The scroll of Kohelet, referred to in English as Ecclesiastes, gets its name from its author King Solomon, who gives himself the name Kohelet. Kohelet is related to the word Hebrew word hakhel, gathering, since Solomon often gave public speeches at gatherings. Ecclesiastes is a book of observations on life, made by the wisest man to ever live. According to the Sages, it was written towards the end of Solomon’s life after he had gathered much wisdom and life experience. Kohelet also means a collection, since it is a collection of the various things in life that may mislead a person. Fitting for a book of insight, this book was written in Jerusalem, a city known for its wisdom.
King Solomon comments on the futility of life in this world. He warns not to be drawn to excessive celebration and pleasure, and instructs that it is better to pursue knowledge. He observes that God created a perfect world in which “to every thing there is a season” (3:1). He ponders the age old question of why righteous people suffer while the wicked prosper. He illustrates how the pursuit of wealth and luxuries is meaningless. He points out the things that really matter in life, such as a good reputation, charity and good deeds. He decries bad personality traits including jealousy, stinginess, and anger.
At first glance, certain verses in Ecclesiastes seem inherently contradictory or antithetical to Judaism, and for this reason the Sages considered not including it in the Bible. They arrived at the conclusion that it should be included, since its overall message is that life is infused with meaning when following the word of God and His Torah. Koheleth begins by saying that the physical world on its own is meaningless, and ends by stating: “The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man” (12:13).
Kohelet was originally read at the Biblical hakhel ceremony. Once every seven years, at the conclusion of the Sabbatical year, the king would address the people who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. Traditionally, the king would read portions of the Torah. King Solomon added the words of caution that are included in his book, Ecclesiastes, and later kings read from this scroll as well.
To this day, Ecclesiastes is read on the Feast of Tabernacles each year. In the Land of Israel, the Feast of Tabernacles falls right before the rainy season. The crops that have been harvested and dried in the fields throughout the summer are stored before the first rains come. This time of year provides a great sense of accomplishment for the Israeli farmer who has toiled all year to finally “reap the fruits of his labor.” To avoid getting caught up in all the materialism, Ecclesiastes is read specifically at this time to warn a person that physicality is not the goal of life, but rather the means to achieve a higher purpose.