A Modern Commentary on Ecclesiastes
Translation and Commnentary by Leonard S. Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky
UAHC Press, 2003, 132 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - December 12, 2011
Kohelet, its Hebrew name, Ecclesiastes in English, is one of the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible. Both names mean "assembly" or "assembler." The book's author states that he was the son of King David and a king in Jerusalem. Yet, we know of no son of David called Kohelet and no one by that name was a king in Jerusalem. This is one of many problems in this sacred book.
The foremost difficulty is its apparent hedonistic view, such as the following: "Go, eat your bread with joy and an easy mind. Drink your wine, for God (Elohim) has already approved what you have done." "Enjoy life with a woman you love all the fleeting days that are given to you…for this is what you get out of life and from the exertions that you labor under the sun." "Understanding is better than giving sacrifices as fools do." "What happens to people, happens to animals…. Being human has no advantage over being a beast. Everything is useless," a view far different from traditional Jewish thinking. Besides the apparent hedonism, Kohelet is also a misogynist, as when he writes: "a woman is bitterer than death. She is a trap. Her heart is a snare. Her hands are chains. He who has God's favor avoids her."
Second, the word Elohim frequently but not always means God in the Hebrew Bible, but it literally means "the powerful one," and is also used to describe a judge and strong people. Kohelet uses it thirty six times, as in the above quote, and he may not be referring to the deity in all of these verses. He may mean nature or the way things are in the world. Thus, in the above quote he may be saying enjoy all the fine things in life for this is natural, the best way to live.
Third, many verses seem to contradict one another, as if a second and perhaps even a third editor tried to modify or revise the author's seemingly audacious and possibly heterodox declarations into views generally held by most Jews. The hand of another writer is especially clear in the final six verses of the book where the text switches from Kohelet speaking to another person who describes Kohelet as a wise man, a teacher, a writer of parables and truth. Then, after a book filled with seemingly hedonistic views, the volume ends by saying that people should "revere God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole of man." If these are the words of an editor, the original version of Kohelet ends in 12:8, just as it began, "Total uselessness, says Kohelet, everything is useless."
In the second century of the Common Era, the rabbis debated whether to include Kohelet, which was most likely composed around the second century BCE, in the Hebrew Bible canon. Some rabbis opposed it, but it was included. Kravitz and Olitzky offer readers a new translation of the book and a commentary on every verse. Thus, the traditional, "Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet, vanity of vanities, all is vanity," is rendered "It is all useless, Kohelet said, it is all useless. Everything is useless." Virtually all the commentaries that they use are from Rashi (1040-1105) and the Aramaic translation of the book. Rashi relied on this Aramaic translation, which was most likely composed after the completion of the Babylonian Talmud in the mid-sixth century and before the Arab conquest of Israel in the seventh. Kravitz and Olitzky also have some commentaries of Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164); including some notions that Kohelet is referring to the powers of astrology. These sources do not explain the plain meaning of the Kohelet passages. They portray Kohelet as a very religious man who is encouraging his readers to accept and follow the proper way to serve God and to act with moral behavior. Thus, for example, although Kohelet doesn't mention punishment for misdeeds after death, they read it into his words. Rashi interprets the statement about women, mentioned above, as referring to heretical beliefs that must be avoided, not women. Also, the Aramaic translation frequently states that Kohelet is speaking of past events that should be emulated, such as some religious act performed by the patriarch Abraham.
The authors include several pages after each of Kohelet's twelve chapters explaining different concepts, such as the Davidic kingdom and its restoration, and "Gleanings" from other books that touch upon ideas in the chapters. Whether readers of the original Kohelet prefer to accept its plain meaning or favor the homiletical versions, Kohelet is a good book to provoke thought.