Mareh Kohen: Ben Sira’s Description of Simon the High Priest
From Creation to Simon the High Priest: Ben Sira’s Poem
The Wisdom of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) was written in Hebrew by Joshua Ben Sira in the early second century B.C.E. It is a wisdom book which offers pious instructions to the reader in proverb form, loosely organized in small units. Its penultimate nine chapters (42:15-50:24), however, differ from the rest of the book in content and style, and form a unit unto itself:
Chs. 42:15–43:33—Praise of God the creator and His creation, (an idea familiar from Psalm 19 and 148); the poem ends with a call for praise (43:30–33), the first among three such calls in this unit, what may imply a verbal, communal recitation of the text.
Chs. 44–49—Praise of the fathers, in a style similar to historical surveys that appear in Psalms 78, 135, 136, and Nehemiah 9. This section subdivides nicely into two parts:
Chs. 44–45—From Enoch to Phinehas. The subsection here ends (45:26) with the second call for praise of God in the poem.
Chs. 46–49—From Joshua to Nehemiah. This section ends with Ben Sira circling back in reverse historical order to some great people from the ancient past, most of whom he skipped over in the first poem, ending with Adam.
Chs. 50:1–24—Praise of Simon son of Johanan/Onias (Simon II, 219–196 B.C.E.), the high priest in Ben Sira’s day, whom Ben Sira sees as the culmination of the line of Aaron and Phinehas. This poem ends with the third call for praise (50:22–23).
That the poem’s focus is on the priesthood is clear not only from the ending about Simon, but also from Ben Sira’s lengthy and flowery descriptions of Aaron, including his elaborate clothing and the priestly gifts he receives. Ben Sira’s description of the covenant with Aaron and his position as lawgiver highlights the central importance of the priesthood:
בן סירה מה:טו [וי]מלא משה את ידו, וימשחהו בשמן הקדש. ותהי לו ברית עולם, ולזרעו כימי השמים, לשרת ולכהן לו, ולברך את עמו בשמו. מה:טז ויבחר בו מכל חי, להגיש עלה וחלבים, ולהקטיר ריח ניחח ואזכרה, ולכפר על בני ישראל. מה:יז ויתן לו מצותיו, וימשילהו בחוק ומשפט, וילמד את עמו חק, ומשפט את בני ישראל.
Sir 45:15 Moses ordained him and anointed him with holy oil; it was an everlasting covenant for him and for his descendants as long as the heavens endure, to minister and serve as priest for him, and to bless his people in his name. 45:16 He chose him out of all the living to present burnt offerings and fats, to burn incense of a pleasing odor, and a memorial portion, and to make atonement for the people. 45:17 He gave him his commandments, and granted him authority in statutes and judgments, to teach his people the statutes, and laws to the children of Israel.
Several verses later, Ben Sira notes how the priestly covenant is comparable to that of David:
בן סירה מה:כה וגם בריתו עם דוד בן ישי למטה יהודה נחלת אש לפני כבודו נחלת אהרן לכל זרעו.
Sir 45:25 Just as a covenant was established with David son of Jesse of the tribe of Judah was an inheritance of fire before his glory, the inheritance of Aaron was to all his seed.
Pancratius Beentjes of Tilburg University explains: “Ben Sira in 45:25 transfers God’s covenant with David to the High Priesthood of Aaron, Phinehas and his descendants.” In the final section, Ben Sira describes the High Priest Simon as גדול אחיו ותפארת עמו, “the greatest among his brothers and the glory of his people” (50:1), presenting him as the culmination of the Aaronide priesthood in contemporary times.
The poem, which traces world history from the beginning of creation to the High Priest Simon, implies that the cosmos was created for the purpose of establishing a priestly lineage so that the high priest could officiate at the Temple service, a necessary part of maintaining the created world’s relevance and importance to its creator.
The Framing of a Seder Avodah
The theological concept and structure outlined in Ben Sira are familiar from the Seder Avodah genre, a long piyyut (liturgical poem) recited during the repetition of the Mussaf Amidah on Yom Kippur. Many poetic versions reimagining the service of the high priest were composed over the centuries, but they share the same basic format:
- Introduction: A poem surveying history from creation to the Israelite priesthood;
- Core: The text takes the congregation through a play-by-play description of the Yom Kippur sacrificial service as performed by the high priest;
- Closing: liturgical poems portraying the joy upon the High Priest’s successful completion of the service, with hopes for a blessed year, and long descriptions of the beauty of the high priest’s countenance, and more.
Ben Sira’s poem can be considered an ancient version of what has become the framing of the Seder Avodah. The move from creation through great figures of the past culminating in the priesthood, including Simon, parallels the Seder Avodah’s introductory and concluding poems. A look at specific parallels makes this clearer.
Parallels between Ben Sira and the Seder Avodah
Ben Sira opens with:
בן סירה מב:טו אזכר נא מעשי אל וזה חזיתי ואספרה.
Sir 42:15 I will now call to mind the works of God, and declare what I have seen.
He continues by surveying some of the highlights of God’s creation. While the focus and style is quite different than the creation sections in the Seder Avodah, God’s creation is the opening point of both surveys.
Ben Sira ends this section with the transition from divine wisdom to human wisdom, which is the lead-in to his first list of great people. Here the overlap with a parallel list in the Seder Avodah is evident (I will use Atah Konanta for the specific comparison):
Praise of the creation (42:15-43:33)
Creation of the world (lns. 1-2)
Noah: A Literary Parallel
The parallels are not merely in structure, but in details and literary motifs as well. See, for example, the description of Noah:
Ben Sira 44:17
נח צדיק נמצא תמים, בעבורו היה שארית.
Noah, the just man found perfect, for his sake, there was a remnant.
זכרת ברית לתמים בדורו, ובשכרו שמת לעולם שארית.
But You remembered Your covenant with Noah, the “perfect in his generation,” and through his merit You saved a remnant for everlasting survival.
Although the adjective “perfect” describes Noah in Genesis 6:9, and thus both texts could be seen as copying from the Bible, the noun “remnant” is absent from the Genesis story of Noah. This implies if not literary dependence, then at least a shared literary tradition.
Emergence of Aaron and the Priesthood
The trajectory in both poems is clear. We begin with sparse highlights from creation of the world (or the created world, in the case of Ben Sira), and then the generations before Abraham, move to the patriarchs, and culminate with Aaron. The differences are slight and can be viewed as a matter of style: Enoch vs. Adam; Levi and Amram (Aaron’s great-grandfather and father) vs. Moses (Aaron’s brother).
Ben Sira’s choice to move to Aaron’s grandson Phinehas before starting the next poem derives from the claim in Numbers 25:13 that Phinehas’ line will continue the priesthood. Even so, the two verses given to Phinehas pale in comparison to the 17 verses given to Aaron. No other figure gets even half this detailed a treatment. Proportionally speaking, the same is true of the treatment of Aaron and his descendants in Atta Konanta.
Simon’s Service and the Seder Avodah
Ben Sira then moves on to the second praise of the fathers, listing prophets, kings, and other political leaders. This has no parallel in the Seder Avodah introductory poems. Ben Sira then returns to the theme of priesthood with the praise of the high priest, Simon son of Johanan. Ben Sira’s effusive description of this priestly figure and his Temple service is reminiscent of the description of the high priest and his service at the end of the Seder Avodah.
Bowing and Singing
Ben Sira emphasizes the importance of the service to the Jews, who are described as watching all of it anxiously, while bowing and singing:
בן סירה נ:יז כל בשר יחדו נמהרו ויפלו על פניהם ארצה, להשתחות לפני עליון לפני קדוש ישראל... נ:יט וירנו כל עם הארץ בתפלה לפני רחום עד כלותו לשרת מזבח...
Ben Sira 50:17 Then all the people together quickly fell to the ground on their faces, to bow before the Most High, before the Holy One of Israel… 50:19 And the people sang jubilantly in prayer before the Merciful One, until he [Simon] finished serving at the altar…
The parallel with the Seder Avodah, which is a performative piece in which the leader and the congregation bow to the ground multiple times and sing along at various parts, is impossible to miss.
High Priest’s Blessing
After describing the successful completion of the day’s sacrificial service, the Seder Avodah expresses the relief felt by the High Priest and the people that nothing untoward happened to ruin the ceremony. The poem describes how he would make a celebration for his friends, and recite a special prayer asking for this year to be a good one for all Israel.
Again, we see something similar in Ben Sira, which also ends with Simon’s blessing of the people:
בן סירה נ:כב עתה ברכו נא את ייי אלהי ישראל המפלא לעשות בארץ, המגדל אדם מרחם ויעשהו כרצונו, נ:כג יתן לכם חכמת לבב ויהי שלום ביניכם.
Sir 50:22 And now bless the LORD, God of Israel, who works great wonders in the land, who fosters a person’s growth from the womb, and forms him according to his will. 50:23 May he give them a wise heart, and may there be peace among you.
The prayer in the Seder Avodah is much more elaborate, but it does make mention of hopes for peace, שנת שלום ושלוה “and year of peace and tranquility,” and even that שלא תפיל אשה את פרי בטנה, “a woman not miscarry the fruit of her belly,” which may preserve the cadence of Ben Sira’s older blessing about God forming all people in the womb according to the divine will.
“The Appearance of the Priest” and the Panegyric to Simon
After the high priest’s prayer, the Seder Avodah introduces a long alphabetic acrostic poem in the Ashkenazic rite, called Mareh Kohen, “Appearance of the Priest,” which describes the glorious countenance of the high priest. A side-by-side comparison of the first few lines of Mareh Kohen with Ben Sira shows that two are exceedingly similar, and that Ben Sira’s version must be seen as an early prototype of this genre of piyyut:
Ben Sira 50:5–10
מה נהדר בהשגיחו מאהל ובצאתו מבית הפרכת:
אֱמֶת מַה נֶּהְדָּר הָיָה כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל בְּצֵאתוֹ מִבֵּית קָדְשֵׁי הַקָּדָשִׁים בְּשָׁלוֹם בְּלִי פֶגַע.
How glorious was he when he looked forth from the Tent, as he came from the house of the veil!
Indeed, how glorious was the High Priest as he came forth from the Holy of Holies in peace and unharmed!
ככוכב אור מבין עבים
כְּאֹהֶל הַנִּמְתַּח בְּדָרֵי מַעְלָה
Like a star shining among the clouds,
As a tent stretched in heaven,
וכירח מלא מבין בימי מועד:
כִּבְרָקִים הַיּוֹצְאִים מִזִּיו הַחַיּוֹת
And like the full moon at the holy-day season;
As a lightening flashing from the splendor of the heavenly beings
וכשמש משרקת אל היכל מלך
כְּגֹדֶל גְּדִילִים בְּאַרְבַּע קְצָווֹת
As the sun shining on the Temple of the King
As the celestial blue of the [four] fringes
וכקשת נראתה בענן:
כִּדְמוּת הַקֶּשֶׁת בְּתוֹךְ הֶעָנָן
And like the rainbow appearing in the cloudy sky;
As the sight of the rainbow within the cloud
כנצבענפי בימי מועד
כְּהוֹד אֲשֶׁר הִלְבִּישׁ צוּר לִיצוּרִים
Like the blossoms on the branches in springtime,
As the splendor with which the Rock clothed that created ones
וכשושן על יבלי מים:
כְֶּורֶד הַנָּתוּן בְּתוֹךְ גִּנַּת חֶמֶד
And like a lily on the running waters;
As the rose planted in a pleasant garden
Both poems open with the words mah nehedar (“how glorious”) describing the high priest. Both are structured as a series of similes comparing the high priest to various natural phenomena, celestial and botanical. Both allude to the Temple worship as part of the cosmic and natural order. In some cases, such as the rainbow, they even use the same simile.
By describing the high priest in cosmic and natural terms, the poems draw a full circle from the description of creation at the beginning of the Seder Avodah. Both serve as bookends of their related units.
The Prototype Seder Avodah
Cecil Roth made the argument forcefully:
There cannot be the slightest doubt that the description of the glory of the High Priest included in the various recensions of the Day of Atonement ‘Abodah’ is based upon the panegyric of Simon son of Onias in Ecclesiasticus. […] The fact that twelve or more synagogal poets ended their compositions describing the Atonement Service with almost identical passages clearly shows that this was to be found in the prototype on which they modeled themselves. 
We cannot state with certainty that authors of Sidrei Avodah (pl.) had the book of Ben Sira in front of them and used it as basis for their versions. While this is possible—the book remained in circulation into the medieval period, as is clear from the genizah—it is also possible that these latter poems borrowed indirectly, with Ben Sira’s influence an example of what Joseph Heinemann described as the use of the “common liturgical property,” i.e., literary material known to the Sidrei Avodah authors in an intuitive manner. Whatever the case, the parallels show how this poem in Ben Sira is an early version, and perhaps even the original version, of what is now the framing for the Seder Avodah piyyutim.
A Seder Avodah Without the Temple Service
The Sidrei Avodah were composed for annual recitation as a liturgical substitute for the service of the high priest on the Day of Atonement when the Temple lay in ruins. Ben Sira, in contrast, was writing at a time when the Temple service was still being performed: His panegyric is not for an imaginary High Priest in a lost service but for an actual High Priest, whom he knew and respected. Thus, the unit ends with Ben Sira’s prayer for the continuity of the family of Simon (who was already deceased when Ben Sira wrote the book) as an important priestly family in the Jerusalem Temple:
בן סירה נ:כד יאמן עם שמעון חסדו ויקם לו ברית פינחס, אשר לא י[כ]רת לו ולזרעו כימי שמים.
Sir 50:24 May his lovingkindness with Simon endure, and many he establish the covenant of Phinehas with him, so that he and his descendants not be [cu]t off all the days of the heavens.
Ben Sira would have had no need of a Seder Avodah, i.e., a liturgical replacement for the Temple service, since, in his day, the service was still performed. But the framing he created, showing how creation leads directly to the priesthood and Temple service, which becomes the framing for all the Sidrei Avodah centuries later, expresses the theological foundation for this genre of prayer.
Why the Avodah Was Inserted
Tracing the world’s history from creation to the priesthood underscores the idea that the existence of the Jerusalem Temple was one of the goals of creation, and even that purification of the Temple on Yom Kippur is part of the proper maintenance of the world. Baruch Levine describes this service as the high priest exercising “potent powers” in a ritual that promises bounty and prosperity to the world.
After the destruction of the Temple, however, this theology would have posed an existential problem: If the Temple service is necessary for maintaining the world, what is to be done now that the service is no longer performed? This may be what inspired the Sidrei Avodah as we have them now, since they insert a detailed reenactment of the service into the older prototype.
Thus, the Sidrei Avodah were born, wrapped in the mantel of Ben Sira’s theology, but rewritten to include the play-by-play recitation of the Yom Kippur Temple service, so that the prayer itself becomes that which helps maintain the world.
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September 12, 2021
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Prof. Rabbi Dalia Marx is Professor of Liturgy and Midrash at Hebrew Union College-JIR (Jerusalem). She earned her Ph.D. at the Hebrew University and her rabbinic ordination at HUC-JIR (Jerusalem and Cincinnati). Among her publications are When I Sleep and When I Wake: On Prayers between Dusk and Dawn and A Feminist Commentary of the Babylonian Talmud. Her website is: www.dalia-marx.com.
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