09. The Book of Kohelet

Many communities read the Book of Kohelet on Sukkot (Sofrim 14:1), as it teaches us how to celebrate truly. This is very important for people to learn, as we are naturally predisposed to find happiness in the trivialities and vanities of this world, thinking that the richer we are, the larger our homes, the fancier our clothes, the finer our food, the more expensive our drinks, the more exotic our gardens, and the more numerous our staff of servants, the happier we will be. In truth, all these things are merely instrumental; they can help us toward the ultimate objective, which is our spiritual stature, faith, and good character. But when material possessions become primary, it makes us forget our inner wellbeing and values, detaches us from the Source of Life, and leaves us hollowed out, empty, and joyless.

The idea of Sukkot is to experience true joy with all the produce that we gathered throughout the year. We achieve this by reinforcing our awareness that everything that we gathered was due to God’s kindness, and that its main purpose is to help us grow stronger in our faith and moral fiber and to give us the means and desire to help others and repair the world. We leave our secure, permanent homes for the temporary sukka, a place of mitzva and sanctity, and thus return to the foundations of the Jewish faith. We learn that our homes and possessions are tools to realize divine ideals.

This idea is expressed in Kohelet, which clarifies for us that wisdom, wealth, beauty, and other worldly virtues are trivial, “hevel.” Only one thing is important: “The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His mitzvot, for this is the entirety of humanity” (Kohelet 12:13). I heard a nice explanation of this from my uncle. “Hevel” means “nothing” or “zero,” while reverence of God is “one” – it is the first among virtues like one is the first number (Shabbat 31b). If reverence of God comes first and it is joined by wisdom, the 1 joined to the 0 makes 10. If wealth, which is also a 0, is added, we reach 100. If beauty, which is also a 0, is added, we reach 1000. And so on. However, if reverence for God does not lead off, then all the other virtues are meaningless, a big fat zero (R. Avraham Remer zt”l).

Kohelet teaches us that joy which is not connected to a mitzva or moral value is unworthy. About this, it is written, “Of merriment [I said], ‘What good is that?’” (Kohelet 2:2). But about the joy of a mitzva, it is written, “I therefore praised enjoyment. For the only good a man can have under the sun is to eat and drink and enjoy himself” (ibid. 8:15). The Sages expound: “The Shekhina does not dwell with someone who is feeling sad, lazy, frivolous, or silly, or who is speaking nonsense. Rather, it dwells with one who is feeling happy on account of a mitzva” (Shabbat 30b).

Some Ashkenazic communities follow the practice of reading Kohelet from a parchment and reciting the berakhot of “al mikra megilla” and She-heḥeyanu beforehand. This is the practice of the students of the Vilna Gaon. Most Ashkenazic communities, however, do not recite berakhot before reading Kohelet, nor are they meticulous about reading it from a parchment (Rema 490:9; MB 490:19; Peninei Halakha: Mo’adim 2:10).

Ashkenazic custom is to read the megilla at Shaḥarit of Shabbat Ḥol Ha-mo’ed, before the Torah reading. Most Sephardic communities do not read Kohelet on Sukkot. Yemenites read part of Kohelet before Minḥa on Shabbat Ḥol Ha-mo’ed, and the rest on the last day of Yom Tov. (See Peninei Halakha: Mo’adim 2:10.)

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Translated By:
Series Editor: Rabbi Elli Fischer

The Laws of Shabbat (1+2) - Yocheved Cohen
The Laws of Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Women’s Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Pesach - Joshua Wertheimer
The Laws of Zemanim - Moshe Lichtman

Editor: Nechama Unterman