Annotated and Explained
By Rabbi Rami Shapiro
Sky Light Illuminations, 2010, 114 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - October 18, 2010
Rabbi Shapiro offers his readers a paraphrase instead of a translation or, more specifically, his interpretation of what he feels the author of Ecclesiastes is teaching his readers. This is not a criticism. In fact, many readers will find the Shapiro version very readable, quite stimulating, and good philosophy; and while there will be those who may disagree with some of his interpretations, human nature being what it is, they will still find Shapiro's ideas thought-provoking.
For example, Shapiro defines "Koheleth" as the "Assembler," an author who lived around 500 BCE who assembled words of wisdom. Thus Shapiro changes 1:12 to read "I, the Assembler, lived like a king in Jerusalem," rather than the Bible's "I, Koheleth, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem," which claims that the author was actually a king.
Shapiro does not translate verse 2 as "Vanity upon vanity, all is vanity" or "Utter futility! All is futile!" but "Emptying upon emptying! Everything is emptying." He writes in his explanation, "Koheleth's message is not that life is vain or futile, but rather that it is transient and empty of permanence." He states that the author recognizes that life is frequently unfair, seems to lack purpose, is driven by forces beyond human control, good people suffer, people work hard and accomplish nothing. He tells us that the author is suggesting how to live in this difficult world in a reasonable way, how to make the best out of life. He says that the Assembler is offering us a "guidebook to living without permanence, surety, and security while still finding joy in living."
He sees this lesson by making many radical changes in his translation of the Hebrew text. For instance, the biblical version in the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation ends in 12:13 and 14:
The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God and keep his commandments; for this is the whole of man. For God shall bring every work into the judgment concerning every hidden thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil.
Scholars say that this ending, stressing the observance of the commandments and threatening punishment if the commands are disobeyed, was added to the book by a later editor to counter the radical and pessimistic and frequently hedonistic content of the volume, which seems to say in the original Hebrew that life is meaningless. The ending emphasizes instead the existence of God and the obligation to obey his laws. However, Shapiro ignores the call to obey the divine commandments and paraphrases the original to teach that what is "good" is living a life with moderation and not pursuing power, fame, wealth, and permanence; for people need to realize that nothing lasts. Ecclesiastes, he writes, is not about God or life after death or the observance of God's decrees; it teaches people how to live well in a changing, unfair world "with dignity, meaning, love and joy." His version focuses on the laws of nature, which he calls "reality," not God:
After all has been heard, the end of the matter is this: Regarding reality – wonder! Regarding right living – diligence! This is true for everyone, for reality responds to every deed, hidden and known, good or bad, and yields its judgment.
Shapiro sees this understanding of Ecclesiastes' philosophy of life in 2:24. The JPS translation appears to recommend a hedonistic view of life and speaks of God. Shapiro changes the recommendation to one of moderation and focuses again of nature rather than God. JPS reads:
There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy pleasure for his labour. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God.
So what isn't absurd? To eat simply, and drink moderately, and do work that satisfies the soul. This is what reality offers us.
In short, Shapiro proposes sound advice in his rendition of Ecclesiastes, to disregard the turmoil of life and enjoy what can be enjoyed in moderation. But some readers might contend that Ecclesiastes does not say what Shapiro thinks he says.