Ecclesiastes: Annotated and Explained
Rami Shapiro, Skylight Paths
Ecclesiastes is not the most widely read book in the Bible — possibly because it’s not all that easy to understand — yet most of us are familiar with the quote, “Vanity of vanities … all is vanity.”
Rabbi Rami Shapiro offers his own translation from the Hebrew to better grapple with the intention of the author, whom he believes was not Solomon but Koheleth, an early Hebrew sage.
The Hebrew “HaElohim” (literally “the Gods”) he terms “absolute reality” — an “impersonal force” that “shapes the relative world you and I experience every day”, in which bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people.
The word “vanity” in the King James translation, Shapiro points out, is from the Hebrew “hevel”, which literally means “breath” or “vapour”, which is transient — “used to imply impermanence and the continuing emptying of one moment into the next”.
While he prefers the word “emptying”, in his notes on each verse, he goes back to using “hevel”, which seems to suggest he is not completely satisfied we are able to capture the full meaning of the Hebrew word in the process of translation into English.
This concept is critical in understanding the meaning of the text, which is about the indisputable fact that the world and everything in it is always passing away.
Good and bad, success and failure, wealth and poverty happen to whom they happen. Avoid the needless drama of fate, karma, divine favour or retribution.
“Then when all hope has been ripped from you, he (Koheleth) offers a living response to the reality of impermanence,” in a plan for living well. Eat simply, drink moderately, find work that gives you meaning and purpose, and cultivate a few loving friendships.