(Re-)Reading Ecclesiastes: Problems with a Talmudic Exposition

15 11 2006

In the Babylonian Talmud¹, an incident is related within which Rabbi Yehoshua asks Rabbis Yohanan ben Beroka and Elazar Hisma for a ‘novel teaching’ from that day’s session at the study hall (מה חידוש היה בבית המדרש היום). One of the teachings that the two Rabbis deliver is related to an exegetical understanding of Ecclesiastes 12:11, presented in the name of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah. The Biblical passage is as follows:

דברי חכמים כדרבנות וכמשרות נטועים בעלי אספות נתנו מרעה אחד
The words of the sages are like ox-goads, and like nails firmly planted are the masters of assemblies: given by one shepherd.
(Note: this is my own, idiomatic, translation. There is some debate over virtually every noun within this verse)

The beginning of their exposition notes that the Torah is likened to an ox-goad for, just as the ox-goad leads the ox along safe paths, so too does the Torah lead the learner from the paths of death to the paths of life. This is a curious exegesis, for it appears to contradict the very essence of Ecclesiastes on a number of levels.

The first and, probably, the most subtle problem with the Talmudic exegesis lies in the fact that the two young Rabbis are presenting a “novel teaching” from the very text that stresses that such a thing does not exist (1:9-10). This perspective is tied into the general tone of despair within Ecclesiastes for, just as there can be nothing new, so too will there be no cause for remembrance (1:11, 2:16). This appears to be a major concern for the author who, otherwise, does much to ensure the greatness of his name. He is excessively wealthy (1:16, 2:4-9, 2:18-20, etc), considers himself ‘wise’ (1:16), and values reputation very highly (7:1). His preoccupation with death (predominantly in 12:1-7, but frequently throughout the rest of the text as well) sets much of the despairing tone of the book. This is not only in contrast to the Talmudic focus on life within the exposition, but is further heightened by the suggestion in Ecclesiastes that there may be no subsequent existence after this one (3:21).

It is in relation to the focus on life within the Talmudic passage and the focus on death within the actual text that we find the most obvious problem with the exegesis. The tone of the Talmudic exposition is one of sanguine piety, yet we do not find this mood reflected within the book of Ecclesiastes itself². Ecclesiastes mentions the word ‘life’ some thirteen times, within ten verses altogether. Of those ten verses, five are related to either fatalism or despair (2:17, 4:2, 6:12, 9:3 and 9:9) and five are related to the pursuit of hedonistic fulfillment (2:3, 3:12, 5:17, 5:19 and 8:15). In two of the former instances, the word is coupled with the adjective hbl (‘vanity, emptiness’; 6:12 and 9:9), and in one of them the author expressly declares that he hates the very act of living (2:17). That this should be the case is further testified within verses such as 3:18-21 (rejecting the supposed superiority of humans over animals), 7:2 (which praises houses of mourning over houses of revelry) and 6:3-6 (which relates the merits of having been stillborn).

The third problem with the Rabbinic exposition is in its fundamental valuing of Torah. While this perspective should not come as a surprise within the Babylonian Talmud, the suggestion that it may also be reflected within Ecclesiastes is an erroneous one. Indeed, the author of Ecclesiastes does appear to favour wisdom over folly (2:13, 4:14, 7:5), but there is good indication that the wisdom being purported by the text is unconventional. The pain brought about through learning is bemoaned in 1:18, and the uselessness of knowledge is reflected upon in 2:15. Furthermore, we are also told in 2:3 that the author utilised wisdom in order to direct his appreciation of madness. For this reason, the word appears to be used with roughly the same semantic value as the English “prudence”, rather than the ‘knowledge through conventional learning’ that is advocated by the Talmud.

This rejection of conventional wisdom, along with the recognition of the suffering brought about through excessive learning, is also deliberated upon within the epilogue (12:12). It is worth noting the structure of the epilogue, for it is from the epilogue itself that Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah draws his teaching. Comprised of some five verses at the end of the text (although some may perceive other individual verses of the book as having been written by the same hand), the epilogue to Ecclesiastes has traditionally struck scholars as having been the work of a later editor. This has been because of the apparantly disjunctive tone with which the epilogist appears to disarm the book’s fundamentally hedonistic and fatalistic message. A recent PhD thesis by Martin Shields³, however, has attempted to defend the possibility of the epilogist having been the ‘author’ of the entire work, coupled with a defence of the notion that it is not out of alignment with the rest.

In actual fact, the practical upshot of this thesis (while novel) is small. Whether one argues that the epilogist is contradicting the fundamental messages of the book, or that the book itself is ridiculing those themes presented within it, one is still left with the fact that the overall message is supposed to be contrary to the literal content. However successful such a presentation of the author’s/epilogist’s weltanschauung was is certainly debatable, for the ideas presented within the text (to a contemporary reader, if not an ancient one) are of more durable impact than the brief words of piety at the book’s close. It may be taken to be an added disjunctive element within the Talmudic reading that it was from the epilogue itself that the Rabbi drew his teaching. In order to praise the words of Ecclesiastes, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah was forced to utilise those of one of his greatest critics.

¹ bHag 3a
² Excepting scant (and disjunctive) references like 11:9b
³ Recently published: M.A. Shields, The End of Wisdom: A Reappraisal of the Historical and Canonical Function of Ecclesiastes (Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2006).

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