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Ecclesiastes: 2:24-25

We’re on verses 2:24-25:

There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God. For who can eat, or who else can hasten hereunto, more than I?

The actual text does not say that there is nothing better for a man; it says that there is nothing good for a man. This is difficult. The KJV and most modern translations have just added the notion, essentially giving there is no good for a man [except] eating and drinking etc. Rashi instead makes it a question: Is there no good for a man, eating and drinking etc? And then answering that, yes, it’s good, being from the hand of the Divine. I dunno. I don’t like adding things, but it’s pretty clear there’s something wrong with the text. Still, it seems just as likely for Kohelet to say that there is no good in eating and drinking and satisfaction in labour, as it is for him to say there is no good other than that stuff.

As long as I’m going through the text, yes, labour here is amal, again. This is the first mention of nephesh, the spirit or soul, in Ecclesiastes, and it doesn’t appear to be referring to the soul at all. The verse also has the second use of Elohim in the book—I think it’s worth pointing out how little the text seems to have to do with the Divine. The earlier use in 1:13 also refers to the Divine giving something to humans, but in that case it is inyan ra, sore travail. In this case, what comes from the Divine hand is gam-zo, all of that aforementioned stuff, eating and drinking and satisfaction in labor. Is this a contrast, or is this stuff part of the travail?

The rhetorical question in verse 25 deserves more attention than my commentaries give it, I think. kee mee yokhal u-mee yakhoosh khootz meemenee? For (sometimes because, sometimes if) who eats (devours/consumes) and who hurries (hastens/is eager/excited/feels strongly) more than (outside/outdoors/in the street/outward) me? It seems to me that the eats there has a destructive connotation—that’s probably overstating things, as it’s the ordinary and common word for eating, but it isn’t breaking bread, and it isn’t tasting. As for hastening, previous to the Psalms, it is used only in the sense of hurrying. The Psalmist uses it half-a-dozen times in encouraging the Divine to hasten to help him; I think that the sense of, well, temporal urgency, as it were, is suffused with a larger sense of anxiety—Make haste to help me, Lord doesn’t, to me, mean help me immediately but more rouse yourself to help me. Genesius claims that “in the Mishnah it is not infrequently used in speaking of the sensations of joy or sorrow”, tho’ I have no idea how accurate that is. I’ll also draw attention to the near-homophones khoosh and khootz, which are bracketed by the the mee syllable of who, both following the khal syllable of yokhal with another mee before that; it’s not a tongue-twister, but it is a significantly odd-sounding sentence. kee mee yokhal u-mee yakhoosh khootz meemenee?

The commentary I have seen largely ignores this verse or describes it simply as part of Kohelet’s strategy of speaking as Solomon. I have throughout felt that Kohelet uses rhetorical questions in a far more complicated way. Who can consume, who can feel more than I can? Given that we have just described food and drink and satisfaction as being a gift from the Hand of the Divine, I think there’s an obvious answer. But what does it mean? If there is no good for a man, but that he eat and drink and derive some sort of satisfaction in the work he must do—what does it mean that the Divine is better even at those things? Or are we interpreting the outside of khootz entirely incorrectly?

Perhaps the sentence is a call back to the concern of the whole chapter, which is that Kohelet frets over who will inherit his worldly goods: who is eating and experiencing my stuff that isn’t me? This makes more sense to me than the traditional translation, certainly. And I wonder if it’s possible that this is part of the rhetorical strategy: he first says that all that stuff is a gift from the Divine Hand, then says who is using them, if not him—the answer, then, is that they are a gift back from us to the Divine. By this interpretation, all that we do in material terms is not purely for our enjoyment under the sun. Thus, fretting about who will or will not dispose of them after our inevitable deaths is entirely wrongheaded. This would be entirely in keeping with my interpretation of the first chapter. Essentially, the message of both chapters is: You’re not that important. Get over yourself. The Divine is so much more. With, I think, an undercurrent of advice that there is a way for you as a mortal to do things that are important and have value, and that is to work not for yourself (or for the heirs of your body) but for the Divine.

Is it an interpretive stretch? Yes, it probably is, but it seems to me that the traditional interpretation of the verses is also a stretch. I suppose you would have to read eat as consume, purely a metaphorical eating, but that’s not impossible. Well, and if I suppose I can come back to it later, if I have any better ideas.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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