The repeated word “vanity” in Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) neither refers to self-centeredness nor a mirrored piece of furniture; it translates the Hebrew word hevel, which invites us to ponder life’s conundrums.
What does the Hebrew word hevel, commonly translated “vanity,” mean in Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes)?
Traditionally, English translations of the Bible have used “vanity” for the Hebrew term hevel in Qoheleth, found thirty-eight times throughout the book. This translation originated with the Latin Vulgate (fourth century CE). For some, “vanity” conjures the illusory, fleeting nature of all things, yet for others it may suggest a stereotypical selfie-taker or even a dressing table. These diverse examples illustrate why “vanity” is a misleading translation for contemporary English speakers.
The Hebrew term hevel has a wide range of meaning. It is the name of the tragic character Abel, second born of Adam and Eve in Gen 4:2. His name foreshadows his brief story: his older brother kills him within a mere six verses of his birth. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, hevel indicates “idols” (Jer 8:19), “breath” (Isa 57:13), and “worthless” (Jer 2:5). Contemporary English translations of Qoheleth render hevel in varying ways: “futile” (NJPS); “pointless” (CEB); “meaningless” (NIV); “smoke” (Message)—these translations use the same English word for hevel throughout the book. The NET Bible enlists eight different terms to interpret hevel in Qoheleth because the word appears in such different contexts. Six of the times hevel appears in Qoheleth, the descriptive phrase “and a chasing after wind” follows it, providing additional meaning. Rather than choosing one English translation, I advocate substituting the Hebrew word hevel for NRSV’s “vanity” to let the book tell the reader what the word means.
How does hevel in Qoheleth lead us to philosophical reflection?
Qoheleth uses hevel poetically. For instance, the alliterative, superlative Hebrew phrase havel havalim hakkol havel, or “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” marks the beginning and the end of the book’s core (Eccl 1:1; Eccl 12:8). Poetry as a genre often prompts its readers to thoughtfulness about the meaning of life. We see this in Eccl 8:14, where hevel bookends the poignant lament that neither the righteous nor the wicked get what they deserve:
14There is a hevel that is done upon the earth:
there are righteous ones who are treated according to the acts of the wicked,
and there are wicked ones who are treated according to the acts of the righteous.
I said, “this also is hevel.” (author’s translation)
Qoheleth’s description of this situation includes a striking reversed repetition in the middle two lines, compelling readers to reflect: “When have I seen the unjust suffering of the righteous, or the wicked implausibly rewarded?”
Thus, Qoheleth’s use of hevel prompts philosophical considerations. In 1988, Michael V. Fox argued for translating hevel in Qoheleth as “absurd/absurdity,” based on the work of the French existentialist Albert Camus. Fox explains that “absurd” captures a situation in which expectations do not align with reality, such as in Eccl 6:1-2. Though scholars still vigorously debate Fox’s translation choice, it fittingly connects Qoheleth to philosophical thought. Other scholars have compared the book to concepts in Chinese Buddhism, the Hindu concept of Karma, Taoism, Cynicism, Stoicism, Skepticism, and Postmodernism.
Additionally intriguing for philosophical reflection is the fact that hevel does not utterly dominate Qoheleth. The book also includes a sevenfold call to “seize the day” (carpe diem) by eating, drinking, and enjoying one’s life and work. The contrast between “carpe diem” and hevel (for instance in Eccl 8:15 and Eccl 8:14) poses a dilemma: Does carpe diem solve life’s absurdities such that Qoheleth ultimately advocates joy? Do these two themes provide a yin-yang balance to life? Or, are we just stress-eating when we “seize the day” in response to hevel? The best part of Qoheleth is that the answer to this quandary rests in the mind of the reader.