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I am not religious myself, but lately I have found myself somewhat attracted to Ecclesiastes. Reading about it, I am fascinated about what seems to be endless meanings and interpretations of the word hevel. Wikipedia states, for example that the word can mean:

"vain", "futile", "empty", "meaningless", "temporary", "transitory", "fleeting," or "mere breath,"

Other sources agree with "vanity" and "emptiness", but also add "randomness" to the pile. What really starts to confuse me though is when I see it being used as a name:

Hevel as a boy's name is of Hebrew origin, and the meaning of Hevel is "breath, vapor". Also possibly (Assyrian) "meadow". Source form of Abel.

My question is, which of these "meanings" of the word are inherited or rather interpretations of the true meaning of the word? For example, if we assume "breath, vapor" is the original meaning of the word, one can see how the related meanings can arise from that, as a breath of air is very much temporary and fleeting, so is that the case or is there a more fundamental meaning of the word?

Hopefully this question makes sense and is ok within the frames of this site.

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Welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thanks very much for this interesting question, which seems very sensible and relevant indeed! I hope you'll look around the site and find other material that's relevant to you, perhaps starting with our 5 other kohelet (Ecclesiastes) questions. –  Isaac Moses Aug 26 '13 at 14:02
@DoubleAA, I added names back in because the question calls out Hevel ben Adam. –  Isaac Moses Aug 26 '13 at 15:24
I second the welcome to Mi Yodeya and hope Be'ezrat Hashem to welcome to you to the observant side of Kelal Yisrael soon. –  Hacham Gabriel Aug 27 '13 at 3:06
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1 Answer

From Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, Bereishis 4:1-2

Hevel, related to afel, afel, and aval, the basic conception of which is checking, restraining; that which restricts all light is afel, dark; the high wall which check access is efel, he'efil, to restrain yourself, to put yourself in opposition. aval, but, the particle of opposition, avel, grief, the feeling of a broken state of life. Hence also chevel, the chain. Hevel, existence checked in its continuity, transitoriness.

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Binyamin, thank you for your good and well-sourced answer. Welcome to Mi Yodeya! I hope you stick around and enjoy the site, including its four rabbi-s-r-hirsch questions and its 248 hebrew questions. Please consider registering your account, which will give you access to more of the site's features. –  msh210 Aug 28 '13 at 6:41
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