Manfred and Anne Lehmann Foundation

Hebrew Literature

I have made here a brief selection of bodies of our literature which are not always well known, as the Book of Ben Sira. I have also recounted how Jewish learning was saved when threatened with extinction, such as in the days of the great Court Jew, Behrend Lehmann. I also describe the joys of being a book lover and contributions to the survival of our glorious literature.

The Book of Ben Sira

The Tenach (Hebrew Bible) is known to us as a finite collection of 39 books: 5 Torah (the Five Books of Moses); 21 Neviim (Prophets); and 13 Ketuvim (Writings). This collection has a technical term in the English language: the Canon. Yet the Talmud reports that as late as the days of the Tannaim, the exact number of books to be included in the Canon was still "fluid." There are accounts of discussions as to whether this or that book should be excluded from the Canon, as for example, the Song of Songs, Kohelet, the Book of Ezekiel, which, of course, were finally included. But there was a large body of books that was left out or that was never considered for inclusion—the so-called Sefarim Chitzonim, or in English, the Apocrypha—for example, the Book of the Maccabees, the Book of Tobit and the Book of Judith.

One book in the Apocrypha occupied a very special position mainly because even though it was not included in the Tenach, it remained a border case—it was sometimes considered as part of the Ketuvim even though, as a whole, it was excluded and by some even banned. I am referring to the Book of Ben Sira or, in English, the Book of Ecclesiasticus. Despite its uncertain status, the Talmud swarms with quotations from the Book of Ben Sira; so it is obvious that it occupied a very special position among Jews for many centuries.

Another amazing feature of the history of this book is that until recently we did not even have a complete Hebrew text of it. It was only known in its Greek or Syriac translations, besides the individual single passages that were quoted in the Talmud and the Midrashim. Then a sensation occurred 100 years ago. Some old ladies browsing through the walls in the market in Cairo came across some pages of Hebrew text, which turned out to be parts of the Ben Sira—in Hebrew! They had come from the famous Genizah, which had just been discovered in Cairo. It did not take long before most of the rest of the book was also found in the Genizah and was soon published by a number of scholars in Europe.

This amazing find was a 12th century text—penned 1,400 years after its composition. The question, though, still remained: Was this Hebrew text the re-translation from the Greek or Syriac translations or was it the original Hebrew text'?

Then, 50 years ago, an even greater sensation occurred when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered—biblical and non-biblical texts from the time before the destruction of the Second Temple. No text from Ben Sira was among them, but it was my contention, as early as 1951, that without doubt Ben Sira texts, in the original Hebrew, would be found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. I published my first papers on the subject over 40 years ago, and I traced very close similarities between passages from both bodies of Jewish documents.

My conviction was soon confirmed by another sensational find—this one at Massada—where a large portion of Ben Sira, in Hebrew, was found. Since Massada fell in 73 CE, it was evident that this text was not a medieval text as was the one from the Genizah manuscripts, but very close to the date of the author's life. Again I published a paper, showing how the Massada text coincided with quotations in the Talmud and with the Cairo Genizah text. The words are practically identical, despite the interval of centuries between the times of the scribes.

The Book of Ben Sira had fallen into oblivion among Jews for many centuries. Even Rashi and the Tosefites at times could only guess what a certain passage in Ben Sira must have been like. But before their time, R. Saadia Gaon (9th century) did know the book and knew the correct full name of its author: Shimon ben Yeshua ben Elazar ben Sira. As to his time, the best clue is found in the book itself: In his description of the Yom Kippur service in the Temple, he refers to Shimon ben Yochanan the High Priest. In fact, his description of the High Priest has remained part and parcel of our own Yom Kippur liturgy until this day, as included in the description of the Avodah of the Musaf service. Most of our text in the Yom Kippur Machzor is lifted directly out of the Book of Ben Sira, unbeknownst to most of us!

Based on the identification of this High Priest in Ben Sira, scholars place the composition of the book at around the year 250 B.C.E. —preceding the earliest Dead Sea Scrolls by over 100 years. The book therefore makes up an important "link" between the last book of the Tenach and the rabbinical literature. Although in past years, the span between these two bodies of our literature was "terra incognita," we now are blessed with an enormously rich number of writings by our forefathers covering every century from the ending of the Tenach until the ending of the Talmud.

Here is a partial list of the passages in the rabbinical literature where Ben Sira is quoted: Bereshit Rabba 73:12 (Veyetse); Vayikra Rabba 33:1 (Behar); Bavli Yebamoth 63b and Sanhedrin l000b; Tanhuma 8 (Vayishlach); Bavli Shabbat 11a; Avoth IV:4; Bavli Betsa 32b; Bavli Baba Metsia 112a; Tanchuma 10 (Miketz); Shemot Rabbah 7:21 (Beshalach); Yerushalmi Taanit III:6; Bavli Eruvin 54a; Bavli Chagiga 13a; Yerushalmi Chagiga II:1; Bereshit Rabba 8:9.

It is the latter three quotations, which have been followed for centuries by many of our sages, that are perhaps the best known teachings of Ben Sira. The following passage from Ben Sira, quoted in Bavli Chagiga 13a, is also quoted by Ramban in his introduction to the commentary on the Torah.

Do not investigate things which are above you;
Do not inquire into what is hidden from you.
Only study what has been passed to you in inheritance;
You have no share in the mysteries.

In view of the vast number of quotations from Ben Sira in our rabbinical literature, it is mystifying why at the same time our rabbis warned us against the book. Yerushalmi Sanhedrin X:1 lists among those who do not have a share in the World to Come, anyone who reads the Book of Ben Sira. In Bavli Sanhedrin 100b, Rav Yosef says it is forbidden to read (l'mikri) the Book of Ben Sira. Yet surprisingly, the same Rav Yosef also says the opposite: "The valuable words in Ben Sira you are permitted to expound (darshinon)."

To solve this contradiction I suggest that there is a basic difference between mikra and drasha. The former can only refer to books that have the sanctity of the Tenach itself (mikra). Since the Ben Sira was excluded from the Tenach, it was not permitted to "read" it in the manner that you read any of the biblical books. On the other hand, it was permitted to expound and interpret the same book (midrash), which in itself did not elevate the book to biblical sanctity, but merely to a book of wisdom.

Since my first identification of close links between these two bodies of Jewish writings, many more Ben Sira texts have been found and identified. In particular, the so-called Psalm Scroll from Cave 1 l contains many passages that—although not bearing the name of Ben Sira—were identified by me as having been lifted straight out from Ben Sira. I published these findings in 1979 in Hebrew and in 1983 in English. I have since lectured at Hebrew University and Bar Ilan University on these important links. They bear out the rich and reliable traditions among Jews in handing over from generation to generation the wisdom of our forefathers and the rich inheritance of our religion. I am confident that future students will find many more links that bind us faithfully to the very words and writings of our ancestors, which will add to the glory that is Judaism.

 

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