Dear Jew in the City-
Why do we read the book of Koheles on Sukkos?
Thanks for your question. Tanach, the Jewish Bible, includes five megillos (scrolls), which are read on various occasions. The most famous (and obvious) of these is the book of Esther, which tells the story of Purim and is read, appropriately enough, on Purim.
A close second is Eicha (Lamentations), in which the prophet Jeremiah foretold the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction and the exile from Jerusalem. This is read on Tisha b’Av, which commemorates that destruction and exile.
Rus/Rut/Ruth is read on Shavuos/Shavuot. The holiday celebrates the giving of the Torah and Rus, as a convert, accepted the Torah upon herself. Additionally, Rus was an ancestor of King David and we have a tradition that Shavuos is King David’s yahrtzeit.
Shir HaShirim (alternately known as Song of Songs, Song of Solomon and Canticles) describes the relationship between God and the Jewish people in the form of a love story between a man and a woman. Shir HaShirim is read on Pesach (Passover), which marks the formation of Yaakov’s descendants into a nation and the beginning of our unique relationship with God.
Which brings us to Koheles/Kohelet, known in English as Ecclesiastes. Koheles is a most unusual – and, frankly, depressing – book, in which Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) examines various aspects of life and determines that they are “hevel.” (Usually translated as “vanity,” as in “vanity of vanities,” “hevel” means that things are temporal, fleeting, or insignificant.) Shlomo concludes that “The end of the matter, after everything has been heard, is revere God and keep His commandments because this is the entirety of a person” (12:13).
The reading of Koheles on Succos appears to be a later addition. Tractate Sofrim (14:3) mentions the practice of publicly reading the other four megillos but omits Koheles. Nevertheless, the practice can be found in Medieval sources. A cynic might argue that Koheles is read on Succos simply because we are left with a megillah that has no holiday and a holiday that has no megillah but that’s no basis for a match; there must be a thematic connection. And there is. (Several, actually):
Koheles reminds us that all things are fleeting except for God and His Will. On Succos, we leave our homes – which give us a feeling of permanence and security– and dwell in booths that are of an inherently temporary nature. All of this underscores the same message: we’re just “passing through” this world and heading for a more permanent place. (This is the explanation I favor);
Succos is a harvest festival, which serves as the basis for another hypothesis. According to this explanation, the message of Koheles on Succos is to be happy with one’s harvest and not lust after greater riches, which are actually meaningless;
According to another explanation, the idea of Koheles on Succos is to temper the joy of the holiday, lest we get carried away by it. Koheles reminds us that the joy of this world is insignificant so that we don’t let it interfere with our Divine service;
Still other explanations tie the reading of Koheles on Succos to events in the lifetime of its author, King Solomon. For example, it has been suggested that Shlomo read Koheles at Hakhel (a ceremony held on Succos on which the king reads to the people from the Torah);
Some see an allusion to Succos in Koheles itself. Koheles 11:2 says, “Divide your portion among seven, even among eight.” Succos is a unique holiday in that it is seven days long, capped at the end by an eighth day, Shemini Atzeres.
The Sages who enacted the public reading of Koheles made have had one or several of these ideas in mind, or perhaps they had a different thought or thoughts altogether. Ultimately, the exact reason they instituted reading Koheles on Succos is unimportant. What’s important is that we hear the profound message of Koheles and try to incorporate it into our lives.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
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