Who Said All Is Futile?
Ancient books were often written without introductions or conclusions, or even titles. To give reader context, scribes would add information, including the (assumed) author of the book, the time when it was written, or even a brief précis of what the book is about—all written from the perspective of the scribe.
Biblical books fared no differently in this regard and several biblical books now contain secondary, scribal introductions. This is most especially true of prophetic books:
חֲזוֹן֙ יְשַֽׁעְיָ֣הוּ בֶן אָמ֔וֹץ אֲשֶׁ֣ר חָזָ֔ה עַל יְהוּדָ֖ה וִירוּשָׁלִָ֑ם בִּימֵ֨י עֻזִּיָּ֧הוּ יוֹתָ֛ם אָחָ֥ז יְחִזְקִיָּ֖הוּ מַלְכֵ֥י יְהוּדָֽה:
The prophecies of Isaiah son of Amoz, who prophesied concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
דְּבַר יְ-הֹוָ֣ה׀ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הָיָ֗ה אֶל מִיכָה֙ הַמֹּ֣רַשְׁתִּ֔י בִּימֵ֥י יוֹתָ֛ם אָחָ֥ז יְחִזְקִיָּ֖ה מַלְכֵ֣י יְהוּדָ֑ה אֲשֶׁר חָזָ֥ה עַל שֹׁמְר֖וֹן וִירֽוּשָׁלִָֽם:
The word of YHWH that came to Micah the Morashtite, who prophesied concerning Samaria and Jerusalem in the reigns of Kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah.
אדִּבְרֵ֥י יִרְמְיָ֖הוּ בֶּן חִלְקִיָּ֑הוּ מִן הַכֹּֽהֲנִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּעֲנָת֔וֹת בְּאֶ֖רֶץ בִּנְיָמִֽן: ב אֲשֶׁ֨ר הָיָ֤ה דְבַר יְ-הֹוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו בִּימֵ֛י יֹאשִׁיָּ֥הוּ בֶן אָמ֖וֹן מֶ֣לֶךְ יְהוּדָ֑ה בִּשְׁלֹשׁ עֶשְׂרֵ֥ה שָׁנָ֖ה לְמָלְכֽוֹ: ג וַיְהִ֗י בִּימֵ֨י יְהוֹיָקִ֤ים בֶּן יֹאשִׁיָּ֙הוּ֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ יְהוּדָ֔ה עַד תֹּם֙ עַשְׁתֵּ֣י עֶשְׂרֵ֣ה שָׁנָ֔ה לְצִדְקִיָּ֥הוּ בֶן יֹאשִׁיָּ֖הוּ מֶ֣לֶךְ יְהוּדָ֑ה עַד גְּל֥וֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַ֖ם בַּחֹ֥דֶשׁ הַחֲמִישִֽׁי:
1 The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. 2 The word of YHWH came to him in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign, 3 and throughout the days of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of King Zedekiah son of Josiah of Judah, when Jerusalem went into exile in the fifth month.
According to Abraham ibn Ezra, the opening lines of the book of Deuteronomy are similar:
אֵ֣לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּעֵ֖בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן… בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מוֹאָ֑ב הוֹאִ֣יל מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֵּאֵ֛ר אֶת הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את…
These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan…in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Teaching…
All these are examples of introductions that describe authorship and historical setting, but not content. Content is mentioned, however, in the opening of Amos:
א דִּבְרֵ֣י עָמ֔וֹס אֲשֶׁר הָיָ֥ה בַנֹּקְדִ֖ים מִתְּק֑וֹעַ אֲשֶׁר֩ חָזָ֨ה עַל יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל בִּימֵ֣י׀ עֻזִּיָּ֣ה מֶֽלֶךְ יְהוּדָ֗ה וּבִימֵ֞י יָרָבְעָ֤ם בֶּן יוֹאָשׁ֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל שְׁנָתַ֖יִם לִפְנֵ֥י הָרָֽעַשׁ: ב וַיֹּאמַ֓ר׀ יְ-הֹוָה֙ מִצִּיּ֣וֹן יִשְׁאָ֔ג וּמִירוּשָׁלִַ֖ם יִתֵּ֣ן קוֹל֑וֹ וְאָֽבְלוּ֙ נְא֣וֹת הָרֹעִ֔ים וְיָבֵ֖שׁ רֹ֥אשׁ הַכַּרְמֶֽל:
1 The words of Amos, a sheepbreeder from Tekoa, who prophesied concerning Israel in the reigns of Kings Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake. 2 He proclaimed: “YHWH roars from Zion, shouts aloud from Jerusalem; and the pastures of the shepherds shall languish, and the summit of Carmel shall wither.”
The first verse is the classic example of an editorial opening, and many scholars believe that Amos’ prophecy begins only in v. 3, so that v. 2 is part of the editorial framing. In other words, in it the book’s editor(s) give the readers a taste of what they believe Amos preaches – or should be preaching – in the book. Whether the editors of Amos were accurate or not in their attempted to “summarize” the prophet’s message, the above offers an example of what an ancient editor’s “abstract” or “précis” looks like.
Rashbam’s Observation about Kohelet
The opening verse of Kohelet reads like a classic scribal introduction (1:1).
דִּבְרֵי֙ קֹהֶ֣לֶת בֶּן דָּוִ֔ד מֶ֖לֶךְ בִּירוּשָׁלִָֽם:
The words of Kohelet son of David, king in Jerusalem.
But where does the book start? Does it begin with verse 2? Or, perhaps, verse 2, like the second verse in Amos is an editorial attempt at an abstract?
הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל:
Utter futility!—said Kohelet—Utter futility! All is futile!
There are a few clues that this line is an editorial abstract.
- Throughout the book, Kohelet speaks in the first person, but here he is quoted in third person.
- The repetitive nature of the verse sounds like a summary.
- The same repetitive third person quote comes at the end of the book (12:8).
A Rishon’s Observation about the Editing of Kohelet
The previous observations are well-known within the academy. What is surprising, however, is that they are found as well in a medieval commentary on Kohelet, attributed by many scholars—but not all—to the great medieval Jewish commentator, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam; c. 1080-c. 1160; France.)
After interpreting the first two verses of the book, Rashbam writes:
שתי מקראות הללו—"דברי קהלת " "הבל הבלים"—לא אמרן קהלת כי אם אותו שסידר הדברים כמות שהן.
These two verses, “The words of Kohelet,” [and] “Utter futility,” were not said by Kohelet but by the person who edited the words as they stand.
According to Rashbam, Kohelet never actually said these words, since they only appear in the editors’ introduction and conclusion. The book, according to him, actually begins with verse 3.
מַה יִּתְר֖וֹן לָֽאָדָ֑ם בְּכָל עֲמָל֔וֹ שֶֽׁיַּעֲמֹ֖ל תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ:
What real value is there for a man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun?
This is a powerful way to begin a book, setting up the style of Ecclesiastes to question the value of things. But how does the book—the original book—end?
The Conclusion of Ecclesiastes according to Rashbam
Even more radical than Rashbam’s suggestion about the second verse is his suggestion about the conclusion. Here Rashbam follows the same clues he did when deciding where it begins. He claims that once the book turns to third person again, and offers the same summary as it did in the introduction, the original book is done. This occurs in chapter 12 verse 8.
הֲבֵ֧ל הֲבָלִ֛ים אָמַ֥ר הַקּוֹהֶ֖לֶת הַכֹּ֥ל הָֽבֶל:
Utter futility—said Koheleth—All is futile!
On this verse, Rashbam notes:
הבל הבלים – עכשיו נשלם הספר, ואותן אשר סדרוהו אמרו מיכאן ולהבא. לומ’ כל דברי העולם הנוהגין בו הבל הבלים אמר קהלת.
“Utter futility” – now the book is completed. Those who edited it speak from now on, saying: “‘All that goes on in the world is utterly futile,’ said Kohelet.”
The symmetry between this verse and chapter 1 verse 2 is clear. What makes Rashbam’s suggestion radical is that the book continues with several content laden verses:
ט וְיֹתֵ֕ר שֶׁהָיָ֥ה קֹהֶ֖לֶת חָכָ֑ם ע֗וֹד לִמַּד דַּ֙עַת֙ אֶת הָעָ֔ם וְאִזֵּ֣ן וְחִקֵּ֔ר תִּקֵּ֖ן מְשָׁלִ֥ים הַרְבֵּֽה: י בִּקֵּ֣שׁ קֹהֶ֔לֶת לִמְצֹ֖א דִּבְרֵי חֵ֑פֶץ וְכָת֥וּב יֹ֖שֶׁר דִּבְרֵ֥י אֱמֶֽת: יא דִּבְרֵ֤י חֲכָמִים֙ כַּדָּ֣רְבֹנ֔וֹת וּֽכְמַשְׂמְר֥וֹת נְטוּעִ֖ים בַּעֲלֵ֣י אֲסֻפּ֑וֹת נִתְּנ֖וּ מֵרֹעֶ֥ה אֶחָֽד: יב וְיֹתֵ֥ר מֵהֵ֖מָּה בְּנִ֣י הִזָּהֵ֑ר עֲשׂ֨וֹת סְפָרִ֤ים הַרְבֵּה֙ אֵ֣ין קֵ֔ץ וְלַ֥הַג הַרְבֵּ֖ה יְגִעַ֥ת בָּשָֽׂר: יג ס֥וֹף דָּבָ֖ר הַכֹּ֣ל נִשְׁמָ֑ע אֶת הָאֱ-לֹהִ֤ים יְרָא֙ וְאֶת מִצְוֹתָ֣יו שְׁמ֔וֹר כִּי זֶ֖ה כָּל הָאָדָֽם: ידכִּ֤י אֶת כָּל מַֽעֲשֶׂ֔ה הָאֱ-לֹהִ֛ים יָבִ֥א בְמִשְׁפָּ֖ט עַ֣ל כָּל נֶעְלָ֑ם אִם ט֖וֹב וְאִם רָֽע:
9 A further word: Because Kohelet was a sage, he continued to instruct the people. He listened to and tested the soundness of many maxims. 10 Kohelet sought to discover useful sayings and recorded genuinely truthful sayings. 11 The sayings of the wise are like goads, like nails fixed in prodding sticks. They were given by one Shepherd. 12 A further word: Against them, my son, be warned! The making of many books is without limit And much study is a wearying of the flesh. 13 The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind: 14 that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad.
Many modern scholars have noted how discordant verse 13 sounds with the tone of Ecclesiastes. The book generally pushes for the futility of any decision; suddenly it says that we must make moral decisions, revere God and keep God’s commandments, as if this matters, as if it weren’t “utter futility” to do so! It is difficult to see how these verses fit the body of the text. It is worthwhile taking Rashbam’s approach, and putting it in a current academic framework; this suggests that the book went underwent the process of addition and editorial supplementation at least three times.
Utter futility—said Koheleth—All is futile! (v. 8)
This is the conclusion of the book written by the same editors who added the introduction. It summarizes the meaning of the book as these editors understand it: all is futile.
9 A further word: Because Kohelet was a sage, he continued to instruct the people. He listened to and tested the soundness of many maxims. 10 Kohelet sought to discover useful sayings and recorded genuinely truthful sayings. 11 The sayings of the wise are like goads, like nails fixed in prodding sticks. They were given by one Shepherd. (vv. 9-11)
This may have been added by the same editors or a different group. It offers a positive evaluation of Kohelet’s work, saying that the words are sound, truthful, and that they prod a person in the direction of wisdom.
12 A further word: Against them, my son, be warned! The making of many books is without limit And much study is a wearying of the flesh. 13 The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments! For this applies to all mankind: 14 that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad. (vv. 12-14)
This was added by editors who were uncomfortable with the book's message and tried to subvert it with a new ending. It warns against “books” (like Ecclesiastes) and suggests that all a person should do is fear God and keep the commandments, or else God will punish them. In other words, all is not futile, keeping mitzvot is not futile, as doing so will protect a person from God’s wrath.
Assuming Rashbam is correct, 12:1-7 offer Kohelet’s final message:
א וּזְכֹר֙ אֶת בּ֣וֹרְאֶ֔יךָ בִּימֵ֖י בְּחוּרֹתֶ֑יךָ עַ֣ד אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹא יָבֹ֙אוּ֙ יְמֵ֣י הָֽרָעָ֔ה וְהִגִּ֣יעוּ שָׁנִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר תֹּאמַ֔ר אֵֽין לִ֥י בָהֶ֖ם חֵֽפֶץ: ב עַ֠ד אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹֽא תֶחְשַׁ֤ךְ הַשֶּׁ֙מֶשׁ֙ וְהָא֔וֹר וְהַיָּרֵ֖חַ וְהַכּוֹכָבִ֑ים וְשָׁ֥בוּ הֶעָבִ֖ים אַחַ֥ר הַגָּֽשֶׁם: ג בַּיּ֗וֹם שֶׁיָּזֻ֙עוּ֙ שֹׁמְרֵ֣י הַבַּ֔יִת וְהִֽתְעַוְּת֖וּ אַנְשֵׁ֣י הֶחָ֑יִל וּבָטְל֤וּ הַטֹּֽחֲנוֹת֙ כִּ֣י מִעֵ֔טוּ וְחָשְׁכ֥וּ הָרֹא֖וֹת בָּאֲרֻבּֽוֹת: ד וְסֻגְּר֤וּ דְלָתַ֙יִם֙ בַּשּׁ֔וּק בִּשְׁפַ֖ל ק֣וֹל הַֽטַּחֲנָ֑ה וְיָקוּם֙ לְק֣וֹל הַצִּפּ֔וֹר וְיִשַּׁ֖חוּ כָּל בְּנ֥וֹת הַשִּֽׁיר: הגַּ֣ם מִגָּבֹ֤הַּ יִרָ֙אוּ֙ וְחַתְחַתִּ֣ים בַּדֶּ֔רֶךְ וְיָנֵ֤אץ הַשָּׁקֵד֙ וְיִסְתַּבֵּ֣ל הֶֽחָגָ֔ב וְתָפֵ֖ר הָֽאֲבִיּוֹנָ֑ה כִּֽי הֹלֵ֤ךְ הָאָדָם֙ אֶל בֵּ֣ית עוֹלָמ֔וֹ וְסָבְב֥וּ בַשּׁ֖וּק הַסֹּפְדִֽים: ועַ֣ד אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹֽא (ירחק) [יֵרָתֵק֙] חֶ֣בֶל הַכֶּ֔סֶף וְתָרֻ֖ץ גֻּלַּ֣ת הַזָּהָ֑ב וְתִשָּׁ֤בֶר כַּד֙ עַל הַמַּבּ֔וּעַ וְנָרֹ֥ץ הַגַּלְגַּ֖ל אֶל הַבּֽוֹר: ז וְיָשֹׁ֧ב הֶעָפָ֛ר עַל הָאָ֖רֶץ כְּשֶׁהָיָ֑ה וְהָר֣וּחַ תָּשׁ֔וּב אֶל הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר נְתָנָֽהּ:
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”; 2 before sun and light and moon and stars grow dark, and the clouds come back again after the rain: 3 When the guards of the house become shaky, and the men of valor are bent, and the maids that grind, grown few, are idle, and the ladies that peer through the windows grow dim, 4 and the doors to the street are shut— with the noise of the hand mill growing fainter, and the song of the bird growing feebler, and all the strains of music dying down; 5 when one is afraid of heights and there is terror on the road.— For the almond tree may blossom, the grasshopper be burdened, and the caper bush may bud again; but man sets out for his eternal abode, with mourners all around in the street.— 6 before the silver cord snaps and the golden bowl crashes, the jar is shattered at the spring, and the jug is smashed at the cistern. 7 and the dust returns to the ground as it was, and the lifebreath returns to God Who bestowed it.
A very different ending message indeed!
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October 13, 2014
December 19, 2019
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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