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Ecclesiastes: 2:13

I’m only going to look at the one verse this week, and I hope it’ll be a short note:

Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness.

Gentle Readers who haven’t gone back may not remember that Kohelet’s word for profit is yitrown, which does not appear in other books of Scripture. I mention it here because excelleth in our verse is that word for profit, or surplus, or leftover. In this case, the simple meaning is that wisdom is bigger than folly, more than it. I’m not sure that’s the right meaning.

In the last pair of verses, we talked about how ayn yitrown, there was no profit in the works and the labour. Now we are saying that there is yitrown, that yitrown la-chochma min-ha-sichlot, profit wisdom to folly, ki yitrown ha-or min-ha-chosech profit light to darkness. My instinct is to infer that wisdom is the surplus of folly, that is, folly is part of wisdom but not enough to run a sort of wisdom profit. Or, perhaps, that folly is wisdom running a deficit, and wisdom is folly surplus. No? It’s an intriguing notion.

And yet, you can’t follow that with light being a sort of surplus of darkness, can you? The comparison doesn’t hold up. Of course, it doesn’t hold up at all, even if you translate yitrown as meaning straightforward better, which, as I say, seems like an odd word for it anyway. I suppose light is better than darkness if you are looking for something, just as wisdom is better than folly when you are looking for something, but…is there something subtle going on with a can’t-know-wisdom-without-folly kind of thing? Does light profit from darkness the way wisdom profits from folly? I don’t know.

Most of my translations indicate that this is a quotation, that is, that Kohelet is referring to a saying he expects his readers to be already familiar with. If that’s true, and I don’t immediately accept it, then perhaps Kohelet’s use of yitrown throughout the text is derived from this saying. I have just come across an argument (“‘Profit’ in Ecclesiastes” by W. E. Staples, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 4(2). pp. 87-96) that Kohelet uses yitrown and tov as exact synonyms, that is, that you can replace any use of one with the other in the book without changing the meaning. If that’s the case, then I really wonder about the use of yitrown—if he means good, why not just use the far more common word for it? What work does the choice to use yitrown do, or what work is it intended to do but not actually do? One way to answer that is to imagine Kohelet starting with a familiar quote that uses yitrown to begin working his way in to the whole question of wisdom and folly. In that case, surely it is all the more startling for the text to begin with the notion that there is no yitrown at all!

I don’t have any conclusions here for this verse, I’m afraid. I will say that so far, only a handful of verses in, I’m already coming to the realization that this text is a very dense sort of poetry that constantly speaks back and forth between verses. I have already had a couple of instances where I have changed my opinion about the connotations of an earlier verse because of the way a later verse called back to it. Which gives me hope, when I come across one of these word choices I can’t settle my problems with, that I will come back to it with a new light later in the book.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Is there any chance that 'profit' parses out to 'is worth?'

"Then I saw that wisdom is worth the folly, as far as light is worth the darkness."

Hmmm. I can't really justify that—the terms for 'worth' or 'value' are not the same root as he uses for 'profit'. On the other hand, it's not impossible. I will try to keep it in mind as we progress.


In my mind, there's a fine distinction between the worth/value of something and whether or not something is "worth it" in the sense of "worth the trouble." It's more that latter sense that I was wondering about: without any pretense to linguistic justification, I tie that to profit -- what you have left over when you take away the costs.

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