The reading of hevel as “vanity” is not only misleading, but, in some cases, it makes the text impossible to read. Perhaps the most striking example can be found in the book’s ninth chapter, where Kohelet discusses the value of love in one’s life. “View life with a woman you have come to love—all the days of your transitory life (kol yemei hayei hevlecha) which he has gifted you under the sun—every fleeting day. For this is your share in life….” Read the traditional way, the verse is difficult to parse. It would sound something like, “Live joyfully… all the days of your vain life.” Life is vanity, so enjoy love? The verse makes far better sense if hevel is translated as “fleeting,” focusing on life’s brevity: Cherish your time together, for life is fleeting, and therefore precious. Then is your love that much more meaningful.
Understanding hevel in this sense is also crucial to understanding the passage, in the book’s eighth chapter, which deals with the concept of injustice in the world. Read the traditional way, Kohelet explains, “Then I saw the wicked buried, who had come and gone from the place of holiness, and they were forgotten in the city where they had so done. This,” he concludes, “is vanity.” Again, this is a difficult read: Why is it considered vanity if evildoers are forgotten? The verse makes far more sense if we understand it to relate to the illusory, temporary nature of evil’s success: Kohelet reassures us that setbacks to justice are transient, and that evil will not prevail in the final round: “It is of the fleeting nature of the world, that some righteous receive what befits the acts of evildoers, while some evildoers receive what befits the righteous; this too, I say, is only temporary.
Ethan Dor-Shav, “Ecclesiastes, Fleeting and Timeless”, Azure No. 18 (Autumn 2004), 75.