A better reading of hevel, then, and one that provides us with an extremely important tool for understanding both Genesis and Ecclesiastes, takes us back to the root meaning of the word: Vapor or mist. What is important about the life of Abel is not its futility, but its transience. It was as fleeting as a puff of air, yet his life’s calling was nonetheless fulfilled.
This, too, is the meaning of hevel in Ecclesiastes: Not the dismissive “vanity,” but the more objective “transience,” referring strictly to mortality and the fleeting nature of human life. “Fleeting transience (hevel havalim),” says Kohelet, “All is fleeting.” Or, read another way: Abel is every man. Without the negative connotations of “vanity,” we discover in
Kohelet a man who is tormented not by the meaninglessness of life, but by how swiftly it comes to an end. Life is gone so very quickly, and likewise man’s worldly deeds. We now understand the significance of Kohelet’s opening proclamation that “all is hevel.” He seeks to confront his listeners with man’s own mortality—the underlying premise of any inquiry into the meaning of life in this world.
Ethan Dor-Shav, “Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and Timeless”, Azure No. 18 (Autumn 2004), 74-75.