Kohelet: The Tale of Two Stories


“Certainly, I believe that God gave us life for happiness, not misery…Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose. Happiness should be a means of accomplishment, like health, not an end in itself.”   ― Helen Keller

Every book in the Tanach has a central message to it; some have several powerful messages. The book of Bereishit, has the creation of the world and the Jewish people, the book of Yonah, the power of repentance and change, the book of Ruth, the centrality of Chessed in Judaism. The message of the book of Kohelet? Still a mystery. If anything, we have a book with highly conflicting messages. More than that, we find in the book messages that run in stark contradiction.

The Talmud (Shabbat 30b) could not be more explicit about how contradictory they found the book of Kohelet:

“The Sages sought to suppress “lignoz”) the book of Ecclesiastes because its statements contradict each other. And why did they not suppress it? Because its beginning consists of matters of Torah, and its end consists of matters of Torah. “

This is unparalleled. The Rabbis state straight out that the book of Kohelet was nearly abandoned and buried among the many books which never survived for too long. The rabbis recognized the book for sending strongly contradictory messages. What are the contradictions in the book of Kehelt? What messages does it send that seem to run contrary to the most sacred teachings in the Torah? Here they are:

“Vanity of vanities said Koheleth; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What advantage has man in all his toil that he toils under the sun?” (chapter 1)

At the core of Judaism is the sanctity of life and life as a precious pursuit: “You shall choose life so that you and your offspring will live” (Devarim 30). Life is sacrosanct and is a cherished reward and opportunity to pursue a life worth living. How does the great King Solomon declare life vanity? How did such statements make it into the cannon of the Tanach? King Solomon does not merely negate the value of life; he runs right against it:

“So I hated the living, for the deed that was done under the sun grieved me, for everything is vanity and frustration. And I hated all my toil that I toil under the sun, that I should leave it to the man who will be after me” (chapter 2)

While Judaism is full of praise and examples of those who toil on behalf of future generations, as well as admonitions against jealously, king Solomon is so dismayed by the thought that others will inherit the fruits of all his hard work to the extent to which he begins to hate life.

Furthermore, the principle of the after world and reward and punishment, is one of the thirteen fundamental principles of Jewish faith. How can Kohelet despise life and ignore the belief in the afterlife? How can he ignore the fundamental belief articulated by the rabbis (Avot 5:23), “according to the pain is the reward”?

Kohelet’s blindness to the principle of Olam Haba—the afterworld—can not be more potent than him going on to compare the fate of humans and animals:

“For there is a happening for the children of men, and there is a happening for the beasts-and they have one happening-like the death of this one is the death of that one, and all have one spirit, and the superiority of man over beast is naught, for all is vanity.”

Kohelet’s vision of death as the be all end all metric for worthiness expresses the boldest disregard to the Jewish belief in Sachar Ve’ Onesh—reward and punishment—as well as the belief in Olam Haba—the human soul surviving the body.  

The question of theodicy— why it is that the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper—is at the epicenter of religious thinking. How do we reconcile faith in a just and loving God, with the injustices and pain evident in so many aspects of life? In fact, the entire book of Job has been dedicated to the struggle with this challenging question. In the view of Moses Maimonides, this is what Moses was asking God when he said: “And now, if I have indeed found favor in Your eyes, let me know Your ways” (Shemot 33: 13). Moses was the prophet of the highest level, yet he could not understand how bad things happen to good people. Job dedicates an entire book to the matter. And Kohelet? He takes the easy path out. 

“But I returned and saw all the oppressed who are made [so] under the sun, and behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they have no consoler, and from the hand of their oppressors there is power, but they have no consoler. And I praise the dead who have already died, more than the living who are still alive.” (chapter 4)

With no sense of dilemma or paradox, Kohelet goes on to dismiss the equal suffering of the righteous and the wicked as an unavoidable coincidence without entertaining the possibility that there might be more to the issue. As if remaining indifferent to the possibility of providence and a just God were not enough, Kohelet takes it to a whole new level—malice.  

“As he [man] left his mother’s womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, and he will carry nothing with his toil that he will take in his hand. And this too is a grievous evil, that just as it came so shall it go, and what advantage does he have that he toil for the wind?” (chapter 5)

No longer does Kohelet see the world as a cruel collection of random coincidences—something the runs in stark contrast to the fundamentals of Jewish faith—rather, he sees these occurrences as directed by a cruel and malicious force. Nothing can run in greater opposition to Jewish faith than this belief. 

“The deeds of the [Mighty] Rock are perfect, for all His ways are just; a faithful God, without injustice He is righteous and upright.” (Devarim 32:4) The faith in a good, caring, loving, and just God lays at the epicenter of Judaism. Stories of our forefather and mothers, the entire story of the Exodus, getting the Torah at Sinai are all about Providence and God hearing our prayers. 

Kohelet’s response to the complexities of theodicy is not just to throw his hands up but to make accusations about malign design. This is clearly not reconcilable with the fundamentals of Judaism. 

Of all existential and philosophical questions, this one haunts Koehelet in an unusual way. Again and again, he addresses it and finds himself befuddled by it. 

“I have seen everything in the days of my vanity; there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who lives long in his wickedness.” (chapter 7)

It is almost as though Koehelet’s best friend had been the ultimate victim of the righteous’ suffering; the seriousness with which he takes it never fades away.

“There is a vanity that is done on the earth, that there are righteous men to whom it happens according to the deed of the wicked, and there are wicked men to whom it happens according to the deed of the righteous; I said that this too is vanity.” (chapter 8)

Once again, instead of engaging in meaningful discussion of the question, Kohelet—the wisest of men—dismisses it as “vanity”. Kohelet’s disbelief in justice would be one thing; his embrace of hedonism takes things to a new level. 

“And I praised joy, for there is nothing better for man under the sun than to eat and to drink and to be merry, and that will accompany him in his toil the days of his life that God gave him under the sun. (chapter 8)

Kohelet’s embrace of pleasure as a goal onto itself might seem harmless. Yet when it follows statements of disbelief in Divine providence and justice, Kohelet’s call for happiness and pleasure sounds almost like the hedonistic call: “drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” Many scholars consider this verse in Kohelet to be the very source for the infamous statement of “drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.”

So why did a book like Kohelet make it into the Tanach? How do we consider it holy, holiness that was not a matter of consensus as to the Mishna states

“Rabbi Yishmael says: there are three instances of lenient rulings by Beit Shammai and strict rulings by Beit Hillel. The book of Kohelet does not defile the hands, according to the opinion of Beit Shammai; But Beth Hillel say: it defiles the hands “. (Mishna Eduyot 5:3) 

While in general, defilement is the opposite of holiness, to preserve the sanctity of the holy scriptures, the rabbis instituted a required handwashing after touching the holy scriptures. Is the book of Kohelet included in this requirement? Beit Shammai believes it does not. While the book of Kohelet has been canonized into Jewish scripture, it does not contain the holiness of other books. Beit Hillel disagrees. Beit Hillel maintain the book of Koehelet was said with Ruach Hakodesh—Divine inspiration and should be part of scripture.  

How did this happen?

How did this book, filled with ideas that fly in the face of Judaism, come to be considered acceptable, let alone part of our Tanach and Holy scriptures? 

After searching high and low for explanations for this matter, a fascinating explanation the late professor Isiah Lebowitz gave while speaking on Israeli radio. 

There are two kinds of story plots, plays or books. One type of storyline shares a story on a continuum—the entire story is informative and equally valuable at the end of the storyline. Another kind of story has a major twist in the plot. After reading a story with a major twist, one cannot value anything previously read without considering the twist. The change in the plot alters the entire story. 

When done well, the twist in the story changes our perception of every character in the story; it transforms the meaning of every episode. This is what happens in the book of Kohelet. 

The book ends off with the words:

“The end of the matter, everything having been heard, fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the entire man. For every deed, God will bring to judgment-for every hidden thing, whether good or bad.”

These words don’t just make up for everything stated previously in the verses; they pain them in a different color. It is not that these words are a redeeming confession to the book of Kohelet, rending all its difficult statements forgivable, rather they are recoloring them. With this conclusion in mind, Kohelet is reminding us that short of the faith that everything is about keeping to the word of God and faith in reward and punishment. 

This is what the rabbis meant when they said (Shabbat 30b):

“The Sages sought to suppress the book of Ecclesiastes and declare it apocryphal because its statements contradict each other.

 And why did they not suppress it? Because its beginning consists of matters of Torah and its end consists of matters of Torah.

Its beginning consists of matters of Torah, as it is written: “What profit has man of all his labor which he labors under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:3)

Its ending consists of matters of Torah, as it is written: “The end of the matter, all having been heard: Fear God, and keep His mitzvot; for this is the whole man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

The rabbis saught to do away with the book of Kohelet. What changed? did a saving sentence make it all worthy of keeping? No. The new sentance recolored the entire book. Suddenly, the vanity of life, the suffering of the righteous, the prospering of the wicked, the vanity of materialism all get painted in a new light—indeed, they have no meaning without faith in God. These unthinkable existential questions will never be settled short of the knowledge that everything we do in this world is for the sake of God and that God will factor it all into His judgment.  

The Divrei Torah here are dedicated in loving memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (HaRav Ya’akov Zvi ben David Arieh z’’l) who passed way on habbat Kodesh 20th MarCheshvan 5781. I will miss him dearly.

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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