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What is the meaning of Ecclesiastes 3:21:

מִ֣י יוֹדֵ֗עַ ר֚וּחַ בְּנֵ֣י הָאָדָ֔ם הָעֹלָ֥ה הִ֖יא לְמָ֑עְלָה וְר֙וּחַ֙ הַבְּהֵמָ֔ה הַיֹּרֶ֥דֶת הִ֖יא לְמַ֥טָּה לָאָֽרֶץ׃

Who knows whether the spirit of man really goes upward, and the spirit of the beast really goes downward to the earth?

It seems that Kohelet is questioning whether people are really superior to animals. Is that so? Shaarei Teshuvah 2:19 says:

The explanation [of this] is who can recognize the righteous ones and the evildoers in this world? For there are are evildoers whose actions are in the dark, and people will not know it about them; and there are righteous ones that fear the Heavens in private.

but this does not appear to match the words in Tanach.

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  • Does this answer your question? Do the Rabbanim know more than King Solomon about the reality of post-death? – kouty Sep 30 '20 at 2:18
  • I don't think so. Is Kohelet questioning whether people are superior to animals or not? I ask for a one-bit answer. – Maurice Mizrahi Sep 30 '20 at 2:58
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    this does not appear to match the words in Tanach - It does, once one understands that sinfulness (unbridled rage, wanton lust, etc.) turns people into animals, at least behavior-wise, whereas righteousness, on the other hand, has a humanizing effect on the soul, morally, not just biologically; thus, pagans, who worshiped beasts, ultimately became like them. – Lucian Oct 1 '20 at 6:54
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Rb Elya Lopian explains (Lev Eliyahu) that the passuk means that if someone was attracted to animal-like pleasures in this world, then just as the soul of an animal remains in this world after the animal's death, so too will the soul of that person sink down to this world after his death, and they will be unable to rise.

On the other hand, someone who was attracted to the elevated, will (i.e. their soul) rise to shamayim after their death (they will naturally levitate to shamayim which is a place of taanug ruchni).

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  • Rav Lopian was presumably quoting that as the explanation of Rabbeinu Yonah in Shaarei Teshuva here: sefaria.org/… – N.T. Sep 30 '20 at 9:16
  • @N.T. Yes he does quote that Rabbeinu Yonah, but he uses it to explain the passuk in the question. – The GRAPKE Sep 30 '20 at 22:35
  • So did Rabbeinu Yonah. – N.T. Oct 1 '20 at 10:05
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    @N.T. I stand corrected. – The GRAPKE Oct 1 '20 at 23:10
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Rashi on Koheles 3:21 explains that it does not mean as you seem to imply that we do not know if man is superior to animals or not. Rather, he states that the person who knows and understands that the soul will be rewarded or punished for the deeds that the person does will do teshuva. It is as if there is an implication Who is the person who knows ... it is the person who understands and studies the wisdom of Torah who can state ...

Who knows: Like (Joel 2: 14): “Whoever knows shall repent.” Who is it who understands and puts his heart to [the fact] that the spirit of the children of men ascends above and stands in judgment, and the spirit of the beast descends below to the earth, and does not have to give an accounting. Therefore, one must not behave like a beast, which does not care about its deeds.

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Let's look at the Rabbeinu Yonah in full as I believe he addresses your questions. I put the specific parts in bold, to separate the assertions from the proofs Rabbeinu Yonah provides. Basically, he says that it is not possible to read the verse as questioning whether humans souls ascend to heaven because King Solomon wrote in Koheles that they do. Similarly, King Solomon would know that it is impossible for an animal's soul to ascend to heaven. Therefore the verse must be referring to people's souls, and the souls of the wicked are compared and referred to as animal souls because they follow their carnal desires like animals, and the verse is pointing out that it is often difficult to tell who is really righteous and who isn't.

So yes, Rabbeinu Yonah is not following the literal interpretation of the verse, because he considers it nonsensical. He explains this after he gives what in his opinion is the true meaning of the verse.

ועוד נאמר (קהלת ג׳:כ״א) מי יודע רוח בני האדם העולה היא למעלה ורוח הבהמה היורדת היא למטה לארץ. פירוש מי יכיר הצדיקים והרשעים בעוה"ז. כי יש רשעים אשר מעשיהם במחשך ולא יכירו בהם בנ"א [ויש צדיקים] שייראו שמים בסתר. כענין שנאמר (מיכה ו׳:ח׳) והצנע לכת. ויקרא לנפש הרשע נפש הבהמה מפני שנמשכת אחרי התאוה הגשמית כבהמה וכענין שכתוב (יונה ד׳:י״א) אשר לא ידע בין ימינו לשמאלו ובהמה רבה. ולנפש הצדיקים קרא רוח בני האדם וכענין שנאמר (יחזקאל ל"ד:ל"א) אדם אתם. וביאור לשון המקרא כן הוא. מי יודע רוח בני האדם והם הצדיקים. העולה היא למעלה כי יש הרבה צדיקים שאין אדם יכול לגזור עליהם בעולם הזה שהם צדיקים באמת וכי תעלה נפשם למרום. כענין מה שנאמר (ש"א ט"ז:ז') כי האדם יראה לעינים וה' יראה ללבב. וגם כי רבים מן הצדיקים הם יראי שמים בסתר ואין צדקתם מודעת. וכענין שנאמר (מיכה ו׳:ח׳) והצנע לכת עם אלהיך. ורוח הבהמה וגו' גם יש רשעים רבים שאין אדם מכיר במעשיהם כענין שנאמר (ישעיהו כ״ט:ט״ו) והיה במחשך מעשיהם ויאמרו מי רואנו ומי יודענו. וכן פירשו ז"ל במדרש קהלת. כי רוח בני האדם אלו הצדיקים ורוח הבהמה אלו הרשעים. ולא יוכל איש לומר כי היה מסתפק על נשמת האדם אם תעלה למעלה כי הנה כתוב (קהלת י״ב:ז׳) והרוח תשוב אל האלהים אשר נתנה. ועוד איך יסתפק על רוח הבהמה אם יורדת למטה הלא רוח הבהמה מן הארץ ואיך תעלה. ונתבאר בתורה כי נשמת האדם עליונית. כי כתוב על נפש הבהמה כי היא מן הארץ שנאמר (בראשית א׳:כ״ד) תוצא הארץ נפש חיה למינה. ועל נפש האדם כתוב (שם ב') ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים. על כן תעלה נשמת האדם במות הגוף למעלה כי כל הדברים שבים אל שרשם. כענין שנאמר (קהלת י״ב:ז׳) וישוב העפר על הארץ כשהיה והרוח תשוב אל האלהים אשר נתנה. ונאמר על נשמת הצדיקים (זכריה ג׳:ז׳) ונתתי לך מהלכים בין העומדים האלה פירושו - בין המלאכים שהם עומדים וקיימים. כמו שנאמר (תהילים קמ״ח:ו׳) ויעמידם לעד לעולם ונאמר (דניאל ז׳:ט״ז) קרבת עד חד מן קאמיא. ואמרו ז"ל נפשותיהן של צדיקים גנוזות תחת כסא הכבוד שנאמר (שמואל א כ״ה:כ״ט) והיתה נפש אדוני צרורה בצרור החיים.

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Kohelet 3:19 informs us that humans are no better than animals. “All is vanity” seems to say that the ego of humans is baseless. On the other hand, Chassidic literature says that humans are higher than animals because ayin, “nothingness”. My own opinion is that I do not think Kohelet is suggesting that humans are superior to animals. I think it is being poetic. Therefore, I agree with the non-charedi interpretation.

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    "On the other hand, Chassidic literature says that humans are higher than animals because ayin, “nothingness”" What does that mean...? – robev Oct 1 '20 at 2:17
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    "Therefore, I agree with the non-charedi interpretation." You're misapplying the term charedi here, and you know it...no need to get political. – robev Oct 1 '20 at 2:18
  • @robev It's not political. Its a fact. – Turk Hill Oct 1 '20 at 18:23
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    I recommend you bring examples from Chassidic literature as evidence for your answer. Also, I agree with @robev, what does the term "non-charedi" have to do with this question or your answer? It's a socio-political term. It would be like me saying: "Rabbi Kanievsky is a charedi, therefore he's wrong." - What does that have to do with anything and what sort of reasoning is that? Moreover, you appear to be conflating Chassidism with the charedi society. – Harel13 Oct 6 '20 at 13:47
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    Re-stating something again and again does not make it any more true or any more relevant, I'm afraid. – Harel13 Feb 28 at 4:39

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