Sefer Tuviah, the Book of Tobit: An Ancient Jewish Novel for Shavuot
During the Second Temple period, Jews living in both Judea and in the diaspora produced much literature that spanned many genres, including biblically-themed stories, poetry, wisdom, historical documents and fictional novellas. Threaded throughout these texts are references to the well-known Tobiads, a wealthy family active in Jewish political and religious life in the Second Temple period. The most famous of these texts is the Book of Tobit, a short story, originally written in Aramaic, and preserved in the Septuagint in Greek.
Fragments from four Aramaic and one Hebrew manuscript of Tobit are found among the Dead Sea Scrolls; it is uncertain if Hebrew or Aramaic was the text’s original language. Tobit is included in what would later be called the Apocrypha, texts from the Second Temple period that are part of the Catholic Bible. Although not canonized in the Hebrew Bible, they were, for many centuries highly regarded as part of Jewish literary and cultural tradition. Tobit itself was probably written between 225 and 175 BCE in Judea.
Although none of the apocryphal works have liturgical functions in Judaism, Tobit was once associated with the holiday of Shavuot. One of the surviving medieval Hebrew manuscripts (reflecting a translation and reworking from the Greek rather than the preserved original Semitic Tobit) opens the book with the heading, “For the Second Day of Shavuot,” which indicates that, at least in some medieval Jewish communities, Tobit was associated with this holiday and read as a megillah of sorts on its second day.
According to Stuart Weeks, Tobit is linked to Shavuot because Tobit celebrates Shavuot at the outset of the story, and the emphasis on Tobit bringing annual tithes to priests and Levites working in the Jerusalem Temple.
Tobit was preserved in different periods of Jewish history for different reasons. In the Second Temple period, when the book was written, Tobit’s devotion to prayer would have made him appealing to Jews who were committed to living traditional Jewish lives while also embracing aspects of Hellenist culture. Although at its core, the book of Tobit embodies Torah values, it was written by a Hellenized religious Jew, i.e. one who embraced both Jewish and Hellenist values, who was highly sensitive to his Hellenist audience.
In the Middle Ages, however, Tobit was read as a book that highlighted the importance of charity, which would have appealed to a Jewish community facing poverty and an uncertain socioeconomic future. Whatever the emphasis, the protagonist’s traditional devotion to proper observance of mitzvot, his sacrifice and eventual reward, lay at the heart of the narrative.
The book opens by telling two parallel stories that eventually converge. Set in the First Temple period, the first story is that of Tobit (Tuvya), a pious and charitable Israelite from the tribe of Naphtali, living in the Assyrian capital Nineveh. He and his family have been exiled from his native homeland in the Northern Israelite kingdom. Despite his charitable and pious acts, Tobit suffers from a series of misfortunes, which culminates in his sending his son Tobias (also Tuvya) on a journey to retrieve some fortune left with a relative.
The second story is that of Sarah, a young bride whose seven consecutive grooms have died on the night of their wedding. At the moment of Tobit’s and Sarah’s greatest despair, we are told that “the prayers of both of them were heard in the glorious presence of God” (Tobit 3:15 NRSV). The stories then converge to tell how Tobit’s son Tobias, having arrived at the home of his kinsman, Gabael, to retrieve the money that his father once left there, meets Sarah, and they fall in love, marry, and live happily ever after. (Ok, I skipped all the action; including demons, angels, magic potions, and venomous bird droppings – but for that you need to read the book!) The story closes with Tobit’s restored, and his family living in happy prosperity.
Hellenistic Traits: Tobit in the Second Temple Period
The Book of Tobit includes many literary characteristics that are typical of Second Temple period Hellenized Jewish literature. In addition to emphasizing the importance of Temple service, the book also accentuates more general values such as prayer and philanthropy. These latter actions would have been appreciated by Greeks as much as by Jews. The writer of Tobit sees no binary between Judaism and Hellenism and expresses this by highlighting the aspects of Judaism that Hellenized Jews, that is, Jews who were proudly and openly Jewish but who integrated aspects of Hellenist culture into their own lives, would have found admirable.
Prayer in Tobit
Long and eloquent prayers are prominent in the book of Tobit. When Tobit realizes, for instance, that he has falsely accused his wife of theft, he repents with a despairing soliloquy to God. Likewise, when Sarah is distressed that her husbands keep dying (she lost seven of them to the demon Ashmodai), she turns to God. At different points in the story, both Sarah and Tobit beg for death (Tobit 3:6; 3:15). Although these sorts of prayers made by individuals begging for salvation are common in Second Temple Jewish literature (see, for instance, Judith 9:1-14 and Greek Esther Addition C, 13:8-17) they are uncommon in the Hebrew Bible, although the prayers of Daniel (Daniel 6:10-13) and Jonah (Jonah 2:1-9) certainly stand out as similar significant windows into ancient Jewish liturgical practice in the Second Temple period.
According to William Furley and Jan Bremer, prayer in the Greek world was a major form of literary expression that included well-known elements such as specific posture, imperative expressions directed towards the god being addressed, and opening expressions of gratitude known as charis.These elements are evident in the prayers uttered by Tobit and Sarah as well (see, for instance, Tobit 3:2, 3:6, 3:11, 3:13).
Charity in Tobit
Another aspect of Tobit that would have appealed to Jewish readers in the Hellenistic period is the book’s emphasis on Tobit’s many acts of charity and patronage. The importance of patronage of the community as a high form of what was called in Greek philanthropia was a well-known virtue in Greek culture. According to Susan Holman, providing for communal institutions, rather than giving money to the poor, was highly valued in the Greek world.
In the Book of Tobit, the protagonist engages in both kinds of philanthropia. Tobit supports the socioreligious center of Jewish life, the Temple in Jerusalem. Additionally, he perform acts of charity that would have been commended by readers of the Bible; he provides for the most vulnerable members of society, the widow, orphan, and resident alien.
This latter characteristic of Tobit, his devotion to the individual poor, is one of the timeless elements of the book that has appealed to Jews in many generations, particularly in the medieval period.
Reading Tobit in the Medieval Period
Given how few Jews today have read the book of Tobit it is, perhaps, surprising how many Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts of Tobit survive that are dated to the medieval period. (The book was even translated into Yiddish in the early modern period!) In addition to a 15th century Aramaic manuscript, four surviving Hebrew manuscripts of the book date between the 12th and 15th centuries, indicating the book’s popularity.
Two medieval Hebrew manuscripts differ from the version found in the Greek Apocrypha; they open and close the book by discussing the importance of tithing. The conclusion of these manuscripts read, “So we learnhow great is the power of alms and tithes, and how, because Tobit gave alms and separatedout his tithes as is appropriate, the Holy One, blessed be he, rewarded him.”
One of these manuscripts, Codex Or. Gaster 28, the manuscript that opens with an instruction to read the book of Tobit on the second day of Shavu’ot ,also abridges the end of the story and minimizes the miraculous aspects of the narrative. According to Stuart Weeks, “this presentationof Tobit as an exhortation to giving within the community…indicatesone of the key reasons, perhaps, for the continued circulation of the storyamongst Jews.”
Indeed, the reading of Tobit on Shavuot would have served to underscore for Jews in the medieval period the importance of using their bounty or harvest to care for the poor of their community. This would have spoken to medieval Jews in particular, who were more often than not living in communities with high levels of poverty and economic uncertainty, and living in societies in which religious piety was aspirational. The minimalizing of explicit miracles in these medieval manuscripts would have added a tone of realism to the story that would have made it easier for some medieval readers to connect with.
Although the importance of charity was at the forefront of Jewish society in both the Hellenistic and in the medieval periods, the appeal to the importance of tithing and alms found in the medieval manuscripts of Tobit reflects a different societal reality: while Jews in the Hellenist period would have appreciated Tobit’s emphasis on the civic duty to provide institutional support in addition to his commitment to caring for the orphan and widows, medieval Jews would likely have appreciated Tobit’s concern for the individual poor members of his community over his devotion to institutional philanthropy.
The medieval manuscripts’ additions to the text that highlight charitable acts are elaborating upon the Greek text. In the older version of the story, Tobit took three tithes from his property: one for priests, one for Levites, and one for orphans, widows and converts (Tobit 1:7-8). Likewise, we are told that Tobit regularly gave his food away to the poor (Tobit 1:17) and instructs his children on his deathbed to make charity a priority (Tobit 14:9). These charitable acts accord with biblical instructions to care for the poor, particularly the widow, orphan, and resident alien. For medieval readers, Tobit’s commitment to charitable behavior, as it is proscribed in the Bible, lies at the heart of the book.
A Timeless Story
Like many biblical stories, Tobit is timeless, and like its biblical antecedents, it can be read differently depending on the readers’ time period and cultural context. During the first few centuries after its composition in the Second Temple period, the book would have been particularly appealing to Hellenized Jewish readers who saw no binary between Jewish tradition and Hellenist culture. Its charming and engaging story was relevant to Jews who were devoted to their religious traditions and also happily integrated in their Hellenist surroundings.
Medieval Jews, who were reading Tobit as a classic, perhaps quasi-canonized text on Shavuot would not have noticed the Hellenistic emphases of the book. To them, Tobit was simply a story of a pious Jew living in the diaspora and trying to live a life imbued with Torah values even when such a life came at great personal risk. The appeal of such a pious character to a persecuted minority clinging to their Torah is easy to understand. The story of his eventual triumph in adversity, and the happily ever after ending would have been heartening.
By reading Tobit on the second day of Shavuot—Diaspora Shavuot—the Jewish community could listen to the story of one of the original diaspora tzaddikim and contemplate his message to them over their own Shavuot meal. Perhaps what modern-day readers would most appreciate about Tobit is the book’s dual themes of the uncertainty of life and the confidence that comes when they commits their life to the service of God.
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Dr. Malka Zeiger Simkovich is a the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and the director of their Catholic-Jewish Studies program. She holds a Ph.D. in Second Temple Judaism from Brandeis University, an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University, and a B.A. in Bible Studies and Music Theory from Yeshiva University’s Stern College. In addition to her many articles, Malka is the author of The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria (2016) and Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism (2018).
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