The Bible Says What? Study Torah… but not too much

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The Bible Says What? Study Torah… but not too much

Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris takes a controversial topic and offers a progressive response

Studying Jewish texts (Photo by Eran Menashri on Unsplash)
Studying Jewish texts (Photo by Eran Menashri on Unsplash)

Among the final verses of Ecclesiastes, we find these surprising words: “Much study is a wearying of the flesh.” 

We all know the centrality of education and study to the Jewish tradition, so how could Ecclesiastes disparage it in such a manner?  

To complicate matters further, modern scholarship asks if Ecclesiastes 12: 12-14 is even part of the original text suggesting it is a later addition, not the words of Ecclesiastes at all. 

Even more challenging, two of the central words in the phrase – the Hebrew words lahag and y’giat – are both known as hapax legomenon, words that only appear once in the Hebrew Bible, making translation notoriously difficult. 

But putting aside textual integrity and semantics, if this part of the verse does condemn study as physically wearisome, what are we to make
of it?  

The first part of the verse is far better known – ‘the making of many books is without limit’. Perhaps meaning that knowledge is endless. 

Whatever we have read, studied or learned will soon be added to by a new opinion or ideas. However much we know, we will never be finished. It is tiring just to think about it. 

But the Targum, the ancient Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, was so vexed by this verse that it changed its meaning altogether. The Targum renders it as “be careful to make books of wisdom without end but occupy yourself much with words of Torah and become wise with weariness of flesh”.

In other words, be so studious that you exhaust yourself. Be a relentless student. Now there’s the message that perhaps we did expect to hear! 

As we read Ecclesiastes on Succot, perhaps this verse will have at least offered pause for thought. 

  •  Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris is principal at Leo Baeck College
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