Reading Kohelet on Sukkot

  • Harav Yaakov Medan
Translated by David Strauss
 
 
The practice of reading the book of Kohelet in the synagogue on the festival of Sukkot is mentioned in tractate Soferim (14:1) and by the Rishonim,[2] and it is brought by the Rema (Orach Chayim 490:9; 663:2) in the name of the Maharil.[3]
 
Reasons for reading Kohelet on Sukkot
 
            a) Amassing property is not a goal in itself
 
One major reason mentioned by the Posekim for reading Kohelet on Sukkot is the fact that the festival of Sukkot is "the time of our rejoicing," and Kohelet asks: "And of happiness: What does it accomplish?" (Kohelet 2:3).[4] This implies that despite the fact that the festival of Sukkot is a time of rejoicing, one must avoid boundless rejoicing. Mentioning the verse in Kohelet is intended to limit the joy of the festival.
 
The Posekim do not explain what is so bad about the joy entailed in the mitzva of celebrating the festival and why it must be constrained. It is possible that they were concerned about rejoicing that is accompanied by frivolity.
 
Alternatively, one could argue that the joy of the festival of Sukkot is not only the joy of the mitzva, but also the joy of the gathering festival, during which time a person sees the crops that he has gathered in and the property that he has amassed. This joy poses danger, and there is thus significant reason to warn against unrestrained and mindless breaches. The Torah itself expresses such concern:
 
And when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied; then your heart will be lifted up and you will forget the Lord your God. (Devarim 8:13-14)
 
There are additional reasons to be concerned about the smugness resulting from the amassing of property, and Kohelet deals with them as well:
 
I made me great works; I built me houses; I planted me vineyards; I made me gardens and parks, and I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruit; I made me pools of water to water therefrom the wood springing up with trees; I acquired men-servants and maid-servants and had servants born in my house; also I had great possessions of herds and flocks, above all that were before me in Jerusalem; I gathered me also silver and gold and treasure such as kings and the provinces have as their own; I got me men-singers and women-singers, and the delights of the sons of men, women very many. So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom stood me in stead. And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them; I withheld not my heart from any joy, for my heart had joy of all my labor; and this was my portion from all my labor. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought and on the labor that I had labored to do; and, behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was no profit under the sun. (Kohelet 2:4-11)
 
And I hated all my labor wherein I labored under the sun, seeing that I must leave it unto the man that shall be after me. (ibid. 2:18)
 
Here is one that is alone, and he has not a second; yea, he has neither son nor brother; yet is there no end of all his labor, neither is his eye satisfied with riches. For whom then do I labor, and bereave my soul of pleasure? This also is vanity, yea, it is a grievous business. (ibid. 4:8) 
 
Here is a grievous evil which I have seen under the sun – namely, riches kept by the owner thereof to his hurt. (ibid. 5:12)
 
And this also is a grievous evil, that in all points as he came, so shall he go; and what profit has he that he labors for the wind? (ibid. 5:15) 
 
A man to whom God gives riches, wealth, and honor, so that he wants nothing for his soul of all that he desires, yet God gives him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eats it; this is vanity, and it is an evil disease. (ibid. 6:2)
 
Kohelet argues over and over again that amassing wealth is not a worthy objective. It does not lead to true happiness, and a more worthy objective should be sought. Similarly, leaving one's permanent home for a sukka, a temporary dwelling, expresses this idea of abhorring property, or at least reducing its weight in the order of one's priorities.
 
            b) The book of faith
 
Another reason for reading Kohelet on Sukkot is brought by the Rishonim:
 
The entire congregation reads the book of Kohelet in a seated position, to divide a portion into seven, even to eight.[5]
 
This is based on a midrashic interpretation of a verse in Kohelet:
 
Divide a portion into seven, yea, even into eight; for you know not what evil shall be upon the earth. (Kohelet 11:2)
 
R. Levi says: "Divide a portion into seven" – these are the seven days of the sukka; "yea, even into eight" – on the day of Shemini Atzeret. (Kohelet Rabba 11)
 
The idea that the practice of reading the entire book of Kohelet is based on one opinion in a midrash regarding an isolated verse is difficult to understand. We can better understand this by considering that the message of this verse seems to be the very opposite of the previous verses that we discussed. Let us examine the context of the verse in question:
 
Cast your bread upon the waters, for you shall find it after many days. Divide a portion into seven, yea, even into eight; for you know not what evil shall be upon the earth. If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth; and if a tree fall in the south or in the north, in the place where the tree falls, there shall it be. He that observes the wind shall not sow; and he that regards the clouds shall not reap. As you know not what is the way of the wind, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child, even so you know not the work of God who does all things. In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening withhold not your hand; for you know not which shall prosper, whether this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good. (Kohelet 11:1-6)
 
This chapter does not project the self-confidence that the harvest festival bestows, but rather a lack of confidence, the sense of dependence on God's mercy.
 
This feeling is reflected in the hope for deliverance projected in the "Hoshana" prayer recited on Sukkot. The Ashkenazi Hoshana piyyutim deal with many issues, the main one being the hope for rain that God will bring down in His mercy. This lack of confidence is further reflected in the willow among the four species and in "the seventh day of the willow" (Sukka 4:3), Hoshana Rabba. The petitioner does not identify with the expensive and elegant etrog, but with the arava, the willow, which as soon as it is detached from the source of its vitality in the water immediately begins to dry up and wither. The members of the congregation lift up their eyes to heaven and plead: "We thirst for Your salvation like a tired land without water."[6]
 
This is further the reason for the water libation service on Sukkot. The water that is drawn from the spring on Sukkot is the murkiest water of the year. It is drawn from the bed of the spring after a sultry summer, during which time the sky and the earth did not replenish the sources of the spring's water; water was drawn from it and the reserves dwindled. Nevertheless, this murky, leftover water is most precious. It is offered on the altar at a time of thirst and dryness, at the end of the summer, from the depleted pools of water. In many instances, the choice gift to God is the first fruit. In the case of water, the best gift is precisely from the last. We find this at the assembly at Mount Carmel, in the third year of the drought, when Eliyahu asks the people to offer on the altar the most precious gift of all:
 
And he said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt-offering, and on the wood.” And he said, “Do it the second time,” and they did it the second time. And he said, “Do it the third time,” and they did it the third time. And the water ran round about the altar, and he filled the trench also with water. (I Melakhim 18:34-35)
 
The same is true at the time of the water libation. By virtue of this precious water, God blesses the rain of the new year, our fields and our springs.
 
It is precisely now, at a time of insecurity regarding the future and in hope for salvation, that Kohelet seeks to instill confidence and faith in the heart of the desperate and doubting reader:
 
Cast your bread upon the waters, for you shall find it after many days. 
 
In other words, take the seeds of your grain ("cast your bread"), sow them in the ground, and await the rain that that will revive them ("upon the waters"). Put differently, despite the dryness, do not despair of God's mercy and of the rain that will yet fall, for one who believes in God sows.[7]
 
He that observes the wind shall not sow, and he that regards the clouds shall not reap. 
 
Do not wait until you see the wind and the rain. Sow now, for you do not know the way of the wind or the ways of God, and all that is left for you to do is to believe.
 
The time of sowing and the time of faith in the rain that will fall by the mercy of God is in the transitional period between Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, as reflected in the midrash’s interpretation of the verse: "Divide a portion into seven, yea, even into eight passage." Accordingly, reading the book of Kohelet is meant to increase the confidence and faith of the sower in this course of action, and not to diminish the joy of the gatherer, as was understood by the first explanation.
 
            c) The purpose of life despite its circularity
 
We cannot ignore a third way of understanding the connection between the festival of Sukkot and the book of Kohelet, although this approach is not mentioned by the Posekim.
 
Already at the beginning of the book, Kohelet wonders whether our cyclical world has a purpose. It is the nature of cyclicality that living within such a system leads one back to one's starting point. If so, why bother trying to advance forward throughout one's life?
 
What profit has man of all his labor wherein he labors under the sun? One generation passes away and another generation comes; and the earth abides forever. The sun also arises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to his place where he arises. The wind goes toward the south and turns about unto the north; it turns about continually in its circuit, and the wind returns again to its circuits. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place whither the rivers go, thither they go again… That which has been is that which shall be, and that which has been done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing whereof it is said: See, this is new? It has been already, in the ages which were before us. (Kohelet 1:3-10)
 
All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all return to dust. (ibid. 3:20)
 
The sun moves across the sky, but in fact it does not get anywhere. The same is true of the water, the wind, and dust out of which man was created. What, then, is all of man's labor, and what is its purpose?
 
Kohelet's question is difficult all year round, but it is seven-fold more difficult at the end of one year and the beginning of a new year. One can consider this period with optimism and cheerfulness, as did Naomi Shemer in her song about the yearly cycle:
 
The arrival of Elul brought with it the smell of autumn, and we began our song from the top.
 
But it would seem that Kohelet's view of the matter is more profound: If we have returned to the same point in the annual cycle, and once again we are plowing and sowing and once again we will gather in our produce, what is the purpose of our lives?
 
The beginning of the year – the end of the previous agricultural cycle with the harvest and ingathering of the crops and the beginning of the new cycle with the plowing of the land – gives rise to Kohelet's question and compels us to answer it truthfully and find the true purpose that will guide us to advance despite the circularity and cyclicality in our lives.
 
In the transition between the years, between the ingathering and the sowing, one must contemplate the book of Kohelet.
 
Kohelet in the context of the mitzva of Hakhel
 
To the three aforementioned reasons for reading the book of Kohelet on Sukkot, we must add a fourth reason, which will be the main focus of this essay – namely, that the connection between Kohelet and Sukkot passes through the mitzva of Hakhel, the assembly of the entire Jewish People in the Temple courtyard once every seven years on Sukkot to hear the public reading of the book of Devarim.
 
Why is Kohelet called Kohelet? Because his words were said before a great assembly (hakhel), as it is stated (I Melakhim 8:1): "Then Shlomo assembled (yakhel)." (Kohelet Rabba 1:2)[8]
 
The assembly that "Shlomo assembled" took place on the festival of Sukkot and shortly thereafter at the time of the dedication of the Temple, when Shlomo offered his first prayer after the Shekhina rested upon the Temple:
 
And all the men of Israel assembled themselves unto King Shlomo at the festival, in the month of Eitanim, which is the seventh month. (I Melakhim 8:2)
 
However, we do not know from Scripture that this was a Sukkot on which a Hakhel ceremony was celebrated. The Midrash also does not indicate whether this assembly was the usual Hakhel ceremony celebrated on the Sukkot following the Sabbatical year or whether the king (and the Sanhedrin of his generation) initiated a Hakhel ceremony on the Sukkot that coincided with the dedication of the Temple, owing to the importance of the event.[9]
 
The essence of the Hakhel ceremony is the renewal of the covenant between God and the people of Israel, the covenant that was originally made at Mount Sinai and then renewed in the plains of Moav and which should be renewed at least once every seven years. Its main content is reading the book of the covenant, the section of the blessings and the curses, and, like at the assembly at Mount Sinai, the reward for keeping the covenant and the punishment for breaking it. According to the mishna (Sota 7:8), they would read the book of the covenant in Devarim, the section of the blessings and the curses that were part of the covenant entered into in the plains of Moav, and additional sections.
 
However, the section of the blessings and the curses in the book of Devarim has an addendum:
 
Lest there should be among you man or woman or family or tribe whose heart turns away this day from the Lord our God, to go to serve the gods of those nations; lest there should be among you a root that bears gall and wormwood; and it come to pass, when he hears the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying, “I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.” (Devarim 29:17-18)
 
The covenant was made with the entire nation. The observance and desecration of the covenant, and the reward and the punishment for so doing, fall upon the heads of the entire people. Nevertheless, the Torah finds it necessary to relate also to the individual who decides on his own to withdraw from the covenant, and because the punishment for desecrating the covenant depends on the nation as a whole, he is sure that if he breaks it by himself, he will not suffer any punishment.
 
It is not entirely clear what punishment is meted out to the individual sinner in the aforementioned addendum, for the Torah goes back to discuss the collective punishment that will be carried out against the land and against the entire people: "Like the overthrow of Sedom and Amora, Adma and Tzevoyim, which the Lord overthrew in His anger, and in His wrath" (ibid. 29:22).
 
            A) Reward and Punishment
 
It is possible that the book of Kohelet is intended to fill in what is missing in the covenant of the blessings and the curses in the Torah – the punishment that is to be meted out to the individual who violates the covenant.
 
The punishment for the entire nation is carried out in the contexts in which the nation exists as a collective entity. The punishment includes drought and a curse upon the land, war and the curse of defeat and the rule of the enemy, plague, disease, and a decline of Israel's prestige among the nations, and primarily the removal of the Shekhina from Israel's midst. On the natural plane, such punishment does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked. Hunger and drought, war and defeat are the lot of all:
 
And say to the land of Israel: Thus says the Lord: Behold, I am against you, and will draw forth My sword out of its sheath and will cut off from you the righteous and the wicked. (Yechezkel 21:8)
 
The individual receives his reward and punishment primarily in the World-to-Come, where "every righteous man is given a habitation as befits his honor" (Shabbat 152a).[10] But this reward and punishment was not fully spelled out in the Torah, which deals primarily with the covenant made with the people as a whole.
 
Kohelet is the only one who spells out the judgment, the reward and the punishment that await the individual after his death. His words fill in what is missing in the book of the covenant in the Torah. We thus understand why Kohelet must be taught to the people at the Hakhel ceremony, which addresses the people's commitment to keep the Torah:
 
I said in my heart: The righteous and the wicked God will judge; for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work. (Kohelet 3:17)[11]
 
Who knows the spirit of man whether it goes upward? (ibid. 3:21)
 
These verses seem to hint at God's judgment when a person's spirit will go upward to "there."
 
Later in the book Kohelet will explicitly say that a person does not determine the day of his death and that on the day on which he is sentenced to die, his spirit will leave him and he will not be able to hold onto it within him. Just as man wields no power over the day of his death or the length of his life, so he must understand that he will not escape in his wickedness from God's judgment on the Day of Judgment after his death, in the World-to-Come:
 
There is no man who has power over the wind to retain the wind; neither has he power over the day of death; and there is no discharge in war; neither shall wickedness deliver him that is given to it. (Kohelet 8:8) 
 
Kohelet concludes his book with a harsh account of old age before the evil days come and with the need to remember the Creator and His commandments before the arrival of the Day of Judgment, which will follow the return of the spirit to God who gave it:
 
Remember then your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come, and the years draw nigh, when you shall say: I have no pleasure in them. (ibid. 12:1)
 
And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns unto God who gave it. (ibid. 12:7)
 
He ends his book with the conclusion:
 
The end of the matter, all having been heard: Fear God, and keep His commandments, for this is the whole manFor God shall bring every work into the judgment concerning every hidden thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil. (ibid. 12:13-14)
 
            Kohelet refers here to the day after death, as is evident from the parallel verse:
 
It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting; for that is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to his heart. (ibid. 7:2) [12]
 
            B) Kohelet and the Temple
 
There may also be a substantive connection between the book of Kohelet and the dedication of the Temple, about which it is stated, "Then Shlomo assembled (yakhel)," and when, according to the midrash, he taught the book of Kohelet. This is in addition to the explicit reference to the Temple in Kohelet:
 
Guard your foot when you go to the house of God, and be ready to hearken: it is better than when fools give sacrifices; for they know not that they do evil. (Kohelet 4:17)
 
We find in many contexts that the Temple is a reflection of the World-to-Come – or to be more precise, of the Garden of Eden – because of the Shekhina that constantly rests upon it. We will bring one of many examples from the book of Yechezkel:
 
Son of man, take up a lamentation for the king of Tyre, and say unto him: Thus says the Lord God: You seal most accurate, full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty, you were in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering, the carnelian, the topaz, and the emerald, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the carbuncle, and the smaragd, and gold; the workmanship of your settings and of your sockets was in you, in the day that you were created they were prepared. You were the far-covering cherub; and I set you, so that you were upon the holy mountain of God; you have walked up and down in the midst of stones of fire. You were perfect in your ways from the day that you were created, till unrighteousness was found in you. By the multitude of your traffic they filled the midst of you with violence, and you have sinned; therefore have I cast you as profane out of the mountain of God; and I have destroyed you, O covering cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire. (Yechezkel 28:12-16)
 
On the one hand, the king of Tyre is described as a perfect person in the Garden of Eden (like Adam before he was diminished in the wake of his sin); on the other hand, he is described as on the holy mountain of God. The cherubs that are described in the prophecy were found in the Garden of Eden (Bereishit 3:24) and also in the Mishkan upon the ark-cover (Shemot 25:20). The precious stones of the Garden of Eden in the prophecy are the stones on the breastplate in the Temple (Shemot 28:17-20); so too, the corresponding stones of the efod (ibid. v. 8) were found also in the Garden of Eden (Bereishit 2:12).
 
The day of judgment after death described in Kohelet has a parallel in the Temple. The prophet describes the Temple as a place of judgment between the nations:
 
And many peoples shall go and say: Come you, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Yaakov; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths. For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge between the nations and shall decide for many peoples. (Yeshayahu 2:3-4)
 
But Shlomo describes the Temple as a place of judgment for the individual as well:
 
That Your eyes may be open toward this house night and day, even toward the place whereof You have said: My name shall be there; to hearken unto the prayer which Your servant shall pray toward this place… If a man sin against his neighbor, and an oath be exacted of him to cause him to swear, and he come and swear before Your altar in this house; then hear You in heaven, and do, and judge Your servants, condemning the wicked, to bring his way upon his own head; and justifying the righteous, to give him according to his righteousness. (I Melakhim 8:29-32)
 
At the time of the dedication of the Temple, at the Hakhel assembly dealing with judgment, reward, and punishment of the nation as a whole for keeping the covenant with God or desecrating it, in the Temple, which is the place of God's judgment (together with pardon and atonement) of the individual sinner, Shlomo teaches the people about the place of the judgment of the individual after death, in the World-to-Come, in the place "where the spirit returns unto God who gave it" and there "wickedness shall not deliver him that is given to it."   
 
Sukkot: The festival that concludes the days of Judgment
 
The day of judgment of the person standing before God – which is, as noted, the conclusion of the book of Kohelet – also connects to the festival of Sukkot, when we read the book of Kohelet. In addition to being one of the three pilgrimage festivals, Sukkot is also the third of the festivals of the seventh month, following Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – the festivals of the month of trial and judgment. From this perspective, the sukka is not the simple sukka of the sojourner in the wilderness, which is meant to replace for seven days the overflowing house of the one who has just gathered in his crops. Here, the sukka is fashioned from the clouds of glory, as is stated about the sukka in Yeshayahu:
 
And the Lord will create over the whole habitation of mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud and smoke by day and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory shall be a canopy. And there shall be a pavilion (sukka) for a shadow in the day-time from the heat, and for a refuge and for a covert from storm and from rain. (Yeshayahu 4:5-6)[13]
 
The sukka made from the clouds of glory continues the process that began on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to atone for the people of Israel before the cloud of the incense, which was meant to represent the cloud in which God appeared to Moshe when he revealed to him the Thirteen Attributes of Divine mercy:
 
And the Lord said unto Moshe: Speak unto Aharon your brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the ark-cover which is upon the ark, that he die not; for I appear in the cloud upon the ark-cover. (Vayikra 16:2) 
 
And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the ark-cover that is upon the testimony, that he die not. (ibid. 16:13) 
 
And he shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleannesses of the children of Israel and because of their transgressions, even all their sins; and so shall he do for the tent of meeting, that dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. (ibid. 16:16)
 
As mentioned above, a similar sight was seen also on the Yom Kippur of the first year of Israel's exodus from Egypt, at the end of the third series of forty days, when atonement was achieved for the sin of the Golden Calf and when the Thirteen Attributes of Divine mercy were uttered:
 
And the Lord descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. And the Lord passed by before him and proclaimed: “The Lord, the Lord, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and upon the children's children unto the third and unto the fourth generation.” (Shemot 34:5-7)
 
On the festival of Sukkot, all the people of Israel entered into the sukka of the clouds of glory that rested upon the people of Israel in the wilderness. Then a covenant was renewed between God and Israel with its blessings ("clearing" [nakeh]) and its curses ("not clearing" [lo yenakeh]).
 
Summary
 
Kohelet is often regarded as an indecipherable book. The books of Ruth and Esther develop a continuous plot; the books of Eikha and Shir Ha-Shirim each focus on a specific subject, mourning over the destruction of the Temple and the relationship between the lover and her beloved. The book of Kohelet jumps from one topic to the next, with no clear order, and its central topic is often vague. As a result, a talented preacher can connect almost any topic to the book of Kohelet, and in our case come up with many different explanations of the possible connection between the book of Kohelet and the festival of Sukkot, in a manner that does not inspire the reader with confidence.
 
We have taken a different course, even though we have offered four different explanations of the connection between Kohelet and Sukkot. We will argue that these four explanations are reflections of a single idea, which is the heart of the connection between Kohelet and Sukkot.
 
Kohelet opens with the circular movement and the problem of cyclicality in the world. The circular movement is harmonious and close to perfection, but precisely for this reason and because a person can predict the next steps in this movement, it leads to a great deal of frustration.[14] A person feels that even though he knows everything, his life leads nowhere; he keeps returning to his starting point. The person faces a similar difficulty every Sukkot, when the year completes its cycle and sets him once again at his point of origin.
 
The distance from here to the sickening sense of satiety, which fills a person and kills within him every aspiration to strive for true perfection, as well as to the question of what, in fact, he will gain from all his toil, is very short. Kohelet finely describes the great wealth that he has accumulated, and with it his lack of satisfaction from it. This is the same feeling that the farmer who is gathering in his harvest on Sukkot is liable to feel at "the time of our rejoicing," bringing us to Kohelet's question: "And of happiness, what does it accomplish?"
 
But the circular feeling of the satiety of one's body and property and the satiety of knowledge is incorrect. The new year is liable to be different from the previous one, and worse than it. Perhaps there will be little rain and perhaps there will be other trouble. The Days of Judgment at the beginning of the year and the unanswered questions of the holy R. Amnon of Mainz – "Who shall live, and who shall die; who shall live out his allotted time, and who shall depart before his time… who shall enjoy well-being, and who shall suffer tribulation; who shall be humbled, and who shall be exalted"[15] – continue to peck away and raise doubts. Kohelet describes unexpected death in bold and dark colors:
 
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all. For man also knows not his time; as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare, even so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falls suddenly upon them. (Kohelet 9:11-12)
 
Indeed, after much soul-searching, Kohelet, along with the reader who is accompanying him, reaches the sense of insecurity of one who will be sowing his field immediately after Sukkot, but does not know whether God will bless it so that it will grow. It is precisely there that Kohelet tries to provide the sower with a sense of security. But this sense of security is not by virtue of his knowing everything. It is precisely by virtue of his lack of knowledge that a force emerges that is stronger than knowledge – the power of faith in God, the life of all worlds, in His lovingkindness and in His mercy.
 
Faith places man's knowledge and intellect in a seemingly insignificant position.[16] Nevertheless, knowledge is an important force in man's spirit:
 
Cast your bread upon the waters, for you shall find it after many days. Divide a portion into seven, yea, even into eight; for you know not what evil shall be upon the earth. If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth; and if a tree fall in the south, or in the north, in the place where the tree falls, there shall it be. He that observes the wind shall not sow; and he that regards the clouds shall not reap. As you know not what is the way of the wind, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child; even so you know not the work of God who does all things. In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening withhold not your hand; for you know not which shall prosper, whether this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good. And the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun. For if a man live many years, let him rejoice in them all, and remember the days of darkness, for they shall be many. All that comes is vanity. Rejoice, O young man, in your youth; and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth, and walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes; but know you, that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. (Kohelet 11:1-9)
 
Four times Kohelet emphasizes the lack of knowledge, knowledge emanating from the endless circular movement that never changes. The author's arrogance at the beginning of the book has disappeared with his growing lack of knowledge. Knowledge remains in only one area: the absolute certainty that the day will come when each and every person will stand trial before his Creator and have to give Him a reckoning for all his actions and failures, after which he will receive his reward or pay the price. The person's judgment is connected to the book of the covenant, which is read on the festival of Sukkot after the Sabbatical year.
 
Kohelet and the New Year
 
This is the depth of the paradox in Kohelet's argument, which is destined to accompany each person during the festival of Sukkot and afterwards, from the time that the new year began. One who has forgotten the wandering in the wilderness and has had the good fortune of acquiring a house, a field, and a vineyard may be inclined to think that his affairs in this world are fixed and orderly and that the year that is starting anew is nothing but a fixed and routine conclusion of a cycle and its renewal in a way known from the outset. If he can imagine a world that is obscure, hidden, and riddled with the unknown, that is the World-to-Come, the world of judgment, for no one has ever seen what happens there, and whoever has seen it is no longer capable of testifying about it before us.
 
At the end of the days of judgment of the month of Tishrei, Kohelet confronts us with the uncertainty and the hidden in our routine lives in this world, despite the apparent permanence of our homes and property. He shows us that the one certainty that we have in the world is that of the Day of Judgment in the World-to-Come and that God will judge us for everything.
 
The four explanations come together to form a single tapestry consisting of the book of Kohelet and the festival of Sukkot, which concludes the days of judgment, opens the new year, and brings us to our storehouses that are filled with produce and to our fears on the eve of our prayer for rain – and of course, to the book of the covenant which is renewed at the end of every Sabbatical cycle.
 
 

[1] This translation is excerpted from Ani Kohelet: Makhelat Kolot bi-Demut Achat by Rav Yoel Bin-Nun and Rav Yaakov Medan (Maggid, 2017).  
[2] See Siddur Rashi, nos. 222 and 307, and in its wake Machzor Vitri, nos. 267, 312, 527 and others. In no. 380, we read that the practice is because of the verse, "Divide a portion into seven" (Kohelet 11:2, and Kohelet Rabba 11, as will be explained below), and simmilarly in Siddur Rashi, no. 222. So too Abudraham, Tefilot Pesach, and many other Posekim.
[3] The Vilna Gaon (490:9:11) writes that a blessing should be recited over the reading of the book of Kohelet. See Mishna Berura 490:19, and Eliya Rabba, who disagree. Already the Rishonim disagree about this blessing, their disagreement apparently depending upon variant readings in tractate Soferim, ad loc. I found a unique and strange opinion in the Hagahot to the Minhagim of R. Isaak of Tirna (Chag Sukkot, no. 1) – that a blessing is not recited over the reading of Kohelet because it was written not by way of the holy spirit, but rather by way of Shelomo's wisdom. This is based on the opinion of Beit Shammai in tractate Yadayim (3:5), which is apparently disputed by Beit Hillel. How is it imagineable today to exclude Kohelet from the Bilical canon or to say that not all of Scripture was written by way of the holy spirit? Perhaps this was written by a disciple who misunderstood his teacher. Hagahot Maimoniyot, Hilkhot Ta'anit 5:2, also implies that a blessing is not recited over the reading of Kohelet.
[4] See Shulchan Arukh 490; Magen Avraham 490:8; and Mishna Berura 490:17.
[5] Siddur Rashi no. 222; and similarly Machzor Vitri, no. 380.
[6] From the piyyut "Lema'an Tamim Be-Dorotov," which is recited on Hoshana Rabba.
[7] See Bamidbar Rabba 13:16; Midrash Tehilim 19:14 (ed. Buber, p. 86a). See also Shabbat 31a.
[8] Similarly in Kohelet Zuta 1. See also Teshuvot Ba'alei Ha-Tosafot (ed. Agus, New York, 1954), p. 286; the beginning of the Ramban's homily on the book of Kohelet (ed. Chavel, Jerusalem, 1964), p. 179; and elsewhere.
[9] We are inclined to accept the second possibility. The author of Seder Olam and Chazal in many places maintain that the fifth year of the exile of Yehoyakhin was the thirtieth year of the Jubilee cycle. According to this calculation, the destruction of the Temple took place during the year after the Sabbatical year (as is stated explicitly in Midrash Tehillim 94:6). According to our calculation (which is contrary to that of all of the commentators), the dedication of the Temple took place 390 years before its destruction, the fourth year of the Sabbatical cycle. According to the calculation of the commentators, the dedication of the Temple took place 403 years before its destruction, which was similarly not the year after the Sabbatical year. Although the calculation of the Seder Olam Rabba is different than ours, it similarly argues that the dedication of the Temple took place in the fourth year of the Sabbatical cycle (beginning of chap. 15, ed. D. B. Rattner, New York, 1966, p. 63).
It is possible that the Hakhel assembly at which Kohelet was transmitted was not the same as the assmbly of the dedication of the Temple. We find in a responsum of one of the Tosafists (see  n. 7 above, appendix 1, sec. 20): "But he wrote Kohelet in his old age, and he only taught Israel when all of Israel would come to see the face of God, when the people and the women and the children would assemble. Therefore, it says, 'King in Jerusalem' (Kohelet 1:1), since he only taught them in Jersualem." This implies that there is no connection between the year of Hakhel during which time Shelomo taught the book of Kohelet and the year of the dedication of the Temple, for Shelomo taught Kohelet in his old age: "R. Chiyya bar Rabba taught: Only in Shelomo's old age did the holy spirit rest upon him and he wrote three books: Mishlei, Kohelet, and Shir Ha-Shirim. R. Yonatan said: He first wrote Shir Ha-Shirim, afterwards Mishlei, and afterwards Kohelet. R. Yonatan derives this from the way of people: When a person is young, he speaks songs; when he matures, he speaks parables; when he grows old, he speaks vanities. R. Yannai the father-in-law of R. Ami, said: All agree that Kohelet was taught last" (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabba 1, 10). Seder Olam Rabba, chap. 15, implies that the holy spirit rested upon Shelomo and he taught all three of these books only shortly before he died.
There are, however, other opinions in the midrash, and it is possible that Shelomo taught the book of Kohelet in his youth. Moreover, according to our calculation, the Temple was dedicated in Shelomo's twenty-fourth year, about sixteen years before he died, and it may be that Chazal viewed that year as in his old age.
In any event, according to our opinion, that the king and the Sanhedrin could conduct a Hakhel ceremony even if it was not the year after the Sabbatical year, this may also explain the assembly in the days of Yoshiyahu (see II Melakhim 23:1-3), that it was a Hakhel assembly (even though this word is not mentioned there), for Yoshiyahu assembled all of the people and entered into a covenant with them regarding the Torah and its mitzvot, which is the objective of the mitzva of Hakhel. A similar assembly took place in the days of Ezra and Nechemya in the seventh month from the first of the month until after Sukkot (see Nechemya 8).
[10] See also Bava Metzia 83b; Bava Batra 75a; and many other places.
[11] "There" means above heaven – in other words, in the World-to-Come – in contrast to what was stated earlier: "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven" (Kohelet 3:1). This I learned from my revered teacher, R. Yoel Bin-Nun.
[12] This, too, I learned from my revered teacher, R. Yoel Bin-Nun.
[13] According to the opinion of R. Eliezer (Sukka 11b), the clouds of glory are the reason for the commandment to dwell in sukkot. According to R. Akiva, our sukkot remind us of Israel's poverty in the wilderness, when they had no homes or inheritance, and they literally lived in sukkot. The festival of Sukkot reflects the continuation of the hardships of the exodus from Egypt before the children of Israel came to their inheritance. According to R. Eliezer, in contrast, our sukkot are intended to elevate us to the level of Israel when the clouds of God's glory rested over them, similar to the High Priest on Yom Kippur.
We believe that there is no historical dispute between the two Tanna’im; they are both right. In the first year after they left Egypt, the festival of Sukkot arrived in the wake of God's pardon for the sin of the Golden Calf and the resting of the attributes of His mercy on the people of Israel, as they were revealed to Moshe in the cloud at Mount Sinai. These were sukkot of the clouds of glory, through which Moshe's request was fulfilled: "For wherein now shall it be known that I have found grace in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not in that You go with us, so that we are distinguished, I and Your people, from all the people that are upon the face of the earth?" (Shemot 33:16). But in the second year, there was the sin of the spies, in the wake of which the Shekhina removed itself from the camp for thirty-eight years, and even prophecy did not rest upon Moshe during those years (see, for example, Rashi, Devarim 2:16-17). It is difficult to assume that the people of Israel lived during those years under the clouds of glory; presumably they lived in literal sukkot. There the Amelekites could attack them and suck their blood, as they did at the time of the sin of the Ma'apilim. (We expanded on this in our article, “Amalek,” in Al Derekh Ha-Avot (ed. A. Bazak, Alon Shevut, 2003), pp. 317-397.) Thus, historically speaking, both Tanna’im are right; they merely disagree regarding what our sukkot are intended to memorialize.
[14] The Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen skillfully deals with this issue in his story about the nightingale of the King of China. In the story, the real nightingale, which every day sings a new song from his heart, competes against an artificial bird made of gold, which is programmed by way of a spring to sing only one song. The advantage for those hearing this bird is that they always know what to expect; they will never be humiliated by surprise.
[15] This section of the words of R. Amnon is apparently taken from a prayer of R. Elazar HaKalir.
[16] This is stated in many of the writings of R. Nachman of Breslov. See for example, teaching 64, sec. 2, s.v. "ve-hineh al yedei emuna" (ed. S. Luria, Arad, 2001, p. 162).