Shabbat Chol ha-Moed Sukkot
By Zahavit Shalev
Kohelet – the Book of Ecclesiastes – which we read on Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot, is a first person account from someone who has been there and done that, a wealthy but world-weary king who asks: ‘What real value (yitron) is there for a man in all the labour (amalo) he labours (amal) beneath the sun?’ (1:3). These are the key words and this the key question at the heart of Kohelet.
Mexican theologian Elsa Tamez explains that yitron means advantage, benefit, profit or gain. Kohelet is the only Biblical book to use this word, which appears ten times. It is an accounting term, for the Hellenistic world of Kohelet was enjoying an economic boom – although as always with these things, not everyone was benefitting equally.
The next key term, amal, doesn’t simply mean ‘work’, but toil. Furthermore, says Tamez, ‘amal is both work and the exhaustion that comes from it’. Earlier in the Bible, the term amal carried the suggestion of the oppression and injustice meted out by one’s enemies. Again, the speaker questions the point of an economic system which is so relentlessly punitive.
Finally, we have ‘under the sun’, which means ‘in this world as it is’ – a phrase which features 29 times in the book. ‘Under the sun’ suggests the kind of immutability which people fatalistically invoke when talking about a given world order that seems obvious and unchanging. It’s like saying, ‘well of course, what with austerity….’ or ‘under the current system of capitalism….’. The phrase suggests alternatives are unthinkable – unless you change your mindset.
‘Under the sun’, say the Jewish commentators, refers to the world as we know it. But the phrase gestures at another place – a realm above or beyond the sun, in which things do make sense and can be different. Kohelet does indeed find everything in the world to be lacking or broken and ultimately unsatisfying, even for the supposed winners. But an expression of nihilism means different things depending on where we find it. When we read Kohelet on Sukkot (or at all), we start from the notion that this book is part of the Biblical canon and that it will have something meaningful to say to us.
Our tradition imagines that Kohelet was written by King Solomon, who is said to have authored three books: the Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Kohelet. He wrote the Song of Songs as a youth, when his energy was invested in love and romance; Proverbs in middle age, when he felt he had some wisdom to offer; and Kohelet, finally, as an old person, when he concluded that the world was vanity, or that he understood nothing.
I find great comfort in the admission of frustrated surrender in Kohelet. Just as there are ranges of sonic frequency we humans cannot hear, and ultraviolet light we cannot see, the range of human comprehension is limited. We cannot answer the existential question: what does life mean? And that’s ok. It’s ok to ask, and it’s ok to leave the question hanging. It’s just part of being human. Hearing a person from ancient times articulate a familiar frustration is itself a gift and perhaps even an answer of sorts.
Zahavit Shalev is Rabbi’s assistant at New North London Synagogue and studying for the rabbinate at Leo Baeck College.