Rav Ulla expounded: What is the meaning of what is written: Don’t overdo wickedness… (Ecclesiastes 7:17). Only to an excess one should not be wicked?! To a small degree one should be wicked?! [Obviously not!] Rather, if one who has eaten a clove of garlic and his breath smells bad, should he go back and eat another clove of garlic so that his breath smells even worse?
The past two editions of TMT (#63 and #64) have followed a discussion of the concept of reverence for God. (The term I have translated “reverence” is sometimes understood to connote “awe” and other times understood to connote “fear”). The discussion of reverence for God was a sidebar conversation to one that asked why Ecclesiastes is included in the Tana”kh (Hebrew Scriptures). The passage above, which follows immediately from the passage in TMT #65, can be understood to mark a return to the original topic of conversation on Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). Rav Ulla, explaining a verse from Kohelet, demonstrating consistency with rabbinic concepts and values. In addition, although it doesn’t mention reverence explicitly, it also serves as a capstone to the previous conversation about reverence for God.
The author of Kohelet identifies himself as the “son of David, king in Jerusalem” and, on that basis, tradition ascribes the book to King Solomon, presumably written late in life. Scholars, however, on the basis of Persian loan-words and Aramaic, have determined that Kohelet was written long after Solomon lived. Kohelet is markedly different from most other books in the Tana”kh in its tone and content. Scholars disagree whether it dates to the Persian or Hellenistic period, whether it is optimistic or pessimistic in its attitude toward the meaning of life, and whether the author is the narrator or the book is a fictional autobiography. What all agree upon is that the book is a search for wisdom that dispenses advice for living life amidst reflections on philosophical conundrums of meaning and purpose. Kohelet expresses a deep degree of skepticism not found in Torah or the books of the Prophets, nor even in Job or Proverbs, which are also wisdom book. Rav Ulla explains a verse that seems especially bizarre: Don’t overdo wickedness and don’t be a fool or you may die before your time (Ecclesiastes 7:17).
Rav Ulla quotes merely three words of Ecclesiastes 7:17 that move one to ask, “Who would say such a thing?” To advise people not to be excessively wicked suggests that some degree of evil behavior is acceptable; it is going to excess that is not wise. Rav Ulla says, as we might: Does this mean that the problem is only in the excess, but not in the evil itself? Of course not! Rejecting this way of reading the verse, he provides an analogy intended to explain its proper understanding: If I were to eat a clove of garlic and my breath became offensive to others, upon realizing that were the case, I should not go back for seconds. Don’t overdo wickedness, then, means not to continue down the path of wickedness: stop and change directions.
We might respond to Ulla: But, knowing that I would be in close quarters with other people, I shouldn’t have eaten the garlic in the first place. We might also ask: Why does Rav Ulla use such a trivial example as garlic when discussing wickedness? Garlic-eating, whether intentional or not, might be deemed inconsiderate, but wicked?
Rav Ulla uses the awkward and peculiar phrase, Don’t overdo wickedness, to make a point that seems obvious, yet is difficult to digest. Human beings are creatures of habit. We tend to spend time with the same people again and again. We tend to do again and again what we’ve done before. And we tend to justify what we do, even when we know it violates social strictures and ethical norms. Rav Ulla reminds us that we have the freedom to choose a new direction for our lives. Having chewed one clove of garlic, we can decide to not consume another—even when the good taste of garlic lingers in our mouth. Perhaps the metaphor of eating garlic is used because it creates a vivid picture in one’s mind and because it is delicious to the one who eats it, but pleasant to others nearby.
Perhaps Rav Ulla has in mind that we do things that, at least initially, seem innocuous. With repetition, however, they grew increasingly bothersome and problematic. Yet once we have established a pattern of behavior, it becomes more and more difficult to change as time goes on. Rav Ulla’s analogy to eating garlic helps us focus on how our actions effect those around us. Sometimes “a little more” is not unnoticeable or innocuous.
What has this to do with reverence for God? Ostensibly, the passage does not address the concept of yirat shamayim, but rather returns us to the earlier discussion of Kohelet. However, its placement—immediately following the conversation on yirat shamayim—suggests a connection. When we head down the wrong path in life, the ever-present possibility for course correction. Rav Ulla suggests that wherever we are, God is accessible and available to help and support our desire to change. It’s never too late and we’re never too far afield to experience yirat shamayim.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Is there a difference between wickedness and excessive wickedness? If so, where is the boundary and what are the implications of making the distinction between them?
- Which is harder: Refraining from wickedness (or a bad habit) or ceasing wickedness (or a bad habit)? Why?
- Our previous passages (TMT #63 and #64) suggest that reverence for God is a religious, spiritual attitude: Rabbah bar Rav Huna says that reverence is essential for truly mastering Torah learning; without it, one’s learning is empty. Does Rav Ulla think of reverence in terms of attitude or deeds?