Koheles cautioned in the last verse of the previous chapter to "Guard your foot when you go to the house of God" (Koh. 4:17). In verses 1-6 of the present chapter he continues to give advice about the proper way for man to relate to God.

"Do not be rash with your mouth and let not your heart be hasty to utter a word before God." (v 1). All too often people are quick to protest against what they perceive as the injustice of His dealings with them or with others and to doubt and question His providence, as in the case of those who ask where He was in the Holocaust. Koheles cautions us to remember that we are puny, transient creatures on earth, while God is in heaven, way above our realm, and we cannot expect to understand His ways. Therefore we should be sparing in our words, for "silence is a protective fence for wisdom" (Avos 3:17), whereas talking too much is the hallmark of the fool (verse 2).

"When you make a vow to God, do not delay paying it." (v 3). A vow is a solemn verbal commitment that a person makes, binding himself to perform a certain meritorious act, give to charity, offer a sacrifice etc. In the case of charity, people often make commitments in the heat of the moment - sometimes to impress others, or simply to get the charity-collector off their back - only to go cold afterwards and find every reason to defer and forget their obligation. But Koheles teaches that it would be better not to make the vow than to make it and fail to pay (v 4).

"Do not let your mouth cause your flesh to sin and do not say before the MALACH, messenger, that it was an error." (v 5). Rashi interprets this verse as a continuation of the counsel against taking a vow that one fails to fulfill. This can bring down retribution on a person's "flesh" - his offspring. According to this interpretation, the "messenger" is the charity officer who comes to collect the sum pledged in public. However, the Targum and Midrash give the verse a broader application to sinful speech in general - LASHON HARA - which brings the punishment of Gehinnom on the person's very flesh, limbs and body. According to this interpretation, the MALACH is the cruel accusing angel who grills and punishes the person after death. It will harm the sinner even more if he claims he made his disparaging remarks innocently.

"For this comes about through the multitude of dreams and vanities and many words." (v 6) - "Dreams, vain prophets and many other things may tell you to separate yourself from God! Don't listen to dreams but just FEAR GOD" (Rashi). "Even if the master of dreams tells a person that he is to die tomorrow, never despair of the power of prayer" (Berachos 10b).l

"If you see the oppression of the poor and the violent perversion of judgment in the state, do not marvel at the matter." (v 7). Ibn Ezra (ad loc.) explains the connection between this verse and the verses that preceded it: "You may think that He does not keep watch on what you say because you see the violent perversion of justice and nobody comes to save the oppressed. Know that there is a Watcher who sees this corruption". In the words of Metzudas David: "Do not wonder why God shows patience and does not exact retribution. For there is One who is high above all the high ones and rules over them all at every moment, but He waits until the sinners' measure is complete and only then exacts retribution. 'And there are higher ones over them': He has many agents who are high above the men of that state and can rule over them and through them repay them for their deeds" (Metzudas David ad loc.)

"Moreover, land has an advantage (YITHRON) for everyone (BA-KOL)." (v 8). According to the simple interpretation of this verse, "after he has finished giving instructions about fear of God, he comes back to teaching about the affairs of this world, discussing what occupation can best enable a person to make a living without sinning" (Ibn Ezra ad loc.). Lovers of the land will rejoice to hear that agriculture is the first choice. According to this interpretation, even a king is beholden to the field, for without it there is nothing to eat (see Targum). However Rashi and Metzudas David see the verse as the continuation of the previous verse, rendering the Hebrew word YITHRON (translated above as "advantage") has having the connotation of overweening pride (from YETHER, too much). According to this interpretation, the punishment of those who pervert justice in the state may be sent BA-KOL - "through everything", i.e. through any of His many agents (as in the case of the Roman emperor Titus, who suffered agony for years as his brain was eaten alive by a mosquito). The "king" who is beholden to the field is the Holy One blessed be He, who toils on behalf of Zion (which has been ploughed as a field) in order to avenge her shame at the hands of those who destroyed her and to pay a reward to those who build her" (see Rashi on v 8).

Similarly, verse 9 - "He who loves money will not be satisfied with money - is subject to a variety of interpretations on the simple (PSHAT) and midrashic levels. On the level of PSHAT, the whole passage in verses 9-16 is a teaching about the folly of people's unquenchable craving to amass wealth, which can cause them the greatest harm, while those who toil honestly, satisfied with their lot, sleep sweetly without anxiety. On the level of Midrash, Rashi explains that "He who loves money" refers to one who loves the mitzvos. Such a person will never be satisfied even after performing many mitzvos as long as they do not include at least one specific and highly conspicuous mitzvah, such as the building of a synagogue or the writing of a beautiful Sefer Torah (Rashi on v 9).

"Sweet is the sleep of the laboring man, whether he eats little or much." (v 11). Targum's rendering of this verse is: "Sweet is the sleep of a man who labored wholeheartedly for the Master of the World and he has rest in his grave, whether he lived few years or many, because he worked for the Master of the World in this world, and in the World to Come he will inherit the work of his hands and have the wisdom of God's Torah. And when a man who was rich in wisdom and toiled and made efforts in it in this world lies in his grave, his wisdom will dwell upon him and will not leave him alone, just as a wife does not leave her husband alone to sleep."

In verses 12-16 Koheles preaches against the folly of wanting great wealth, which may be kept by its owner to his hurt. If the person has no true enjoyment from his wealth, his entire life and all his efforts will have been in vain when he goes naked and bereft to his grave.

Verses 17 and 18 return to the same conclusion about the answer to man's existential predicament as Koheles gave in chapter 2 v 24 and chapter 3 v 12: "What I have seen is that it is good and beautiful to eat and drink and see good in all one's labor in which he toils under the sun." (v 17) - "To eat and drink, i.e. to toil in the Torah, which is a good teaching, and not to amass great wealth but to rejoice in the portion he has been given, for that is his share" (Rashi ad loc.)


In contrast to the honest laborer who is satisfied with his lot, the man who has wealth, possessions, honor and long life but no enjoyment from them is worse off than a still-born foetus that had no life at all (vv 1-6). Rashi on verse 3 cites King Ahab as an example of the case of one who has no enjoyment since he had many children and great wealth but he coveted what belonged to others and had no satisfaction from his own wealth, and in the end he was eaten by the dogs. On the level of Midrash, "Even if a Torah scholar has 'wealth, possessions and honor' - i.e. he knows Bible, Mishneh and Aggadah, but 'God does not give him the power to eat of it' - i.e. he does not attain to the level of understanding Talmud and therefore is unable to determine the correct legal ruling - then 'a stranger will eat it' - this is the master of Talmud" (Rashi on v 2).

"For all a man's labor is for the sake of his mouth." (v 7) - "That he should eat in this world and the World to Come" (Rashi).

"For what advantage does the wise man have over the fool or over the poor man who knows how to make his way among the living?" (v 8). Even one who is "rich" in wisdom but has no satisfaction from his "wealth" (as in the case of the scholar who does not know how to give practical rulings) is no better than the fool, or the poor man who is satisfied with his portion and who knows how to reach the life of the World to Come through the simple performance of the mitzvos (see Rashi on v 8).

"Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the soul." (v 9) - "It would be better if a man would see with his eyes the journey of the soul after death and to which place the soul of the righteous goes and to which place that of the wicked man goes, for if so, he would understand the difference between them, and as a result he would straighten his path" (Metzudas David ad loc.). For even the greatest man cannot escape "the one who is mightier than he" (v 10) - i.e. the angel of death (Rashi).

We therefore need to find out "what is good for a man in life during the limited number of days of his life of vanity" (v 12), because life passes like a shadow. "With only this verse I would not know if it is like the shadow cast by a wall or a palm tree, which have some substance. But King David came and specified: "His days are like a PASSING shadow" (Psalms 144:4) - like the shadow of a bird that flies past and its shadow flies off with it" (Koheles Rabbah).



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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