Q. Why does the Siddur say, “The pre-eminence of man over beast is ayin – nothing, for all is vanity”?
A. This is a Biblical verse, from Kohelet 3:19. As a cynic, Kohelet is telling man not to feel too high and mighty. He is really no higher or better than the most ordinary animal. “All is vanity” suggests that man’s egotism is unfounded; his greatness is mere ephemeral breath. However, the verse can be taken in quite a different way. I think it is a Chassidic interpretation that says that not only is man a higher species than the animal but the reason is ayin, “nothingness”. What marks out the human being is that unlike animals he has a sense of “nothingness” and “somethingness”. He has the power and privilege of being able to make distinctions.