08 July 2006

Hevel Havalim

Before last week, I had been wondering why I hadn't been getting onto any of the "Haveil Havalim" lists, which are basically a run-down of the goings-on in the J-Blogosphere. I was thinking initially that perhaps I've been overlooked in the J-Blogosphere. However, once I stumbled upon their listing at Blogcarnival, I realized that it was something for which one needed to send a submission. So, I made it onto HH #76, which, if you've seen it, is the most massive collection on HH, moreso than any of the previous 75.
However, this isn't my main point in this posting. What is my point a common misconception regarding the term הבל (hevel) and, moreover, הבל הבלים (hevel havalim):
The term “Haveil Havalim”, which means "Vanity of Vanities", is from Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, which was written by King Solomon. Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and later on got all bogged down in materialism and other “excesses” and realized that it was nothing but “hevel”, or in English, “vanities.”
It is true that הבל is commonly translated as "vanity" and, thus הבל הבלים as "vanity of vanities", however, I was most enlightened as to the term's more proper meaning after having read Ethan Dor-Shav's "Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and Timeless" in Azure (also posted at Hagshama) during the fall of 2004, which was the main catalyst for my more positive outlook on life. I think what really gets me about קהלת (Ecclesiastes) is that ever since I read it for the first time in the spring of 2001, I sensed that it really spoke to me about the human condition. Then, three and a half years later when I had a new conception of it (via Dor-Shav's article), it was all that more impressive of a work.
Although I'm not going to go into the larger issue of the article, I do want to quote his take on the term in question:
A better reading of hevel, then, and one that provides us with an extremely important tool for understanding both Genesis and Ecclesiastes, takes us back to the root meaning of the word: Vapor or mist. What is important about the life of Abel is not its futility, but its transience. It was as fleeting as a puff of air, yet his life’s calling was nonetheless fulfilled.

This, too, is the meaning of hevel in Ecclesiastes: Not the dismissive “vanity,” but the more objective “transience,” referring strictly to mortality and the fleeting nature of human life. “Fleeting transience (hevel havalim),” says Kohelet, “All is fleeting.” Or, read another way: Abel is every man. Without the negative connotations of “vanity,” we discover in Kohelet a man who is tormented not by the meaninglessness of life, but by how swiftly it comes to an end. Life is gone so very quickly, and likewise man’s worldly deeds. We now understand the significance of Kohelet’s opening proclamation that “all is hevel.” He seeks to confront his listeners with man’s own mortality-the underlying premise of any inquiry into the meaning of life in this world.

The reading of hevel as “vanity” is not only misleading, but in some cases it makes the text impossible to read. Perhaps the most striking example can be found in the book’s ninth chapter, where Kohelet discusses the value of love in one’s life. “View life with a woman you have come to love-all the days of your transitory life (kol yemei hayei hevlecha) which he has gifted you under the sun-every fleeting day. For this is your share in life.…” Read the traditional way, the verse is difficult to parse. It would sound something like, “Live joyfully... all the days of your vain life.” Life is vanity, so enjoy love? The verse makes far better sense if hevel is translated as “fleeting,” focusing on life’s brevity: Cherish your time together, for life is fleeting, and therefore precious. Then is your love that much more meaningful.
I've realized also that through this understanding of hevel, one also understands better the penultimate verse in משלי (Proverbs) - not that beauty is vain, but rather that it is fleeting, which is quite true.
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Oxmyx said...

Haveil Havalim is a great service by David Gerstman of Soccer Dad. Sign up to be included on David's e-list, so you won't miss a single
edition. E-mail to: dhgerstman@hotmail.com.
You can also send him some positive feedback to urge him to continue with this vital service.

Irina Tsukerman said...

That's a very interesting point. I've actually heard about this translation in my theology class... However, the explanation of the name of the carnival used the most "common" meaning of the term for simplicity. But thanks for the reminder. Perhaps we should address that point at Jblogosphere and think about a more thorough definition of the carnival itself.

Soccer Dad said...

Biur Chametz (an early host of Haveil Havalim had previously referenced the Azure article.

miriam said...

translating "hevel" as breath or the like also makes the duo "hevel u-re'ut ruah" make much more sense: hevel and ruah are both references to fleeting airy things...