Hevel of Hevel — Does it Mean Everything is Vanity?

“Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas est.”

Vanity of vanities saith the Preacher — all is vanity.

What is vanity?  The Hebrew word is “hevel”.

It has been translated as futility.  Absurdity.  Emptiness.

The grandson of Rashi says “hevel” means something like incomprehensibility or ineffability.  Something we can engage with and care about but not encompass with the rational mind.

Very soon after telling us everything is “hevel” Koheleth tells us to every thing there is a season.  A time to live and a time to die.

He doesn’t say, but I believe he is thinking, a time to inhale and a time to exhale.

The rivers go into the sea but the sea is never full.  And that’s good.  Breath goes into the lungs but the lungs don’t get full.  The job of the lungs is to circulate the oxygen, not to hoard it.

Kohelet talks about the foolishness of the rich man who accumulates for himself.  And the futility of the wise man who learns for himself.  Because money and knowledge only work when circulating, like breath.  Knowledge is worth something if I communicate it, but if I keep it hoarded within me it is utterly useless.

Since Kohelet believes in God but doesn’t believe we understand him, I think he means by “hevel” the breath of God.

And by “God” he means that of which our brief lives are the breath, whatever that may be.  (Can your breath understand you?  Probably not.  But you sure need it!)

There is a time to exhale — when God breathes us into being — and a time to inhale — when we are drawn back into God.  “The life’s breath returns to God who gave it.”




5 thoughts on “Hevel of Hevel — Does it Mean Everything is Vanity?

      • A lot might depend on how one’s mind works. A friend in grad school said that she found Bertrand Russell’s writing opaque, but that Sartre was perfectly clear. That’s the opposite of my reaction to them. Another way of looking at it is that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who read Kierkegaard only under duress, and those who read Kierkegaard because they like it. I fall into the former group and I believe that you fall into the latter.

        More specifically, however, I’m with you up through paragraph 6, “… A time to live and a time to die.” After that, I’m not sure if you’re waxing poetic or just thinking out loud; I suspect it’s a combination of both. Paragraph 7 might be a serious comment that’s also meant to be funny; it can be read both ways. Paragraphs 8 and 9 are true but I’m not sure how they are connected to the rest of the essay. Now that I look at it, you could leave out paragraphs 8 and 9 and (to my mind) the essay would then flow logically from start to finish. Paragraph 7 seems superfluous at first, but then you connect it to the breath of God, which, on reflection, is a pretty spectacular insight.

        A long-winded answer, but you did ask … 🙂

  1. Thanks — that’s very helpful. I’ll give a shot at it. Basically I am trying to answer the question “If everything is uncertain and we don’t necessarily accomplish our goals is that pessimistic — is it a bad thing?” The usual interpretation of Kohelet is yes and that’s why they translate “hevel” as futility. But I’m arguing “no” because “hevel” can mean breath. And that the way breath works is it is naturally part of a circular process. So I’m arguing that Kohelet believes we should view our lives as part of a circular process where we come from something unknown and return to it. And that’s what hevel means and it shows how it is possible to have a joyous approach to life while acknowledging the hard truths that Kohelet highlights — the race is not always to the swift etc.
    I’m wondering if that should be in a re-written version of this essay or a different essay.

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