Ecclesiastes 3:1

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So. Ecclesiastes 3:1:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

There are seven words in the Hebrew, and I think I have questions about every one of them.

Here they are: lakol z’man v’ait l’khol kheifetz tachat ha-shamayim. Are you ready?

It begins with kol z’man. kol (or sometimes khol) is all or every (we’ve seen it before, we’ll see it again, as Kohelet is fond of general pronouncements) and z’man is time, and specifically an appointed time. Passover (which is coming up in a few days as I write this) is z’man kheirutaynu, the time of our freedom. Sukkot (when we read this megillah) is z’man simkhataynu, the time of our rejoicing. That’s presumably why it got translated as season here, although it is not connected to the seasons of the year or anything. And it’s not z’manim, the appointed times (check out, by the way,, which will calculate the times for various observances, such as when is the earliest or latest times to say the morning prayers and have it count as morning; z’manim in current Hebrew connotes time of day more than of year) but only one z’man, one appointed time. I’ll also add that Genesius calls z’man “a word of a later age used instead of the more ancient ait.” Yeah, we’re getting to that more ancient word later. But for now, the poetic translation isn’t bad, really; it might more literally be to everything, an appointed time.

So that’s two words down.

Next three: v’ait l’khol kheifetz, and time for every purpose. The word for time (pronounced like eight (8), bye-the-bye) comes from a root for forever (∞), which I kinda like: any particular time being a specific instance of eternity. Now, I don’t think that was a deliberate connotation that Kohelet was aiming for, but it’s great anyway. Still, yes, time. I wrote, a couple of Purims ago, about the phrase to know the times. What do we mean if we say that something has a time? Most commentary seems to say that there is a correct time for each thing, thus implying that there are other, incorrect times for those things. But in that case, why is Kohelet using eit and not z’man? Why not say that things have the time for them? Other commentary takes up the idea that there each thing has only its time, and that nothing lasts forever, which is certainly Kohelet-ish, but then, why not say that? Or we could interpret that there is enough time for everything. I don’t know, certainly not yet.

And then kheifetz, purposes. Purposes? No. Desires, maybe. Everywhere outside Ecclesiastes, khefetz always indicates something positive, something wanted. The phrase khol kheifetz is translated as all my desire in 2Sa 23:5, kol kheftzl’kha as all thy desire in 1Ki 5:8, khol kheftzo as all his desire in 1Ki 9:11, and khol kheftzee as all my desire in Isaiah 44:28 and 46:10. I don’t know why the Authorized Version uses purpose here. It’s clearly wrong. So if we say instead: and time for all (my?) desire, we get a very different sense.

I don’t want to forget to note my appreciation for the reversal that flips lakol z’man and ait l’khol kheifetz. I do wonder if how it would sound if you emphasized the two words for time, that is, the difference between them: lakol z’man, for everything an appointed time, and ait l’khol kheifetz, time for all desires. How different are the two kinds of time? How different are the two halves of that saying? Is it really just repetition for emphasis (and we know Kohelet will repeat himself for emphasis) or is there a point we are missing, about the things for which there is z’man and the desires for which there is (also?) ait?

And we’re not done! We have two more words: tachat ha-shamayim, under the heavens (the sky, literally). Note that this is not tachat ha-shemesh, under the sun. Or is it? Some commentaries have claimed that this is just a scribal error, the first three letters being the same, and correct (if that’s what it is) the yud-mem of the heavens to the shin of the sky. But then, none of the commentaries that I am aware of draw the inference that I do from the phrase in the first place. They all assume that Kohelet uses the phrase under the sun as a poetic way of saying everything. I don’t think so; I think he specifically uses it to ask us to think of what is not under the sun, that is, what is Divine, eternal, beyond. The technique of contrast, using rhetorical questions (what profit is there?) to evoke answers rather than provide them, relies on the readers being careful with the words. So I want to be careful here: the sky is not the sun, perhaps.

And then… if we do read tachat ha-shamayim. to mean simply everything, what is it doing in the sentence at all? We have kol twice already, every thing and every desire. Does the third and final (if poetic) everything apply to the things or just to the desires? Is there a z’man for everything, but an ait only for desires under the sun?

I don’t have any answers at this point. I don’t think I’m particularly meant to; this is the first line of a poem, and as such should give us no answers. What it ought to do is tell us how to read the poem. We’ll see if I’ve managed that when I get to the next bit.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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