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December 11, 2010

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The Mystery of Ben Sira
By Rabbi Charles Simon

Scholars have long been perplexed by the rabbis' ambivalent attitude toward the book of Ben Sira. Many assumed it should not have been included in the Tanakh. At one time it may have been forbidden to be read not only in public but even in one's home. The story of Ben Sira and the unraveling of the related texts suggest implications for how we address modern concerns.

Consider the following:

The following people will not have a place in the world to come. He who maintains that the resurrection is not intimated in the Torah or that the Torah was not divinely revealed and an Epicurean. R. Akiba (110-135 C.E.) adds: one who reads the outside books, such as the Book of Ben Sira and the books of Ben La'aga. Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1

The Outside Books were books written around the time of the canonization of the Bible but which, for various reasons were not included. They found their way into the other collections of the time: the Apocrypha and the Pseudopigrapha or the religious text of the early Christians, Copts or other existent groups. The Wisdom of Ben Sira which is also known simply as Sirach and which is also called Ecclesiasticus an entirely different book than Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) is an apocryphal book written in Hebrew around 180-175 B.C.E. It is quoted in the Talmud and other works of rabbinic literature, included in the Septuagint. It is accepted as part of the biblical canon by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but not by most Protestants.

The book consists of a series of ethical teachings closely resembling The Book of Proverbs. The teachings apply to all conditions of life: To parents and children, husbands and wives, the young and the old. It speaks about masters and friends, the rich, and the poor. It includes rules of courtesy and politeness; and advice and instruction towards oneself and others. The wisdom suggests how to behave toward the poor, in society and most of all toward God.

Wisdom, in Ben Sira's view, is synonymous with the fear of God, and is sometimes identified with the adherence to Jewish law. His statements demonstrate a profound knowledge of the human heart. It is easy to receive and consider his fraternal sympathy toward the poor and the oppressed. Unfortunately he doesn't trust women. I read his book for the first time last summer and recommend it for those who like Proverbs and Koheleth in spite of his misogynous attitude.

Ben Sira advises his readers to adhere to the morality of old and at the same time to consider happiness and, the avoidance of pain and emotional disturbances as the highest good. The book concludes with a prayer imploring God to gather together his scattered children and fulfill the visions of the Prophets.

General commentators suggest that Rabbi Akiba forbade the inclusion of this book into the Bible because many of the cults at the time understood it to be a religious text. One really doesn't know, but it could be that he rejected it because he believed a higher goal than personal pleasure existed. Akiba was known to say that “study was the highest form of worship because study leads to practice.”

There are those who believe that the book was not banned or that if it was it was only for a short time, because in his later years Akiba changed his mind.

Approximately two hundred years after Akiba's death one finds in the Tosephta-(a collection of sources that were not included in the Mishna; compiled around 300 C.E.), that it was permitted to be read.

The Gospels and heretical books do not defile the hands. The books of Ben Sira and all other books written from then on do not defile the hands. Tosephta yadim 2:13

Abaye who lived during this period questions why one should not read Ben Sira (Sanhedrin 100b) and Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi claims it should not be read is because it encourages people to act like fools.

because it states a thin-bearded man is very wise, a thick bearded one is a fool He who blows the top of his cup is not thirsty, he who says, what shall I eat with my bread? Take the bread away from him. He whose beard is parted...

When the biblical canon became fixed, Jewish sectarians no longer posed a threat to the number of biblical books. The ban was relaxed. With the introduction of the Talmud into the academies, the book was neglected and discussion about it ceased entirely.

The discussion and ultimate resolution of the book of Ben Sira demonstrates a process that began in earliest of rabbinic times and continues to this day. It reflects a constantly evolving religious tradition that confronts issues, wrestles with them and in most instances adapts to changing times. The debates and practices of our ancestors differ from our current ones but the process of raising issues and concerns remains one of the pillars of Jewish survival.

This week's Haftarah commentary was written by
Rabbi Charles Simon,
Executive Director of the FJMC and author of
"Building A Successful Volunteer Culture: Finding Meaning in Service in the Jewish" Jewish Lights Publishing

The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.

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