The Book of Kohelet: A Biblical theory of human happiness

Happiness as a human goal

If you were to ask a random person you would meet on the street what his or her goal in life would be, chances are the answer would be: happiness (or an offshoot of happiness such as contentment, joy or gladness; for the sake of simplicity, I use the term ‘happiness’  as a catch-all term).

That happiness is the greatest good and the end to which all our actions ultimately aim is assumed by one of the most important philosophical works of all time, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which set out to explain the essence of happiness. 

In modern times, happiness is as elusive as ever, often a mere concept to which we pay lip service, a role that we play. While a friend or family member may say to you that everything is great, the truth may be that unhappiness has taken hold of them, infiltrating their thoughts and actions on a daily basis, causing anxiety and depression.

The current festival of Succoth is considered the time of our happiness (‘zman simchateinu’) in the Jewish calendar, making this an apt time to consider where the pursuit of happiness fits in according to the Bible.

Happiness in the five books of Moses

The concept of happiness generally appears in the five books of Moses (Chumash) in the context of specific events or actions, such as going up to the Temple on a festival or partaking of the sacrificial meat. This begs the question of whether or not happiness is a bona fide human endeavour prescribed or even encouraged by the Bible.

The answer is given in only one instance and in striking fashion. The single mention of “happiness” in Chumash as an overarching goal is in the “rebuke” in the book of Deuteronomy. Just prior to describing various punishments that are liable to befall the children of Israel in the future, including their being compelled to eat their own children due to severe famine, some light is shed on the cause of these tragedies (Deuteronomy 28:47): “Because you did not serve the LORD your God in happiness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things.”

Here happiness is thrown into the forefront: For failing to serve God in a state of happiness, the children of Israel are to face starvation, death and, perhaps most frightening of all, inhumanity.

Happiness is thus posited as a commandment of sorts, yet Chumash is silent as to the nature of what it is and how it is achieved.

A theory of happiness

In the other books of the Bible, however, the matter is dealt with at more length, and while verses relating to happiness appear in several instances, nowhere is the topic dealt with as thoroughly as in King Solomon’s book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet).

It is a Jewish custom to read Kohelet in synagogue on the Shabbat that falls out during the seven days of Succoth. One reason that has been given for this custom is that Kohelet, which famously bewails the vanity of all things, will succeed in tempering our joy in this season of our happiness so that the situation will not degenerate into frivolity.

In my opinion, the reason for reading Kohelet on Succoth is precisely the opposite: A careful analysis of King Solomon’s masterpiece leads us in the direction of joy and happiness, not away from it. We specifically read Kohelet during Succoth, because this is the time of year when we are supposed to learn what it means to be happy.

The first chapter of Kohelet is brief and blunt, summed up by the opening statement: “vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. This opening chapter forms the key of what is to come: The recognition of the ephemeral nature of the world, that all has already been done and that everything will pass away, is, according to Solomon, the path to genuine contentment.

The second chapter tells of Solomon’s experiment to experience everything under the sun as a proxy for the rest for mankind, this being made possible by him being the king: “For who can eat, or enjoy pleasure, more than I? (2:25)”

KIng Solomon arrives at an initial conclusion as a result of his experiment: “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and make his soul rejoice in his labor (2:24)”. He came to realize that happiness is found only in enjoying the present – as one eats, drinks or engages in labor. To stockpile possessions, to amass wisdom, to plan for the future, to reflect on the past – none of these pursuits will bring happiness.

However, according to Solomon, his realization is of limited use: “But this also I saw, that this is from the hand of God (2:24)”: The path to engendering the capacity for happiness is elusive. It is not within man’s control to arrive at happiness; God either grants it to him or doesn’t.

But this all changes by the time we arrive at the eighth chapter, where it is stated that: “A man has no better thing under the sun than to eat, drink and be happy, because that is what will accompany him in his labor during the days of his life, which God gives him under the sun (8:15).”

No longer is the capacity for happiness God’s gift to mankind. Here, God’s gift is rather “the days of his life”. We are to rely on God for our being alive, but happiness has suddenly become achievable by humankind. What has changed? What element not found in the previous chapters of Kohelet allows for this newfound optimism?

A full answer to this question necessarily includes an analysis of the contents of chapters 4-8 of Kohelet (which is beyond the scope of this post), but can perhaps be summed up by a single verse in the ninth chapter: “Go eat your bread with joy and drink your wine in contentment, for God has already accepted all of your actions (9:7) (emphasis added).”

The intention of the above statement is not to condone all our actions, whatever they may be; it is rather meant to stress our mindsets. The secret according to Kohelet is to let go of our guilt, regret and whatever else is entrenched in what’s in the past, to focus rather on our inherent worth from the present moment and on as if we were newly created. According to Kohelet, our happiness is dependent on cultivating the belief that anything can be achieved from the present point and onwards (even happiness itself!).

To summarize, happiness is rooted in the Bible, constituting a vital portion of the quality of our service of God. King Solomon undertook an analysis of this great human pursuit, much like Aristotle would many generations later, and concluded that humans are capable of rising up out of the revolving winds and fixed seasons, which sum up the vanity of all things, and grasping onto a beacon of contentment in life. This leap can only be made via the present moment and only by learning to recognize one’s self worth and unlimited potential despite all that has occurred in the past.

About the Author
Daniel Light is an aspiring novelist, an Orthodox rabbi and an attorney who tries to help get the invaluable inventions of one of Israel's premier scientific institutions to market.