On Reading Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) on Succot (the Feast of the Tabernacles)

14 Pages Posted: 27 Sep 2013

See all articles by Barbara Pfeffer Billauer

Barbara Pfeffer Billauer

Institute of World Politics; International Program in Bioethics, U. of Porto; Foundation for Law and Science Centers, Inc.

Date Written: September 24, 2013


"Vanity oh Vanities, All is Vanity". So, begins the words of Kohelet, (Ecclesiastes), which is read on Succot, the Holiday of the Harvest. Supposedly one of the happiest of holidays, one wonders why we would diminish the joy of Succot with the morosings of an old King -- by reading twelve chapters lamenting the purposeless of existence.

The given reasons are either contradictory, artificial or to my mind wholly unsatisfactory. Some commentators interpret this pathetically sad homily as being upbeat. Rather than acknowledging Solomon’s clear and forthcoming statements of futility, these commenters say he is asking a question so as to allow ourselves to ponder the meaning of existence.

In this article I examine an alternative theory, which attempts to also reconcile the seemingly incongruous statement of Chapter 11 v. 23 with our universal view of King Solomon, who is said to have adopted the pseudonym, 'Kohelet' or the preacher. In this volume, the preacher writes: "All this have I tried by wisdom; I said: 'I will get wisdom'; but it was far from me." Since we know Solomon was imbued with unlimited wisdom, to what precisely does this sentence refer?

One theory is that it alludes to the mystery of the Red Heifer, Para Aduma. The Gemara in Rosh Hashana 21b discusses the situation at some length, leading to the conclusion that Solomon could not be satisfied with the caveat that the injunction falls into the category of 'chok' or those laws for which mortals are not given to understand. Frustrated he could not puzzle out the mystery of the Red Heifer, when Moses was given to understand it, leads to the conclusion that Solomon's greatest desire was to be like Moses, not just in understanding, but in leadership.

Against, this backdrop, the laments of the futility of endeavor become easier to understand.

Note: Downloadable document is in English and Hebrew.

Keywords: kohelet, Ecclesiastes, Moses, Solomon, wisdom, futility, vanity, frustration, lack of satisfaction of life, red heifer, para adumah

JEL Classification: B3, B31, D83

Suggested Citation

Billauer, Barbara P., On Reading Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) on Succot (the Feast of the Tabernacles) (September 24, 2013). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2330406 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2330406

Barbara P. Billauer (Contact Author)

Institute of World Politics ( email )

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Washington, DC
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+1 202-462-2101 (Phone)

International Program in Bioethics, U. of Porto ( email )

Rua Dr. Roberto Frias
4200-464 Porto

Foundation for Law and Science Centers, Inc. ( email )

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Suite LL1
Washington, DC 20036
United States
972 54 344 6055 (Phone)

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