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Questions and Answers on Kohelet (Ecclesiastes)

Questions and Answers on Kohelet (Ecclesiastes)

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נוהגין לומר קהלת בשבת של חול המועד או בשמיני עצרת אם איקלע בשבת (מהרי"ל) — It is customary to read Kohelet on Shabbat of Chol Hamo’eid or Shemini Atzeret if it falls on Shabbat.

(או"ח סי' תרס"ד סעי' ב', שו"ע אדמוה"ז סי' ת"צ סעי' י"ז)

It is not the prevailing Lubavitch custom to read Kohelet.

(המלך במסיבו ח"א ע' רצ"ו)


"דברי קהלת בן דוד מלך בירושלים הבל הבלים אמר קהלת הבל הבלים הכל הבל"
“The words of Kohelet, son of David, King of Jerusalem, futilities of futilities — said Kohelet — futility of futility all is futile.” (1:1-2)

QUESTION: Why does Shlomo state his pedigree and position at the outset of this book?

ANSWER: Generally, people do not like to hear rebuke. When someone talks against striving for riches the listener may retort, “What do you know about money; were you ever wealthy?” Or upon hearing a speech against chasing after glory and prominence the listener will say to the rebuker, “Who are you to speak about glory and prominence, after all you are a very simple person.” If one will talk negatively about wisdom, people may say to him “Undoubtedly you are not a wise person, so you don’t appreciate wisdom.”

Hence, Shlomo prefaced his comments by stating his pedigree and accomplishment, as if to say, “I am the richest person in the world (I Kings 10:21), the scion of a most prominent father and the holder of the most glorious position anyone could wish — Kingship. I have been universally acclaimed as the wisest of all men. After reaching all these heights, I am qualified to tell you that it’s all folly. The only thing of permanent value is the merit for fearing Hashem and performing His mitzvot.”

(עי' מדרש רבה קהלת פ"ג:י"א)


"והאלקים יבקש את נרדף"
G‑d always seeks the pursued.” (3:15)

QUESTION: Instead of yevakeish et nirdaf”“seeks the pursued” shouldn’t it have said ozeir et nirdaf”assists the pursued?

ANSWER: Not always is the one who claims that he is a nirdaf — being pursued — an innocent victim. Often he provoked it. Thus, before Hashem gets involved, he will seek out and conduct research to find out if the person being pursued is really a victim. If he finds it to be so, He will come to his aid.

(ר' יהושע ז"ל מקוטנא)

* * *

Once a chassid complained to the Tzemach Tzedek (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe) “Everyone in the shul is stepping on me.” The Tzemach Tzedek wisely told him, “if you wouldn’t spread yourself out over the entire shul, no one would step on you.”


"ומותר האדם מן הבהמה אין כי הכל הבל"
“The pre-eminence of man over beast is naught, for all is vanity.” (3:19)

QUESTION: Instead of saying the “pre-eminence of man over beast is ayin — naught” — he should have said “man is not pre-eminent over beast.”

ANSWER: The word ayin may be an acronym for a yiddish nachas (א יִדִיש נחת). King Shlomo is saying that the only time man has pre-eminence over beast is when ayin — he has yiddish nachas; otherwise all is vanity.

* * *

QUESTION: Why, when we wish a person “nachas” from his children and grandchildren, do we emphasize Yiddishe or chassidishe nachas?

ANSWER: Eisav had a grandchild named “Nachas” (Bereishit 36:13). Therefore, when wishing someone “nachas,” we emphasize that we are not referring, G‑d forbid, to the type of “nachas” Eisav had. We are referring to real “nachas,” the kind which is derived from children and grandchildren who grow up in a Yiddish and chassidish way.

(שמעתי מהרב רפאל ז"ל שטיין)


"ושבח אני את המתים שכבר מתו מן החיים אשר המה חיים עדנה"
“I consider more fortunate the dead who have already died than the living who are still alive.” (4:2)

QUESTION: Which wise man would rather be dead than alive?

ANSWER: It is not uncommon for someone to be asked to eulogize someone whom he never knew. King Shlomo at times was also confronted with this. Therefore he said, “When I have to praise someone who has died whom I did not know, I do it by looking at the living — his children and family who survived him. From the fruit I can derive a good sense of the quality of the tree.

* * *

Alternatively: In such an instance Shlomo would interview the living, i.e., survivors. Based on the way they would speak about the qualities and activities of the deceased, he would have the intuition how to praise and eulogize the deceased.

(ר' מאיר ז"ל שפירא - לובלין)


"טובים השנים מן האחד אשר יש להם שכר טוב בעמלם"
“Two are better than one, for they get a greater return for their labor.” (4:12)

QUESTION: Isn’t this common sense? What is the ‘wisest of men’ alluding to?

ANSWER: The Gemara (Bava Batra 9b) says that for giving charity to the needy, a person merits six blessings. And for saying comforting words in addition, one receives an additional eleven blessings, a total of seventeen.

There are some people who give charity without saying encouraging words to the poor. On the other hand, there are those who verbally comfort the poor, but do not extend any financial assistance. King Shlomo in his wisdom is alluding that “Tovim hashenayim” — “Two” — i.e. doing both — giving and saying comforting words — is better “min ha’echad — than one — i.e. only giving or only saying words of comfort, for there is“sachar tov” — a reward of seventeen berachot (“tov” [טוב] has the numerical value of seventeen) “ba’amalam” — “for laboring both together.”

(בית יעקב, מסלתון, בשם מהר"י ז"ל סוזין)


"טוב אשר לא תדור משתדור ולא תשלם"
“Better that you do not vow at all than you vow and not pay.” (5:4)

QUESTION: The Torah states “When you make a vow to Hashem you shall not be late in paying it” and “If you refrain from vowing you are not committing a sin.” It also states, “You shall observe and carry out what emerges from your lips” (Devarim 23:22-24), so what added wisdom is there in King Shlomo’s statement?

ANSWER: King Shlomo is directing his words to a certain group of people who borrow money and “live it up” with other people’s money. To be able to continue their deception, they publicly make impressive pledges to charitable endeavors so that potential lenders will consider them rich and continue lending them money. Ultimately, they go broke and the lenders who were deceived by their charitable pledges end up not being paid.

To these borrowers King Shlomo says, “Tov asher lo tidor” — “better that you do not vow at all” — do not make pledges and use your charity as a means to deceive people to lend you money. If you don’t have money, it is better that you live modestly and don’t make any vows to charity, “mishetodir” — than making vows in order to stealthily get money from people and ultimately velo teshalem — you will not pay your debts to the kindhearted people who generously gave you loans.

(ברכת חיים בשם טל אורות)


"טוב שם משמן טוב"
“A good name is better than good oil.” (7:1)

QUESTION: What is the comparison between a good name and good oil?

ANSWER: Just as oil rises to the top when it is mixed with other liquids, the true possessor of a good name will always be “on top” — honored and respected by all. Even if an attempt will be made to besmirch him and tarnish his good reputation, ultimately he will be vindicated and like good oil he will rise to the top. The false possessor of a good name, like adulterated oil, will sink down.

The upshot is that respect and reputation that is earned is everlasting. If it is bought or fought for, it will ultimately wane.


"טוב שם משמן טוב"
“A good name is better than good oil.” (7:1)

QUESTION: In what way is a good name better than good oil?

ANSWER: The best of oils, if it is used for kindling purposes, still runs out: when all of it is absorbed by the wick, the fire extinguishes and there is no light left. If it is used for aromatic purposes, e.g. perfume, ultimately its good smell will evaporate. A good name, once acquired, is perpetual. It will be with the person throughout his entire lifetime and even afterwards.

(אלשיך)


"אמרתי אחכמה והיא רחוקה ממנו"
“I thought I would become wise, but it is beyond me.” (7:23)

QUESTION: The Gemara (Yoma 14b) explains that with this Shlomo meant that despite his great wisdom he was unable to explain the phenomenon of the Parah Adumah — red heifer.

What gave Shlomo the idea that he could duplicate Moshe’s achievement and understand the concept of the red heifer?

ANSWER: The first letters of the words "לטמא מעפר שריפת החטאת" — “[they shall take] for the impure person some of the ashes of the burning purification animal” (Bamibdar 19:17) — can be arranged to spell "שלמה" (Shlomo). Since he found an allusion to his name in the portion that discusses the red heifer, he assumed that with proper diligence and assiduous study he could understand its meaning and significance.

(חיד"א - פני דוד)


"ומוצא אני מר ממות את האשה"
“And I have discovered more bitter than death, the woman.” (7:26)

QUESTION: King Shlomo also said matza ishah matza tov” — “one who finds a wife has found goodness” (Proverbs 18:22); How can the two statements be reconciled?

ANSWER: When seeking a wife, some men place an emphasis on extraneous matters such as money and yichus — pedigree — while others put the entire emphasis on the character of the woman herself. The Gemara (Kiddushin 70a) speaks very disparagingly about marrying for money and stresses the undesirable consequences that such marriages produce. Likewise, to put the emphasis onyichus is also not very wise. One should look for a woman who is G‑d fearing and possesses qualities which are the products of her achievement.

In general the word “et” is considered superfluous, and the Gemara (Pesachim 22b) relates that Shimon Ha’imsuni would always analyze the purpose of this word, assuming that it conveyed additional meaning. In King Shlomo’s two diametrically opposite statements regarding women, the word “ishah” appears once with the word “et” and once by itself.

With his profound wisdom King Shlomo is teaching us the following lesson: When “matza ishah” — one found a woman — i.e. one is simply attracted to the woman for her intrinsic qualities, without seeking any extraneous matters, such a marriage is “matza tov” — “a good find” — and will be a pleasant one all the years of the couple. However, “Umotze ani mar mimavet et ha’ishah” — when the man did not choose the woman for her own achievements, but “et ha’ishah” — her extraneous possessions, such as money or pedigree — such a marriage may be more bitter than death.

(פרח לבנון)


"וגם לא לחכמים לחם"
“Nor does bread come to the wise.” (9:11)

QUESTION: Why does Shlomo say “chachamim” — “the wise” — in plural, and not chacham — in singular?

ANSWER: King Shlomo is offering some sound advice to two who are negotiating between themselves.

When trying to consummate a deal, if both sides are stubborn in their ways and each wants to be the chacham and outsmart the other, a deal will never be made. It is imperative that one yield and let the other party think that he was the smart one and that the one who yielded was not so smart.

Thus, lo lachachamim lechem — when each party insists on being the chacham — the deal will never close and both will not have bread from it. If, however, only one is the “chacham” and the other bends and permits himself to seemingly be fooled somewhat — the deal will be made and both of them will have “bread.” This same also applies in husband and wife relations and negotiations.

(פון אונזער אלטען אוצר)


"לב חכם לימינו ולב כסיל לשמאלו"
“A wise man’s heart is to his right, while the heart of a fool is to his left.” (10:2)

QUESTION: How could there be a biological difference between a wise man and a fool as to the position of the heart?

ANSWER: A Rabbi once walked into the Beit Midrash one Shabbat afternoon and noticed some students who were engaged in devarim beteilim — idle talk. The Rabbi went over to their table and said to them, “The word Shabbat (שבת) is an acronym for 'שִׁינָה בשבת תענוג' — ‘Studying [Torah] on Shabbat is a delight.’ It is also an acronym for 'שֵׁנָה בשבת תענוג' — ‘Sleeping on Shabbat is a delight.’ If you are too tired to study Torah, then partake of the other delight and you will awake refreshed and in a spirit to study Torah further.”

One of the students replied to the Rabbi, “The word Shabbat is also an acronym for 'שִׂיחָה בשבת תענוג' — ‘Talking (shemu’esen) on Shabbat is a delight.’ ” The Rabbi looked at him with disapproval and said, “King Shlomo says, ‘A wise man’s heart is to his right, while a fool’s is to his left’ (Ecclesiastes 10:2). Since this cannot be taken so literally, I always wondered what he meant by this. Your remark makes me realize that he meant the following: When the wise man sees the shin in the word ‘Shabbat,’ he places the dot above it on the right side and thus reads the acronym to indicate either that learning (שִׁינה) on Shabbat or sleeping (שֵׁנה) on Shabbat is a delight. However, the fool places the dot on the left side which makes the letter a sin and reads it as sichah (שִׂיחָה) — ‘idle talk.’ ” The students quickly understood the Rabbi’s message and started learning diligently.


"סוף דבר הכל נשמע את האלקים ירא ואת מצותיו שמור"
“Ultimately all is known; fear G‑d and observe His commandments.” (12:13)

QUESTION: Basically Shlomo’s message is that “the bottom line is to fear G‑d and observe His commandments;” aren’t the words “hakol nishma” — “all is heard” — superfluous?

ANSWER: It is the duty of a rabbi, teacher, or parent to guide his congregants, students, and children in the right path. To meet this end, such a person gives many lectures on various Torah matters, and especially issues in which he sees a need for improvement. The worst thing possible is for a rabbi, teacher, or parent to be a hypocrite. The listener loses respect for him and does not accept anything that he says, even when it happens to be correct and sincere.

King Shlomo is advising rabbis, teachers, and parents “Sof davar — the bottom line about your words — is that hakol nishma — everything you say (about Torah and Yiddishkeit) will be listened to, [providing] et ha’Elokim yira ve’et mitzvotav shemoryou, the preacher, practices fear of Hashem and observance of His mitzvot.”

(פניני אבות)

Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky has been a pulpit rabbi for over thirty years, and is author of more than ten highly acclaimed books on the Parshiot and holidays. His Parshah series, Vedibarta Bam, can be purchased here.
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