Ecclesiastes Supplemental Material
from Midrash Rabbah

Ecclesiastes Supplemental Material

1. The message of Ecclesiastes is seen in Ecclesiastes 12:13: “The sum of the matter, when all has been considered: Fear God and keep His commandments, for that is man’s whole duty.”

Solomon would recite this book to the people on Succoth. It reflected his philosophical, not religious, demonstration that life without the service of God is empty and meaningless. The book turns to Torah at the end and wraps up with the message stated above as a summary for all.

2. Solomon had names - Agur (one who accumulated Torah) and son of Jakeh (because he disgorged words of Torah). He was like a basin that filled and then emptied in time, so did Solomon learn Torah at one time and forget it.

3. Solomon composed Song of Songs in youth, before he sinned. He required merit of David for later works. This is why he’s introduced at the beginning as son of David.

4. ”Life is a passing shadow.” This refers to a shadow that does not linger at all, as do some shadows. It’s practically no shadow.

We cannot hold back the fleeting time in this world but we can invest them with meaning and purpose, and, thus, those fleeting shadows will leave in their wake eternal moments that will last forever in the world that is entirely long, as it will be in the world to come.

5. Ecclesiastes 1:2. Futilities are likened to seven worlds, phases of life - all, though seemingly consuming in each, ends up futile, until and unless one recognizes this sense of futility. Then one can see beyond to seize the fleeting moments for true life and eternity, for Torah and living as God calls.

Recall the word translated as futility is hebel, which means vapor or breath and, thus, gives off the sense of being unsubstantial, impermanent, meaningless, or evanescent.

 6. Ecclesiastes 1:3. “What profit…” (This is for his personal labor, NOT all labor, say, in Torah.) This is as to labor “BENEATH the sun,” not above the sun, as in spiritual pursuits. Those who are good are blessed with renewal and all that sustains life as the sunlight, and God’s mercy and kindness in the world to come.

7Ecclesiastes 1:17-18. “For with wisdom comes much anger.” The Midrash helps us understand something here that’s hard to understand. It seems to be that it’s when Solomon or sages sin, that provokes greater anger from God. It’s not per se against the value of wisdom, which, of course, is promoted in Proverbs. (Wisdom is better than folly. Ecclesiastes 2:13)

Solomon added to his own wisdom and knowledge, say, about limitations on kings, yet he violated them, thus bringing on himself anger and pain (from God).

This is about abuse of wisdom and knowledge; they can be detrimental, if misused. Wisdom and knowledge alone do not keep one from sinning, but they can be and should be beneficial toward that goal and others. See Jeremiah 9:22.

The same is true of strength and wealth (both of which Solomon had aplenty).

8. Ecclesiastes  2:1-2. The same would be true with joy and pleasure, that is, the joy and pleasure of this world, in contrast to that in the World to Come. This is authoritative, we think, because Solomon was a connoisseur. It isn’t to say that these things are bad in and of themselves and perhaps to a limited extent; rather that when one puts great hopes in “circuses and theaters,” as opposed to that which generates spiritual joy and pleasure, one is off.

The question is: what best “lights up the eyes, gladdens the heart, and restores the soul?”

9. Ecclesiastes 2:14-16. The same fate, though, awaits the wise man and the fool. Both die. Yet, the world remembers the deeds of the wise and not the fool.

In future famines or in circles of scholars, it will likely be of advantage to those who received and benefited from the wisdom of the wise as against those affected by the fool.

10. Ecclesiastes 2:17-20. So, “I hated life” because “everything is futile and a vexation of the spirit,” and I’ll leave my property to others, not knowing whether they will be wise or foolish.

The midrash suggests that try our best to turn those who follow us to righteousness, etc., and we leave for others as others have left for us, principally in the form of things, such as infrastructure in the world that requires long term planning and investment (like fruit trees), but not necessarily just money. (See 2:21, in which the possibility of giving over to the foolish continues to cause vexation.)

11.  Ecclesiastes 2:23. “All his days are painful (or causing pain).” Midrash says this might be about those of the generation of the Flood, or the Sodomites, or the Egyptians, not mankind generally.

12.  Ecclesiastes 3:3, 6, 7, 8. A time to kill, a time to heal; a time to breach, a time to build; a time to seek, a time to lose; a time to mend, a time to rend; a time to love, a time to hate. This relates to wartime and then peacetime.

Ecclesiastes 3:3:5. A time to embrace, a time to distance from embracing. This relates to being with righteous but then with wicked.

13. Ecclesiastes 3:9. “What profit has the worker in what he toils.” This seems to relate to one’s place in the World to Come.

14. Ecclesiastes 3:12-13. There’s nothing better than to rejoice and do good, and eat and drink (Torah and good deeds) and find satisfaction in all his labor – this is a gift of God.

Ecclesiastes 3:14. What God does will endure forever…and God has acted so that they shall fear them. (Could this idea of God’s action enduring forever be referring to the gift described above?)

Ecclesiastes 3:15. A sense of Divine justice and righteousness > God always seeks the persecuted.

Ecclesiastes 3:17. God judges righteous & wicked, though it may not be as it appears re timing, including the World to Come.

15. Ecclesiastes 3:16. BENEATH THE SUN, in place of justice, there is wickedness, and in place of righteousness, there is wickedness. (Note that this is beneath the sun, that is, in the material world on its own, without God’s stamp. OR, it could be when the Babylonians took control, say, of the Sanhedrin, OR any time evil people or usurpers take charge of the instruments of dispensing justice and righteousness.)

16. Ecclesiastes 3:18-19. The fate of man and beast is the same in that both die. And they have the same spirit. There’s no advantage of man over beast. All is futile.

This could mean that both the righteous and the wicked die. Rav Saadiah Gaon (Rashi) says the similarity of spirit refers only to what they share in dying. And there’s no advantage as to bodily fate. Dust to dust.

21. Who knows that the spirit of man ascends on high while that of the beast descends into the earth?

(The plain meaning is that this is a matter open to question. BUT, there is a tradition of specific thought. While it is not known who will ascend (only God does), the beliefs are as follows:

A Baraisa teaches both ascend initially but that the soul of the righteous is stored in a heavenly treasury while that of the wicked is thrust down to earth.

Since the righteous lead a spiritual existence, serving God, their souls retain their heavenly character. Since the desire of the wicked (or a beast, or one who acts like a beast) is geared to the wants of the body and is detached from service of Creator, his soul descends to the place of its desire, to the earth and ultimately to the depths of Gehinnom.

22. Since one is unable to see what will be after him, there is nothing better than to be happy in what he is doing, his heritage.

We don’t know what comes next, as to successors, for example, especially in the world (and perhaps in the next), so we do our best while alive.

17. 4:6. Better one handful of pleasantness than two of toil and vexation.

This focuses on the human weakness to put considerations of honor, approval, and quantity over one’s real, often more limited, best interests.

18. 4:17. Better to guard your foot (be clean, offering respect) when you go to the House of God; better to draw near and hearken (stand in a low place rather than be haughty, concentrating, rather than offering the sacrifices of fools (who do not know the difference between good and evil or the ramifications of vows.

19. Ecclesiastes 5:1. Do not be rash with your mouth; let not your heart be hasty to utter words before God. For God is in heaven; you are on earth. May your words be few.

(God is in the superior position. The righteous ones control their hearts.)

5:3-4. When you make a vow to God, do not delay paying it for He has no liking for fools. Better not to vow than to vow and not pay.

5:5. Let not your mouth bring guilt on your flesh; and don’t tell the messenger that it was an error. Why should God be angered at your speech and destroy the work of your hands?

(This could relate to pledging charity publicly but not actually giving it, claiming Torah scholarship when it’s not so, engaging in l’shon hara.)

5:6. In spite of all dreams, futility, and many things, rather Fear God!

(We can all kinds of feelings about things, including meaninglessness in the world, etc., but all is trumped by the requirement to fear God and to follow in all ways where that fear carries us.

(This fear leads us to hurry to 3 things that have a saving effect (prayer, charity, and repentance).

(THESE VIEWS ARE HARDLY THOSE OF A PERSON WHO HOLDS TO A DIE-HARD SENSE THAT ALL IS FUTILE! We can make a difference. It is to our advantage to try. Actions can help eliminate even a Heavenly evil decree. One sees the impact evidenced in, for example, the change of a person’s name, Abram to Abraham, or all that was done for Rahab.

20. Ecclesiastes 5:7. If you see oppression of the poor and suppression of justice and right, do not be surprised at the fact, for there is One higher than high Who watches and there are high ones above them.

It seems that God acquiesces and is charitable in patience to the wrongdoer and the wrongdoing, but, no, He will avenge when the proper time comes (perhaps in the World to Come). There are those higher than the oppressors (angels) whom God will use to punish them.

21. Ecclesiastes 5:9. Whoever loves money will never be satisfied with money; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with its income. This too is meaningless (vanity).

Some tie this to the previous verse: the increase of the land is for all. That is, clamoring for money when one does not have land is without benefit. Or, having money without food is valueless. Or having Torah without a disciple is not satisfied.

Or a lover of mitzvoth will not be satiated with mitzvoth, unless it is established for future generations.

Getting deeper to the matter, some look to Proverbs 3:13-14: praiseworthy is a person who has found wisdom…for its commerce is better than the commerce of money. This is probably so in that one keeps after wisdom and the doing of it without needing to think one is satiated (though perhaps with some satisfaction, and more, the more one gets/does), whereas one is never satisfied with the compiling of the material.

22. Ecclesiastes 5:14. One comes into the world the way one goes out.

Since there’s nothing of his labor that goes with him, it leads to two possible lines of thought: 1) Either the labor has no value (captured in 5:15), 2) whatever the labor yields, it can’t be carried on after death.

The second goes in two possible positive directions that Kohelet accepts, I believe: there’s value in life in the labor and its fruit (see 5:17-19), and there’s additional value in the spirit in life, that is not captured explicitly in the fruit of the labor (In 5:15, one may profit, but not by toiling for the wind, either by God’s good grace or spiritual attainment).

23. Ecclesiastes 6:6-7. Even if he should live 1000 years twice over, but find no contentment – do not all go to the same place?  All man’s toil is for his mouth, and yet the soul is not satisfied (or…yet the soul is not filled).

Several possible meanings:

1. There is no amount of good we can do to repay God for His kindnesses, even just the breath we have.

2. No amount of good deeds can compensate for having misused one’s power of speech.

3. Departure from this world is harder for a person who lived principally one of indulgence in material things.

A person geared to activities of the soul more lovingly accepts the Divine decree to shed the body and have the soul enter the World to Come. This suggests that a life lived in labor toward only acquiring material things (that fill the mouth) leaves the soul unfilled.

24. Ecclesiastes 6:8. What advantage has the wise man over the fool? What less does the pauper know how to proceed toward the living?

One should go to a person learned in teachings about the World to Come in order to know how to attain eternal life.

As to business, he should learn a craft or find a way to engage in business.

(One gets a sense from the flow of Solomon’s argument that in some ways the wise have no advantage over the fool IF the wisdom is purely as to mastering “things under the sun” that he has previously debunked as vexatious.)

25. Ecclesiastes 6:12. Who can know what is good for man in life, during short span of futile existence, which he should consider as a shadow; who can tell a man what will be after him beneath the sun?

Some say some shadows are substantial. The least of all, Solomon says, is breath of breaths, very insubstantial.

Another idea is that our experience here of fleeting time is reflective of meaning and purpose, leaving in their wake bits of eternal moments that will last forever in the World to Come.

Solomon has another answer in 7:1.

26. Ecclesiastes 7:1. A good name is better than fine oil. The day of death is better than the day of birth.

A good name is forever. A good name is never depleted. A good name is free of charge and can be acquired by poor as well as rich. A good name travels to the end of the earth. A good name can’t be burned up; nor does it disintegrate.

A good name comes with being righteous and saintly, not being popular or necessarily having a good “reputation.”

If the person has led a good life, on his day of death the days until he enters the World to Come are few, and people can rejoice a life well led. On the day of birth, there’s no assuredness the life will be well led. There’s only potential.

Yet, the soul mourns the body where it resided during the doing of mitzvoth, as do others who mourn.

27. (Important to note again in 7:2, 4, where Solomon opines it’s better to go to house of mourning than feasting that value judgments are being made all the time here. Would that be so if all were truly futile? In subsequent verses, we see a series of proverbs-like statements. The same holds here.)

28. Ecclesiastes 7:3. Solomon appears to have taken a lesson from his father’s mistakes in preferring a little anger over laughter. Adonijah should’ve been disciplined. Firmness should be tempered with kindness.

29. These “proverbs” extend to 7:11 and beyond, where wisdom does seem lastingly worthy; it’s good with an inheritance, and a boon to those who see the sun. 

This could mean it’s good with an occupation (financial security) or with the Torah or the Ark or the land of Israel.

7:12 suggests that to sit in the shelter of wisdom is to sit in the shelter of money. It takes money to study Torah. Or wisdom leads to wealth.

30. 7:16. Do not be overly righteous or excessively wise.

Do not try to be more righteous than God, as did Saul in sparing the king of the Amalekites. (But what about Abraham as to Sodom And Gomorrah? Could it be that God wanted the result Abraham advocated?)

Do not be overly (and unwisely) pious or try to be or act wiser than you are.

31. Ecclesiastes 7:19. Wisdom strengthens the wise more than ten rulers who are in the city.

So, whatever else Solomon says about futility, wisdom matters!

32. 8:13-14. Sometimes it appears righteous are treated as if they were wicked, and vice versa. This, too, is vanity.

(Look at traditional explanation, which goes to what we can’t see in God’s plan.)

33. Ecclesiastes 8:15 (and beyond).

A. The discussion begins with the understanding to eat, drink, and be merry.

One understanding is that eating and drinking refer to consuming Torah and doing good deeds in joy.

B. This has its own truth, BUT his thinking goes on to more profound understandings in subsequent verses, that all can’t be understood, however hard one tries (16), including through a perception of God’s work (17), and that all die and suffer (9:2).

(This could be that it’s simply so OR that even the righteous stray and so all are punished OR that since the righteous are held to a higher standard it may appear all are suffering similarly OR that there will be dispensation for the righteous in the World to Come.)

C. The thinking is extended in verse 4 to say that he who is attached to all the living has hope.

(While alive, one can be righteous and/or repent.)

D. We return to eat and drink with joy in 7, but with “for God has already approved your deeds.”

It’s as if our prayer or offering has been accepted or that we’ve made it to the Promised Land.

Solomon is here re-stating his position in a form revised by his progression in thought: IF one is righteous and/or has repented, one should enjoy life, wearing white with one’s head never lacking oil (continuing to be good and standing in spiritual readiness for eventual death), assured of the banquet associated with the World to Come.  (Rashi)

Some see rather that Solomon is describing how the wicked see it: life is arbitrary and one should just make the most of it. Solomon then rebuffs that through his understanding, culminating in verse 11-13.

E. We return again in 9 to choose life with your wife through fleeting days that God has granted you “beneath the sun, all of your futile existence, for that is your compensation in your life and in your toil that you exert beneath the sun.” And, in 10, do it now (whatever you’re able to do with all your might) for you’ll be unable to in the grave.

Some rabbis say wife might connote Torah, or that this life is 1/3 Torah study, 1/3 prayer, and 1/3 work.

We can do good things and study and write and teach of Torah. We can repent. Do it while alive to pave the way for the World to Come, which is beyond the sun, and which is beyond the futility in this life.

F. We now get to 11-13. With wisdom under the sun, he sees that under the sun, the race may not be won by the swift, nor the battle by the strong, nor does bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the learned. Time and death come to all, sometimes suddenly/painfully.

G. Yet, in 14-17, we see a poor wise man (maybe Noah? Maybe Joseph in Egypt? Maybe Moses later? The wise sage in any community? A person’s good inclinations fighting off evil?) who saved a town, though his words were unheeded and he was despised.

YET, his words were heard and made a great difference. (BUT there still are bad people who can ruin a great deal of good.

Midrash suggests real power is spiritual, in a devotion to the Maker in the attribute of kindness. All then depends on will – determination, focus, and dedication since immediate reactions might not be encouraging.

Even the great figures showed physical weaknesses of a variety of sorts and at various times.

H. Wisdom is better than weapons (18).

SO, wisdom matters. Being good matters. BUT, the payoff may not come now, though it will later.

34. Ecclesiastes 10:19. …money answers everything.

(If one spends on charity, he is answered. If one spends on other things (frivolously, for example), it prosecutes one.)

35. Ecclesiastes 11:6-7, 8-9. In the morning sow your seed and do not be idle in the evening, for you cannot know which will succeed – this or that – or if both together will be good. Sweet is the light (of Torah?), and it is good to behold the sun.

(This – once again - hardly suggests that Solomon believes all is futile. Things do matter, and how we act matters, though we aren’t precise as to what causes what.)

8 – BUT remember there will be many days that are dark.

All that comes is futility. Meaning?

(In the grave, it’s too late. All in the material world is ultimately futile. But, our lives matter, and how we live matters. It makes for a better life, and it makes the way for the World to Come.

9 – follow the path of your heart and sight of eyes, but be aware that God will call us to account. (Again, how we live matters.)

What is below the sun is ultimately futility. True meaning can be found in seeking to reach goals that reach above the sun. There is an illusory nature of joy, pleasure, etc. (a point Solomon made earlier).

BUT here he adds to understanding: we are human beings who live below the sun. As to this life, we live as best we can, following wisdom, our needs and desires, and a sense of the right while we live as humans and know we will be held to account.

36. Ecclesiastes 12:7-8 and beyond. The dust returns to the ground, as it was, and the spirit returns to God Who gave it. Futility of futility – all is futile.

This is the essence of the message. Futility is in the part that perishes. Above the sun, is the hope, the goal of what matters – the spirit and its return.

9- 10 - 11 - Kohelet still was wise, imparted knowledge, listened, found, arranged proverbs words, sought words of delight and words of truth recorded properly.

(These words don’t easily fit with one who only sees futility, at least if it’s a broad futility generally applicable.)

(The words of the wise “come from one Shepherd.”)

13 – 14 – Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole of man. God will judge every deed.

There is a place below the sun and above the sun that is not full of futility. It is life with God. 

Ecclesiastes Supplemental Material from Midrash Rabbah

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