On Shabbat chol ha-moed Sukkot the Book of Ecclesiastes was read aloud in all synagogues in the Jewish world, best known to Jews not by its Greek name, but rather the Hebrew Koheleth. It is one of the books in the Hebrew Wisdom Literature, a small volume of twelve chapters, a literary gem attributed by Jews to King Solomon, Israel’s renowned wisest king. Its purpose purports to give light on the meaning of life.
The work was in its present form by the 2nd century B.C.E., probably finished by 150 B.C.E. The author knew Jerusalem, was a wealthy man and associated with Greeks and Jewish Hellenizers in Israel. He was a cultured man and fluent in Greek.
In the first four chapters he arrives at his conclusions. “Let man seek the best pleasures of life which he can find” (2:24-26). “Life is incomprehensible; therefore eat, drink and be merry” (3:1-15). “Fickle Fate is our companion, and fate and the God of the world are one and the same.” (4:13-16).
These are not Jewish beliefs. They are, in almost every instance, the influence of Greek thought. There is nothing Jewish about Ecclesiastes. It is thoroughly Stoic in its fatalism and Epicurean in its hedonism.
When the Rabbis met at Yavneh (Jamnia) to set the canon of Hebrew Scriptures in 90 C.E. there was immense opposition to include Koheleth in it. Several Rabbis viewed it as heretical, man rebelling against God in defiance. But the book was extremely popular with the Jewish masses and its poetry was widely recited and sung.
It was a challenge to the Rabbis, for here for the first time was a literary conflict between Jewish and pagan philosophy. The Talmudic sages worried about placing books of piety and books of alleged heresy side by side.
Tractate Shabbat 30b relates a statement attributed to Rab Judah, son of R. Samuel.
He said: “the sages wished to hide the Book of Koheleth from the Canon and make it apocryphal because its words are self-contradictory; yet why did they not hide it? Because its beginning is religious teaching and its end is religious teaching”.
Because the book’s early popularity among the common Jewish people and because Solomonic authorship was viewed as doubtful, the Rabbis at Yavneh edited the book. They wrote and added a postscript to the final verse which redeemed the book from heresy. They wrote at the end of chapter 12:
“THE END OF THE MATTER, ALL HAVING BEEN HEARD: FEAR GOD AND KEEP HIS COMMANDMENTS, FOR THIS IS THE WHOLE MAN. FOR GOD SHALL BRING EVERY WORK INTO THE JUDGEMENT CONCERNING EVERY HIDDEN THING, WHETHER IT BE GOOD OR WHETHER IT BE BAD”.
Koheleth wants us to enjoy life as much as possible. Chapter 2:24-26 clearly preaches that “there is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and make his soul enjoy pleasure for his labor…”. Very Greek philosophy and in no way Jewish.
The major Jewish commentators, Rashi and Ibn Ezra, disagree with the translation and with one another. Rashi asks “is there no good in man that he just eats and drinks?” Ibn Ezra renders it better. “There is no good in man except that he eat and drink”.
For Koheleth all is “vanity and a striving after wind”. He is convinced that everything is ordained. What is already has been and will be again. Death is common to man and beast. Why struggle to achieve wealth? It cannot accompany us to the grave and must be left to someone who did not work for it.
He presents us with a doctrine of determinism, a credo of belief that everything in life has been determined from on High.
Koheleth finds monotony in life and in nature. For him there is nothing new and all is futile. All is vanity.
It is difficult to consider Ecclesiastes a poet. He is rather a philosopher. Mal. Couch in his “Inerrancy in the Old Testament Poetry Books” writes that “there are no surprises in the doctrine of God nor about the doctrine of the depravity of man”. The end of the matter. All has been heard, to paraphrase Koheleth.
Both in its prose and poetic verse the evidence seems to conclude that the book contains Godly wisdom and as such has earned its place in the canon of Hebrew Scriptures.
Thus, while being one of the most controversial books of the Hebrew Bible, it is, at the same time one of the most beloved and most quoted books in the entire Bible.