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Ben Sira, Alphabet of

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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A small book containing a double list of proverbs—twenty-two Aramaic and twenty-two Hebrew—alphabetically arranged, and a haggadic commentary on them, enriched with fables and legends. Corresponding to their linguistic difference, there are differences in their contents and origin; consequently the two collections must be treated separately. Following is a list of the Aramaic proverbs, concerning only four of which definite statements of origin can be made:

  1. "Honor the physician before thou hast need of him" (see Ecclus. [Sirach] 38:1; cited also in the rabbinical sources as a genuine saying of Ben Sira; compare Schechter, in "Jewish Quarterly Review," 3:694,703).
  2. "If a son do not conduct himself like a son, let him float on the water." This means "deliver him up to his own fate." For another explanation, see Reifmann, in "Ha-Karmel," 2:126.
  3. "Gnaw the bone that falls to thy lot whether it be good or bad."
  4. "Gold must be hammered, and the child must be beaten."
  5. "Be good and refuse not thy portion of good."
  6. "Wo to the wicked man and wo to his companions." This proverb is frequently cited in rabbinical literature; compare Dukes, "Rabbinische Blumenlese," p. 91.
  7. "Cast thy bread upon the waters and upon the land, for thou shalt find it after many days" (Ecclesiastes 11:1, with the addition of the word , "and upon the land").
  8. "Hast thou seen a black ass? [Then] it was neither black nor white." (Addressed to a confirmed liar whose very statement is a proof against itself.) [Cowley and Neubauer, p. 29, read: "Hast thou seen white and black? "]
  9. "Bestow no good upon that which is evil, and no evil will befall thee." The rabbinical sources characterize this as a saying of Ben Sira, though it does not occur in Ecclesiasticus [it is a slight scribal variation of Ben Sira, 7:1]; compare Schechter, ib. pp. 694, 703; Cowley and Neubauer, "The Original Hebrew of a Portion of Ecclesiasticus," Introduction, p.
  10. "Restrain not thy hand from doing good." According to the MS. reading in Cowley and Neubauer (ib. p. 29), the proverb runs," Never restrain thy hand from chastising a child."
  11. "The bride enters the bridal chamber and, nevertheless, knows not what will befall her."
  12. "A nod to the wise is sufficient; the fool requires a blow." This is cited as a maxim in Prov. R. 22:15.
  13. "He who honors them that despise him is like an ass."
  14. "A fire, when it is kindled [Neubauer, ib., suggests , "little" instead of "kindled"], burns many sheaves" (compare James 3:5).
  15. "An old woman in the house is a good omen in the house" ('Ar. 19a, according to which in the present passage is the status absolutus of , and is to be translated by "old woman"; compare Rashi on Leviticus 27:7).
  16. "Even a good surety has to be applied to for a hundred morrows; a bad one for a hundred thousand."
  17. "Rise quickly from the table and thou wilt avoid disputes."
  18. "In thy business deal only with the upright."
  19. "If the goods are near at hand, the owner consumes them; but if they are at a distance, they consume him."
  20. "Do not disavow an old friend."
  21. "Thou mayest have sixty counselors, but do not give up thy own opinion" (Ecclus. [Sirach] 6:6; compare Cowley and Neubauer, ib. p. 20).
  22. "He that was first satisfied and then hungry will offer thee his hand; but not he that was first hungry and then satisfied." For the proper reading and signification of this proverb see below.

Origin of the Proverbs.

The parallel citations from rabbinical literature show that only five of these twenty-two proverbs are known to Talmudic-Midrashic literature; consequently they can not be regarded as being drawn from it. It is noteworthy that two of them, Nos. 17 and 22, agree almost literally with two of Aḥiḳar's proverbs, Nos. 43 and 71 (in the Syriac). A comparison reveals the fact that No. 17 is to be read , in which the four פ's make a paronomasia. Similarly No. 22 of the Alphabet shows that the manuscript reading of No. 71 of Aḥiḳar is correct in omitting , "not." The meaning of No. 22 is that one grown suddenly rich is accustomed to the niggardly ways of his poverty, and is not free in giving; but a rich man grown poor will remain true to habits of generosity.

Since the book of Aḥiḳar is very probably derived from Jewish sources, its agreement with the proverbs of Ben Sira is not particularly remarkable; for although Ben Sira is not the real author of the Alphabet, the proverbs are undoubtedly olden current Jewish adages. This is evident especially from the language in which they are written, which is far from being a learned imitation of a later style, but is of archaic Aramaic character. As Aramaic renditions of the real Ben Sira (compare Zunz, "G. V." 2d ed., p. 110) existed at the time of the Amoraim, and probably earlier, it is possible that the Alphabet may have sprung from an Aramaic collection; that is, a later author may have made an alphabetical list of proverbs from the many genuine and spurious sayings of Ben Sira.

The accompanying Hebrew commentary, which explains every proverb, and illustrates its correctness with legends and tales, is much more recent. It is true that, with the exception of the mythical Uzziel and Joseph (p. 8 has R. Jose, probably the same as Joseph), the son and the grandson of Ben Sira (compare Joseph ben Uzziel), no authorities are cited by name; yet there is no doubt that the commentary availed itself of the Talmud and the Midrashim.

The Commentary.

Thus the commentary begins with a citation from Sanh. 44b; and the whole section following is but an elaboration of this Talmudic passage and of B. B. 121b. More than a dozen such citations can be pointed out. An especially interesting fact concerning the commentary is that it combines the fable told in Eccl. R. (5:8) of the lion and the grass that revives the dead (on Nos. 7, 9; ed. Venice, pp. 5b, 7), with a totally distinct one. The author indeed betrays a general inclination to give stories from the Talmud and the Midrash in a modified form, which, no doubt, in many cases was that current among the people. Moreover, the author in all likelihood drew upon Midrashic sources now unknown; and this would account for many differences between the Haggadah in its present form and the Haggadah of the Alphabet.

It is impossible to determine the date at which the commentary was written, but it was probably about 1000, the end of the gaonic period. Concerning the locality of its composition there is no doubt. In the first place, the stress laid upon never omitting the formula , "if God wills" (on No. 11; ed. Venice, pp. 9b, 10a), shows that it originated in a Mohammedan country; for the use of formulas was introduced to the Jews by the Mohammedans. In the second place, the exact words of an Arabic proverb are cited (on No. 22; ed. Venice, p. 16a) with the phrase "There is a proverb among the 'goyim'" (Gentiles); and a writer living among Christians would not refer to the Mohammedans as "goyim." Moreover, the commentary alludes to the arbitrariness of the Mohammedan ruler (No. 8; ed. Venice, p. 6), and in another passage denounces the divorces frequently occurring among the Arabs and their Jewish countrymen.

The author combats exaggerated piety, the indulgence of children, and yielding to enemies (on Nos. 5, 9, 13; ed. Venice, pp. 4, 6, 7, 10, 11). The virtues which he particularly recommends are praying (on No. 1), almsgiving (on Nos. 7, 10; ed. Venice, pp. 4b-6, 7b-9a), respect for the aged (on No. 15; ed. Venice, pp. 12a, 13a), exclusive intercourse with the upright, and constancy in friendship. The manner in which the author imparts moral instruction at the end of the proverbs by a happy combination of Haggadah and legend shows him to be a clever writer, and one who knows how to treat his subject. Some of the notions may seem strange to the modern mind; but this is the case with many Midrashim.

The Second Alphabet.

The so-called second Alphabet of Ben Sira is quite different in character from the other, and belongs to a much later period. It consists, as stated, of twenty-two Hebrew proverbs with a commentary uponthem. Half of the proverbs are borrowed from the Talmud; and it is clear that some of them are divided into several proverbs in order to preserve the desired number of twenty-two, the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The other half consist of platitudes whose form and contents betray a lack of literary training. But the proverbs themselves are of secondary interest for the author, whose main purpose is to use them as a basis for the legends which he not unskilfully groups about the person of Ben Sira.

The account begins with the remarkable birth of Ben Sira. He is represented as the son of Jeremiah, and was born with the physical and mental powers of an adult. In fact, the proverbs were made by him when as a one-year-old child he was sent to a teacher, and was taught the alphabet by him. As his teacher began to say the alphabet, Ben Sira interrupted him by giving a proverb which corresponded to the letter about to be taught him. His fame for wisdom reached Nebuchadnezzar, who sent for him, and at whose court Ben Sira gave many proofs of his wisdom, which are described by the commentator.

The alleged intercourse between Ben Sira and Nebuchadnezzar is the invention of the author, while the miraculous birth and early history of Ben Sira are a Jewish echo of a Christian legend, in which Jesus Ben Sira is made to play the part of Jesus of Nazareth. According to the "Evangel of the Childhood of Jesus," a pseudepigraph written in Arabic (Thilo's "Codex Apocryphus Novi Testam." 1:122 et seq.), Jesus spoke to his mother (chap. ) while he was still in the cradle, and said: "I, whom thou hast brought forth, am Jesus, the son of God." Ben Sira, likewise, had teeth when he was born and could talk, for he at once told his mother who he was, whence he came, his name, and what he would accomplish (ed. Venice, 17a, b). Furthermore, just as the "Evangel" chap. ) mentioned above narrates that Jesus, while a schoolboy, astonished his teacher by explaining the names, form, and order of the Hebrew letters—in this book Ben Sira is said to have done the same. The story of the extraordinary conception of Ben Sira by his mother, p. 16b, is evidently a parody of the familiar Christian dogma.

The chief interest attaches to the animal fables, which are of great value for comparative folk-lore. The following may serve as an instance: At the creation of the world God consigned a male and a female of every kind of animal to the sea. When the Angel of Death ("Malak ha-Mawet"), who was charged with the duty of sinking them in the water, was about to take the fox, that animal began to cry. The Angel of Death asked him why he did this. The fox answered that he wept because his friend had been condemned to live in the water; and going to the shore, he pointed to his own image in the water. The Angel of Death, believing that a fox had already been sunk, allowed him to go. Leviathan, the ruler of the sea, now tried to lure the fox into its depths, because he believed that if he could eat the heart of so cunning an animal he would gain in wisdom. One day, while the fox was walking by the sea, some fishes came and spoke to him. They told him that Leviathan was nearing his end and wanted the craftiest of animals to be his successor. They promised the fox to carry him to a rock in the sea where he could erect his throne without fear of the surrounding waters. When he reached the high seas the fox knew that for once he had been tricked; but he did not lose his self-possession. "What!" said he, "It is my heart you want, is it? Well, why did you not say so before? I would then have brought it here; for usually, you know, I do not carry it with me." The fish quickly conveyed him back to the shore, and in exultation he leaped about. The fish called to him to fetch his heart and come with them; but the fox replied: "To be sure, I went with you when I had no heart" (the ancients considered the heart the seat of wisdom); "but now I have my heart, I'll stay here. I got the better of the Angel of Death; how much easier, then, to fool stupid fish!" (Ed. Venice, pp. 27a-28b; partly given, according to the MS. version by Schorr, in "He-Ḥaluẓ," 8:170,171.)

A comparison of this fable with the Indian fables as given in the "Panchatantra" and "Kalila and Dimna," shows that the author fused three into one. Evidently the story of the fox and the Angel of Death has no connection with the story of the fox and the fish. The latter is identical with the Indian fable of the ape and the crocodile ("Panchatantra," 4:1; French translation by E. Lancereau, pp. 271-278, Paris, 1871), which corresponds to the fable of the ape and the turtle in "Kalila and Dimna" (Hebrew version, ed. Derenbourg, pp. 128-138, Paris, 1881; Syriac version, ed. Bickell, pp. 49-52, Leipsic, 1876). The end of the fable, as told in the Alphabet, does not belong to this fable, but to the Indian one of the lion, the jackal, and the ass ("Panchatantra," 4:3,285-288; "Kalila and Dimna," Hebrew, pp. 139-142; Syriac, pp. 52, 53). The author, however, did not draw upon the "Panchatantra," but upon some version of the "Kalila and Dimna," as is evident from the fact that in the latter the two fables are joined, while in the "Panchatantra" there is no direct connection.


It is difficult to decide which version of Bidpai Ben Sira drew upon, since the date of the composition of the Alphabet has not been determined. The earliest authority who cites the little book is the author of the 'Aruk, s. , ed. Kohut, 6:450; but it is doubtful in what form he knew it; and there is reason to suppose that it underwent changes—insertions and elaborations—in the course of time. Yet it is probable that Abraham ben Nathan in the second half of the twelfth century was acquainted with the legends and fables of the book as it now is (compare the citations from the manuscript of Abraham ben Nathan in "Jewish Quarterly Review," 3:685). Maimonides did not know of the book; for the remark in his Mishnah commentary on Sanh. 10:1 shows that he obtained his opinion of Ben Sira from the Talmud (c. 100).

In spite of Maimonides' disparaging opinion of the book, it has survived; and, to judge from the many manuscripts, both the Alphabets and the commentaries had a certain popularity, though mostly among the unlearned. The commentary on the secondAlphabet is really nothing more than a collection of legends and fables common among the Jews of the Middle Ages. It is to be expected that such a book should be full of absurdities; and it is not just in Reifmann, Epstein, and Neubauer to stigmatize it as an intentional "mockery of Jewish literature." Oriental popular books—and the second part of Ben Sira came from Arabia or Persia—contain much that is vapid together with good specimens of popular wit and charming fables.

  • Editions, Manuscripts, and Translations: First ed., Salonica, 1514, not known to the bibliographers, but of which one copy is in possession of Elkan N. Adler, and another of L. Schwager in Husiatyn;
  • second ed., Constantinople, 1519;
  • only one complete copy known, that in the British Museum;
  • the Bodleian copy is defective;
  • third ed., Venice, 1544, very rare;
  • most later editions are based on this one, but are, however, badly mutilated. Steinschneider published a reprint of this edition with a comparison of the MS. with a MS. at Leyden, under the title Alphabeticum Syracidis, Berlin, 1854. The Bodleian Library has several MSS. with some variations from the printed text. The proverbs have been translated into Latin, French, and German;
  • in Cowley and Neubauer, The Original Hebrew of a Portion of Ecclesiasticus, Introduction, pp. 28, 29, the First Alphabet has been translated into English, and the whole book has been translated several times into Judæo-German, and once into Judæo-Spanish. Compare Steinschneider, Cat. Bodl. cols. 203, 206;
  • Van Straalen, Catalogue, p. 24. Literature: Epstein, Mi-Ḳadmoniyot ha-Yehudim, pp. 119-124;
  • Reifmann, in Ha-Karmel (monthly), 2:124-138 (in this work there are many errors along with some good observation);
  • idem, in Keneset Yisrael, 2:135,136;
  • Dukes, Rabbinische Blumenlese, pp. 31, 32, 67-84;
  • Zunz, G.V., 2d ed., p. 11;
  • Schorr, in He-Ḥaluẓ, 8:169-173;
  • Jellinek, in Monatsschrift, 2:430;
  • idem, in his Introduction to B. H. 6:11-13.
L. G.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Ben Sira, Alphabet of'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​b/ben-sira-alphabet-of.html. 1901.
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