Tanḥum Ha-Yerushalmi’s Introduction to His Commentary on Qohelet

In: A Philosopher of Scripture
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In the name of the Lord, God of the World.1,2 (Gen. 21:33)

[1:1] The words of Qohelet, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Since an introduction to this book is necessary, we say: We have already stated, concerning the verse Wisdom has built her house, has hewn her seven pillars (Prov. 9:1), that by this it refers to the enumeration of the philosophical sciences (al-ʿulūm al-ḥikmiyya),3 though there are many branches and numerous disciplines altogether through which a human being’s wisdom (al-ḥikma) is perfected – so that seven may simply indicate plurality according to the idiom of the Hebrew language, [whose speakers] indicate plurality with the number seven. But if seven is a precise enumeration, it refers to (1) practical wisdom (al-ḥikma al-ʿamaliyya); (2) propaedeutic wisdom (wa-’l-ḥikma al-riyāḍiyya), which is of four categories; (3) physical science (al-ʿilm al-ṭabīʿī); (4) divine science (wa-’l-ʿilm al-ilāhī), which is the ultimate goal (al-ghāya al-quṣwā) of them all. These thus come to [a total of] seven.4

We shall state here that wisdom is the perfection (istikmāl) of the human soul through conceiving objects (taṣawwur al-umūr) and confirming (wa-’l-taṣdīq)5 practical and theoretical truths according to one’s human capacity. This is the telos of a human being (ghāyat al-insān) insofar as one is a human being, and it is [the human being’s] ultimate felicity (nihāyat saʿādatihi).

Wisdom (al-ḥikma) may be classified initially into two parts: Practical (ʿamaliyya) and theoretical (naẓariyya).6

As far as practical wisdom is concerned, we first require knowledge of it, and then the purpose of knowing it is practical application (al-ʿamal) according to that which we have learned of it, and establishing it in our souls. For knowing it is insufficient for the attainment of felicity, unless one follows it up with action (ʿamal) in accordance with the knowledge (al-ʿilm).

Concerning theoretical wisdom (al-ḥikma al-naẓariyya), its purpose is knowledge (ʿilm) and the acquisition of correct views and accurate convictions. If the soul conceives the true nature of existent beings so that the forms of the true existents may become impressed upon it, [the soul] itself becomes real. There is no action that must follow this. Rather, it is abstract: Knowledge and conceptualization (bal mujarrad ʿilm wa-taṣawwur).

Thus is the former called practical wisdom, and it must necessarily come first; while the latter is called theoretical wisdom, for nothing further is needed than the pursuit of speculation (baḥth al-naẓar).

Each of these two [modes of] wisdom (al-ḥikmatayn) may be divided into three parts.

[The Three Parts of Practical Wisdom]

The parts of practical [philosophy] are three, and they are called [both] governance (tadābīr) and administration (siyāsāt).

  • (1) The first of [the three parts] is individual governance. Its utility (wa-fāʾidatuhā) lies in the study of virtues and the way in which they might be acquired, and the manner of the treatment of ills and deficiencies, from one upon whose soul these things have been impressed. [This is] so that the soul might become chastened through the attainment and acquisition of virtues, and through the abandonment of vices and caution of them. So that the soul might be cleansed and purged and purified.
  • (2) The second is household administration (al-siyāsa al-manziliyya). Its utility lies in knowing the quality of associations and partnerships that are desirable between the members of the household and the relatives and the family and the attendants, so that their welfare might be furthered between them, and their association and interaction with each other might be improved.
  • (3) The third part is political wisdom (ḥikma madaniyya). Its utility lies in knowing the quality of partnerships that occur between individual people so that an association might occur between them, so that they may seek their corporeal welfare and material necessities: Food, shelter, clothing and other such things that are all artificial (ṣināʿiyya). Thus their lasting individual existence is brought about to the greatest extent possible, and the continuation of their species as the union necessitates, if they act in accordance with that which will bring them eternal existence and everlasting subsistence.7 Prophetic governance (al-tadbīr al-nabawī) falls into this category, and it is a part of it in [one] sense and distinct from in in [another] sense, just as we alluded to above on a similar [topic] concerning the hierarchy of beings and the categories of their ranks at the beginning of Proverbs.

[The Three Parts of Theoretical Wisdom]

Now concerning theoretical wisdom, it also consists of three parts:

  • (1) There is one part that is attached to matter (yataʿallaqu bi-’l-mawādd) and only exists [in conjunction] with it. However, the mind can abstract its concepts from their matter and conceive of them as mental concepts (lākin yumkin al-dhihn an yujarrida maʿānīhā ʿan mawāddihā wa-yataṣawwarahā maʿānī dhihniyya), even though it [also] conceives of their matter. For the mind can receive [those concepts], and wisdom8 with them. [This branch] is called propaedeutic science (al-ʿilm al-riyāḍī), and it consists of four parts: (a) Arithmetic; (b) geometry (al-handasa); (c) music; and (d) astronomy (al-hayʾa), by which I mean the science of the celestial spheres and their measurements and rotations, and the shape of their movements (hayʾat ḥarakātihā) and their respective distances, and things of this manner.
  • (2) The second part is also attached to matter (taʿalluquhu ayḍan bi-’l-mawādd), but it cannot be denuded from its material [substances], nor can the mind conceive of it in the absence of them; such as motion and rest, place and time, admixture and transformation, and similar such [things] concerning other attributes that inhere in bodies; such as lightness and weight, coarseness and smoothness, sweetness and bitterness, and such things. It is called physics (al-ʿilm al-ṭabīʿī), and it has fundamental principles (uṣūl), namely the four elements; and branches, namely the various things that come into being9 [from combinations of the elements]. [The latter consist of] three genera (ajnās): Mineral, vegetable, and animal. Human beings are treated by [this science], for they are included in animality in one sense, and excluded in another sense.
  • (3) The third part of theoretical wisdom is absolutely free of matter, denuded of corporeality, and it is attended by no composition in any sense whatsoever (ʿariya ʿan al-mawādd bi-’l-iṭlāq mujarrad ʿan al-jismāniyya wa-lā tarkīb yalḥaquhā bi-wajh min al-wujūh), neither outside the mind nor within it. It consists of knowledge of the angels (maʿrifat al-malāʾika) and souls and spiritual beings, which are called separate intellects and forms denuded of matter by the philosophers (al-ḥukamā), and knowledge of their ranks (wa-maʿrifat marātibihā), and their causes and effects (wa-’l-ʿilal minhā wa-’l-maʿlūlāt wa-’l-asbāb wa-’l-musabbabāt),10 and knowledge of God’s providence (wa-maʿrifat ʿināyat allāh), and His creation of the existent beings by means of those ranks11 according to their hierarchy, and knowledge of the souls of the celestial spheres and the pure spirits (wa-maʿrifat al-nufūs al-falakiyya wa-’l-arwāḥ al-zakiyya).

Then one proceeds from knowledge of this (maʿrifat dhālik) to the rank of sanctity (martabat al-quddūsiyya), pure and exalted above any image, bare of any likeness, pure from any compound. Simplicity beyond which there is no simplicity, absolute perfection, and true beauty. There is no relation between Him and the rest of His creations, and His existence is unlike their existence, and His true essence is unlike their true essence. He does not share existence with them other than by homonymy (siwā bi-ishtirāk al-ism).

It is knowledge of Divinity (maʿrifat al-rubūbiyya), by which I mean knowledge of God to the extent possible, according to the capacity of human beings, and knowledge of the attributes by which He is described, and the sense in which they point to Him12 with reference to the creation of existent beings and the origination of created beings out of His everlasting and eternal will and volition (ʿan mashīʾatihi wa-irādatihi al-abadiyya wa-’l-azaliyya).13

However, in reality He has no essential attribute (ṣifa dhātiyya), nor does any essential mode of being (hayʾa nafsāniyya) apply to Him. He has no “self” (nafs) to which accidents of the self (aʿrāḍ nafsāniyya) might occur. He is the maker (fāʿil) of the totality of existent beings,14 He is the cause of their existence, and His constant sustenance of them (wa-imdāduhu lahā bi-’l-baqāʾ) is the cause of their continuation and subsistence.

This part is the most exalted of [all] the ranks of wisdom, and the most sublime and noble. It is the goal of the various sciences and [branches of] knowledge (sāʾir al-ḥikam wa-’l-maʿārif), and the telos (nihāya) of every science, and the aim of every virtue.

[This mode of wisdom] may be acquired from the Prophetic Books in the form of narratives, and in the manner of exhortation (ʿalā ṭarīq al-akhbār wa-ʿalā sabīl al-tanbīh). And human beings were created with the inclination towards this in their mind, and [the inclination towards] investigation of His true nature – insofar as He imbued them with the intellectual form – with certain proofs and demonstrations.

On account of this intellectual apprehension through which human beings are ennobled above other species of animals, it is said of them, Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness (Gen. 1:26); and it is stated, In the image of God He created him. (Ibid., v.27) [This is] not due to their physical form, which is their shape and configuration.15 It is said of them, You have made him little less than the angels, and adorned him with glory and majesty; You have made him master over Your handiwork, laying the world at his feet. (Ps. 8:6–7) [This is attained] through the intellectual apprehension of their16 true nature, through cognitive mastery of their utilization in all of their purposes and benefits. One who has attained the completion of his soul and its refinement through these disciplines17 – both the practical and epistemic (al-ʿamaliyya minhā wa-’l-ʿilmiyya)18 – his soul shall be cleansed and purified through acquiring virtuous dispositions and upright traits. Then [his soul] shall become ennobled through true and perfect opinions. For he has already obtained the two kinds of wisdom, and through this he seeks refuge in the attainment of this final part, which is their telos and highest rank (ghāyatuhā wa-sharafuhā).

One who has achieved and accomplished this has attained true felicity, and eternal life, and the intellectual telos. [Such a person] abides eternally (wa-baqiya al-baqāʾ al-sarmadī), immersed in the seas of being (mustaghrāq fī biḥār al-wujūd), delighting in union with the Originator of all Existence19 (mutaladhdhidh bi-waṣl mūjid kull mawjūd),20 sublime is His name and exalted His renown.

When Solomon (may peace be upon him) collected these parts of practical and theoretical wisdom, he was called qohelet. This means “gatherer21 of the sciences” (jāmiʿ al-ḥikam) from [the same root as] Gather the people (Deut. 31:12).22 He was also called agur,23 meaning the same thing, from it gathers in (agrah) its food at the harvest. (Prov. 6:8) This is an active participle (ṣifa fāʿila) rather than a passive one (ṣifa mafʿūla), in the same form as because the king’s mission was urgent (naḥuṣ; 1 Sam 21:9) meaning pressing (loḥeṣ).24 Participles like it include extending [its limbs] or contracting (saruaʿ ve-qaluṭ; Lev. 22:23) was shrewd (hayah ʿarum; Gen. 3:1) speckled and spotty (naqod ve-ṭalu; Gen. 30:32, 33). Also like it is my arrow wound is painful, though I am free from transgression (anush ḥiṣṣi beli pashaʿ; Job 34:6). That is, “painful, hurting” (muʾlim muʾdhī). And like this is agonizing pain (keʾeb anush; cf. Isaiah 17:11), and also your injury is agonizing (anush le-shibrekh; Jer. 30:12), as we explained in Proverbs.25

Based on this sense the Greeks coined the term “philosopher”, meaning “gatherer of wisdom” (jāmiʿ al-ḥikma) in Greek.26 By entitling this book The words of Qohelet – that is, “a discourse of the gatherer of the sciences” (maqāla li-jāmiʿ al-ḥikam) – the collections of his wisdom and their principles are mentioned in it.

There is no doubt that wisdom (al-ḥikma) is that which endows a person with an intellectual soul (nafs ʿaqliyya), for it transforms the aptitude which [that person] has in potentia into actuality, so that it becomes an intellect in actu.27 Then one may become acquainted with the true nature of things, and one’s soul may become purified, and it may acquire good dispositions (malakāt al-khayr) through the practical wisdom by which it is shaped, and attain true opinions and intellectually [sound and] satisfying doctrines through the theoretical wisdom that it gains.

This is the ultimate perfection and felicity of the human being (wa-hādhā huwa ghāyat kamāl al-insān wa-saʿādatuhu), through which a person attains eternal life, and ascends to the ranks of the angels who are near [to God],28 and draws near to knowledge of God (maʿrifat allāh) to the extent that this is possible. Then fear of Him becomes true, non-imaginary; and worship of Him [becomes] purely intellectual, non-corporeal.29

In accordance with this, in Proverbs Solomon placed practical – that is, ethical (al-khuqliyya) – wisdom, and the refinement of the soul, and imparting to it praiseworthy characteristics and correct manners, and well-guided dispositions, and following the paths of temperance, at the beginning.30

Then, in this book [i.e., Qohelet], he explained many principles of theoretical wisdom. Then, at the end of the book, he reviewed matters of abstinence (al-zuhd), and that of it which is incumbent upon a perfect person, by informing him of the lot from which there is no escape for anybody – that being death. Then he concluded the whole [work] with the fear of God, as if to say that the purpose of all the aforementioned ethics and wisdom is the fear of God. Therefore did he say, The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Fear God and observe his commandments, for this is the whole of mankind. (Qoh. 12:13) That is, “the purpose of everything that you hear or understand of the various [kinds of] wisdom is the fear of God and obedience of his commandments, for this is the purpose of the human species and the major part of its felicity.” That is [the meaning] of the statement, for this is the whole of mankind. Therefore, the prophet rebuked one who lays claim to wisdom but is empty of knowledge and fear of God, and he said, See, they reject the word of the Lord, so their wisdom amounts to nothing. (Jer. 8:9)

Therefore, he started by announcing that the matters of this corporeal world collectively – property, furnishings, wealth, enjoyment, appetites, power, and attaining [one] – are objectives that have no inherent value31 to them. Rather, the entirety of that which is in the world of generation and corruption is ephemeral, transient, insubstantial like dust, for the entirety [of it] is mere fluctuation. Thus does he say, Futility of futilities32 said etc. That is, “Everything that I shall profess to have strived for, attained, been granted that which I have hoped for, and of which I have come to the far limit – I find that none of it has a purpose, nor does it last, but it is insubstantial [and] transient. All of it is in flux (muḥāl),33 possessing no reality.”


The present translation is based primarily on MS Pococke 320, 72b–75b; transcribed in Zoref, Tanchum Yerushalmi’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes, 24–26.


Here Tanḥum follows Maimonides’ usage of this verse, echoing the Islamic basmala (pace Qafiḥ, for whose discussion see Moreh ha-nebukhim [Mossad Harav Kook: 1977], 3 fn. 4). Qafiḥ notes that in employing this formulation, Maimonides expresses his identification with Abraham, the messenger of monotheism in an idolatrous world. For Maimonides’ usage and interpretation of this verse, see Pines, Guide, 3 and fn. 1 (introductory epistle), 282 and n. 4 (II.13), 516 (III.29); and cf. Mishneh torah, Laws of Idolatry and Gentile Norms, 1:3. Saul Lieberman noted that Maimonides prefaces all of his works with this formulation (see Hilkhoth Ha-Yerushalmi (The Laws of the Palestinian Talmud) of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, ed. Saul Lieberman [The Jewish Theological Seminary of America: 1995], 5, fn. 7). Of course, the fact that Maimonides’ usage of Gen. 21:33 echoes the basmala does not in the least negate Qafiḥ’s insightful observation concerning the significance of this usage. At the risk of over-reading, Tanḥum’s adoption of this formulation may indicate his self-perception as a follower of Maimonides, or even as an enabler of the full realization of the latter’s religious and philosophical project. For this aspect of Tanḥum’s activity, see above, p. 22–23.


For ḥikma as philosophy in this context, see above, p. 168–169 fn. 124. I have generally preferred to translate the singular form as “wisdom”, preserving the association with the Hebrew ḥokhmah. However, where Tanḥum employs the plural form and thereby more clearly alludes to the philosophical sciences treated in his classification, I have rendered the term “sciences”. In general, I have indicated the original form underlying my translation.


For the background to this interpretation of Prov. 9:1 in the light of medieval classifications of the sciences, see above, p. 182–185.


For the epistemological terms taṣawwur and taṣdīq, see discussion above, p. 129–132.


For the division of philosophy into the practical and theoretical sciences, see above, p. 185-186. With this distinction, Tanḥum begins his classification of the philosophical sciences. For the genre, and a detailed study of Tanḥum’s classification against the background of his antecedents, see above, p. 180–217.


For the concern of political science with the welfare of the body and soul see above, p. 202–203. For this dual concern as a litmus test of divinely inspired legislation according to Maimonides, see Guide III.27 (Pines, 510–511).


Arabic: al-ḥikam (plu.). Or: scientific knowledge.


Arabic: Mutakawwināt. This term (in its other forms kāʾināt or mukawwanāt) evokes the conception of the sublunar realm as “the world of generation and corruption (al-kawn wa-ʾl-fasād).”


I did not provide a different translation here for the pairs ʿilal/maʿlūlāt and asbāb/musabbabāt. For the relationship between these two pairs of terms, see above, p. 210 fn. 278.


I.e., by means of emanation through the intellects.


Arabic: wa-hayʾat dalālatihā ʿalayhi. So MS Lon. Bl. Or. 5063 (National Library of Israel, reel F 6466; Margoliouth cat. #207). In MS Pococke 320 the reading is ʿalā in place of ʿalayhi, which is the lectio difficilior but makes little syntactic sense (see Zoref, Tanchum Yerushalmi’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes, 25 and fn. 10).


Here, Tanḥum appears to be alluding to his belief in the eternity of the cosmos. For divergent perspectives concerning Maimonides’ position on the topic of the eternity of the cosmos versus creation ex nihilo, see Abraham Nuriel, “The Question of a Primordial or Created World in the Philosophy of Maimonides,” in Tarbiz 33 (1964), 372–387; Israel Ravitzky, “The Question of a Created or Primordial World in the Philosophy of Maimonides,” in Tarbiz 35 (1966), 333–348; Herbert Davidson, “Maimonides’ Secret Position on Creation”; Kenneth Seeskin, Maimonides on the Origin of the World (Cambridge University Press: 2005); Klein-Braslavy, Maimonides as Biblical Interpreter, 71–86.


The sense here is that God is active (fāʿil) while the rest of existence is passive (mafʿūl) in relation to Him.


Arabic: lā min ajl al-ṣūra al-jismāniyya allatī hiya al-shakl wa-’l-takhṭīṭ. This definition of what imago dei does not mean is based on Maimonides’ formulation in Guide I.1. See above, p. 217 fn. 310.


Although the referent of the feminine suffix - is ambiguous, the simplest reading (also in light of the continuation of the passage) is that it refers to the sciences discussed above.


Lit. “parts.”


Here, Tanḥum is alluding to the practical and theoretical sciences. See his first brief account of the seven sciences, above; and cf. the usage in the Treatise on Logic where philosophy is divided into al-falsafa al-ʿamaliyya and al-falsafa al-ʿilmiyya – see Efros, “Maqāla,” לט, lines 5–9; Türker, “Al-maqāla fī ṣināʿat al-manṭiq,” 108.


Or: every existent being.


For ladhdha as a characteristic of intellectual apprehension, see above, p. 141, p. 260.


Or: synthesizer.


For a discussion of Tanḥum’s interpretation of the lexeme qohelet, see above, p. 168–169 and fn. 124.


For Agur the son of Jakeh, see Prov. 30:1. For the traditional rabbinic identification of this figure with Solomon, and the interpretation of this name as an indication of the “collection” of Torah, see Qohelet Rabbah 1:1; Song of Songs Rabbah 1:1; Midrash Tanḥuma, ed. Buber, Va-era #2. Cf. Schechter, Aboth de Rabbi Nathan, version A, #39, 119. This interpretation is cited by Rashi on Qoh. 1:1, and in a more elaborate formulation by his grandson, R. Samuel b. Meir (Rashbam) ad loc.


Cf. Ibn Janāḥ’s discussion of the sense of this verbal root in connection with 1 Sam. 21:9: “In my opinion, it is not improbable that the nūn is in place of a lām, as if its root were laḥuṣ [a typically passive form] in the sense of loḥeṣ [an active participle], meaning ‘pressing and urgent’ (ḍāghiṭan ḥāfizan).” (Neubauer, Uṣūl, 426.)


Tanḥum’s analysis of the form anush in Job 34:6 and Jer. 30:12, and the examples that he cites from Gen. 3:1, Gen. 30:32/33, Lev. 22:23, are all drawn from Ibn Janāḥ’s entry for the root ʾ-n-sh, in Neubauer, Uṣūl, 60.


For this understanding of the term faylasūf, see above, p. 168–169 and fn. 124. In describing Solomon as the gatherer or synthesizer of the philosophical sciences, Tanḥum alludes to his ideal of the human being who, after acquiring a training in the practical sciences (particularly ethics) and theoretical sciences, contemplates the totality of her or his knowledge of the cosmos. From the totality emerges a higher degree of insight, possibly associated with prophecy. See above, p. 264–265. For background to Tanḥum’s ideal of iʿtibār (contemplation), see above, p. 27–30.


For the stages of intellection according to the medieval Arabic Peripatetics, see above, p. 175–177.


Here, Tanḥum asserts that by actualizing one’s intellect, one achieves some affinity with the angels. For Maimonides’ implication that the acquired intellect is that which survives death, in his statement that the soul that survives death is not the same as that which is born with the body, see Guide I.70 (Pines, 173–174). According to Tanḥum’s philosophical sources, the separate intellects (al-ʿuqūl al-mufāraqa) are identified as angels. For this understanding, see above, p. 126, p. 204, p. 209 fn. 275.


For Ibn Ezra’s view that fear of God is the intended outcome of the scientific discourse in Qohelet, see above, p. 160–161. Compare also Qoh. 12:13, cited in the continuation of this passage. For fear (and love) of God as the outcome of the contemplation of nature (including the study of physics and metaphysics), Maimonides’ Mishneh torah, Laws of the Foundations of the Torah, 2:1–2. For intellectual worship (al-ʿibāda al-ʿaqliyya), see Maimonides, Guide III.51, see Pines, 623; Munk, Dalālat al-ḥāʾirīn, 459 lines 1–2. In that chapter, Maimonides identifies intellectual contemplation with the talmudic concept of “worship in the heart (ʿabodah she-ba-leb)” (for which, see Babylonian Talmud, Taʿanit 2a; and cf. Deut. 11:13). In the Talmud, the expression “service in the heart” describes prayer, not intellectual contemplation. Maimonides cites the dictum in its original talmudic sense in the Mishneh torah, Laws of Prayer and the Priestly Blessing, 1:1.


For Tanḥum’s understanding of the Solomonic corpus of Proverbs, Qohelet, and Song as reflecting a philosophical curriculum, divided into ethics, physics (or the theoretical sciences more broadly), and metaphysics (or rapturous post-metaphysical contemplation) respectively, see above, p. 170–173. However, the boundaries between the subject matter of these books are fluid in Tanḥum’s view. For example, see his discussions of ethics in Qohelet, discussed above, p. 217–236.


Lit. “intended purpose (ghāya maqṣūda)”.


I have not attempted to translate the verse in strict accordance with the medieval Arabic translators, as Tanḥum leaves some ambiguity in his own reading of the verse, clearly drawing on two divergent traditions: In the previous sentence, he declares the sublunar world and its pleasures to be “insubstantial like dust (maʿdūm ka’l-habāʾ)”, drawing on a Judeo-Arabic tradition of rendering Hebrew hebel (pausal habel) as “dust (habāʾ)”, both in Qoh. 1:1 and elsewhere. For Salmon b. Yeroḥam’s use of this terminology in his translation of Qoh. 1:1, see Robinson, Asceticism, Eschatology, Opposition to Philosophy, 184. For a review of this tradition in translation, see ibid., fn. 35. In his commentary to Qoh. 1:2, Tanḥum offers no full and literal translation of the verse, but he does hint at Ibn Ghiyāth’s translation – mustaḥīl nihāyat al-istiḥāla – by referring to Solomon’s assertion in the verse that everything is in flux (muḥāl). For Ibn Ghiyāth’s translation, see Qafiḥ, Ḥamesh megillot, 172. See also his commentary to 1:2, in ibid., 173.


For this as an allusion to Ibn Ghiyāth’s translation of Qoh. 1:2, see previous note.

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