Do you celebrate this year’s harvest, and pray for the right weather to do it again next year—or does the endless cycle of seasons make you tired? Do you rejoice over the good things in life, even though they do not last—or do you despair because nothing lasts?
Both of these approaches, the practical and the existential, are part of the week of Sukkot, called zeman simchateynu, the “time of our rejoicing”. This year, Sukkot will end at sunset on Sunday, October 16.
Sukkot was originally a celebration of the harvest of autumn fruits (grapes, figs, pomegranates, and olives), then became one of the three annual pilgrimage-festivals at the temple in Jerusalem. After the fall of the second temple in 70 C.E., the festival moved into people’s yards or streets, where they built fragile temporary shelters called sukkot (סוּכּוֹת) = huts, booths, temporary shelters (singular: sukkah). Traditionally, Jews spend part of each day of Sukkot inside their sukkot, conducting rituals to pray for enough rain for the coming year, and eating festive meals (unless it is already raining).1
The biblical reading for Sukkot is the book of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet. This book views all life as fragile and temporary, like a sukkah. But instead of celebrating that we are alive to see another season, Ecclesiastes questions whether our brief lives have any meaning.
In the well-known King James translation, Ecclesiastes begins: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”
The word “vanity” in this 17th-century translation refers to doing something in vain, i.e. with no resulting change. In the original Hebrew, the word is haveil.
The words of Kohelet2, a son of David, king in Jerusalem:
Haveil havalim, said Kohelet.
Haveil havalim! Everything is havel. (Kohelet 1:1-2)
haveil (הֲבֵל), havel (הָבֶל), or hevel (הֶבֶל) = (noun) puff of air, vapor; (adjective) impermanent, fleeting, futile, absurd.
havalim (הֲבָלִים) =plural of haveil. (In biblical Hebrew a singular noun followed by the same noun in the plural can be translated as “~ of ~s” (as in “holy of holies”, “king of kings”). This construction means “most ~”, “highest ~”, or “utterly ~”. Thus haveil havalim = utterly transitory, utterly futile, utterly absurd.)
Kohelet considers both gaining wisdom and gaining wealth. Both of these efforts yield temporary satisfaction. But he dismisses them as hevel because they cannot last.
Kohelet values wisdom as a tool in the search for the purpose of life. Yet he considers wisdom hevel because disappears over time.
And I said to myself: “The fate of the fool is also mine; then why have I been wise?” That was when I spoke in my heart and concluded that this too was havel. Because the wise man along with the fool is not remembered forever; as the days continue to pass, all of them are forgotten. Alas, the wise man dies along with the fool! (Ecclesiastes 2:15-16)
The wise man dies and his wisdom is forgotten. Presumably, after enough millennia have passed, the wisdom book of Ecclesiastes will also be lost!
Since many people value wealth, Kohelet builds a large estate with gardens, slaves, treasures, and singers.
And I did not neglect anything that my eyes asked for, I did not restrain my heart in any enjoyment. Rather, my heart rejoiced in all the fruits of my labor—and that was the only thing I got out of all my labor. (Ecclesiastes 2:10)
The pleasure of creating and maintaining a luxurious estate is not enough to give life meaning. Kohelet adds that passing on your wealth to your heirs is useless, since sooner or later the inheritance will be controlled by a fool who does not care about what you achieved.3 Furthermore, no matter how much luxury you accumulate, you can’t take it with you.
As one goes out from his mother’s womb naked, he will return … He cannot carry the fruits of his labor in his hand. (Ecclesiastes 5:14)
Wisdom and wealth are not the only things that people believe are worthwhile. Some people today say life is about doing good and giving to others; but Kohelet barely touches on that subject. Others find meaning in scientific discovery, invention, artistic creation, promoting new social structures, or increasing knowledge; but Kohelet is not impressed.
What profit is there for the human
In all his labor
That he labors under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 1:3)
He describes how the cycles of nature never change, then claims that human endeavors are also repetitious.
What will happen
Has happened before
And what is done
Has been done before.
And there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
There may be something of which it is said: “Look, this one is new!” But it occurred long ago, it happened before our time. There is no memory of the first ones, and also, like them, the later ones will not be remembered … (Ecclesiastes 1:10-11)
Thus Kohelet presents two reasons why human inventions are hevel. Even a human invention, discovery, or work of art only repeats what someone else created earlier; there is nothing new under the sun. And eventually people forget the so-called innovation—until someone else rediscovers it.
I have observed all the deeds done under the sun, and hey!—everything is hevel and herding the wind! (Ecclesiastes 1:14)
So much for devoting one’s life to discovering, inventing, or creating. So much for trying to improve the world through new science or new ways of government.
In a few billion years our whole solar system will die. But in the meantime, our earth has radically changed during the last two millennia. Thanks to human innovations, billions of people live longer and healthier lives, enjoy luxuries Kohelet could not have dreamed of, and acquire knowledge he would have envied.
Humans innovations have also resulted in so much pollution that the climate around the world is permanently disrupted, with grave results for all living things.
We can still celebrate our harvests and pray for the right amount of rain. We can still enjoy eating and drinking and spending our short lives with someone we love, as Kohelet suggests.4 But perhaps we can also recognize that there are new things under the sun—and our lives can be meaningful, not hevel, if we dedicate them to making changes for the good.
- A sukkah is modeled after the temporary hut the ancient Israelites erected in their fields during harvest season to provide a shaded place for laborers to take a drink or a meal break, as in the book of Ruth. The roof of a ritual sukkah is made out of vegetation such as reeds or branches, and must have gaps wide enough for rain to come in—and for the people inside to see stars at night.
- The word kohelet (קֹהֶלֶת) = assembler (from the root verb kahal (קהל) = assembly). Jewish tradition attributes the book to King Solomon, who succeeds King David in the first chapter of 1 Kings, but there is no corroborating evidence.
- Ecclesiastes 2:18-21.
- Ecclesiastes 3:22, 5:17, 9:9.