The Wisdom of Ben Sira: How Jewish?
Kohelet: Does it belong in the Bible?
Of all the strange books of the Tanach, none to my mind is stranger than Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), since Geonic times publically recited on the intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot. Although tradition would come to identify the author of this short tract with King Solomon, the book is actually attributed to an anonymous author called “Kohelet, son of David, King in Jerusalem.” The name Kohelet, which derives from the Hebrew root k-h-l, is not a proper name but instead means something like “the convener or gatherer,” a meaning confirmed in 12:9: “Kohelet was a sage, he continued to instruct the people (וְיֹתֵ֕ר שֶׁהָיָ֥ה קֹהֶ֖לֶת חָכָ֑ם ע֗וֹד לִמַּד־דַּ֙עַת֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם).” According to modern scholars, this probably refers to his status as a kind of itinerant preacher, who gathered crowds together (with the connection to David and status as king perhaps a later addition).
Kohelet is a bleak, almost existential book whose theology would hardly pass muster in many Jewish circles today. Kohelet’s God is an uncaring abstract and universal force. “God will doom both righteous and wicked,” Kohelet muses, so it is better to think of ourselves as mere animals (3:17-18). There is thus only one thing to do: “I saw that there is nothing better for man than to enjoy his possessions” (3:22; NJPS).
Kohelet’s message is so starkly Epicurean and difficult to miss (even my young daughter, listening to it several years ago as it was recited, turned to me and quizzically asked: “Abba, does this book really say that life stinks and then you die?”) that scholars generally understand it as a product of the Hellenistic period, probably dating to a bit after 200 BCE. Only several verses, especially the very end, give it a veneer of piety; they are likely later scribal additions, written to tone down the book.
The Strange Choice of Ecclesiastes over Ecclesiasticus
Kohelet’s strangeness, and the mystery of how such a book made it into the Tanak at all, deepens when seen against another book that didn’t, Ecclesiasticus (literally “church book,” a Latin term to denote its canonical status for Catholics) or Ben Sira. Written in Hebrew around the same time as Kohelet, Ben Sira is a genuinely pious book. Originally written in Hebrew around the time of Kohelet, it was translated into Greek by his grandson, and it is through this Greek translation that it was solely known for centuries, ultimately preserved as one of the books that Catholics call deuterocanonical (also known as the Apocrypha). Hebrew fragments of the book were found in Masada and some more complete Hebrew manuscripts were recovered from the Cairo Geniza, thus confirming the book’s original language.
Ben Sira: A Second Book of Proverbs… But Even More Pious
Ben Sira reads much like the Book of Proverbs. It offers various nuggets of advice, mostly in proverb form. Like Proverbs, it is, by and large, loosely organized. Unlike Kohelet, Ben Sira’s proverbs acknowledge God and exhort its readers to follow the mitzvot and Torah. Also recording Israel’s sacred history (entirely missing in Kohelet) and celebrating the sacrificial system, it is like the anti-Kohelet. Thus, one typical passage (Sirach 5:1-8) reads:
א אל תשען על חילך
ואל תאמר יש לאל ידי.
אל תשען על כוחך
ללכת אחר תאות נפשך.
1 Do not rely on your wealth,
or say, “I have enough.”
Do not rely on your strength,To follow the desire of your soul.
ב אל תלך אחרי לבך ועיניך ללכת בחמודות רעה.
2 Do not follow your inclination and strength in pursuing the desires of your heart.
ג אל תאמר
מי יוכל כחו
כי ייי מבקש נרדפים.
3 Do not say,
“Who can have power over me?”
for the Lord will surely punish you.
ד אל תאמר חטאתי
ומה יעשה לי מאומה
כי אל ארך אפים הוא.
אל תאמר רחום ייי
וכל עונותי ימחה.
4 Do not say, “I sinned, yet what has happened to me?”
for the Lord is slow to anger.Do not say "the Lord is merciful,and he will erase all my sins."
ה אל סליחה אל תבטח
להוסיף עון על עון.
5 Do not be so confident of forgiveness
that you add sin to sin.
ו ואמרת רחמיו רבים
לרוב עונותי יסלח.
כי רחמים ואף ע[מ]ו
ואל רשעים ינוח רגזו.
6 Do not say, “His mercy is great,
he will forgive the multitude of my sins,”
for both mercy and wrath are with him,
and his anger will rest on sinners.
ז אל תאחר לשוב אליו
ואל תתעבר מיום אל יום,
כי פתאום יצא זעמו
וביום נקם תספה.
7 Do not delay to turn back to the Lord,
and do not postpone it from day to day;
for suddenly the Lord’s wrath will come upon you,
and at the time of punishment you will perish.
ח אל תבטח על נכסי שקר
כי לא יועילו ביום עברה.
8 Do not depend on dishonest wealth,
for it will not benefit you on the day of calamity.
Note: Ben Sira, unlike Kohelet, affirms that God will indeed punish individuals for their sins. Also, the Hebrew and (traditional) Greek version, from which the English is taken, are not always in full agreement.
Now unlike Kohelet, this is pious! So how does Kohelet make it into the canon when Ben Sira does not?
The Canonization of Biblical Books
The entire process of canonization is murky. Scholars are simply unsure how certain books ultimately became authoritative and others did not. But from the (late) Rabbis’ perspective, Ben Sira’s had two things potentially going against it. First, it was attributed to an author who clearly lived after the “time of prophecy” had ceased. That is, according to later rabbinic understandings Ben Sira was simply written too late to be considered the product of divine inspiration. Thus, it was excluded from the biblical canon. The second issue was that (in its Greek translation) it was accepted as authoritative by Christians in the third and fourth centuries CE. If the book was on the edge, this argument goes, its acceptance by Christians might have pushed the Rabbis in the other direction.
So, Kohelet became canonical and Ben Sira did not. We might, then, have expected Ben Sira to fade into oblivion, at least within the Jewish community. We might have expected it to have for the Rabbis the same status as Homer and other classical literature; just ordinary books that in the eyes of the Rabbis diverted one’s time from Torah. Or perhaps more analogously, we might expect it to have been shunted to the side like other originally Hebrew books of the era, such as 2 Maccabees, Tobit, and the Wisdom of Solomon.
The Persistence of Ben Sira’s Influence
Unlike other originally Jewish books now found in the Apocrypha, though, Ben Sira did not exactly fade away. The book continued to circulate and to be read among Palestinian Jews, even though some tannaim explicitly put it in the category of non-holy, even heretical, books. Yet in practice, Palestinian rabbinic literature shows no discomfort with reading and citing the book.
The Palestinian Talmud mentions the book once, in a story in which Shimon ben Shetach quotes from it in order to justify his actions to King Yanai. While the Palestinian Talmud never cites verses from Ben Sira using the traditional terms used to introduce biblical prooftexts (e.g., kaktuv; dikhtiv), in several places it introduces verses from Ben Sira using a formula like, “Ben Sira said,” as if he himself was a sage like any other.
Ben Sira also had a significant liturgical role. The beginning and end of the ancient Yom Kippur Avodah service were modeled on Ben Sira’s panegyric to the high priest of his time, Simon (Sirach 44, 50). The earliest extant piyyut in which we see this is attributed to the Palestinian poet Yose ben Yose, who probably lived in the fifth century CE. It became, however, the subsequent basis for the Avodah service.
In the Geniza
Indeed, the fact that Ben Sira continued to play an important role in the lives of Palestinian Jews can be attested by the very survival of the Hebrew text in the Cairo Genizah. Portions of five manuscripts were found, all carefully written. We do not know how this community (which had close ties to the Palestinian Jewish community) used these books, although since they were not written on parchment, they likely did not use them liturgically.
Quoted as Scripture in the Bavli
Babylonian Jews too continued to read and ascribe some kind of limited authority to Ben Sira. The Bavli cites Ben Sira often, sometimes more accurately, sometimes less so. In at least one case, the Babylonian Talmud cites Ben Sira in a halakhic discussion using the formula kedikhtiv, implying that it has the authority of Scripture. In another case (b. Baba Kama 92b), the rabbis simply quoted the verse as Scripture (כתובים), without saying where it was from. Unfamiliar quotes from Ben Sira caused such consternation among a certain group of readers in the Geonic period that they wrote a letter to one of the Geonic yeshivot asking about this verse, and received the reply that it is from Ben Sira, but still legitimate to darshen.
The Talmudic Scrutiny of Ben Sira
Ben Sira’s place in Israel’s religious life, however, was also contested. The most extensive collection of verses from Ben Sira found in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 100b) in fact occurs in the context of contestation. The Talmud begins a discussion of Rabbi Akiva’s statement that those who read “external books” are excluded from the world to come. The Talmud first seeks to define what such books are, saying that they refer to the “books of the tzidokim” (Sadducees?). Rav Yosef then says: “It is also forbidden to recite from the book of Ben Sira”
This sparks a long discussion about Rav Yosef’s reasoning in which different verses of Ben Sira are cited in order to test whether they are problematic; in the end, none are found to be definitively “out of bounds.” Rav Yosef’s comment remains somewhat obscure, but it has been plausibly suggested that he is only forbidding liturgical recitation of Ben Sira, not ordinary reading and study. While the versions of Ben Sira that circulated in rabbinic circles in Babylonia might not have been identical to those in Palestine, they were clearly seen by many rabbis as containing ancient Jewish wisdom worth studying.
Ben Sira in the Geonic Period
By the Geonic period and the Middle Ages, Ben Sira floated on the margins of the rabbinic world. Sa’adiah Gaon (ninth century) knew of a copy that had cantillation marks, perhaps indicating that some Jews recited it in the synagogue. Through the Middle Ages rabbis appear to know of Ben Sira primarily through its citation in rabbinic texts. The halakhic tendency appears to have been to lessen its status, permitting one, for example, to read it in the bathroom.
Modern Day Return to Ben Sira
Despite the increased marginalization of Ben Sira within Jewish life, some modern scholars have attempted to reclaim the book as an important Jewish work. It is included in the set Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture, a work whose aim is to reclaim these ancient writings as Jewish. An edition with commentary is being prepared for the forthcoming Jewish Annotated Apocrypha. These collections are intended for non-scholars, not for synagogue use.
Ben Sira will never replace Kohelet within the Tanak or as a synagogue reading on Sukkot. But although it is “outside the Bible,” it may still contain teachings and wisdom that remain relevant for us today. King Solomon, the reputed author of Kohelet, was said to have a capacious sense of wisdom. We might want to ask whether our tent, like those of the Talmudic and Geonic Sages, is large enough to include Ben Sira, even if the book is only just allowed to lurk at the entrance.
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September 27, 2015
March 27, 2020
Professor Michael L. Satlow is Professor of Judaic Studies and Religious Studies at Brown University. He holds a Ph.D. from JTS, is the author of Creating Judaism: History, Tradition, Practice and How the Bible Became Holy and the editor of Judaism and the Economy: A Sourcebook. He maintains a blog at mlsatlow.com and can be followed on twitter at @mlsatlow.
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