Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) and the Festival of Succot
By Nachum Mohl
The Book of Ecclesiastes, known in Hebrew as Kohelet, is traditionally read during the festival of Succot. Kohelet is ascribed to King Solomon, who was known as the wisest of men. King Solomon was also the author of the Song of Songs (Hebrew: Shir HaShirim) which he wrote in his youth and Proberbs (Hebrew: Mishle) whereas Kohelet was written in his old age. Shir HaSirim is a love story, like the love of youth so is the love of God and the Jewish people. Mishle is about living a wise and prudent life. In Kohelet, King Solomon reviews the various aspects of life and its values; it joys and sorrows, its pleasures and achievements and after a lengthy review of the positive and negative aspects that abound in the pursuit of various goals in life, King Solomon exclaims numerous times “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (perhaps better translated as “futility of futility, all is futile”).
What is the connection between Kohelet and the festival of Succot that this particular time is chosen to read Kohelet? Succot is such a happy festival and Kohelet is such a somber book, why should we read it then? Wouldn't Yom Kippur be a more appropriate time to read it?
There is a famous Medrash, (teaching from the times of the Mishna), that speaks about King Solomon and his renowned wisdom. When King Solomon became king of Israel and succeeded his father, King David, G-d came to him and told him that He would grant him one request. King Solomon asked for wisdom. The Medrash compares this to a king who had a servant that he liked very much. One day he told the servant that he would grant him one request. The servant thought if I ask for money, the king will surely grant it. If I ask for honor or position, that he will also grant. I will ask the king for the hand of his daughter the princess in marriage if he grants that request I will also be assured money, position and honor. Similarly, King Solomon requested the 'daughter' of G-d, he requested wisdom for if he were to be wise, he would be assured of money, position and honor.
Kohelet was the final of King Solomon's writings. In it he looks at the various aspects of life and evaluates them. What is everything is life worth? Is honor and prestige the purpose of man; is amassing wealth or indulging in enjoyment and pleasures. In the end, he sees that everything is of limited value and the striving after the various worldly things do not bring lasting happiness, only the mitzvot that G-d gave to man have 'lasting' value.
On Succot, we leave our comfortable homes with our nice decorations and move into a temporary dwelling. We live for seven days (eight days in the Diaspora) in the Succa. We eat, drink, sleep and entertain our friends there. We are happy there and we especially enjoy this festival more than the others. It is not the Succa that makes us happy; if it were the Succah that made people happy then more people would live in Succas and not only during the festival of Succot. It is the fact that we are fulfilling the commandment of G-d to dwell in the Succa that makes us happy.
So it is with life, it is not the money that gives us a lasting happiness; money gives convenience not happiness. It is not the material processions that will give man happiness, they can provide comfort and shelter. True happiness comes from living a life according to the desires of G-d as the Torah tells us; living the way that He intended us to live. A man who possess wisdom will succeed in life; he will strike a balance between the material and the spiritual using his money and resources wisely; maintaining proper and fruitful relations with all. A fool on the other hand will live life foolishly; wasting money on stupidity, ruining relationships and in the end will not have the enjoyment of life that a wise man has.
This world is not the only life. We live in this world and in doing G-d's holy mitzvot we can acquire merit that will give us admittance and pleasure in the next world, for only in the next world is the true reward for man's deeds. To achieve this end, a man also needs wisdom. He needs to know that mitzvoth are important and how to do them.
King Solomon concludes:
“The end conclusion is when all is heard, fear G-d and observe His mitzvot because that is the purpose of man. All the deeds of man G-d will bring to a hearing, even that which is hidden, good or bad.”
The message of Kohelet is an important message. It is a book that needs to be not just read, but studied. Each year we re-read it and understand the wisdom that is given in it. Each year as we read it we become wiser and are able to make better decisions and judgments on how to live our lives.
The more we study, the more wisdom we acquire - but it is necessary to know what to study and that should be obvious to you, it is the Torah. The fool reads the newspapers and believes them with out questioning them; he will be doomed to a tragic life. Only he who seeks out wisdom will be happy not only in this world, but also in the next.
from the September 2010 High Holyday Edition of the Jewish Magazine