Ecclesiastes – the megillah of Sukkot

King Solomon, often seen as the book’s author, is not so, but was the book’s inspiration.

Ecclesiastes (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ecclesiastes (in Hebrew, Kohelet, the speaker of most of the book) is a study in contrasts. So controversial that the ancient rabbis considered withdrawing it from circulation, yet it has continued to engage readers for two millennia, some phrases having become a universal cultural inheritance: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”; “to everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven”; “a three-ply cord is not quickly broken”; “there is nothing new under the sun”; “eat, drink and be merry”; “cast your bread upon the waters”; “of making books there is no end”; et al.
King Solomon, often seen as the book’s author, is not so, but was the book’s inspiration. The book’s language dates it toward 300-200 BCE. Indeed, it fits well into the world literature of its time, echoing questions that bothered early Greek philosophers. Jewish response, of course, differed. The nexus of monotheism as a given, and reliance on individual search and judgment, is basic to the book’s eternal appeal.
Ecclesiastes is not a philosophy, but the tale of one man’s search for verifiable truth in a world filled with doubt and contradiction. Kohelet is pictured in three stages of the search: (a) an imaginative account of personal experiments, as a king who has “everything,” seeking satisfaction and reward; (b) observations of others in seven cycles, each beginning with the term “see” and ending with recommended enjoyment; and (c) retrospective thoughts, approaching death.
Along the way, he dismisses the worth of many societal emphases: wisdom, wealth, hard work and reputation. Justice and wisdom do not seem to be rewarded; all planning leads to naught; and political power seems to have the final say. Nothing lasts and nothing is substantial (“all is vapor” or “vanity”). Is it any wonder that some sought to keep it out of the Bible?
This is a piece of fiction. Any Hebrew reader would know that there had never been a king named “Kohelet.” (The name structure reflects Second Temple times, and seems to imply either “teacher” or “preacher.”) If seen as a philosophy, the text is filled with contradictions. Once the book is seen as a story, however, the contradictions reveal a pattern of growth. The book presents not a system of thought but a challenged, intense individual. This book was designed not to answer questions but to confront the reader with questions.
Change is the key to Ecclesiastes. Note, for example, the following developments. Kohelet constantly returns to seeking enjoyment as the only “sure option,” but even here he evolves from dismissing it, to advising one to appreciate it when it occurs, to recommending seeking it. His early reliance on his own ability to understand gives way to the admission that no one understands. He first prefers death to life, but later totally reverses that. An extremely negative view of women is replaced by advice to seek out and marry a woman you love. Most remarkably, his early dismissal of eternity of the spirit evolves to the spirit returning to God upon death.

REINFORCING THIS climate of change are parallel literary patterns. “Anguish” and “what advantage,” dominate in the beginning, but then disappear. The early concentration on himself (“I”) also passes out of sight in the end. Simultaneously, other phenomena take precedence: the frequency of advice, the use of metaphor (as Kohelet grows from observer to teacher), and the concentration on death.
Analyses of these changes may differ. However, one possible summary is that age and death are decisive. Kohelet toward the end grows more trustful of received traditions, open to compromise, and suspicious of his early observations. He becomes more teacher than observer; personal urgency replaces philosophical musing.
However, the end does not obviate the beginning. The opposite is true. Kohelet’s earlier searing descriptions stay with the reader: the lack of justice, of certainty, of clarity; the uselessness of wealth and wisdom; the arbitrariness of power.
Because all observations derive from a fictional individual, readers will weigh them, despite Kohelet’s honesty and candor. Judgment will also be applied to the tale as a whole. Any reader will ask whether Kohelet, in light of approaching death, found wisdom, or weakly retreated from painful questions.
While Ecclesiastes seems to end, the bottom line is anything but clear instruction. Among the hints are the character’s late tendency to compromise (do a little of this and a little of that), and the presence of an added character (a narrator) who both admires Kohelet but warns the reader against carrying the issues forward in a personal way.
Nevertheless, it is Ecclesiastes’s prodigious achievement that, despite both Kohelet and the narrator ostensibly suggesting no further thought, the unknown author of the book achieves exactly the opposite. The issues continue to occupy the reader: man’s limitations of knowledge of this world; the very record of such honest observation, questioning and struggling; the apparent absence of factors that might have influenced him (children? A passionate love?) and experiments he did not pursue (tzedaka, charity?). The book is haunting, continually inviting comparisons to other literature, and challenging readers to confront Kohelet (and the readers themselves!) with such terms as “optimism,” “pessimism,” “absurdity,” “religiosity,” et al.
Kohelet ends not with an exclamation point, but with a question mark. As such, it is among the most enduring pieces of biblical writing.
In Ashkenazi tradition, Ecclesiastes is read on Sukkot, another puzzle. Is the book’s recommended “enjoyment” consistent with the holiday’s emphasis on happiness? Is the reading in fact a counterweight, Kohelet having sought firm, permanent knowledge while Sukkot finds truth precisely in that which is impermanent?
In any case, an annual rereading is certainly in place. “A book is a mirror,” wrote one 18th-century author. This is a mirror worthy of revisiting – at least once a year.
The writer is the author of Kohelet’s Pursuit of Truth: A New Reading of Ecclesiastes, available through Amazon or Gefen Publishing.