As we begin a new cycle of Torah-reading with Bereishit, we come again upon the story of the first homicide. This story is much more than a sibling rivalry, and one way to notice the scope and reverberations of this story is to pay attention to the name of its victim, Hevel. In tracing a fuller history of this word through Jewish tradition, I hope to give it texture and to illustrate just how fluid the discussion and interpretation of key words and phrases remain in our tradition.
Part I: Bereishit
The first time we encounter the word hevel is in the fourth chapter of Bereishit, where the first children are born. First we meet Kayin (usually rendered in English as ‘Cain’) and then his brother Hevel (usually rendered as ‘Abel’). The story itself has spawned library shelves of commentary, but I will restrict my focus to the name of the second son, Hevel. Continuing a precedent that has already been set in the story of Gan Eden, this compact story raises names and their meaning to a high level of significance. The name Kayin comes from the root k.n.h. and refers both to tools of violence and to acquisition. So, we know that we are meeting a person whose being will be defined by a (sometimes violent) drive to acquire―a point made even more emphatic by the fact that Kayin is not named; he is born with a name (4:1). Hevel, by contrast, is generally understood to mean breath or vapor. While no reason is given for his name, later tradition understandably sought to understand the name (and the character) in light of how it is used elsewhere in the Tanakh. It is likely that, from a literary perspective, Kayin and Hevel are meant to be seen as direct opposites of each other. They stake out opposite professions―Kayin follows his father in working the land, while Hevel becomes the world’s first shepherd―and many midrashim understand them, as the first brothers, to be rivals in all things.
While the nature of Kayin’s sin is the matter of some debate, Hevel is the (tragic) hero of this story. Not only is his profession taken up by almost all later biblical heroes (the Avot, Moses, David, etc.) but his very silence is the backdrop upon which the strong moral voice of Bereishit works its magic. As Rabbi Michael Hattin has argued: “For Hevel, possessions are not the gauge of a man’s value and ultimate meaning is not to be found in avaricious accumulation of goods, influence or power. By declaring the futility of blinding amassment, Hevel introduces us to the possibility of transcendence, of apprehending God not through the renunciation of materiality and its trappings, but rather through their elevation.” Saying not a word, only copying his brother in offering a sacrifice (from his “choicest” flocks, 4:4), Hevel is passive in a complete sense.
Part II: Ecclesiastes
In some ways, the author of Ecclesiastes is caught right in the middle of the worldviews of Kayin and Hevel. Having clearly done a lot of acquiring in his life, Kohelet sees the futility of trying to actually leave a mark, to outlive our mortal lives (this, too, being a central challenge at the heart of the opening stories of Bereishit). Ecclesiastes opens with the famous line:
Hevel of hevels says Kohelet; hevel of hevels all is hevel. (1:2)
While this seems to place the author firmly on the side of Hevel, we also have to note what he says just two pesukim later:
A generation comes and a generation goes, and the earth stands forever. (1:4)
The only thing that outlasts us is the land itself. And this is what Kayin wanted to acquire, above all, as a worker of the land. As Rabbi David Fohrman puts it: “The earth itself outlasts us. It alone, in the world we inhabit, has the aura of permanence. And by clinging to the earth, we achieve a measure of solace against the great terror of hevel, or breath.”
In order to understand how Kohelet responds to the story of the first murder, however, we must emphasize that he is definitely responding to it. Ecclesiastes as a whole could be seen as a subversive sequel of Genesis 4 (or maybe Genesis 1-4). This is both due to the subjects taken up by Kohelet and, importantly, to the repeated use of the term hevel in the book (38 times). As Jacques Ellul put it: “The meaning of hebel in Genesis is especially important, since Qohelet continually refers to Genesis.… Hebel evolved from a concrete to an abstract meaning: it is a ‘lexicalized metaphor.’” If Hevel is the name of a character in Genesis, it has become abstract, returning to its etymological underpinnings. By the time we get to Ecclesiastes, the word itself is now a metaphor. So what does Kohelet mean when he says that something is hevel?
There seem to be two main schools of thought on how to understand hevel:
- The term is fundamentally metaphorical. In this school of thought, the term is translated as “breath” or “transience” and retains the wide array of possible meanings by sticking with the etymology we found in Bereishit.
- The term is fundamentally pejorative. In this school of thought, the metaphor is replaced by one (or some) of its meanings, with a distinctly negative bent. The most popular proponent of this school of thought is the Vulgate translation (4th century), which inaugurated the translation of hevel as “vanity” and went unchallenged in Christian society for over a millennium (until the 20th century).
I ultimately view the first approach to hevel to be closest to that of Jewish tradition, not with respect only to hevel but also to lashon ha-kodesh generally. To limit the scope of a word by translating it as “vanity” or “absurdity” is to close off the possibilities that the word untranslated (or retaining only its metaphorical meaning) might convey. This sort of univocal reading can cause the original text to be misunderstood and misapplied. As Ethan Dor-Shav notes:
If we translate Abel’s name, hevel, as “vanity,” as readers of Ecclesiastes have long been accustomed, it is impossible to reconcile the term with Abel’s acceptance by God. Indeed, the story of Abel teaches the exact opposite—the possibility of salvation despite the fleeting nature of life. Precisely because of the tragic nature of Abel’s interrupted life, we learn its deepest message: In turning one’s life into an offering, one is not dependent on any life circumstance, or on any achievements in the material world.
In addition to the rabbinic approach, which will be discussed below, I find Russell L. Meek’s approach to be quite useful. Meek notes that there is a strong intertextual link between Ecclesiastes and Genesis 1-4. For hevel, Meek ultimately understands it to be a “symbol with multiple referents,” simultaneously referring to some combination of four aspects of Hevel’s life, or “Abel-ness”:
- “Abel’s transience”;
- “the lack of congruence between his actions and rewards”;
- “the injustice he suffers”’
- “his inability to attain lasting value.”
Whether this is a positive or negative assessment of human existence is dependent at least as much on the individual reader as it is on the text. But the web of referents encapsulated by the story of Hevel in Genesis 4 (as well as the other uses of the term in Tanakh) must be retained to make sense of both Ecclesiastes and the later development of the term, which we will explore presently. In the case of Ecclesiastes in particular, Kohelet’s repeated use of hevel underpins Kohelet’s philosophy, calling us to consider the ways in which the character Hevel might have lived the life that best appreciates the transient nature of all human life.
Part III: Rabbinic Literature
As we would expect from the rabbis of the Talmudic period, the various connotations of Hevel are maintained in classical rabbinic literature. We find many examples of the term being used to connote air of one sort or another―concretizing the metaphor―and others that maintain a negative connotation of the word. However, the most fascinating way in which rabbinic literature engages with the term hevel is in their creation of the term hevel peh and its expansion into the concept of hevel pihem shel tinokot.
And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: “When Moses ascended on High to receive the Torah, the ministering angels said before the Holy Blessed One: ‘Master of the Universe, what is one born of a woman doing here among us?’ The Holy Blessed One said to them: ‘He came to receive the Torah.’ The angels said before God: ‘The Torah is a hidden treasure that was concealed by You 974 generations before the creation of the world, and You seek to give it to flesh and blood?… “What is man that You are mindful of him and the son of man that You think of him?” (Psalms 8:5). Rather, “God our Lord, how glorious is Your name in all the earth that Your majesty is placed above the heavens” (Psalms 8:2).’ The Holy Blessed One said to Moses: ‘Provide them with an answer…’ Moses said before God: ‘Master of the Universe, I am afraid lest they burn me with the [fiery] breath of their mouths.’ God said to him: ‘Grasp My throne of glory for strength and protection, and provide them with an answer… as it is stated: “God causes him to grasp the front of the throne, and spreads God’s cloud over it’” (Job 26:9).”
This first step in the evolution of the term is not extraordinary on its own. We see here the application of the term hevel, in its metaphorical meaning, as “breath,” being attached to the breath of the angels, which has a violent supernatural power to it. Arguably the biggest innovation we see here is that, while Genesis and Ecclesiastes use the term to refer to humans alone, the Gemara expands it to angels. That being said, the term itself remains rooted in its biblical antecedents, focused on the metaphors used to describe Hevel’s life and the breath-like nature of all life described in Ecclesiastes.
Rav Hamnuna said: “Jerusalem was destroyed only because schoolchildren there were interrupted from studying Torah, as it is stated: ‘And I am filled with the wrath of God, I cannot contain it, pour it onto the infants in the street and onto the gathering of youths together, for men and women alike will be captured, the elderly along with those of advanced years’ (Jeremiah 6:11)…” Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: “What is the meaning of that which is written: ‘Do not touch My anointed ones and do My prophets no harm’ (I Chronicles 16:22)? ‘Do not touch My anointed ones,’ these are the schoolchildren… ‘and do not harm My prophets,’ these are Torah scholars.” Reish Lakish said in the name of Rabbi Yehudah Nesiah: “The world only exists because of the breath of schoolchildren (i.e., reciting Torah).” Rav Pappa said to Abaye: “My Torah study and yours, what is its status?”… He said to him: “The breath of adults, which is tainted by sin, is not similar to the breath of children, which is not tainted by sin.” And Reish Lakish said in the name of Rabbi Yehudah Nesiah: “One may not interrupt schoolchildren from studying Torah, even in order to build the Temple.” And Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yehudah Nesiah: “I have received from my ancestors,” and some say that he said to him: “I have received from your ancestors as follows: ‘Any city in which there are no schoolchildren studying Torah, they destroy it.’” Ravina said: “They leave it desolate.”
In this sugya, the Talmud is extolling the virtue―the necessity, really―of childhood education for a functioning Jewish society. To explain the destruction of the Temple as being due to a lack of such education is one of the strongest ways that Rav Hamnuna could articulate how important education is in his view. He is then supported by Rav Yehudah (in Rav’s name), who reads schoolchildren as the referent of anointed ones, i.e., messianic figures. This is all taken to its literary apex by Reish Lakish (in the name of Rabbi Yehudah Nesiah), who states that not only Jewish society, or Jewish connection to God―as epitomized by the Temple―depends on schoolchildren, but that the very existence of the world hangs in the balance. However, here the choice of words stands out. While some commentators read hevel as referring to the breath expelled while studying Torah, the choice of words requires us to take account of the range of meanings that we have seen for this word. The Talmud has many words for Torah study; why connect this central religious duty to hevel?
Rabbi Hayyim Yosef David Azulai (known by the acronym Hida, 18th c.), in his commentary Petah Einayim, connects this use of hevel to the next line in the Gemara, arguing that hevel here means “a voice [i.e. breath] without sin.” This is a fascinating amalgam of various connotations of hevel, drawing both on the metaphorical breath and on the biblical character Hevel, who was without sin. Hida then goes on to quote the kabbalist Rabbi Hayyim Vital (1543-1620), who states:
It is written in this language, of the “hevel” of schoolchildren, and not of the ‘learning’ of schoolchildren, because schoolchildren do not know what, precisely, they are learning, and they have no intention but rather are [simply] breathing from their mouths outward. And therefore we are all sustained by the hevel of their mouths only in this material world which is the earth. But an adult that learns Torah appropriately, with intention―regarding such a person it is written: “I have put my words in your mouth” (Isaiah 51:16)―if God, may God be Blessed, puts them [Torah] in the adult’s mouth, he [the adult] will help grow―with strength and intention―not just the lower world that is the earth, but also the heavens will be established, as it is written: “I, who planted the skies and made firm the earth” (ibid.)―the skies, due to understanding and intention, and the earth, due to the hevel of their mouths. However, because adults sometimes speak needlessly and engage in slander and gossip, they end up destroying here and building there, which is not true of schoolchildren who have no wicked speech to destroy but only to build. And this is why negation language is used: “the world [i.e. the earth] is only sustained through the hevel of schoolchildren.”
Rabbi Hayyim Vital makes a number of fascinating observations that directly connect to our exploration of hevel as a word. First, he does not focus on the holy speech that schoolchildren are engaged in but on the hevel quality of their speech in general. It is transitory, mindless, passive―and therefore pure. Without naming Hevel from Bereishit, Vital seems to be saying that all the praise heaped upon schoolchildren in this sugya is due to their emulating (without conscious thought) the model of religious devotion set for them (and for us) by Hevel. In effect the Talmud is arguing, then, that without an institution dedicated to the promulgation of Torah as Torah (Torah lishmah), there is no hope for any individual city, for the Jewish people collectively, or for the world. It is the very immateriality of the schoolchildren’s breath that is praised―the fact that their learning will not all be remembered, that it will not (directly) change their economic status, and that the teacher will undoubtedly repeat their lessons many times over. The virtue of education that is being discussed here is intrinsic. In this context, it might make the most sense to translate the phrase hevel pihem shel tinokot as “the babblings of schoolchildren.” It is not even the intelligibility of their words―the products of their breath―that Vital is highlighting, at least not for the children themselves. The adult in the room ought to recognize, as Abaye and Rav Pappa do, that there is something unique about those babblings that is infinitely precious, in that they are unsullied by all of the crass things that adults use their mouths for.
Following classical Jewish literature through its expansive, imaginative treatment of the word hevel, from the first chapters of the Torah through the 17th century, has highlighted two key points. First, the term hevel is an easily misunderstood term when it is translated as “vanity” or “breath” on its own, without understanding the multivalent nature of the term. Second, and more generally, there is something special―holy, perhaps―in the ways that words, phrases, and concepts evolve over time within the (somewhat fixed) confines of classical Jewish literature. Trying to tie a biblical character to the essential qualities of that character’s life in the form of a single word is one of the more brilliant ways in which Kohelet explains his philosophy. By appreciating this connection―between Genesis 4 and Ecclesiastes―it becomes evident just how creative it was to apply this term to the breath of schoolchildren learning Torah in the Talmudic era. Both a retrieval of an easily overlooked biblical character and an essential teaching about the value of Torah lishmah, these stops along hevel’s journey underscore the importance of reading a word across time in Jewish literature.
As Professor AJ Berkovitz recently wrote here about another example of a line of Jewish text that evolved over time:
What David’s words [the example Berkovitz analyzes] really provide is a microcosm of the way that tradition works—how a single, seemingly simple line of text can stimulate conversation, stir controversy, be turned over and over, and be analogized and explained in 49 ways. For ultimately, the life of tradition does not merely rest in single moments of exalted interpretation, but rather in its ability to retain its staying power while engendering further creativity and fostering change. (emphasis mine)
Berkovitz highlights just how critical this form of study is. In order to understand how the Jewish tradition communicates about the ideas and values that are central to Jews over the centuries, one must study across time. This may in fact be analogous to how the earliest rabbis distinguished between a Written Torah (i.e. the Tanakh) and an Oral Torah (i.e. the Mishnah, and later, the Gemara). In the modern world, the “Written Torah” is vast, but there is still an Oral Torah accompanying it, the methods of interpretation and contextualization of the Written Torah that have been accepted within the Jewish community (or specific sub-communities). Reading across time in this way, then, might assist the student of the Jewish canon in surfacing part of the Oral Torah. Only then can we appreciate that, in our case, to speak about existentialism is to speak about Kayin and Hevel, which is to speak about the fleeting beauty of (youthful) innocence, and on and on the discussion goes, as everything is contained within it.
 “In biblical times, a name was not merely a label, but often referred to its bearer’s reputation and power or to his or her character.” Radiša Antic, “Cain, Abel, Seth, and the Meaning of Human Life as Portrayed in the Books of Genesis and Ecclesiastes,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 44, no. 2 (2006): 204 (references I Samuel 25:25 as a meta-example). See below, fn. 22.
 See Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (BDB) (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 883, which cites II Samuel 21:16.
 BDB, 888.
 David Fohrman, The Beast That Crouches at the Door: Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, and Beyond (New Madrid, CT: Maggid Books, 2021), 107.
 BDB, 210-211. Etymologically, there seems to be agreement that Hevel is a cognate of the Assyrian word ablu, meaning “son” (like ibn in Arabic). See also Eliyahu Benamozegh’s Em le-Mikra on Genesis 4:2. However, the dominant rabbinic view is to tie the name to the adjective ‘transitory’ (see below) and understand the etymology to be connected to breath or vapor. Everett Fox translates it as “something transitory” and connects it explicitly to the book of Ecclesiastes.
 Radak on Genesis 4:2, citing Psalms 62:10. As Michael Hattin states: “At the same time, the omission of any basis for Hevel’s name is puzzling. Chava does not indicate what prompts her or her husband to call their second child by this name. It may be significant that elsewhere in Tanakh, the root HVL signifies ‘futility’ or ’emptiness,’ such as in the recurring refrain of the Book of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes that ‘all is vanity’ (‘HaVeL HaVaLim’)… In hindsight, these various meanings certainly constitute apt descriptions of Hevel’s short and unrealized life, but we must begin to wonder if there may be other implications” (Bereishit | Kayin and Hevel | Yeshivat Har Etzion).
 Some commentaries go so far as to call Hevel a tzaddik; see Rabbeinu Bahya and the Tzror Ha-Mor on Genesis 4:2, as well as Matthew 23:35 in the Christian Bible and Surah Al-Ma’idah 5:27-32 in the Quran. Bereishit Rabbah 22:8 calls Hevel an ish gibbor (hero).
 “Kayin and Hevel” (above fn. 6).
 The traditional view is that Ecclesiastes (as well as Proverbs and Song of Songs) was written by King Solomon, citing 1:1 as evidence. Scholarly opinion, on the other hand, considers this to be a pseudepigraphic text written by someone who, while wealthy, wanted to pass him(?)self off as Solomon. I will refer to the book as Ecclesiastes and the author as Kohelet.
 For a novel reading of the worldview of Kohelet, tying the canonization of Ecclesiastes to the school of Hillel, see Menachem Fisch and Debra Band’s Qohelet: Searching for a Life Worth Living (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2023).
 The term comes from Judy Klitsner’s book, Subversive Sequels in the Bible (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2009), and while she does not include Genesis 4 and Ecclesiastes as an example, the same principle applies. As Klitsner puts it: “If certain gnawing theological or philosophical questions remain after studying one [biblical] narrative, a later passage may revisit those questions, subjecting them to a complex process of inquiry, revision, and examination of alternative possibilities. I call these reworkings ‘subversive sequels.’ Like all sequels, they continue and complete earlier stories. But they do so in ways that often undermine the very assumptions upon which the earlier stories were built as well as the conclusions these stories have reached” (page xvi).
 Jacques Ellul, Reason for Being: A Meditation on Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 54. Quoted by Radiša Antic in “Cain, Abel, Seth, and the Meaning of Human Life as Portrayed in the Books of Genesis and Ecclesiastes,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 44, no. 2 (2006): 209.
 See Russell L. Meek’s useful overview of the history of interpretation in his article “Twentieth- and Twenty-first- century Readings of Hebel (הבל) in Ecclesiastes,” Currents in Biblical Research 14, no. 3 (2016): 279-297.
 “The Hebrew hevel probably indicates the flimsy vapor that is exhaled in breathing, invisible except on a cold winter day and in any case immediately dissipating in the air. It is the opposite of ruah, ‘life-breath,’ which is the animating force in a living creature, because it is the waste product of breathing.” Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation With Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019). Alter translates hevel as “mere breath.”
 “Wisdom literature insisted that God’s behavior is rational and that this rationality is perceptible in the bond between deed and consequence. For Qohelet the reliability of the causal nexus fails, leaving only fragmented sequences of events which, though divinely determined, must be judged random from the human perspective.” Michael V. Fox, “The Meaning of Hevel for Qohelet,” Journal of Biblical Literature 105, no. 3 (1986): 427. Of course, Genesis 4 is the first time in the Tanakh where the “bond between deed and consequence” is broken. Fox translates hevel as “absurd.”
 For the case of hevel, Meek agrees and notes that until the 20th century, the first approach was almost exclusively the domain of Jewish interpreters while the second was almost exclusively the domain of Christian interpreters (284).
 “Ecclesiastes: Fleeting and Timeless,” Azure Magazine 18 (Autumn 5765 / 2004): 67-87.
 Contra. Katherine Dell, “Exploring Intertextual Links Between Ecclesiastes and Genesis 1-11,” in Reading Ecclesiastes Intertextually, eds. Katherine Dell and Will Kynes (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), who rejects any strong intertextual link between Ecclesiastes and Genesis 1-11: “The whole edifice [connecting the two texts] is really based on the [Hevel]/Abel connection, which amounts to little more than one small echo.” (7). I find this dismissal unconvincing and counter to the process by which lashon ha-kodesh matures that is the focus of this study. To ignore this “one small echo” is to assume that these texts happened to have this key term in common, rather than believe that we were meant to derive meaning from the shared term.
 Ibid., 254.
 The three main metaphors seem to be heat, air, and breath. For heat, see Kohelet Rabbah 1:2, Bava Batra 73a, Gittin 69b, Hullin 8a, Shabbat 34a-b, Shabbat 39b, Shabbat 48a, Shabbat 51a, Bava Metzia 107b, and y. Pesahim 7:1; for air, see Shabbat 41a, Shabbat 95a, Bava Metzia 36b, and Yevamot 80b; and for breath, see Bava Batra 75a in addition to the sugya under discussion from Shabbat 88b.
 In contrast to our breath, which eludes our view on all but the coldest days, as Robert Alter points out (see above fn. 18).
 Though the term is also applied to humans in the later midrashic collection Kohelet Rabbah (9:7): “‘Go, eat your bread joyfully.’ Rabbi Huna son of Rabbi Aḥa said: ‘When the children take their leave from school, a Divine Voice emerges and says to them: “Go, eat your bread joyfully,”―your breath has been accepted before Me as a pleasing aroma. When Jews take their leave of synagogues and study halls, a Divine Voice emerges and says to them: “Go, eat your bread joyfully”―your prayer has been accepted before Me as a pleasing aroma.’” See below, Shabbat 119b.
 As Dr. Ismar Schorsch put it: “But the ultimate expression of the centrality of Torah study in Judaism is to be found in reference to the young rather than the old. Again it is a third–century Palestinian Amora, the grandson of the editor of the Mishnah, who, in that century of instability, gives voice to a touching sentiment of universal significance: ‘The world endures solely by virtue of the breath of children in school’ (Shabbat 119b). What a contrast to the Greek image of Atlas bearing the world on his shoulders! Not brute strength but education of the young will determine the fate of a civilization. The weight of the world rests on nothing more substantial than the recitation by children of their lessons.”
 For a general treatment of this rhetorical flourish in rabbinic literature, see “Tzarich Iyun: The Destruction of the Beit Hamikdash.”
 Rashi (s.v. bimshihai) understands this interpretation to be based on children being anointed with oil, rather than reading the Talmud as naming children as messianic in any theological sense. Steinsaltz (quoting Maharsha), though, does support a theological read.
 Steinsaltz, Schorsch (see above, fn. 29).
 Translation mine.
 The Zohar picks up on this, noting: “The mystery of hevel is precious! It is hevel, breath, issuing from the mouth, and the mystery of breath issuing from the mouth turns into a voice… Voice is composed of breath, of air and water; and everything that is made – of breath. The mystery of this breath of children becomes voice, spreading through the world, and they are guardians of the world, guardians of the city, as it is written: ‘Unless YHVH watches over the city, the watchman guards in vain’ (Psalms 127:1)” (trans. Daniel Matt, Pritsker Ed. IV:185-6). Matt adds, in his footnote, “Rabbi Shim’on insists, though, that when Solomon used the word, he meant not ‘futility’ but ‘breath.’ … Here, Rabbi Shim’on’s paraphrase [of Shabbat 119b] adds ‘who have not sinned,’ which means, he explains, not just that they are not liable for sins they may have committed (or may have committed unintentionally), but that they have not sinned at all. These truly innocent creatures evoke divine protection for the world.” (fn. 164)
 “Trajectories of Tradition: King David on Skin Lesions and Tent Impurities,” The Lehrhaus, May 10th, 2023.
 Cf. Edward Feld, The Book of Revolutions: The Battles of Priests, Prophets, and Kings That Birthed the Torah (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2022), 158-162.