The chapter we are reading from Kohelet this year begins with one of every rabbi’s favorite texts for use in a eulogy. Tov shem mishemen tov, “A good name is better than fragrant oil”(Ecclesiastes 7:1). As Michael V. Fox wrote in his JPS Commentary to the biblical scroll, “The words themselves glide like oil” (The JPS Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes, p. 43).
It’s a catchy and slick phrase, so what did it mean when the poet, no doubt smiling in pride, wrote it? Let’s define the terms shem and shemen to capture more than their surface meanings of “name” and “oil.” One’s shem is not just a proper noun identifier; it can be a memorial (as in Yad Vashem from Isaiah), parallel to zeikher, “memory.” In short, it’s a person’s reputation.
Shemen could refer to actual anointing oils. As Fox writes, “aside from its plain sense, Koheleth’s proverb also implies that a reputation is better than elegant funerary preparations, for aromatic oils were used in preparing a corpse for burial. Another implication may be that a (good) reputation is better than being anointed with fragrant unguents, which were distributed as a luxury at banquets” (p. 43). In other words, it’s better to live a life that doesn’t require something to take away the stench of what we leave behind.
On Shabbat and Shemini Atzeret morning, when we recite Yizkor, I’ll share related teachings from someone who died in the past year. Perhaps he will serve as a reminder of what we can do to make our names our most lasting impressions on all the senses.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameah,
Rabbi David Wise
Candle lighting: 6:11 PM
Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17
Maftir: Numbers 29:35-30:1
Haftarah: I Kings 8:54-66