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Notes from Newcastle Day Limmud 2007

Jesus ben Sira and Jewish Learning

Robert Hayward

[The quotations here were too fast too follow, and I supplemented them from an online translation in a much older style; hence the mixture of styles.

Actually, I wanted to include the Hebrew alongside, but after half an hour googling I couldn't find it online (excepting a century-old back-translation from the Greek). This is probably because the Hebrew only became known within the last century and a bit, first two thirds of the text from Cairo Geniza fragments, then, later, also portions from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and, not being out of copyright, these haven't been posted online.

This was a bit frustrating, because, as the below talk reveals, Ch. 36 include a form of proto-עמידה, and I wanted to see what it looked like in the original Hebrew. This was a subject of great interest to me, because pretty much the entirety of the Jewish liturgy as we have it today dates from the rabbinical period or later, and wasn't written down until 1800 years ago at the earliest. There's the odd clue that, עלינו, for example, might go back to Temple times, but before the destruction of the Temple in 70CE, Judaism was centred around the Temple service by the priests, rather than the synagogue service by the laity; and whilst we know the priests did recite Hallel in the Temple, there's no indication the performance of the sacrifices was accompanied by spoken words.

Whilst synagogues

did exist in the late Second Temple period, I'm not sure how much further than the time of, say, Hillel they go. I don't get the impression they go back to the time of Ben Sira a century and a half earlier. Certainly, going back before the time of the likes of Hillel and Philo, Judaism, as reflected in contemporary Jewish writings (largely Apocrypha and pseudepigrapha), has a very different feel, akin to Biblical Judaism (in which pretty much the only formalised prayers and rituals are the first-fruits ritual and the commandment to bentsh). The rabbis of the Talmud did claim that prayer services went a lot further back, but they also claimed a whole load of stuff went back to the year dot*, which is patently not true, so it's difficult to evaluate their claims.

* Or, according to certain obstinate Egyptologists, the year squiggly line.

Anyhow, after much searching, I did finally discover a scanned copy of an out-of-copyright book containing the Hebrew text from the Geniza fragments, which does not cover all of my quotations, but that didn't really matter since I didn't have the patience to transcribe them all manually anyway. I've transcribed the proto-עמידה, and was surprised to see that whilst the

sentiments might match that of today's עמידה, the words are almost completely different, though there are phrases (probably of Biblical origin) which today turn up in other parts of the liturgy, such as כי אין אלהים זולתך.

Ben Sira is one of the sages of early Second Temple times, from before the times of the Hellenistic crisis, who represents a world of Jewish learning in the land of Israel that is not studied as much as they might be. He is a witness to the ways of the Jews from before the Hasmoneans and the Hellenistic crisis.

Ben Sira died 196/180 BCE; his grandson translated his work in 132 BCE.

This learned man is quoted in the Talmud and midrashim in a number of places.

Ben Sira wrote in Hebrew, in what appears to be good solid classical Hebrew of a poetic kind—the book is poetic in form. This may seem obvious until we consider that it was not until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls that it was proved that Hebrew, as well as Aramaic and Greek, was alive and kicking in the second century BCE. So, Ben Sira had a choice of languages. He could have written in Aramaic, as, for example, the book of Tobit; but he chose Hebrew to represent his continuity with the language and culture of the Bible.

In ch. 33 he writes:

I woke up last of all like one who gathers after the grape gatherers. By the blessing of the Lord I profited, and as one that gathereth grapes, have I filled the winepress. Consider that I have laboured not for myself only, but for all those who seek discipline. Hear me, great men, and all people, and hearken with your ears, leaders of the congregation.

Much of his work is addressed to leaders of the community, but also to anyone who will study. He also had students; this is one of the earliest uses of the term בית מדרש in the Apocryphal literature.

He is writing in a Biblical vein, and wants to be known as the last of a long lines of those writing wisdom literature.

Ben Sira has clearly travelled. He's a man who's seen the world, and wants to recommended. In 39:4, he speaks of the one who gives his mind to the Torah f the Most High; such a man will:

appear before princes, he will travel through foreign countries for he shall try good and evil among men.


He that has no experience, knows little, but he that has been experienced in many things, multiplies prudence.

With this travelling, it appears he had a knowledge of non-Jewish culture. He has much knowledge of Greek and Egyptian literature. In 14:18 he quotes Homer's Iliad:

As with leaves that grow on a vigorous tree: one falls off and another sprouts, so with the generations of flesh and blood: one dies and another flourishes.

Compare this with Homer, Iliad VI:146-149:

People come and go as leaves year by year upon the trees. Those of autumn the wind sheds upon the ground; but when spring returns the forest buds with fresh ones. Even so is it it with the generations of mankind: the new spring up as the old are passing away.

Often his work reflects the topoi—themes, etc—of Theognis, C6 BCE; some have even claimed to find allusions to Sophocles and Euripides. (He never attributes his quotations.)

He also reflects wisdom utterances from Egypt—Phibis [?]. He can take from this literature what is useful.

He is also (as R. Lewis pointed out) confident that he can take from other cultures without anyone cottoning on to it; but he's the only one in the land of Israel who does (though there are Jews in Egypt who wrote in Greek and drew on Greek culture). (Hillel's story of the skull floating on the water is also a foreign allusion—but note that it's in Aramaic. Ben Sira is writing in Hebrew.)

This same writer of course also knows the Bible very well. He is famous for a peon of praise to those he called אבות עולם—the great heroes of the Bible. Chapters 44-49 list by name key Biblical characters and gives a vignette of each. E.g., about Ezekiel (49:8), "who saw the glorious vision which was showed him upon the chariot of the cherubim." This is the first time, chronologically speaking, that we can date, that the word מרכבה is used in this context. Most people agree that he is talking about Ezekiel as a significant "mystical" figure. (An approach to the Almighty which is very personal and unmediated.) He's hinting at a knowledge of the deep mysteries hinted at in the first chapter of Ezekiel.

In ch. 36, there is a set of prayers—petitions to the Almighty—remarkably similar to petitions found in the עמידה. This is one of the datable sources indicating the high antiquity of some of the prayers in the synagogue service,

Have mercy upon us, O God of all, and behold us, and shew us the light of thy mercies. And send thy fear upon the nations, that have not sought after thee: that they may know that there is no God beside thee, and that they may shew forth thy wonders. Lift up thy hand over the strange nations, that they may see thy power. For as thou hast been sanctified in us in their sight, so thou shalt be magnified among them in our presence, That they may know thee, as we also have known thee, that there is no God beside thee, O Lord.

Renew thy signs, and work new miracles. Glorify thy hand, and thy right arm. Raise up indignation, and pour out wrath. Take away the adversary, and crush the enemy. Hasten the time, and remember the end, that they may declare thy wonderful works.

Let him that escapeth be consumed by the rage of the fire: and let them perish that oppress thy people. Crush the head of the princes of the enemies that say: There is no other beside us.

Gather together all the tribes of Jacob: that they may know that there is no God besides thee, and may declare thy great works: and thou shalt inherit them as from the beginning.

Have mercy on thy people, upon whom thy name is invoked: and upon Israel, whom thou hast raised up to be thy firstborn.

Have mercy on Jerusalem, the city which thou hast sanctified, the city of thy rest.


הושיענו אלהי הכל והרים פחדך על כל הגיום׃
הניף על עם נכר ויראו את גבורתיך׃
כאשר נקדשת לעינהם בנו כן לעינינו הכבד בנו׃
וידעו כאשר ירענו כי אין אלהים זולתך׃
חדש אות ושנה מופת האדיר יר ואמץ זרוע וימין׃
העיר אף ושפוך חמה והכניע צר והדוף אויב׃
החיש פץ ופקוד מועד כי מי יאמר לך מה תעשה׃
השבת ראש פאתו מואב האמר אין זולתי׃
אסוף כל שבטי יעקב ויתנחלו כימי קדם׃
רחם על עם נקרא בשמך ישראל בכור כיניתה׃
רחם על קרית קדשך ירושלם מכון שבתיך׃
מלא ציון את הודך ומכבודך את היכלך׃
תן עדות למראש מעשיך והקם חזון דבר בשמך׃
תן את פעלת קוויך ונביאיך יאמינו׃
תשמע תפלת עבדיך כרצונך על עמך׃
ויראו כל אפסי ארץ כי את אלהנו לעולם׃
כל מאכל אוכל גרגרת אך יש אוכל נחמד לעינים׃
כל זכר תקנל אשה אך יש אשה יפה׃

This section is generally agreed is citing something known in the prayer-service of his day, or at least is quoting prayers that were well on their way to becoming established.

This is addressed to the whole of Israel. At the same time, you have reference to esoteric learning, e.g. the מרכבה reference. There is a puzzle here, though: The Dead Sea Scrolls have made it plain that at this time there was an enormous interest at least amongst some Jews to books attributed to Enoch.

We now have access to fragments of the Aramaic originals of these books. These take us into a very different world to that of Jesus ben Sira: the world of angels. Upon the name Enoch are hung a whole series of revelations about [...] the nature of evil, the origins of evil, how it comes to be in the world, what will happen to those who are evil. Enoch has been everywhere and seen everything, and writes about it at length. According to this literature, he knows all about the calendar; how it is ordered and regulated; how the sun and moon and stars work; and how the angels who are in charge of this operate from day to day. One whole long (and very repetitive and to our eyes boring) section is given over to astronomical data, which Enoch had to go to Heaven to get.

All of this was around in Ben Sira's day. (Mass spectrometry dates the Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts to ca. 300 BCE. The Septuagint is ca. 250 BCE.) What does Ben Sira say about Enoch? There is a curious reticence. Chapters 44—49, dealing with the great heroes of the Bible, begins not with Adam but with Enoch, the first named Father in his work. "Enoch pleased the Lord and was Translated, being an example of repentance unto all generations," says the Greek translated by his grandson, but it's not what the Hebrew says: "Enoch was found perfect [תמים] and he walked with G-d [והתהלך עם־ה׳] [missing word, probably: ויקח and was taken], a sign of knowledge [אות דעת] for every generation."

Is this a code, to those who know, referring to the Enoch literature?

[Clive Lawton: Might this have had to do with the fact the Hasmonean revolt, and the reconciling of the Jewish and Greek worlds, has happened in between Ben Sira's day and his grandson's? When did the lauding of repentance arise in Judaism?]

At the end of the list of these Fathers, he refers to Enoch again (49:14): The Greek text reads, "There was on the Earth no man created like Enoch, for he was taken from the Earth." The Hebrew once again is a different story: "Few were fashioned on the Earth like Enoch, and he also was taken within [פנים]." [ מעט נוצר על הארץ כהניך וגם והוא נלקח פנים׃] Generally, however, the Greek translation is accurate (though Ben Sira's grandson acknowledges in his prologue that translations can never be fully accurate).

This raises the question of whether the grandson altered what his grandfather said, for some reason; either because he didn't understand, or, more likely, because he was reticent to transmit exactly what his grandfather said.

In 3:21, he says:

Seek not out the things that are too hard for you, neither search out the things which are above your strength. What is commanded for you, think on them always, and in many of his works be not curious. For it is not necessary for thee to see with thy eyes those things that are hid. In unnecessary matters be not over curious, and in many of his works thou shalt not be inquisitive. For many things are shewn to thee above the understanding of men, and an evil suspicion has deceived many, and overthrown their judgement.

This is very similar to a passage in the Mishna warning people not to delve too deeply into esoteric matters.

Following the second reference to Enoch in Ben Sira comes this:

Neither was there a man born like Joseph, the governor of his brethren, the support of his family, the ruler of his brethren, the stay of the people; and his bones were visited, and after death they prophesied. Seth and Shem were honoured among men, and so was Adam, above every living thing in the Creation.

Then there's a long praise description of שמעון הצדיק.

He's linking Adam תפארת אדם, with the reigning High Priest of his time, תפארת עמו. He is seeing the High Priest as representative not just of the Jews but of all humanity. This is very much the world of Philo, seeing the Jews as the High Priestly race. This is why he refers to the Fathers as אבות עולם, not just of the Jews. Though this link is not so evident in the Greek; his grandson is closing down on this.

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