From the sources by Eliezer Segal: Of vanities and vehicles

by Eliezer Segal

(AJNews) – Jewish thinkers have long been puzzled by the rabbis’ choice of the book of Kohelet [Ecclesiastes] as the designated reading for the Sabbath that falls during Sukkot. Many regard the book as a bleak meditation on the meaningless of life, an idea that is hardly consistent with the character of Sukkot as the quintessential “season of our rejoicing.”

I personally have never subscribed to that pessimistic reading of Kohelet. Quite the contrary, I feel that its main message is that we should—if only temporarily—stop taking ourselves too seriously. We are urged to enjoy a break from our striving to eradicate all the world’s imperfections, and recognize that individuals may not immediately resolve all of society’s inequities, let alone overcome the limitations of human mortality. Kohelet recommends that we ought to take a few spiritual health days to forget our existential angst and appreciate the delights of the present moment. And what better setting for such contentment than the serenity of a sukkah!

Jewish tradition ascribes the book of Kohelet (as well as the Song of Songs and the book of Proverbs) to King Solomon, about whom the Bible says that “he was wiser than all men.” There is a virtual consensus that Kohelet was the product of Solomon’s old age, when it is normal “to utter words of vanity” (or perhaps: “cynicism”).

In the second chapter of Kohelet, the author recounts his futile quest to find satisfaction in physical and material diversions. His list of acquisitions includes the obscure Hebrew words “shiddah and shiddot,” for which the Talmud cites two main explanations. One refers to the king’s mastery over male and female demons (“shedim” and “shedot”); whereas a tradition stemming from the land of Israel derives it from an Aramaic cognate that  normally designates a box or chest. Rashi interpreted it as “a coach for ladies or princes.”

Rabbi Joseph Hayyim of Baghdad, renowned as the “Ben Ish Hai” (1835–1909), found this explanation unsatisfying. In a marginal addition to his commentary on the Talmud, he expressed amazement: “does this really encapsulate the wisdom of King Solomon—that he could construct a coach?!” We might have been more legitimately impressed by the king’s ability to subjugate demons to do his bidding; that indeed would attest to extraordinary wisdom. But why take such pride in building a vehicle, even one suitable for nobility or for ladies?

In another of his commentaries, the Ben Ish Hai related an intriguing question that had been addressed to him by an unnamed interlocutor: if King Solomon was really so smart, why couldn’t he have invented all the technological wonders that we enjoy in modern (nineteenth-century) times? As an example he mentions the “chemin de fer” (railroad train). How is it conceivable that the great King Solomon would not have devised a locomotive engine?

In response to that challenge, the Ben Ish Hai concluded that the wise monarch had indeed invented a demon-fast railroad train (powered, presumably, by a steam engine) for exclusive use by his queen (perhaps all of his thousand wives and concubines) and himself—Rashi’s “ladies and princes”; and that the ancient rabbis were aware of this technological milestone. That however begs the question: why did the locomotive have to be re-invented many centuries later?

The answer, he declared, epitomizes the difference between true wisdom and mere technological knowhow. A wise person will realize that with great power comes great responsibility, and some scientific discoveries are best kept under wraps because of their potential for damage and destruction. Thus Solomon, foreseeing that the nations of the world might put them to pernicious use–and even direct them against the Jewish people—concealed them.

The Israeli Torah scholar Rabbi Isaac Zilberstein cited the Ben Ish Hai’s discussion in connection with a practical problem in Jewish religious law. A certain person (evidently an Israeli) had been involved in numerous traffic accidents; and out of frustration over the harm caused by reckless drivers, he rashly swore an oath never again to ride in one of those newfangled vehicles. The person now regretted the oath and was seeking grounds to annul it. Rabbi Zilberstein observed that if automobiles are not an innovation of the last century and a half, but already existed in the days of King Solomon, then the oath was based on a mistaken premise, and accordingly was not technically binding.

In a similar vein, the Ben Ish Hai interpreted a statement in the Talmud about David’s nemesis Doeg the Edomite whom the rabbis depicted as an erudite scholar who “mastered three hundred laws involving a container that hovers in the air,” as they relate to arcane issues of ritual purity or travel on the sabbath.

The Baghdadi sage stressed that this was no mere instance of fanciful talmudical speculation, but that the ancients might well have mastered the technology of aviation, which was subsequently lost until modern European scientists rediscovered it. He referred in Arabic to “markab al-hawa” (airships), and it would appear that he had in mind balloons rather than airplanes.

A passage in the Talmud tells of a fire that once “fell” in the courtyard of Joseph ben Simai on Shabbat. The Ben Ish Hai took note of this unusual Hebrew mode of expressing a fire’s outbreak. He found in this phraseology an allusion to the use of a lightning rod to draw down the incendiary force of thunderbolts. (The scientific basis of lightning rods is widely credited to Benjamin Franklin.)

In recent years, many in the ultra-orthodox camp have asserted that the great Torah scholars of the past, along with their expertise in religious law, must have been gifted with quasi-supernatural scientific and technological expertise. (Some of those claims are reminiscent of the Cold War Soviet propaganda that took credit for the invention of radio, television, lightbulbs, airplanes and anaesthetics.)

The persistence of such opinions effectively corroborates the wise Kohelet’s repeated observations that “there is nothing new under the sun.”

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