A dvar torah given at Or Chadash on Shemini Atzeret, 10 October, 2009.
What has been is what will be, and what was done will be done again, for there is nothing new under the sun.
Though often deeply profound, the words of Kohelet can be depressing.
Some have said that’s precisely why Ecclesiastes is read on Sukkot; to temper its joy, and its famed frivolity the likes of which led to the institution of the mechitza in Second Temple times.
Others connect the book to the theme of transience and fragility we feel in our sukkah, not certain if we’ll be eating dinner with a garnish of rain; how we sit there despite the prefabricated hut convulsing around us, like it did during Thursday’s breakfast. We are vulnerable to the elements, and are forced to understand that the world is turning and life will pass quickly.
A poetic approach might say that the book was written in the autumn of Solomon’s life, and so its connection to sukkot is seasonal; a chassid could suggest a theme of letting the divine shine into the mundane.
I, a lover of words, will note that the common translation of Kohelet as “assembly” is a synonym for one translation of Shemini Atzeret, “the eighth, a day of assembly”. Now, the pedantic could point out that we read it on shabbat of Sukkot, not always Shemini Atzeret; I would point right back and say: that it’s always read on the eighth day by Yemenites, Italians, some Sefaradim and others.
The custom to read Ecclesiastes on this festival was a late one, first evidenced in the 12th century Machzor Vitry. As well as being the last book to join our festival rite, it was apparently the last book to join the Bible. The Mishna in Yadayim makes clear that there was debate regarding whether Kohelet was to be canonised, but Beit Hillel essentially forced the Sanhedrin to include it, against the will of Beit Shammai.
What makes Kohelet so controversial?
The Babylonian Talmud in Shabbat relates that the Sages wanted to destroy Kohelet because of numerous internal contradictions, but did not, for its beginning and its end are words of Torah; which presumably justifies the 11 chapters in between.
The Midrash complains about its heretical advice: “Rejoice in your youth, … and walk in the ways of your heart” is the opposite of the shema‘s “do not turn after your heart and your eyes.” Once people are given free rein to follow their desires, the midrash claims, “לית דין ולית דיין”, there is no law and no lawmaker! But Kohelet completes its passage: “for all these things God will bring justice.” And once again, it is redeemed.
The Tosefta brings the argument of Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia, that Kohelet is the unholy word of man, in contrast with the almost-as-controversial Song of Songs which was divinely inspired (written with רוח הקודש).
But Ecclesiastes isn’t the only thing we read today that has been criticised for its unholy authorship.
We recited the prayer of Geshem by Eleazar ben Kalir, instead of simply declaring: God is the One who makes the wind blow and the rain descend. This piyyut begins by introducing an angel named Af-Bri whose role it is to bring the rain, and whose name is derived from a midrashic reading of a verse in Job.
The Artscroll Siddur cites Rashi for the midrash, which makes little sense as the piyyut‘s traditional attribution precedes Rashi by centuries. For all we know, Eleazar Kalir may have come up with this interpretation himself.
Modern readers of such a piyyut may be worried by the latent polytheism in seeking an angelic intercessor whilst otherwise acclaiming the One God in the opening of the Amida. Medieval Rabbis were concerned just the same. Certainly, it is hard to tell in such poetry: what is authentic doctrine, and what is newly introduced by the poet who, Maimonides exclaims, was often not a scholar?
Piyyut, a cousin of the English word poem, can broadly refer to all Hebrew poem-prayers. They are often given purpose-specific names such as selichot, yotzerot, hosha’not, kinot, zemirot; they count among their ranks such distinguished members as Yigdal, Adon Olam, El Adon, An’im Zemirot, Vechol Ma’aminim, etc.
Piyut is certainly a poetic art-form, though quite different from the proverbs of Kohelet. For example, Solomon’s words: “a name is better than scented oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s birth”. This mini-poem condenses deep meaning into a single line with beautiful chiastic structure and alliteration. Listen to it: טוֹב שֵׁם, מִשֶּׁמֶן טוֹב; וְיוֹם הַמָּוֶת, מִיּוֹם הִוָּלְדוֹ.
Though it retained some of these literary methods, the Kaliric piyut focused more on innovative allusions to text and tradition within witty patterns of rhyme, rhythm and acrostic, a little reminiscent of poetry in the Book of Psalms. In today’s Prayer for Rain, we asked to be blessed in the memory of each of our patriarchs, though none of them are named explicitly. Instead, the poet alludes to water in each of their lives, beginning each line with the next letter of the alphabet, and ending it with “מים”, water. The piyut was a new genre in which to transmit tradition, and a new form for Jewish poetic expression.
Yet this early genre of piyut came under fire, not only for its creation of divine intercessors; its out-dated world-view; and its anthropomorphism of God as is replete in An’im Zemirot, but also because its riddling language was often so obscure as to be unintelligible. Avraham Ibn Ezra was outspoken against Eleazar ben Kalir’s predilection toward rare words – even made-up words – and poor Hebrew grammar, which became the foundational prototype for many later paytanim. Admittedly, I do find Ibn Ezra’s poetry (e.g. Ki Eshmera Shabbat), much much easier to understand.
There are other reasons these poems were controversial; the Babylonian Geonim saw it as a custom of the Land of Israel, intruding into the space of the statutory, standardised prayer service.
Maimonides blames piyutim as “the major cause for the lack of devotion and for the lightheartedness of the masses which impels them to talk during prayer” (though I think the evidence disagrees with him). These additions to the prayer, coupled with a chazan basking in the spotlight, made the service unbearably long (much like my divrei torah). Kohelet was quoted at them: “It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools!”
Yet these poems brought creativity into the prayer service. In fact, they only became popular once the regular prayers became more fixed. A curious example: it was once common to use the texts of related berakhot interchangeably. So in the Cairo Geniza we find a siddur where the blessing “ולירושלים עירך” in the Amida is replaced by “רחם נא ה’ אלהינו על ישראל עמך”, which we know from birkat hamazon; after all, both end by blessing God, “rebuilder of Jerusalem”.
But the Amida text was eventually fixed, and the piyutim began to appear. The piyut library soon also settled; very few great piyyutim were composed after the thirteenth century. With printing, congregations could select from a wider choice of poems, but eventually certain songs found permanent homes in the liturgy, and others disappeared.
To expand on the Artscroll Machzor:
A few piyutim that are omitted by the vast majority of congregations have been included in an appendix which can be read with a magnifying glass, a dictionary of obscure Hebrew words, a PhD in medieval Hebrew literature and a two-week speed-reading course we call sliches (סליחות).
We have seen that there was a time when the bible was in flux, with books like Kohelet in question; later it was the regular prayer service, and after that, its poetic supplements. So it may be no surprise that the waning of piyut in 19th century Europe came with the flourishing of the cantorial and choral art in the synagogue, and the creation of a new song, vastly distinct from the previously chanted nusah. This change, too, has been hotly debated.
So history repeats itself. What will our next avenue of controversial creativity in public prayer be, when, somehow, the music stops?
Thus said Kohelet, “What has been is what will be, and what was done will be done again.”
Perhaps it’s not so depressing after all.