Israel Drazin

A famous mystic’s view of Ecclesiastes

While scholars such as Rashbam, Abraham ibn Ezra, Maimonides, and others read what the Bible actually states, Nachmanides (1194-1270) read mysticism into the biblical words. According to Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel, he was the first Bible commentator to do so.[1] He also explained the biblical text by claiming that certain events, behaviors, and conversations happened which is not explicit in the Bible and is often contrary to what the plain reading of the Bible is saying.

Nachmanides insists that Koheleth was authored by King Solomon and as proof cites the verse that states he was the son of Kind David and was himself a king in Jerusalem. He states that the name Koheleth means “assembler,”[2] and Solomon was given this pseudonym because he amassed all wisdom in his soul. This wisdom, according to Nachmanides, included mystical teachings. Since most people were incapable of understanding what Nachmanides considered a higher true concept of wisdom, he taught these truths by means of proverbs. Nachmanides saw this insight in Ecclesiastes 12:9, “he taught the people knowledge.”[3] Solomon, according to Nachmanides and Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:9-10 was so smart, he even understood the language of animals.

Nachmanides asks how Koheleth could say in the book’s opening statement that everything in this world is vanity when throughout the entire account of creation in Genesis the Bible certifies that all of creation is good? He replies that nothing is permanent; everything returns eventually to its origin. The elements that God created are good, but the forms that humans make of them are transitory and often of no value. People should not give mundane matters importance and think they are permanent; they will evaporate like the mist.

Nachmanides sees the book Kohelet teaching five lessons, four of which are not explicit in the book: (1) People should not engage in worldly pleasures because they are worthless; they will disappear quickly and will die with them. (2) Kohelet only focuses on human acts, which are transitory. However, the soul, which is not discussed in Kohelet, is permanent. People should act with fear of God, not indulge in luxuries, but only in necessities. (3) He notes that the book does not mention the divine name y-h-v-h, but uses Elohim. The first denotes divine mercy, the second divine justice, which the book is about. According to Nachmanides, Elohim signifies, that God conducts the world by performing hidden miracles, which most people are unable to distinguish from the laws of nature. People need to realize that God is present and is constantly acting, so they should be careful in their behavior. (4) When Koheleth states that he was plagued by seeing righteous people suffering misfortunes, he was only stating his original youthful thoughts, but he soon came to realize that righteous people will be rewarded, as stated in the book’s final chapter.

(5) Although not stated in the book, Nachmanides states that the sages explained that there is life after death, righteous people may suffer while alive to cleanse the person of sins so that a complete reward can be given after death.[4] Also, they said if a person has more sins and fewer merits, rewards are given on earth so that full punishment can be rendered in the world to come. Therefore, Nachmanides wrote, we should do as Solomon advised, fear god in your heart and keep the divine commands in deeds, for this and only this is what God wants, the rest is only transient midst.

Nachmanides discusses a number of other subjects such as whether the world will remain forever, as Maimonides states, or will cease to exist after 6,000 years as the rabbis maintain. Nachmanides concludes, in Chavel’s translation, typical to his worldview: “No man, however, can attain (a knowledge of) the truth of these matters and the like by his own reasoning; (it can be achieved) only by tradition. The subject is elucidated in the Torah for all who have properly heard the rationale of the commandments according to (the mystic teachings of) the Cabala. (The proper method is to have) one Cabalist hear it from the mouth of another Cabalist, (thus extending the line of oral transmission back) to Moses our teacher, who heard it from the mouth of the Almighty.”

There are two significant approaches to scripture that are important to notice here, the rational and the mystical. Maimonides was convinced that the Torah is rational and the biblical commandments can be understood. He explains all of them in book three of his Guide of the Perplexed. Nachmanides felt that the Torah is not rational, that there is a mystical basis to the Torah that most people cannot understand, the Bible is filled with mysticism, the many mystical teaching in the Torah were revealed by God to Moses who transmitted it to Israelites who could understand it, they transmitted it from generation to generation to men who could understand it, and these mystical underpinnings in the Torah are clear to cabalists, and only to them. The book of Ecclesiastes, like other biblical books, is, according to Nachmanides, filled with mysticism.

In his introduction to his commentary to Genesis, Nachmanides wrote: “my words will not be comprehended nor known at all by any reasoning or contemplation, excepting from the mouth of a wise Cabalist speaking into the ear of an understanding recipient. Reasoning about them is foolishness; any unrelated thought brings much damage and withholds benefit.”[5]

Many rabbis today accept Nachmanides view, which they consider the traditional view. They call a command that is “unreasonable,” meaning a command they cannot understand, a chok, and they encourage their congregants to observe the command even though it is not understandable.

[1] As I show in my Book “Nachmanides the Unusual Thinker,” he was also the first commentator on the Aramaic translation Targum Onkelos to make the same claim about the translation.

[2] This is also the view of Rashi and ibn Ezra.

[3] Nachmanides saw such hints everywhere, even in Proverbs 31:10 about the woman of valor, page 149 in Chavel.

[4] Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 39b and Jerusalem Talmud Peah 1:1.

[5] Chavel, pages 15-16. Chavel explains that according to Nachmanides the recipient must also be a Cabalist.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.