Havel havalim (Koheleth)

hevel

Reading Koheleth (Ecclesiastes), I sit up in awe, drop stray thoughts, and listen again and again to the second verse (translated as “vanity of vanities,” etc.). Then I start hearing its cadences everywhere: in Shakespeare (as do others), in Mahler, in poem after poem, song after song, film after film. This poem holds millions of breaths.

I was first introduced to Koheleth as a teenager, through Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” via Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Here’s Orwell:

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

For a long time, that was all I knew of it. I understood that its language was vivid and lilting and that it looked askance at the world. I read parts of it here and there–but did not begin to understand the whole until I first heard it chanted in Hebrew (just a few years ago). Then I sensed its coherence–not quick meaning, but unity and movement–and a joy mixed in with the sadness, a joy of walking through life.

Just a week ago I started learning the first few verses, with trope and all. It was then that I fell in love with the second verse.

Havel havalim, amar Koheleth; havel havalim, hakol havel.

The whole verse sounds like a sigh; this is no coincidence, as “hevel” originally meant “vapor” or something similar.

The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament states (in volume 3, p. 315): “In virtue of its supposed onomatopoeic origin, hebhel consistently retains the meaning of “breath” and, especially with reference to the visible aspect, although possibly delimited by the stronger ruach, “vapor, mist, smoke.” … Ideas of transitoriness and fleetingness are associated with the word when it means “breath,” and these tend to point toward an abstract connotation (cf. the LXX). This tendency is aided by the capability and openness of onomatopoeic words for new meanings.” This paragraph continues–and it’s part of a much longer entry–but I want to get back to the second verse and the joy.

The noun hevel (or hebel), with root heh-bet-lamed, appears in this verse in three forms:

  1. havel (with a long “e” and a stress on the second syllable): the construct form of hevel. This indicates that it accompanies the noun that follows.
  2. havalim: the plural of hevel.
  3. havel (with a short “e” and a stress on the first syllable): the pausal form of hevel.

This verse not only shivers with alliteration (not only of havel, havalim, and havel, but also of hakol and Koheleth), but takes a single word and turns it around and around.

Vapor of vapors, says Koheleth; vapor of vapors, all is vapor.

But even this does not recreate the morphology and cadences. Here is my recording of the first three verses. Here, also, is a wonderful recording (and video of the text) by Rabbi Moshe Weisblum.

What is it about this verse (and the poem as a whole) that brings joy?

Koheleth is not conducive to takeaways. Its message is not “enjoy life” or “fear God”; it holds up both. In terms of theology and philosophy, it stands out as one of the most puzzling Biblical texts. (I would love to take Stephen Geller’s course on it; I have taken his course on the Psalms.)

Still, for all its complexity, the poem has a gesture of learning, of seeing beyond illusions.

If success, fame, power, labor, even wisdom are all vapors, then life is anything but futile. It is possible to understand a little more each day and to walk with understanding. Koheleth is a long and wistful walk.

Image credit: I took this photo today in Fort Tryon Park. It reminded me of the second verse.

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  1. “Beautiful in its time” | Take Away the Takeaway

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

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