Koheleth, A Literary Gem

Within the body of the wisdom literature in the Bible is a small book of twelve chapters. In Hebrew it is called Koheleth and in Greek, Ecclesiastes, and it purports to give light on the meaning of life.

The superinscription identifies Koheleth (the Preacher) as King Solomon, “the words of Koheleth, the son of David, king in Jerusalem”, but both the thought and language deny a Solomonic authorship. The work was in its present form by the second century before the common era and was probably finished by 150 B.C.E.

Koheleth knew Jerusalem. He was wealthy and doubtless associated with Greeks or Hellenizers in Israel or had traveled in diaspora communities. He was a very cultured man and was obviously fluent in Greek.

In the first four chapters, Koheleth arrived at his conclusions:

Man and nature follow an aimless circle; man learns that wisdom and pleasure are foolishness; wisdom, folly and riches all come to an end; man should seek the best pleasures in life which he can find; life is incomprehensible, therefore one should eat, drink and be merry; injustice in this world cannot be corrected in the next world; death conquers all and is better than life; there is no proper motivation for labor or frugality; fickle fate (kismet) is our companion and fate and the God of the world are one and the same.

These are not Jewish beliefs. They are, in almost every instance, the influence of Greek thought to which the author was exposed during the Hellenistic period or through his contact with the Greek world outside of Israel.

There is almost nothing Jewish about Ecclesiastes. It is Stoic in its fatalism and Epicurean in its hedonism. And in spite of it, the book is a delightful literary gem.

When the ancient rabbis met at Yavneh (Jamnia) to set the canon of the Hebrew scriptures in the year 90 of the common era, there was much opposition to include Koheleth in the Hebrew bible. Some rabbis viewed it as heretical, man rebelling against God in defiance. But it was immensely 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 30 b 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”.

The rabbis arrived at a compromise. They edited the book and added a postscript to the final verse which redeemed the book from heresy. The rabbis wrote words of praise, hailing Koheleth as a great teacher whose truth can be found in the concluding two verses of the book.

They wrote “Koheleth was wise; he also taught the people knowledge…. He sought to find words of delight…even words of truth. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” And their concluding remarks clinched the solution to the problem and Koheleth/Ecclesiastes was finally added to the Hebrew biblical canon.

“The end of the matter. All having been heard. Fear God and keep His commandments; for this is the whole of man. For God shall bring every work into the judgment concerning every hidden thing, whether it be good or whether it be bad”.

Because Koheleth is a struggle of faith vs. reason, it was included for reading on the festival of Sukkot, a festival of rejoicing, when “eat, drink and be merry” needs to be weighed on the scale of moderation.

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 then to achieve wealth? It cannot accompany us to the grave and must be left to someone who did not labor for it.

It is a doctrine of determinism, a credo of belief that everything has been determined from on High. Koheleth finds monotony in life and in nature. For him, there is nothing new…all is futile.

The rabbis tried to suppress the Book of Koheleth/Ecclesiastes in the year 90 of the common era. It is difficult to consider the author a poet. He is rather a philosopher. And thanks to the rabbis at Yavneh (Jamnia), it is an important addition to Scripture and to the literature of western civilization. It is one of the most popular and beloved books in the Hebrew bible.

“The end of the matter, all having been heard. Fear God and keep His commandments”. The rabbinic postscript to a magnificent literary gem.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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