The Jewish Blog of Why: Why Do We Read The Book of Kohelet on Sukkot?

By Rabbi Jonny Roodyn

The festival of Sukkot is referred to by a number of names, perhaps most notably, ‘The time of our rejoicing.’ After the serious and sombre high holidays, Sukkot provides us with a chance to express ourselves through the medium of simcha (happiness). The Rabbis explain that once we have passed through the days of awe, we can be confident that our prayers and teshuva have been accepted and that itself is cause for great happiness. In biblical times, Sukkot marked the end of the harvest season and the farmer would rejoice in his bountiful crop and appreciate that it was a gift from G-d. 

It therefore seems somewhat strange that on these happy days we would choose to read the sobering words of the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), however in most synagogues this megilla is read just before the Torah reading on Shabbat Chol HaMoed. 

The megilla begins with the famous verse ‘futility of futilities – said Kohelet – futility of futilities, all is futile’. This seeming sense of existential angst is repeated a number of times through the book’s twelve chapters. Kohelet asks the questions that mankind has grappled with since time immemorial, ‘what is life all about?’ ‘what am I here for?’ ‘what am I living for?’ Rather than give glib answers, Kohelet shares his struggle with us. He turns to wisdom and tells us that it is but ‘vexation of the spirit.’ He ‘ventured to stimulate his body with wine,’ ‘acted in grand style, built houses and vineyard … owned more possessions than all of my predecessors’ ‘amassed silver and gold’ and still determines it all to be futile. 

Kohelet’s basic message is that this world is transient and death is the great equaliser. No matter what we amass in this world we cannot take it with us. On Sukkot we leave our houses and move into a temporary dwelling with a flimsy roof, as if to tell us that ultimately there are no guarantees that the physical world can bring us true security. We move into the Sukkah, under the schach, under G-d’s own protection. 

This is the message of Kohelet, at a time when we are liable to get carried away we are reminded to maintain our sense of perspective that the physical world is here for us to enjoy but will not last forever. Rather we create our own eternity through leading a spiritual life, one where we embark on developing a relationship with the Almighty.

- May 15th 2012

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