Review of Kohelet: A Map to Eden—An Intertextual Journey

By David Curwin | Maggid Books Jerusalem, 2023 | 250 pages

The Book of Kohelet is often regarded as particularly challenging to study due to its enigmatic and philosophical nature. Written in a poetic and introspective style, it grapples with profound existential questions about the meaning of life, the nature of human existence and the apparent futility of many human endeavors. Its ambiguity and paradoxical messages have led to diverse interpretations, making it a complex and thought-provoking work for scholars and laymen alike. Every generation struggles with this book and tries to find new meaning relevant to its time. 

In Kohelet: A Map to Eden—An Intertextual Journey, author David Curwin does some of the heavy lifting for us, rendering Kohelet a little more understandable for the contemporary reader. He employs a non-linear approach in his commentary, delving into select passages from different parts of Kohelet to provide the reader with a broader and deeper perspective. 

One of the book’s unique features is its application of a modern midrash methodology developed by Rabbi David Fohrman of Aleph Beta, a Torah media company. This methodology focuses primarily on the literal reading of Biblical verses, drawing thematic connections between different Biblical passages through the appearance of shared keywords. Curwin highlights the appearance of keywords in two different Biblical passages to illuminate common themes related to both contexts. This is loosely similar to the hermeneutical device known in the Talmud as gezeirah shavah. While Curwin occasionally references classical rabbinic sources, medieval Jewish commentators, and modern Biblical scholarship, he mainly adheres to the literal interpretation of the verses themselves.

The book begins by setting the stage with an outline of King Shlomo’s life and achievements, leading up to his spiritual downfall. This is fitting because the Book of Kohelet is traditionally ascribed to King Shlomo. In this opening section, Kohelet is seen through the lens of Curwin’s methodology, with different parts of the text mirroring various points in King Shlomo’s life. For example, after King Shlomo realized the folly of trusting one’s own judgment instead of hewing closely to Hashem’s Divine commands, he retrospectively admitted that a human being cannot add to or subtract from Hashem’s doings (Kohelet 3:14). The wording of that particular verse mimics the language of the Pentateuch’s prohibitions against adding or taking away from the commandments given in the Torah (Devarim 13:1). These sorts of nuanced approaches add much depth and richness to our understanding of Kohelet’s timeless messages.

The Book of Kohelet is often regarded as particularly challenging to study due to its enigmatic and philosophical nature.

The second section of the book offers a similar exploration, this time charting the story of Adam, who began his path at the pinnacle of Creation, but dramatically fell from grace after eating from the Tree of Knowledge. The author convincingly argues that Kohelet contains references to Adam’s lofty place in the Garden of Eden and his idyllic life there, his subsequent sin, and the punishments he suffered thereafter. For instance, Curwin interprets the repeated use of the word hevel (“breathiness” or “vanity”) in Kohelet as the utterances of a mourning father lamenting the loss of his son Hevel. In these self-reflective bouts of remorse, Adam attributed the tragic murder of Hevel to his own sins, essentially making the argument that had he not eaten the forbidden fruit, Kayin would never have killed Hevel. This line of interpretation thus adds another layer of complexity to the text of Kohelet by connecting it to the Biblical narratives of Adam and Hevel.

As Curwin frames the story of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam’s sin was that he ate from the Tree of Knowledge with intention to become like Hashem—in other words, he sought to become the final arbiter of good and evil, instead of simply following the more objective metric of Hashem’s command and carrying out what Hashem had already decided. King Shlomo, too, did not just want to serve as a judge to carry out the law as it was given by Hashem; he wanted to use his own intellect to decide what is acceptable. This led him to break the law and go beyond what was permissible for a king to do. Thus, the book’s central argument revolves around the idea that both Adam and King Shlomo sought to use their own rationality to decide what is right and wrong, disregarding Hashem’s objective commandments in favor of their own judgment. 

This same paradigm, the author contends, played a role in the story of the Ten Spies sent by Moshe to scout the Promised Land. Instead of conducting an objective fact-finding expedition, the spies altered the scope of their mission to allow them to subjectively decide for themselves whether the land was truly “good” as Hashem had promised. The book continues to discuss how the commandments given immediately after the story of the Ten Spies—the commandment of wine libations (Bamidbar 15:1–16) and wearing tzitzit (Bamidbar 15:37–41)—were meant as correctives to offset the spies’ mistaken worldview. As mentioned earlier, these profound connections between Kohelet and other parts of the Bible are always buttressed by identifying keywords in the texts that appear in parallel Biblical passages. Finding such parallels allows the author to draw thematic comparisons that shed light on the hidden wisdom within Kohelet.

Despite the profundity of the content, the reader will find it to be a quick and engaging read, thanks to its short chapters and straightforward presentation. Much of the book simply quotes the text of Kohelet in English and Hebrew alongside the relevant parallel texts being analyzed. The footnotes are especially concise and succinct, as they are primarily used for source citations. Appendices, including a discussion on why Kohelet is traditionally read on the holiday of Sukkot, are appended to the book and provide additional insights. The end of the book contains a helpful index of the Biblical sources discussed. 

Curwin’s book is a highly enjoyable and refreshingly original exploration of the Book of Kohelet and is a valuable resource for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of its insights.


Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein is a freelance scholar, author and lecturer living in Beitar Illit, Israel. 

This article was featured in the Spring 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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