Monday, August 13, 2012


Every reading is an interpretation. When we probe a text, we understand it through the prism of our pre-conceived notions, and often this misrepresents the message of the author. A case in point is the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes and how the Rabbis dealt with it. 

The Book of Ecclesiastes (kohelet), found in the third section of the Jewish Bible (ketuvim), is considered to be a late work, emerging during the second temple period, close to the Hellenistic times c. 4th or even 3rd cent. BCE, even though it claims to have been be authored by King Solomon in the 10th cent. BCE. Written as a first-person account, it is rather a pessimistic work, which argues that God, the creator of the world, does not interfere in the workings of nature, that even wisdom is fleeting, and, because of perceived regularity in the universe, “there is nothing new under the sun.” So, the author (authors?) suggests that, given this observation, a person ought to enjoy life fully while alive, because death claims the wicked and the saint alike. 

The ancient Rabbis, who did not share this world-view, had a problem with the text, and tried to exclude it from the Tanak: “The Sages sought to suppress the Book of Kohelet because they discovered therein words which favour heresy” (Eccl. Rabbah, I: 3, Soncino; cf. repeated in XI: 9). The book was finally included in the Canon only through a major reinterpretation of its message, which, at times, meant reading the texts against itself. Here are three examples: 

1    1. Kohelet does not seem to know anything about the World-to-Come and, specifically, the resurrection of the body. After death, he mused, everyone goes down to Sheol, the presumed large pit under the earth (9: 10). But, the Rabbis, who advocated resurrection as a major belief, inserted it in some passages that had nothing to do with it. Commenting on the biblical text, “Better is a handful of gratification (kaf nahat) than two fistfuls of labor which is a pursuit of wind” (4: 6, NJPS), they understood it as “Better is a handful of quietness  in the world to come, than two fistful of labor which is a pursuit of wind in this world” (IV: 6). 

2    2.Kohelet urged the reader to “eat and drink” in life (5:17). However, this approach sounded too hedonistic for the Rabbis. So, they reinterpreted it as meaning, “All the eating and drinking mentioned in this Book refers to Torah and good deeds” (V: 17), even though in kohelet, God does not reveal anything, and the word torah never appears. 

3   3. According to Kohelet, God does not get involved in human affairs. Not so for the Rabbis who believed in reward and punishment. So, they interpreted the text, “sometimes an upright man is requited according to the conduct of the scoundrel…the scoundrel is requited according to the conduct of the upright” (8:14), as meaning “Happy are the righteous men unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked in this world: woe to the wicked men to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous,” ( VIII:14), namely, the wicked may prosper in this world but they will receive their punishment in the hereafter.

A careful reading of kohelet shows that the process of reinterpretation was not originated by the rabbis but, in fact, it had already started in biblical times. For, someone, unknown to us, added a third-person account (“kohelet was a sage…10: 9) at the end of the book in order to make its message compatible with other biblical teachings, encouraging the reader to “revere God and observe His commandments. For, this applies to all mankind: that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad” (12: 13). 

We are grateful for these reinterpretations, whether by the unknown biblical commentator, or by the Rabbis, for, by doing so, they preserved important perspectives on life worthy of consideration, even though they are against the basic beliefs of the original biblical author/s.

Rifat Sonsino
Aug. 2012