Question: There is a widespread custom to read the book of Kohelet on Sukkot or Shmini Atzeret or Simhat Torah. Why do we read Kohelet at this time of year? When exactly is Kohelet read? Is this a custom or an obligation?
Why Do We Read Kohelet on Sukkot or Shmini Atzeret or Simhat Torah? (This responsum was originally written in Hebrew on 29 Marheshvan 5766 in response to a question by Israeli Rabbis on Ravdibur. This is an expanded English version of that responsum).
1. The simple reason seems to have been a desire to read all five scrolls of the Bible in public. Esther was read on Purim; Eikhah was read on Tisha B’av; Shir Hashirim which transpires in the spring was read on Pesah, Hag He’aviv, the spring festival; and Ruth, which transpires during the wheat harvest, was read on Shavuot. This left one scroll – Kohelet – and one pilgrim festival – Sukkot – which were eventually matched up. This theory is supported by a passage in the medieval Tractate of Soferim (ed. Higger 14:1, pp. 251-252). The manuscripts of Soferim discuss the public reading of four scrolls without Kohelet, but five medieval halakhic works who quote Soferim add Kohelet as the fifth scroll (see Higger in his notes; Cohen, p. 83; Fried, p. 105; Gaguine, p. 194; Goldschmidt, p. 49). In other words, Kohelet was added to the list in Soferim when Jews began to read Kohelet in public on Sukkot.
Nonetheless, many rabbis have given homiletic explanations as to why we read Kohelet at this time of year:
2. Rabbi Abraham of Lunel explains in his Sefer Hamanhig written in Toledo in 1204 (ed. Refael, Jerusalem, 1978, p. 416) (This important passage is quoted or paraphrased by many, including Orhot Hayyim, Florence, 1750, fol. 117b (ca. 1300); Sefer Abudraham Hashalem, Jerusalem, 1959, p. 240 (ca. 1340); Menorat Hamaor, ed. Jerusalem, 1961, p. 329 (end of 14th century). that we read Kohelet on Shmini Atzeret because it says in Kohelet 11:2: “Distribute portions to seven or even to eight” which hints at the seven days of Sukkot and the eighth day which is Shmini Atzeret. (Cf. the midrash in Pesikta d’rav Kahana , ed. Mandelbaum, p. 419).
3. Rabbi Abraham adds a second explanation which he found: According to a midrash ( Songs of Songs Rabbah 1:9, ed. Vilna, fol. 2d), Kohelet was written by King Solomon. Rabbi Abraham says that Solomon recited Kohelet at the Hakhel ceremony at which the king read parts of the Torah to the entire Jewish people (see Deut. 31:10-12) “during the sabbatical year on Sukkot”. This is hinted at in I Kings 8:2 where it says “And they gathered (vayikahalu) to King Solomon in the month of Eitanim (= Tishrei ) on the festival (= Sukkot)”. In other words, we read Kohelet on Shmini Atzeret because King Solomon recited it in public for the first time at the Hakhel ceremony on Sukkot.
4. Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe explains in his Levush ( Orah Hayyim 663:2) published in Poland in 1590-1604 that we read Kohelet on Sukkot “because it is zeman simhateinu, (the season of our rejoicing) and Kohelet urges people to rejoice in their portion and not run after increased wealth. A person who enjoys what he has, it is a gift from God”. This explanation is also quoted without attribution by Rabbi Moshe Matt ( Mateh Moshe , part 5, parag. 966), whose book was published in Cracow ca. 1590.
5. Rabbi Azaryah Figo (1579-1647) in his Binah L’itim ( Drush 17, quoted by Ben Ezra, p. 86) published in Venice in 1648, also connects the reading of Kohelet to the joy of Sukkot: “Too much joy causes lightheadedness and removes from the heart the humility needed to serve God from the heart. that is why they enacted that we should read the Book of Kohelet [on Sukkot since it] condemns the world and its joy. And it mentions death and all its details, and this will be for us a restraint and limitation that our joy should not be physical, but spiritual and Godly. which is the true joy of performing a mitzvah”.
6. R. Shemtob Gaguine (1886-1941; see Gaguine), who was the de-facto Sefardic Chief Rabbi of England, says that according to the midrash ( Song of Songs Rabbah 1:10, ed. Vilna, fol. 3c) King Solomon wrote the Song of Songs in his youth and Kohelet in his old age. We therefore read the Song of Songs at Pesah in the spring which hints at the spring of his life, and Kohelet during the Feast of the Ingathering, which hints at old age when Solomon looked back at his past and saw that all is vanity.
7. Mordechai Zer-Kavod ( Da’at Mikra to Kohelet, Jerusalem, 1983, p. 6) gives a variation of this explanation. He says that the Song of Songs is read on Pesah which symbolizes the spring; Ruth is read on Shavuot the holiday of first fruits since it mentions the wheat harvest; Kohelet is read on Sukkot, the holiday of ingathering, since it represents old age and death.
II. When Exactly is Kohelet Read?
There are at least seven different customs as to when Kohelet is read. We shall list them here according to the order of the holidays of Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret and Simhat Torah, followed by the sources for each custom.
1. Kohelet was read in four installments – on the first day of Sukkot, (the Karaite custom was to read Kohelet on the first day of Sukkot – see Fried, p. 105). the second day, Shmini Atzeret, and Simhat Torah. This was the custom according to Mahzor Romania, which was used by the Jews of Byzantium, Greece and Turkey in the 16th Century (Fried, p. 105) (Regarding this rare Mahzor, see Daniel Goldschmidt, Mehkerey Tefillah Upiyyut, Jerusalem, 1980, pp. 122-152). This custom stemmed no doubt from the fact that Kohelet is very long – twelve chapters – and is difficult to read at one sitting.
2. On Shabbat Hol Hamoed before the Torah reading. (Mahzor Vitry ( France , ca. 1120), pp. 440-441 = Siddur Rashi, Berlin, 1912, pp. 104-105; “Minhagim. L’rabbenu Yitzhak Midura” (Germany, 1220-1300), ed. Elfenbein, Horev 10 (5708), p. 155; Sefer Maharil (Germany, ca. 1427), ed. Shpitzer, Jerusalem, 1989, p. 380; R. Moshe Isserles in his glosses to Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 663:2 (Cracow, 1578); and Wassertil, p. 80 who reports that German Jews recite Kohelet quietly to themselves on Shabbat Hol Hamoed Sukkot). This is the standard Ashkenazic practice until today. If the first day of Sukkot falls on Shabbat, Diaspora Jews read Kohelet on Shemini Atzeret, while Israeli Jews read it on the first day of Sukkot. Another difference today is that in Israel if Kohelet is written on parchment they follow the custom of the Gaon of Vilna to recite the blessings “al mikra megilla” and “Shehehyanu” (For the Israeli Custom, see Yehiel Mikhal Tukechinsky, Sefer Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem, 1955, pp. 56-57; Ya’akov Gellis, Minhagey Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem, 1968, p. 193, parag. 17; Wassertil, p. 126. For discussion as to whether the blessings should be recited, see Goldschmidt, Roth, and Mateh Moshe , Part 5, parag. 967).
3. Half was read on Shabbat Hol Hamoed before Minhah and half was read on Simhat Torah before Minhah. Members of the congregation would take turns reading a verse, the congregation would repeat the verse, and then the reader would repeat the Aramaic Targum (translation) attributed to Yonatan Ben Uziel. This was one of the customs in Yemen (Wassertil, p. 545). This custom no doubt arose due to the length of Kohelet .
4. On Shmini Atzeret in the Diaspora before the Torah reading. This was the French custom ca. 1204 according to Rabbi Abraham of Lunel (see above) in order to fulfill the obligation of those who cannot read it. Mahzor Vitry ( France , ca. 1120) who supports the second custom mentioned above, says that Kohelet should be read on Shmini Atzeret “if it wasn’t read until then” (p. 446 = Siddur Rashi, p. 147).
5. On Shmini Atzeret in the Diaspora in the Sukkah: This was the custom in Provence ca. 1204 according to Rabbi Abraham of Lunel (see above).
6. On Shmini Atzeret in the Diaspora before or during Minhah: This was the custom in Yemen in the 18 th century according to Rabbi Yihya Zalah in his Tiklal Etz Hayyim (Jerusalem, 1894, fol. 83b and cf. Fried, p. 105). They would read Kohelet along with the Aramaic Targum attributed to Yonatan Ben Uziel and Rashi. The Jews of Cochin, India read Kohelet at Minhah on Shmini Atzeret without the Targum (Wassertil, p. 483).
7. Half on Shmini Atzeret and half on Simhat Torah before Minhah: This was the custom of the Jews in the Sahara Desert and in Afghanistan according to Fried (p. 105), who based himself on members of those communities living in Israel. Here too, the split derived no doubt from the length of the scroll.
III. Is This Custom Obligatory?
This custom is not obligatory since it has no Talmudic basis and even the obligation mentioned in the post-Talmudic Tractate of Soferim is doubtful (see above). Indeed, this custom was never adopted by most Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jewish communities (see Gaguine and Wassertil).
However, in addition to the reasons given above, there is one more very good reason to adopt or revive this 900-year-old custom. Most Jews today have never studied or even read the entire Bible. Many know the Torah, Haftarot, Esther, Lamentations, Ruth, and the Song of Songs from having heard them read in public. If we want Jews to know the book of Kohelet, we should read it in public on Sukkot and/or Shmini Atzeret and/or Simhat Torah. In a synagogue where this is a new custom, it would make sense to adopt one of the customs which splits Kohelet into two or four parts.
Isru Hag Sukkot 5767
Akiva Ben-Ezra, Minhagey Hagim , New York 1963, pp. 85-86
Gavriel Hayyim Cohen, Mehkirey Hag 1 (5748), pp. 74-75, 83-84
Natan Fried, Sinai 64 (5729), pp. 105-107
Shemtob, Gaguine, Keter Shem Tob, Volume 7, London , 1941, pp. 193-196
Daniel Goldschmidt, Mahanayim 61 (5722), pp.48-49
Naftali Zvi Roth, Sinai 86 (5740), pp. 86-89
Asher Wassertil, ed., Yalkut Minhagim , third expanded addition, Jerusalem , 1996
Image Credit: Samuel ben Abraham ibn Nathan (copista do tratado de gramática), Josué ben Abraham ibn Gaon (copista do texto religioso), Josef Asarfati (iluminuras)