah has a broad range of meanings. It can mean deep joy, as in the experience of the returning exiles (הִגְדִּיל יְ-הוָה לַעֲשׂוֹת עִמָּנוּ הָיִינוּ שְׂמֵחִים) in Ps 126:3. But often it refers to items that bring pleasure—wine, music (in 1 Sam 18:6 it is the sounds of merrymaking). The diversions called simḥah may be trivial and even self-destructive. This is shown by the parallelism in Prov 21:17:

אִישׁ מַחְסוֹר אֹהֵב שִׂמְחָה
אֹהֵב יַיִן וָשֶׁמֶן לֹא יַעֲשִׁיר.
He who loves simḥah is an impoverished man.
He who loves wine and oil will not grow rich.

A poignant expression of how distant simḥah can be from joy is spoken by Jews going into exile: “And our tormenters [demanded of us] simḥah (וְתוֹלָלֵינוּ שִׂמְחָה),” meaning songs that will amuse them (Ps 137:3).

A State of Happiness vs. Indulging in Pleasant Activities

The fact that Qohelet often urges the reader to get simḥah argues against the idea that simḥah means “happiness.” People need no urging to be happy and joyful. At best, they can choose to indulge in agreeable and pleasant activities, and this is what Qohelet recommends: the embrace of pleasures such as eating and drinking and such activities as listed in 9:7–9: eating and drinking, wearing white (festive) garments, anointing oneself with oil (also a festive practice), and enjoying life with a beloved woman.

The Examination of Pleasure

Qohelet sought to know what is good for man to do in life.[4] He begins by examining pleasure (2:1a). At the beginning of his investigation, he decides to amass simḥah and (synonymously)tov, “good.” We know from 2:10 that he succeeded in doing so. He got himself material indulgences: houses, gardens, money, and other “delights of man” (2:8). These are the means of pleasure, things that are supposed to induce pleasurable feelings but don’t necessarily do so.

He first states what he learned:

וְהִנֵּה גַם הוּא הָבֶל. לִשְׂחוֹק אָמַרְתִּי מְהוֹלָל וּלְשִׂמְחָה מַה זֹּה עֹשָׂה.
I realized that this too is absurd. Of amusement [seḥoq][5] I said, “Inane!” and of pleasure [simḥah], “What does this accomplish?” (2:1b-2).

But he is getting ahead of himself, stating his conclusion in advance. He now sets out to answer the question of what is the good to do by a spell of unbridled consumerism, described in 2:4-10 and summarized in 2:10.

וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר שָׁאֲלוּ עֵינַי לֹא אָצַלְתִּי מֵהֶם לֹא מָנַעְתִּי אֶת לִבִּי מִכָּל שִׂמְחָה כִּי לִבִּי שָׂמֵחַ מִכָּל עֲמָלִי וְזֶה הָיָה חֶלְקִי מִכָּל עֲמָלִי.
Whatever my eyes saw I did not withhold from them. I did not restrain my heart from any sort of pleasure, and my heart received pleasure from all my toil, and this was my portion from all my toil.

But he soon thinks otherwise (2:11):

וּפָנִיתִי אֲנִי בְּכָל מַעֲשַׂי שֶׁעָשׂוּ יָדַי וּבֶעָמָל שֶׁעָמַלְתִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת וְהִנֵּה הַכֹּל הֶבֶל וּרְעוּת רוּחַ וְאֵין יִתְרוֹן תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ.
But when I turned (to consider) all the things my hands had done and the toil I had laboriously performed, I realized that it was all absurd and pointless and that there is no profit under the sun.

Absurdity Does not Cancel Pleasure

But 2:11 does not cancel v 10. Pleasure is still good. Indeed,

אֵין טוֹב בָּאָדָם [מִשֶּׁיֹּאכַל][6] וְשָׁתָה וְהֶרְאָה אֶת נַפְשׁוֹ טוֹב בַּעֲמָלוֹ…
There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and show himself enjoyment in his toil… (2:24).[7]

He will commend pleasure most warmly in 9:7-10 and 11:7-10. Qohelet seems to be in a tangle here. The tangle cannot be undone, but it is meaningful and can be clarified.

When Pleasure is Foolish

Some pleasures—excess in food and drink, for example—have intrinsic flaws, but these are not the pleasures Qohelet praises (though he does denigrate them in 10:16, when describing dissolute rulers). In 2:4-10, he tells how he amassed pleasures in large quantities, but he does not consider them excessive. They are his “portion”—what God has allocated him, and thus what is rightfully his (2:10b). While the pleasures listed in 9:7-10 are more moderate, that is not why they are commended. They are commended because they are a man’s legitimate portion.

Man’s Legitimate Portion

One way that pleasure fails is that it requires wealth to get it, and wealth usually entails toil. Property gained through toil is tainted by the aches and frustrations of labor (though Qohelet’s own “toil” in 2:1-12 seems to take the form of a buying spree and doesn’t really sound too arduous). The pleasures wealth can buy are not intrinsically absurd or senseless. If they were, their gain would not be a sign of God’s favor or their loss evidence of his displeasure.

The true target of Qohelet’s anger when he criticizes pleasure is that the efforts that produced it cannot secure their fruits. It galls Qohelet that his wealth will not and cannot remain with him. The more he achieves, the more he will lose. Moreover, he himself, the wise king, will be forgotten (2:16). This makes Qohelet hate life. It’s all so unfair. Worse, Qohelet must leave his wealth to someone who hasn’t worked for it (2:18; 6:1-2). (It doesn’t seem to make things better that this may be his proper heir.) To top it off, the recipient may be a fool (2:19a). (Of course, he could as well be wise, but the possibility that he may be foolish is enough to ruin it for Qohelet. Qohelet tends to emphasize the negative.) For Qohelet, wealth and pleasure should come from and only from—one’s own work and wisdom (2:21-24). Otherwise the whole system is awry. It is hevel.

When the Best Isn’t Good Enough

Qohelet is greedy, not for possessions but for possession itself. The gnawing awareness that he cannot hold on to the good things he owns spoils their goodness for him, at least until chapters 9-11, when he commends life’s pleasures less tentatively. Even there this commendation is directed to others. Qohelet does not seem to have gotten much satisfaction from these good things himself. He is perpetually dissatisfied. There are people like that, and the author has succeeded in portraying one vividly.[8]

In the end, pleasure, though toil’s best product, isn’t all that good (2:1-2).

אָמַרְתִּי אֲנִי בְּלִבִּי לְכָה נָּא אֲנַסְּכָה בְשִׂמְחָה וּרְאֵה בְטוֹב וְהִנֵּה גַם הוּא הָבֶל. לִשְׂחוֹק אָמַרְתִּי מְהוֹלָל וּלְשִׂמְחָה מַה זֹּה עֹשָׂה.
I said in my heart, “Come, let me make you experience pleasure. Enjoy yourself!” But I realized that this too is absurd. (2) Of amusement I said, “Inane!” and of pleasure, “What does this accomplish?”

This negative judgment is not overridden by Qohelet’s commendations of pleasure, such as that in 2:10.

וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר שָׁאֲלוּ עֵינַי לֹא אָצַלְתִּי מֵהֶם לֹא מָנַעְתִּי אֶת לִבִּי מִכָּל שִׂמְחָה כִּי לִבִּי שָׂמֵחַ מִכָּל עֲמָלִי וְזֶה הָיָה חֶלְקִי מִכָּל עֲמָלִי.
Whatever my eyes saw I did not withhold from them. I did not restrain my heart from any sort of pleasure, and my heart received pleasure from all my toil, and this was my portion from all my toil.

Rather, the judgment is sealed by 2:11, which describes all his acquisitions as absurd (הבל) and pointless (רעות רוח), and reinforced by 7:2-4, where Qohelet declares it better to be in a house of mourning than in a house of feasting (בית משתה), which is the same as a house of pleasure/merrymaking (בית שמחה) in 7:4.[9] It is possible to derive satisfaction from something (6:3) without being satisfied (4:8).

Qohelet gives one reason why he finds pleasure unsatisfying and meaningless by asking, rhetorically, “What does this accomplish?” (2:2b). Pleasure does nothing, achieves nothing substantive. It sweetens life’s bitterness somewhat, but the sweetener is not a yitron, a profit. (Think of it as saccharin, which tastes sweet but “does nothing.”) Pleasure is pleasant, that’s all. Diversions of all sorts, however legitimate, crackle with emptiness. Pleasurable feelings don’t suffice for Qohelet. If he were a hedonist, they would.

The Wisdom of Pleasure

For all his complaints, Qohelet does have good things to say about simḥah and its synonym rʼh tov/tovah “seeing good.” Pleasure is “good” (3:12, 22; 5:17; 8:15). It is man’s “portion” (2:10; 3:22; 5:17; 9:9), allocated and approved by God (2:24, 26; 3:13; 5:18; 9:7). It is God’s gift to those he favors 2:26)). Indeed, pleasure is the best thing in life (3:22). He goes so far as to say (in hyperbole) that it is the only good thing:

וְשִׁבַּחְתִּי אֲנִי אֶת הַשִּׂמְחָה אֲשֶׁר אֵין טוֹב לָאָדָם תַּחַת הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ כִּי אִם לֶאֱכוֹל וְלִשְׁתּוֹת וְלִשְׂמוֹחַ וְהוּא יִלְוֶנּוּ בַעֲמָלוֹ יְמֵי חַיָּיו אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ.
So I praised pleasure, because there is nothing good for man under the sun but to eat, drink, and experience pleasure, and this will accompany him in his toil throughout the days of his life, which God has given him under the sun. (8:15a; cf. 3:12)

However long one lives, if he has not experienced pleasure, he is no better off than the stillbirth (6:3). This implies the converse: that the life of one who does experience pleasure is at least a bit better than non-existence. Therefore Qohelet recommends the enjoyment of pleasures throughout life if possible, but especially in youth, because the ability to enjoy oneself fades with age, the “days of unpleasantness” (11:9-12:1b).

Qohelet’s endorsement of pleasure seems wholehearted in 9:7-9:

ט:ז לֵךְ אֱכֹל בְּשִׂמְחָה לַחְמֶךָ וּשֲׁתֵה בְלֶב טוֹב יֵינֶךָ כִּי כְבָר רָצָה הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת מַעֲשֶׂיךָ. ט:ח בְּכָל עֵת יִהְיוּ בְגָדֶיךָ לְבָנִים וְשֶׁמֶן עַל רֹאשְׁךָ אַל יֶחְסָר. ט:ט רְאֵה חַיִּים עִם אִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר אָהַבְתָּ כָּל יְמֵי חַיֵּי הֶבְלֶךָ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ תַּחַת הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ כֹּל יְמֵי הֶבְלֶךָ כִּי הוּא חֶלְקְךָ בַּחַיִּים וּבַעֲמָלְךָ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עָמֵל תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ.
9:7 Go, eat your bread in pleasure and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already favored what you are doing. 9:8 Let your garments be white at all times, and let oil not be lacking for your head. 9:9 Enjoy life with a woman you love during all your absurd [hevel] days that God gives you under the sun, all your absurd days, for this is your portion in life and in your toil at which you labor under the sun.

This is what God wants you to do (9:7b). We should enjoy what we actually possess, “what we see before us s (מַרְאֵה עֵינַיִם)” (6:9) rather than yearning for what we do not have, which is “the wandering of the soul (הֲלָךְ נָפֶשׁ)” (6:9). The pleasures in this passage are “small pleasures,” to adopt the title of Kandinsky’s painting at the start of this essay. Qohelet first sought grand pleasures, as he enumerates at length in 2:1-10. These were to assuage his anger and pain (1:18), but also to give him a memorial, but that didn’t work. The small, private pleasures, however, did help, even if they did not redeem life from its weariness and the pain of mortality. They are what we have, our portion.”

Distraction

A secondary benefit of pleasure is distraction: A man who tastes the fruits of his labor

לֹא הַרְבֵּה יִזְכֹּר אֶת יְמֵי חַיָּיו כִּי הָאֱלֹהִים מַעֲנֶה[וּ][10] בְּשִׂמְחַת לִבּוֹ.
will not much call to mind the days of his life, since God is keeping him occupied with his heart’s pleasure (5:19).

Pleasure anesthetizes consciousness. This seems to be the unspoken reasoning in 8:15 as well. Qohelet himself obsessively concentrates on the wrongs of life, but he can recommend to others an escape that he himself seems constitutionally denied (1:17-18). He does not return to this line of reasoning except to counter it in 7:2-3, where he says:

טוֹב לָלֶכֶת אֶל בֵּית אֵבֶל מִלֶּכֶת אֶל בֵּית מִשְׁתֶּה בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא סוֹף כָּל הָאָדָם וְהַחַי יִתֵּן אֶל לִבּוֹ.
It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, inasmuch as that is the end of every man, and the living should take it to heart.

For Qohelet, seeing life clearly is a greater value than avoidance of pain. It is a greater value even than pleasure, because clarity of vision, even though uncomfortable (1:18) is the path Qohelet chose, and to which is entire book is a testimonial.

Pleasure Feels Good

One reason that pleasure is good is that it feels good; indeed, one meaning of tov is sensory pleasure (2:1; 3:13; 5:17; etc.). But the good feeling may be superficial. One may be eating and drinking and displaying merriment at a party while suffering melancholy and knowing well that the fun is hollow and pointless. As Prov 14:13 observes,

.גַּם בִּשְׂחוֹק יִכְאַב לֵב
Even in merriment the heart may ache.

But then, the very same melancholy that soured the fun may bring the party-goer to a positive conclusion: Since everything in life is so dreary to the melancholy, surface pleasures may, all in all, be considered the best option. Qohelet’s ambivalence is of this sort. Toil, pleasure, and life itself are absurd but not without their good aspects.

Accepting Our Allocated Portions

The most important motive Qohelet gives for enjoying life’s pleasures is that they are man’s portion, his ḥeleq. They are allocated by God, even if not justly distributed (2:10, 21; 3:22; 5:17-18; 9:9). Qohelet says this several times, for example in 3:22a:

וְרָאִיתִי כִּי אֵין טוֹב מֵאֲשֶׁר יִשְׂמַח הָאָדָם בְּמַעֲשָׂיו כִּי הוּא חֶלְקוֹ.
And I saw that there is nothing better than that a man take pleasure in his works, for that is his portion.

To take pleasure in one’s works (that is to say, his achievements, his earnings) is to accept God’s will.

God does not induce this experience; rather, he enables it. He decides—unpredictably, perhaps arbitrarily—who will gain wealth and keep it. God operates on externals, that is to say, what happens and what man does, not on what man thinks and feels. Qoh 6:2 shows that God’s “enabling” a man to consume his wealth means simply that he does not take it away from him or kill him too soon. Divine control does not penetrate inner experience.[11] This is man’s realm. Here he controls his portion, either enjoying it or wasting it.

Qoh 7:14a encapsulates the rule of inner freedom (7:14a):

בְּיוֹם טוֹבָה הֱיֵה בְטוֹב
in a day of good fortune experience [literally, “be in”] good.

In a good day, a time of good fortune, we will be “in good” only if we put ourselves there. The first “good” is not in our control; the second is.

Even Unpleasant Portions are Worthwhile

Pleasure is the best of man’s portions, but it is not the only one. Love, hate, and jealousy are also “portions” of the living (9:6). Love is commendable (4:9-12; 9:9), but the other two emotions are not. Nevertheless, 9:4-6 implies that even their cessation at death is regrettable. Even disagreeable experiences such as these, as well as the ponderous consciousness of mortality, in some way constitute an advantage of the living over the dead,

כִּי הַחַיִּים יוֹדְעִים שֶׁיָּמֻתוּ וְהַמֵּתִים אֵינָם יוֹדְעִים מְאוּמָה וְאֵין עוֹד לָהֶם שָׂכָר כִּי נִשְׁכַּח זִכְרָם.
For the living know they will die, while the dead know nothing and no longer have any recompense, for their memory is forgotten (9:5).

To live is to possess the potential for knowledge, which, however irritating this may be at times (1:17), is the essential human quality and distinguishes us from the beasts.

Qohelet’s affirmations, the things he recommends as worthwhile, all look inward, to each individual’s benefit. The only real realm of freedom and control is the human heart—the locus of emotions, thoughts, and attitudes. We are to enjoy whatever pleasures God makes possible and avoid whatever sorrows we can.

Qohelet’s Focus on the Inner Life

Qohelet’s approach to discovering “what is good for a man to do in life” is unique in the Bible. He assumes that “what is good” is to be found within his heart, mainly in the enjoyment of material pleasures. He will add other good things to these,[12] but he never gives up his expectation that the good will be discovered by looking inward and observing how things feel. He is pained to see oppressions (4:1-3), but he does nothing to rectify them, nor does he tell others to take action. After all, injustice is just one of many warps and bends in the unchanging and dismal world Qohelet sees. Contrast Micah’s view (Mic 6:8), which is far more characteristic of biblical attitudes:

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם מַה טּוֹב וּמָה יְ-הוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ כִּי אִם עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת עִם אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
(God) has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with your God.

The Hellenistic Context

Qohelet’s inward focus, with his concern for the quality of his inner life, as well as his pessimism about changing the world’s wrongs (“for who can correct what [God] has distorted” [7:13b]), seem to me closer to the popular philosophy of the later Hellenistic period (where most scholars place the book[13]) than to the rest of the Bible. Qohelet’s affirmation of individual experience bears a significant similarity to Hellenistic popular philosophy, whose central purpose was to find a way to individual happiness by the use of human reason alone. This is reflected in Qohelet’s insistence on relying on his own observations and judgments rather than tradition or God’s revealed word as his source of knowledge.

The two dominant philosophies of the Hellenistic period, Epicureanism and Stoicism, looked to the inner realm of human experience to find freedom and happiness.[14] The Epicureans sought happiness through pleasure and freedom from fear, the Stoics through the shedding of desire and passions. Qohelet shares with the Stoics the belief that happiness can be achieved only by shaping one’s attitudes and desires, not in changing externals. This is not to say that the author of Qohelet had studied Greek philosophy; only that he was a man of his times, and aware of certain ideas that were “in the air.”[15]

Reading Qohelet on Sukkot

But it is fair to also read the book in the spirit of different times, as Jews did in subsequent generations. The book of Qohelet is now read in the synagogue on the intermediate Sabbath of Sukkot. There is no mention of this practice before medieval times, but by the eleventh century the practice was known among the Ashkenazim, and it was subsequently adopted by many Sephardic and Oriental congregations.

Various thematic reasons have been offered to explain the connection between the book and the festival. First, Qohelet recommends simḥah, which is the spirit of Sukkot, as is epitomized in Deut 16:14, “you shall rejoice in your festival” (ושמחת בחגך), which refers specifically to Sukkot, at the end of the harvest period. Second, he emphasizes the transience of human life, which is symbolized by the temporary booth. This duality is appropriate to Qohelet, and the understanding of simḥah that the connection implies even improves on Qohelet’s idea. Qohelet meant the externals of pleasure and merry-making, which can be superficial and not necessarily create happiness. Subsequent Jewish interpreters understood Qohelet’s simḥah to mean a deeper, richer joy in life, and this understanding expresses well the spirit of Sukkot.

Published

October 13, 2016

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Last Updated

November 18, 2019

Footnotes

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Professor Rabbi Michael V. Fox  is the Jay C. and Ruth Halls-Bascom Professor (Emeritus) of Hebrew at the University of Wisconsin-Madison until his retirement in 2010. He received his his Ph.D. in Bible, Semitics, and Egyptology from Hebrew University, and his Rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union College. Fox’s books include studies of the Song of Songs and the Egyptian love songs, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs.