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
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 (
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
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