…the most common claim is the repeated use of the phrase “hevel and re’ut ruah,” which is traditionally translated as “vanity and (the innately futile) pursuit of wind.” However, this treatment of re’ut ruah (a term unique to Ecclesiastes) misreads the original Hebrew at least as much as does the translation of hevel as “vanity.” Scholars are in agreement about rejecting the old notion of re’ut as “vexation of spirit,” in favor of translations that see re’ut as a reflex of ra’ah. Nonetheless, the continuing misconception misses the core meaning of this precise root-verb, “to meander”; feeding, grazing, and herding are secondary transpositions. Critically, the Hebrew root ra’ah does not imply gathering, chasing, or herding-in; rather, it connotes the typical (outwardbound) movement of grazing over pasturelands. This is why the verb can easily apply to the roaming of a single animal, with no flock or shepherd about. Cf. Genesis 41:1-2; Song of Songs 4:5, 6:2. Similarly, it applies where no feeding is involved; cf. Numbers 14:33. Hence, even if we knew no more than this, re’ut is to be understood as a fleeting movement of wind, or air, such as a gust or a breeze. This is cognate to tir’eh-ruah in Jeremiah 22:22 (“a puff of wind,” or “scattered by the wind”). Thus, a close approximation of the phrase hevel u’re’ut ruach, would be “vapor and a stirring of air,” or “vapor and a puff of wind.” In this light, the entire idiom stresses transient phenomena, of no material value. However, the etymology of re’ut itself may give us a clue to uncovering its original connotation; for its Semitic root had an additional meaning, one with a close affinity to the word “vapor.” While the Hebrew language lost this variant, it survives to this day in Arabic: The Arabic root of r-gh-w, as in the noun ragha—froth or foam—and the verb ragha—to froth. Like vapor, it is a potent metaphor of fleeting, passing phenomena. Froth and foam, of course, are made of air, which in the biblical Hebrew is always ruah, bringing us back again to Ecclesiastes’ idiom, “hevel ure’ut ruah,” which we may now render: Vapor and froth (cf. Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece: “What win I if I gain the thing I seek? A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy”).
This also helps us to understand Ecclesiastes 4:6, where re’ut ruah is depicted as something that, figuratively, one can grab “handfuls” of, albeit without much gain; of course, one cannot grab a “pursuit of” anything in one’s hand. Moreover, the two parts of the idiom, vapor and froth, become nouns corresponding to two physical entities (re’ut ruah as object rather than action). As a result, the entire phrase, hevel ure’ut ruah, constitutes a uniform, objective, double-metaphor about the factual transience of human life and worldly achievements.
Finally, it is difficult to ignore the striking similarity between Abel the shepherd (hevel ro’eh, Genesis 4:2), and the form of hevel ure’ut: Just as Kohelet succeeded in bringing Abel’s mortality to mind with the simile of vapor, so, too, “froth” (or “gust”) recalls the core characteristic of Abel’s impermanent life.
Ethan Dor-Shav, “Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and Timeless”, Azure No. 18 (Autumn 2004), 85-86, n. 29.