“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” These words are recognizable to many of us from the U.S. folk tune, “Turn Turn Turn,” covered in an enormous variety of secular and religious settings since the early 1960s. The words are taken directly from the King James Version of Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, 3:1. That opening declaration is followed by seven verses listing a variety of human experiences for which there is “time [eit]” (Koh 3:2-8).
Each of the seven verses offers two pairs of opposites: birth and death, planting and uprooting….love and hate, war and peace. Do we understand those pairs to mean that Kohelet sees life as all about extremes: weeping or laughing, wailing or dancing, with nothing in between? Or do we see the pairs as a literary expression corresponding to the opening statement about every thing and every purpose?
Merism in Kohelet and Torah
Merism is a common Biblical figure of speech using two parts or elements to denote a whole. Jewish teachers frequently remind us that we should not only consider the extremes in such expressions. “When you lie down and when you rise up,” for example, is not just about ritual repetition of some words, evening and morning, or reflecting only when seated or walking (Deut 6:7), but intended to focus our attention through our days; the commandment to “choose life” (Deut 30:19), meanwhile, is intended to convey that “every choice we make from birth to death matters” (citations below).
This same technique appears in some key passages of Breishit (Gen 1:1-6:8). The very first verse, many teachers note, uses “heavens and earth” to mean that God created the entire universe (Gen 1:1). A few verses later, we are told: “There was evening and there was morning, a first day” (Gen 1:5). This is not expressing two discrete happenings, one of darkness and one of light; instead…
it means, of course, “There was evening, there was dawn, there was morning, there was noon time, there was afternoon, there was dusk in the first day.” “Evening and morning” are used to encompass all the times of day, all the qualities of light that would be found over the course of one day. — p.16, “Male and Female God Created Them” by Margaret Moers WenigIN Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries and the Hebrew Bible (NYU Press, 2009)
Similarly, Moers Wenig, explains, the same technique is found in Breishit‘s declaration about human gender:
“Zachar u’nikevah bara otam.” Read not “God” created every single human being as either male or female” but “God created some humans male, some female, some who appear male but know themselves to be male, and others still who bear a mix of male and female characteristics.” “Zachar u’nikeva” is, I believe, a merism, a common Biblical figure of speech in which a whole is alluded to by some of its parts. [Evening and morning example]. So, too, in the case of Genesis 1.27b, the whole diverse panoply of genders and gender identities is encompassed by only two words, “male” and “female.” Read not, therefore, “God created every human being as either male or female” but rather “God created human kind zachar u’nikevah male and female and every combination in between.”— same passage, p.16
Our literary conditioning and general human experience tend to create for us, unbidden, a continuum between many pairs of opposites, so that we understand a whole universe in the words “heaven and earth” and we are not fooled into thinking we should consider Torah only when seated or walking. When listening to “Turn Turn Turn” or to a reading of Kohelet, I believe that our brains fill in a great deal of human experience between birth and death, weeping and laughing, embracing and refraining from embrace. Many of us, however, were just as strongly conditioned to read a binary, with no spectrum in between, when it comes to gender.
Perhaps we need more practice. A few spins through Kohelet or “Turn Turn Turn” wouldn’t hurt.
Other translations vary slightly in that first phrase: seasons are set for everything (new  JPS, see Sefaria), everything has its season (ArtScroll, 1994), and everything has a season (Robert Alter, 2011). In the second phrase, the word translated as “purpose” in KJV (and Seeger’s song) also appears as “thing” (ArtScroll), “matter” (Alter), and “experience” (new JPS) in popular Jewish translations. Jastrow’s Dictionary tells us cheifetz as a noun is 1) thing or 2) concern, business; desire; desirable object. As a verb chet-pei-tzadei means 1) to bend, to be busy with, to be anxious, desire; 2) to hold in one’s hand.
…BTW, I wasn’t exactly seeking words with a twist-bend meaning, but in the way of such things: Now that I am noticing, they are everywhere….RETURN
Turn Turn Turn
Pete Seeger (1919-2014) wrote “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)” based on Kohelet 3:1-8, adding only the “Turn Turn Turn” and “I swear it’s not too late!” to the last verse. Seeger’s recording came out in 1962, while his career was still suffering from being Blacklisted as a result of the House Unamerican Activities Committee hearings. The Byrds released a cover that topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965.
Here is Judy Collins, who often performed this song, joining Seeger in a duet (no date here; think it’s 1966) —
Here is Pete Seeger, very near the end of his life —
Note that around the 5:30 mark, Seeger adds, for what he says is the first time, five verses written by his wife, Toshi (1922-2013), for their children.
Finally, here is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band with Roger McGuinn of The Byrds —
Elliot N. Dorff on the Sh’ma, p.88 in My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries. Vol. 1: The Sh’ma and Its Blessings. (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1997.
Elliot R. Kukla writes in an AJWS commentary, “The Commandment to Choose Life,” found on My Jewish Learning (no date on post).