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
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    @DoubleAA, I added names back in because the question calls out Hevel ben Adam. – Isaac Moses Aug 26 '13 at 15:24
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    Shouldn't this be closed as off-topic, as the question is specifically a Hebrew language question? Or can is be construed as a question on how to understand Koheles? – הנער הזה Jul 23 '14 at 22:59
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    @Matt, it is asking about the Hebrew language in relation to Tanach, and as a name of a person in Chumash. Seems on-topic to me. – Yishai Jul 24 '14 at 13:50
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    @Yishai the way that the title of the question is phrased, it's asking about a word. It's no better than asking about pronounciation of מרדכי - the point is just how the question is phrased, and this question isn't phrased as "what's phat in koheles" – הנער הזה Jul 24 '14 at 16:19

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

This YUTorah shiur by Rabbi Yitzchok Twersky discusses the meaning of the word "hevel" "הבל" as it is used in קוהלת (Ecclesiastes), and how it relates to the name. Extreme simplification of the lecture follows.

Rabbi Twersky quotes the Vilna Gaon as writing that the word "הבל" in קוהלת is a pointer to the story of הבל (Abel) in Genesis. He said that the main theme of קוהלת is the same theme as that of the story of הבל -- that the real winner, in the end, is the guy who did the right thing, even if in the end of the day he did not succeed.
As the Yiddish saying that I can never remember goes, "Your job is to do, not to get done."

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    But really, listen to the lecture -- it's worth it. ;) – MTL Jul 23 '14 at 20:37
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    טאן און נישט אופטאן? Never heard it before, but seems like a nice play on words. לא עליך המלכה לגמור, ואין אתה בן חורין להבטל ממנו. – Yishai Jul 23 '14 at 20:52
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    מיר דארף צו טאן, נישט דוקא אויפצוטאן? I don't know....any Yiddish speakers on site? – MTL Jul 23 '14 at 20:55
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    The Vilna Gaon's explanation is drash and hardly sheds light on OP's question re the etymology of hevel. – intuit Jun 24 '15 at 14:32

א מענטש מוס טאן נישט אויפטאן = "A Mentsch muss tun, nicht auftun" is a very known thought and saying in Jewish Ethics

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    This should be a comment to @Shocket's answer. – intuit Jun 24 '15 at 14:30

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