Ecclesiastes 3:4

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This is going very slowly, isn’t it? Harrumph. Still, I am getting enough out of it for myself to make it worth slogging through.

3:1 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
3:2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3:3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
3:4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
3:5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
3:6 A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
3:7 A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
3:8 A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Today’s pair of pairs is 3:4, A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.


ayt livkot/v’ayt lish’khok/ayt s’fod/v’ayt r’kod


  1. bkh, to weep. Weeping tears, the word is connected to drops of water falling, according to Genesius. There’s a lot of weeping in Scripture, if you think about it. The concordance pointed me to Jeremiah 9:1, Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people! Weeping is often but not always mourning the dead; when Moses complains about the whining of the Israelites in the wilderness, when he compares himself to a wetnurse, he describes them as weeping, like, four times in ten verses.
  2. shkhk, to laugh. This isn’t tzkhk, from which Isaac gets his name, although it seems close; Genesius says it’s a later form. Also, it seems to be used a lot for derisive laughter (Judges 16, Job 30 and 39, Proverbs 1, etc) in addition to merriment.
  3. sfd, to mourn. Specifically to beat the breast and wail, as opposed to bkh, which is about actual tears. In fact, they are used in a phrase together a couple of times: to weep and to mourn.
  4. rkd, to dance. There seems to be perhaps a connotation of pounding the ground with the feet, the sort of stompy dancing that makes noise; that would be a nice image to pair with the breast-beating above. It’s not the twirly-spinny sort of dancing, which I think is makhol.

I’ll add that the second pair don’t have the initial lamed that indicates to (or for); this is the first pair not to have that. What does it mean? Is there something about those words for mourning and dancing that don’t take the preposition? Or is there some meaning to Time mourn, and time dance? It isn’t the rhythm, because (a) it’s the same for all the other verses, and (2) it wouldn’t actually change the rhythm to say ayt lis’foad/v’ayt lir’koad; it would just shmush the unvoweled consonants closer together. I don’t understand it at all.

OK, just for fun, then, I’m going to do an old-fashioned drash on the missing lameds. OK? Ready?

The first half of our verse has lameds; the second half does not. What can we learn from this? We ask: what is a lamed? The lamed, of course, is a remarkable letter. It is the only letter that ascends above the line: ל. It is the crown of all letters, the highest of them all. It is made by combining two letters: the kaf כ, which sits even with the other letters, crowned by a vav ו that sticks up like a tower. The number associated with kaf in the Hebrew numeral system is 20, and the vav is 6, so combined they make 26. What else is 26? The yud-hey-vav-hey, the Divine Name, is 26. Also, attend: The lamed stands between the kaf and the mem in the alphabet, that is, between the keesay ha-kavod and the malkhut, between the throne and the kingdom of the Divine. The lamed, then, stands for the Divine itself, the creator of the universe. So to remove the lamed from the word is to remove the Divine.

Now, in the first half of the verse, we read: a time for tears, and a time for laughter. These have the lamed, that is the Divine. They describe true emotional and physical reactions; tears and laughter. The second half of the verse describes breast-beating and foot-stomping; those are, to quote Hamlet, things that a man might show without feeling them, the trappings and suits of woe or of triumph. Those are written without the lamed, that is, the Divine. Thus we learn that it is the Divine within us that comes out in laughter and in tears; thus we learn that when we show what we do not feel, we remove ourselves from the Divine. Thus we learn that is the ability to cry and to laugh is Divine in us, that lifts us above the rest of Creation as the lamed is lifted above the rest of the letters.

That’s not bad, other than being completely made up. I mean, the numerology isn’t wrong, it’s just silly—I mean aside from it being numerology in the first place, it’s preposterous: lamed is 30, not 26, and the lamed isn’t a vav on top of a proper kaf. I mean, it kinda is, but you have to squint. And the notion that breast-beating is intrinsically more false than tears is specious as well. Still, it sounded good while it was running, didn’t it?

Other than that, I like this pair of pairs. I like the opposition of weeping and laughing, with their connotations of mourning/respect and mockery/disrespect. I like the opposition of breast-beating and foot-stomping. I like the ambiguity of subject and object (should I read it that there is a time that I will be mourned and a time I will be scorned, or that there is a time for me to weep and a time for me to laugh?) that the spare, almost skeletal language allows. I like all those long o sounds.

And this verse, to me, more than the last one, feels like it is part of the same book as 1:7. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. All things change; all things remain. It’s that astonishing image of the world as containing a kind of infinite balance of variety and continuity, of the Divine as having the vision to see everything that seems to us (under the sun) to be constantly changing as actually, from the Divine perspective, constantly returning (t’shuvah).

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

2 thoughts on “Ecclesiastes 3:4

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