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Thoughts on Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) on Sukkot

In the Tanach, the Jewish Bible, five small books are grouped together following the larger Books of Psalms, Proverbs, and Job, among the Ketuvim, the Writings or Hagiographa.  These five are referred to as Megillot, scrolls, and each one is associated with a holiday during the course of the year.  Beginning with Passover in the spring, we read the Song of Songs.  On Shavuot, we turn to the book of Ruth.  For the fast day of Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple, naturally the book of Lamentations is read. During this festival of Sukkot, the megillah chosen is Ecclesiastes.  Of course, on Purim, the fifth megillah is read, the book of Esther, which we all tend to think of as “the Megillah.”  Esther is always read from a scroll while the other books are generally read from printed volumes, though some congregations do read them from handwritten scrolls and, in some cases, recite special blessings before them as we do with the Megillah of Esther. The reading of Esther is mandated by the rabbis for both the evening and daytime on Purim and has many rules associated with it.The other scrolls are read by custom, if at all, and the rules arerather flexible.  


Both Esther and Lamentations have distinctive melodies by which they are chanted.  Esther has a very joyful, upbeat melody, while Lamentations uses a sad and solemn tropes.  The other three megillot all share the same melody which I think of as a kind of pastoral melody.  There is a certain logic to reading the love poetry of Song of Songs during the spring festival of Pesach and a variety of reasons are given to link the reading of Ruth to Shavuot. One connection made is that both the Torahwhich was given on Shavuot and the book of Ruth are seen as filled with acts of chesed, lovingkindness. Ruth accepted the Torah as her way of life as did the Israelites at Mount Sinaiwhen the Torah was given.  But why should the book of Ecclesiastes, Kohelet in Hebrew, be read on Sukkot?  Is it just by process of elimination, as some suggest, or is there some logic behind it?


Kohelet is one of a handful of biblical texts about which thesages debated as to whether it should even be included in the Bible.  Some were reluctant to do so because they claimed it was filled with contradictions.  Yet, ultimately it made it into Jewish Scripture, because the rabbis said it begins with words of Torah and concludes with words of Torah. Some suggest that we read it on Sukkot, the “season of our joy” because Kohelet speaks about rejoicing. Another rationale for reading it during Sukkot is that Sukkot, known also as the Feast of Ingathering, is a time of celebration of the harvest.  At such a time, it might be tempting to boast of one’s own prowess in bringing in such a bountifulcrop.  Deuteronomy worries that farmers might say, “my own hand has accomplished this” and forsake the Lord, Kohelet reminds us that God is the author of all things.  In addition,Sukkot became known simply as “Chag,” the holiday, par excellence.  In the days of the Second Temple, celebrations could become quite raucous. Ecclesiastes provides a kind ofbalance with its sobering consideration of the meaning of lifeand its emphasis on the shortness of our time on earth. The late Rabbi and author Harold Kushner, known best for his book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” also wrote a book based on Ecclesiastes entitled, “When All You;ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough.”  Kushner draws on the teachings of Kohelet to remind us that money and other possessions are not all that there is in this world.  Reading Kohelet on Sukkot, when we are thinking of all the good and blessings that have come upon us, our wealth and possessions, reminds us that these are transitory,and we need to look further to find true meaning in life.  After we have accumulated so much, we may well ask, “What it is all for?”


Liturgically, both Lamentations and Esther have eveningservices devoted mostly to them.  Ruth, with four chapters, and Song of Songs with eight, can be relatively easily inserted into our Shabbat or Festival worship without lengthening the service too much, and are generally read just prior to the Torah reading for the day.  Ecclesiastes has twelve chapters, though; it’s rather lengthy. To read it all on the Shabbat of Chol HaMoed, the intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot, would be quite burdensome for the congregation, though I’ve been in places that read it all nonetheless.  In a year, like this, where there is no intermediate Shabbat, since the holiday began on Shabbat and this coming Shabbat is Shemini Atzeret, the custom is generally to read Kohelet on Shemini Atzeret, a holiday which is already filled with additional rituals, the Yizkor memorial prayers and the prayers about rain, Geshem. In Israel when there is only one final day combining Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, Kohelet is read on the first day of Sukkot. Perhaps, some suggest, it could be read later in the day, maybe at mincha, the afternoon service, or left for private reading at home. Different communities have varying customs as to when to read it and how much to read.


The Lev Shalem Siddur that we use at TBI and some of its predecessors provides an alternative to reading the whole book, offering excerpts from the book, the opening chapter followed by the famous “to everything there is a season” passage from chapter 3, an extended passage from chapter 9, verses 7-18,containing many well-known verses, and then the conclusion from the end of chapter 12.  Siddur Sim Shalom that preceded Lev Shalem in Conservative congregations, has a three-page anthology of miscellaneous verses from the book.  It is preceded by a notice stating: “This abridged adaptation of some of its verses is presented as an incentive urging the reading and study of the entire book of Ecclesiastes.” In the subsequent volume of Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, I did not find a similar collection of excerpts. Our solution here has been to read a few chapters, somewhat similar to what we find in Lev Shalem, with the idea that next year we’ll pick different chapters and eventually read the entire book.  The reading of Kohelet on Sukkot is briefly mentioned in the post-Talmudic tractate of Soferim, generally dated to the 8th century or so.  Later works of halachah give more details about its reading.  


We have recently acquired volumes for the Temple of the five megillot with a brief commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltzwhich we will use for our services this week. The Reform Movement’ has published modern commentaries on a number of biblical books including all of the five megillot, translated with commentary by Rabbis Leonard Kravitz and Kerry Olitzky. The Jewish Publication Society has also prepared a volume in itsongoing series of biblical commentaries by Rabbi Michael V. Fox, and I just learned of a new volume on Kohelet by OrthodoxJewish educator and writer, Dr. Erica Brown, who has written on several other biblical books in a series that Maggid Press has been publishing on the Tanach.  Of course, there are countless other commentaries in Hebrew or English and other languagesavailable to consult.  As Kohelet says, “Of the making of many books there is no end.”


The book of Ecclesiastes claims to be written by an unknown speaker who gives his name as Kohelet, the son of David, King in Jerusalem. He never actually identifies himself as King Solomon, the son who succeeded David on the throne of Israel,though Jewish tradition claims that this book is one of three biblical books written by that wise king: Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes.  Some even suggest that the love poetry of Song of Songs was written in Solomon’s youth, Proverbs, being more practical reflects his middle age, and the somewhat cranky tone of Ecclesiastes reflects the wisdom acquired in old age.  I did however come across an argument reversing the order of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Modern scholars tell us that the book in actuality most likely comes from the third century BCE, more than six hundred years after King Solomon and, as with many books of that era, uses a well-known biblical figure to give authority to his teachings.  The name Kohelet seems to come from the verb to assemble.  We call a congregation Kahal or Kehilah from the same root. So,some refer to the narrator as “the Preacher.”


After introducing himself, the writer proclaims, “Havel havalim…hakol havel,” terms that are repeated numerous times and variously translated.  Some translate hevel as vanity, others as nothingness or vapors.  The volume by Kravitz and Olinsky reads, “It’s all useless…everything is useless.”  Steinsaltz prefers “futility,” the translation used in the JPS Tanakh and thus by Fox as well. However in his commentary, Fox suggests“utterly senseless” or “utterly absurd.” Rabbi Steinsaltz, like Rabbi Fox, says it comes from the word for vapors or fumes, and is an abstract noun based on a metaphor. Jessica Sacks, niece of the late chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, uses “Fleeting breath” to translate hevel,” a translation Rabbi Sacks himselfused in citing a verse from Kohelet in the Koren Siddur.


After this assessment of life, Kohelet takes us on a journey as he describes how he came to this conclusion.  Observing the world, he notes the cyclical nature of creation.  ”One generation goes and another generation comes, but the earth always remains the same.  The sun rises and the sun sets, and glides back to where it rises….All rivers flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full…..What was is what will be.  What has been done is what will be done.  There is nothing new under the sun.” “So, I set mymind to ascertain wisdom and knowledge as well as madness and folly, and I learned that this too is an empty pursuit. The more wisdom the more grief. The more knowledge, the more pain.”  


As he goes on, he speaks of gathering all kinds of possessions and property, houses and vineyards, gardens and parks.  He purchased slaves and amassed gold and silver and the treasure of kings. But the more he acquired, the more he realized its futility.  It was all useless and had no lasting value and ultimately will go to someone else who did nothing to earn it. There is much more in the book as Kohelet emphasizes the shortness of life and its ephemeral quality, how we are quickly forgotten and how whatever we work for is left to others. So he explores various avenues of pleasure and enjoyment, eating and drinking and enjoying life in general.  He seeks power and authority, but knows that that too will pass and others will take his place.


The section most of us know best appears in the third chapter. Thanks to Pete Seeger who wrote the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” and the rock band, the Byrds, whose version made it to the top of the charts in 1965, we all know that “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”  As the song renders pretty faithfully from the biblical text, there is: “A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to gain that which is to get, and time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time of love, and a time of hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”  Seeger made it into a peace anthem by adding after “a time of peace” the words, “I swear it’s not too late.”  


While Kohelet sees all of this as part of God’s plan and we humans can only rejoice in our portion and do good in our lives, he writes: “Each man who eats and drinks and sees good in all his toil, it is a gift of God.”  He goes on to say, “God will judge the righteous and the wicked as there is a time for every action and every purpose there.”


There is so much more in this book and ultimately, Kohelet ends his teachings with these final words, “The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: revere God and observe His commandments, for this applies to every person, that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad.”  While some argue that his conclusion was added on by a different author to make the book “kosher,” others assert that this ending is in keeping with the teachings within the other chapters.  Jewish tradition does not like to end on a negative note, certainly not on the word “ra,” evil or bad.  So when we read this book liturgically, as part of the service, we go back and repeat the second to the last verse which ends with the word “ha-adam” referring to humanity.  Kohelet is one of four biblical books used liturgically where we repeat the penultimate line.  This is true also of the end of the book of Esther, the conclusion of Malachi, read on Shabbat HaGadol, the Sabbath before Passover, and the final chapter of Isaiah, which is read on Rosh Chodesh, the new moon.


As we come to the end of the holiday season, which has been a time of reflection and an opportunity to re-evaluate our lives and re-direct them for the coming year, it is most appropriate that we spend a little time with Kohelet on this joyous festival and remind ourselves of what life is all about.

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