In Emunot V’Deiot (7:5) R. Saadia Gaon writes the following, with regard to some verses in Chapter Nine of Ecclesiastes:

[An example,] again, of the third type [of verses presenting difficulty so far as the doctrine of resurrection is concerned] is such a statement as: For him that is joined to all the living there is hope; for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die; but the dead know not anything, etc.... As well their love, as their hatred and their envy, is long ago perished, etc. (Eccles. 9:4-6). Now although these three verses were pronounced by the sage, they do not represent his personal opinion. They are rather a quotation of the view of the foolish, because they are preceded by an account of the agitation aroused in the hearts of the foolish, because they are preceded by an account of the agitation aroused in the hearts of the foolish by his condition. He says, namely: Yea also, the heart of the sons of of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead (Eccles. 9:3).

Then, after having first stated that men have evil and madness in their hearts by reason of their life as well as of death, he explains what is actually in their hearts by expressing it in the three [subsequent] verses. The import of these verses is that, in the opinion of these fools, a living dog is better than a dead lion and that the living know what they are going forward to but the dead do not know anything, for all their activities are over and they have no more portion in this world.

Since, however, the sage does not make these statements before prefacing them with the observation that they represent the agitations of the fools and their evils, therefore whoever adheres to these views is a fool, a person who does not turn toward God and does not prepare to meet, aye who does not draw near, the presence of the light of his Master. For men of evil and madness stand aside from God, as it is said: Evil shall not sojourn with Thee. Madmen shall not stand in Thy sight (Ps. 5:5,6). (Rosenblatt translation p. 275, italics in original, bold added)

However, the Talmud (Berachot 18b) appears to accept the truth of these verses, as it cites them as proof that the dead do not know what goes on in this world:

R. Hiyya and R. Jonathan were once walking about in a cemetery, and the blue fringe of R. Jonathan was trailing on the ground. Said R. Hiyya to him: Lift it up, so that they [the dead] should not say: Tomorrow they are coming to join us and now they are insulting us! He said to him: Do they know so much? Is it not written, But the dead know not anything? He replied to him: If you have read once, you have not repeated; if you have repeated, you have not gone over a third time; if you have gone over a third time, you have not had it explained to you. For the living know that they shall die: these are the righteous who in their death are called living as it says. And Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, the son of a living man from Kabzeel, who had done mighty deeds, he smote the two altar-hearths of Moab; he went down and also slew a lion in the midst of a pit in the time of snow. ‘The son of a living man’: are all other people then the sons of dead men? Rather ‘the son of a living man’ means that even in his death he was called living. ‘From Kabzeel, who had done mighty deeds’: this indicates that he gathered [kibbez] numerous workers for the Torah. ‘He smote two altar-hearths of Moab’; this indicates that he did not leave his like either in the first Temple or in the second Temple. ‘He went down and also slew a lion in the midst of a pit in the time of snow’: some say that this indicates that he broke blocks of ice and went down and bathed; others say that he went through the Sifra of the School of Rab on a winter's day. ‘But the dead know nothing’: These are the wicked who in their lifetime are called dead, as it says. And thou, O wicked one, that art slain, the prince of Israel.

(Soncino translation, my emphasis)

While it is true that the proof from the verse was rejected, it was only on account of it being a misinterpretation of what the verse meant, not that the entire source was inadmissible as the view of the fool.

According to R. Saadia Gaon, then, are the Talmudic Sages fools for accepting the views portrayed in Ecclesiastes?

Or did R. Saadia Gaon only mean that the value judgement expressed was that if the fool, but the underlying fact that the dead know nothing is still true?

Or was R. Saadia Gaon perhaps merely polemicizing for the purpose if his theological point, but would in reality agree with the Talmud?

Is this potential conflict discussed in subsequent rabbinic literature?

  • Similarly, did Rambam not have a brain according to Raavad? – Double AA Mar 4 at 13:58
  • @DoubleAA Similar, but I’d say there are some differences. Rambam and Ra’avad were contemporaries. Ra’avad was directly responding to, and criticizing, Rambam; it’s only a question of whether he used some exxagerative rhetorical flourishes. – Alex Mar 4 at 15:10
  • @doubleaa or Rebbi said to Levi... – sam Mar 5 at 2:11

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