Sukkot 5771: What is the Difference Between Wind and Breath?

Like many Jews around the world, the morning after breaking the fast of Yom Kippur, I helped build a Sukkah. As must of liberal Judaism does, I do not have my own, but have the sukkah of a prayer community I’m involved with. With a September Sukkot, and rather good weather, it seems all the more enticing, to dwell out in this structure for a few days.

Also like many Jews around the world, I spent the first few days after Sukkot talking with other Jews about their Yom Kippur. We would talk about their fast and how they lasted before breaking their fast. We would talk about each rabbi’s sermon or D’var Torah and we would talk about how the services were presented. One conversation I had was with someone who had very mixed feelings about video screen PowerPoint presentations during the sermon. I, for one was taken aback at such a blatant use of technology. I’ll let a few instruments in services, no problem, but there seem to be a line crossed when a video screen, either connected to a computer or television system is part of the holiest day of Yom Kippur. My reaction led me to think of some interesting Hebrew vocabulary we find during Sukkot.

While most people connect the reading of the Megillah with the reading of Megilat Esther, the reading for Purim, there are actually five such readings from the Ketuvim, the writings of the biblical text, each associated with a holiday on the calendar. The traditional reading during the holiday of Sukkot is Ecclesiastes, in Hebrew Kohelet, supposedly written by king Solomon in his old age. That book starts on a less than optimistic tone, and gets gloomy from there:

א דברי קוהלת בן-דויד, מלך בירושלים. ב הבל הבלים אמר קוהלת, הבל הבלים הכול הבל. ג מה-יתרון, לאדם: בכל-עמלו–שיעמול, תחת השמש.

1 The words of Kohelet, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 Vanity of vanities, said Kohelet; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. 3 What profit has man of all his labor when he labors under the sun? [Kohelet 1]

The key word in this verse is, חבל , Hevel. Here it is translated vanity, but a check of the Brown Driver Briggs Lexicon gives us some texture to that word.

From Google books BDB Page 211

We also have verses including hevel and something else of interest, the first of these being:

יד רָאִיתִי, אֶת-כָּל-הַמַּעֲשִׂים, שֶׁנַּעֲשׂוּ, תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ; וְהִנֵּה הַכֹּל הֶבֶל, וּרְעוּת רוּחַ.
14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.[Kohelet 1]

The word for wind here is רוּחַ Ruach. On page 1112 of the Brown Driver Briggs Lexicon reads like this.

From Google Books BDB pg 924

In kohelet 1:14 we have wind in a phrase “striving after wind.” The word used as striving in the Biblical text is found only here so understanding it cannot be done by context. However we can look to the Aramaic translation, the Targum, for its meaning of the word. In the Targum chasing after wind is translated ותבירות רוחא , which gives us a new word, תבירות translated in English by the Jastrow Dictionary as:

From Tynedale Archive Jastrow Dictionary pg 1644

Thus the parallelism in kohelet all is vanity and a striving after wind talks about disappointment and futility. Yet in both words, the image of air flow is important, In hevel, it is a breath, in ruach it is a strong wind. We cannot catch the wind, and we cannot sustain breathing out. That is the common image of futility. Yet there is also a large difference between the two. Ruach is a sustainable wind, lasting a long time if not forever, much like our spirit and souls. Ruach can be strong compared to Hevel’s feebleness. Hevel is a mere wisp of breath, so fleeting to be meaningless. Indeed it is so common, most of our lives we ignore it completely.
Ruach is our home, Hevel our sukkah. Ruach is our soul, Hevel the petty meaningless thoughts we have everyday. Ruach is genius behind a classic novel, Hevel the latest gossip tweet about some 2nd rate actress. They are a polarity, one where we can see where there is meaning.

Hevel all too often happens on video monitors. It’s not the use of electricity on a holiday that disturbs me, as much as the Hevel that makes up its content. Many argue we need such things to keep the younger generation engaged, and many of the older generations as well. But if we use things that have no substance, how can we build substance? PowerPoint and short videos are all hevel. They might engage an emotion, but they rarely engage the mind for long, if at all.

It is therefore ironic, that something so like hevel, a sukkah, is so good at countering hevel. Exposing us to the lie that hevel is substantial, we live in something that is temporary and very leaky. We get days that the wind blows us and our decorations around while threatening the structural integrity of our little home. In a sukkah we are subjected to cold and rain. But we are also blessed by seeing stars and meteors, the beautiful designs the Ruach shapes clouds into sculptures and paintings, the comedy of squirrels. Many of these change, but they are almost always there. Seeing them engages parts of our souls and spirits that may be asleep. We can engage our imagination, our will toward doing good things, here in the sukkah, all of this grows our personal Ruach. We cannot catch Ruach, but we can grow it by observing it.

King Solomon was right to be pessimistic in his old age. Even in his low tech times, he found that much of life was vanity and chasing after wind. Pursuing wealth, collecting wisdom or being a party boy, only leaves one as satisfied as eating one potato chip. Yet I believe, if we do not pursue wind, but sit there and observe it, then somehow in the observing, we energize the spirit and inspiration needed in our lives and in our souls.


Trainer, App developer. Author. Artist. Proprietor of and Host of Slice of App Pie Show

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3 comments on “Sukkot 5771: What is the Difference Between Wind and Breath?
  1. Larry Kaufman says:

    The distinction between hevel and ruach is interesting; linking it to technology is a non-starter.

    Once we admit electricity to the act of worship, all the rest is commentary. (By the way, I see no analogy to the use of musical instruments, a completely different set of issues.)

    I had a running argument with the rabbi of a synagogue where I was once active, who was willing for a bar mitzvah service to be audiotaped but not videotaped. I could understand an objection to intrusive videotaping, but maintained that a hidden camera and ambient lighting was no different from audiotaping, other than leading to more satisfied congregants. I lost; I still maintain I was right.

    At Beth Emet, we frequently have a service supplement at kabbalat Shabbat, usually a song that is not in the siddur. How much greener it would be to project the lyrics than to kill trees!

    At URJ biennial conventions, all plenary sessions, including Shabbat services, are augmented with Vu-Graph projections, giving a sense of immediacy and participation to all 5000 worshipers — and also, by extension, giving a hechsher to the use of technology in the Reform movement. Rabbi Arnold J. Wolf z”l predicted to me that Mishkan T'filah would be the last printed Reform siddur — another acknowledgment that printing press technology could no longer tether the movement.

    Yes, the Power Point slide or the Vu-Graph image might have the transitory nature of wind, but that in itself does not make it “vanity.” We still need a better translation for hevel — futility works better for me than vanity.

  2. Shlomo says:

    I have lots to say about Larry's post, but I'll limit myself to a few comments.

    1) My comment about instruments is not about technology, but about turning synagogues into a show and not a prayer space, the same argument Abraham Joshua Heschel made almost 50 years ago. I can handle one solo guitar for Shabbat, but Cello choir and piano on Kol Nidre is pure show, not prayer in my view. I prefer A Capella that night. But that is a personal preference.

    2)Considering I wrote and researched this whole piece on my iPad, Technology is not a problem for me. I think it would be very nice and eco-kosher to be able to have all the Talmud, Midrash Targums, and multiple versions of siddurim on a kindle or iPad, and for such resources to be usable during services. CCAR Press Should definitely have a Kindle version of Mishkan Tefilla out right now (if you agree here's the link to request it via ) I'd buy it in a second, and like my copy of Jastrow and BDB on my iPad would solve a lot of visual impairment issues and heavy book issues in one shot.

    My issue is content. Even the issue you bring of putting song lyrics up is a good example.

    As Old Town School of Folk Music has used such technology for a while to conduct twin spins (special supplemental songs) for second half group instrument play, I can speak from that experience as an alum. A song on the screen can only played once, unless one has excellent memory. I for one can't keep the sequence of the five chords on the screen in my head, let alone the lyrics.

    A quote or a song someone likes, even if they like it, is gone as soon as the words leave the screen. It is gone like a breath, with no permanence because we have limited memory. A piece of paper can be taken home. If it is a song, one can sing it, or if it has chords, one can play on his or her guitar or piano. That is so very difficult with a mere flash of light. Big screens are mere mass media for the moment. The 1984 ad for the introduction of the Apple Macintosh still is my own personal vision of such screens.

    Much of what I see up there written in PowerPoint can be done in the way our ancestors have done it for millenia: Aggadah. As a corporate trainer for twenty years I know more people remember my stories than my PowerPoint slides.

    I suppose the only other comment I have is to ask a question: Of the same time spent at a URJ Biennial or a retreat at OSRUI, which is a more fulfilling religious and spiritual experience?

  3. Larry Kaufman says:

    Having done many retreats at OSRUI, and many Biennials, I can unequivocally say that there is no other worship “high” like Shabbat at Biennial, and the high has been elevated since the advent of the giant screens, providing an immediacy that was missing when one sat in the back of a 5000 seat auditorium, remote from the worship leaders. Moreover, being able to follow the Torah reading from the scroll delivers a kick of its own.

    Of course, a more basic difference is the role of spectacle as part of worship content. Clearly it is intended to be — why else the detailed instructions as to the wardrobe of the Kohen Gadol, the decoration of the Mishkan, etc.

    As with electricity, so with music. Once you admit the guitar, you've given the hechsher to musical instruments — and for many, the instrumental embellishments of the liturgy add meaning and enrichment to their prayer.

    Even the great chazzanim of the early twentieth century — whose only accompaniment during religious services was an a capella male choir — had instrumental accompaniment when they recorded liturgical music.

    Your preference for non-intermediation during worship speaks to the personal prayer experience. The communal prayer experience (even in an Orthodox setting) includes such embellishments as raising the parochet at key moments, hakafah, even, on Yom Kippur, prostration. It's all part of the entertainment package that is inherent in communal worship.

    Reliance on aggadah, of course, became obsolete the minute the Oral Law was written down. Yes, stories are a better teaching method than bullet points — but that too is a matter of content, not presentation.

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