Ben Sira, Wisdom of

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BEN SIRA, WISDOM OF (also called Ecclesiasticus ), a work of the Apocrypha, which, though usually known by this name, may have been called by its author, "The Words of Simeon b. Jeshua," the title found on the Hebrew fragments. In Greek the book is called Σοφία (ʾIήσου υὶοῦ) Σειράχ), "Wisdom of (Jesus son of) Sirach," and hence in Latin it was known as Siracides (i.e., Sira's son). Its common name in modern times, Ecclesiasticus (abbr. Ecclus.) dates from the 4th-century custom of naming certain homiletical books libri ecclesiastici (i.e., books for (reading in) the church). The book is divided into eight sections, each introduced by a poem in praise of wisdom or of the wise man. The last section (Hebrew version 44–50), called "The Praise of the Fathers," eulogizes the great figures of the Bible, with the exception of the final chapter which is devoted to praise of Simeon b. Johanan the priest, i.e., *Simeon the Just. The greater part of the work consists of maxims, poetic in form, like those in the book of Proverbs. It also contains psalms of supplication and of thanksgiving (36:1–17 (33:1–13; 36:16–22); 42:21–35 (15–25), 43, et al.), these latter being characterized by a lofty poetic style and by elevated thought (cf. 42:21 (15); 43:33 (58). (References are given to two editions: the first to the Hebrew edition by M.H. Segal (19582), the second to the standard edition in the Greek text of the Apocrypha). The work also includes didactic poems on subjects of daily life and on historical events, after the manner of certain psalms (13; 15; 16; 18; 34:19–35; 40:41; et al.), and concludes with an epilogue comprising two poems of praise and thanksgiving, and an alphabetic poem on the importance of acquiring wisdom.

The Wisdom of Ben Sira directs man to the love of wisdom and ethical conduct, teaches him virtue and good deeds, and proper behavior in eating and drinking, speech and silence, work and commerce, studying and teaching, poverty and wealth, health and sickness. It also seeks to instruct man to perform all his actions with intelligence and understanding, moderation, care and wisdom, so that his deeds may bring to him and others the appropriate benefit. It teaches man how to behave within his family circle: toward his father and mother, his wife, his sons, and his daughters. It guides him in his conduct toward all men. It stresses, as does the book of Proverbs, that the fear of the Lord is the beginning and the end of all wisdom. The work, though written in the spirit of the Bible and in the language of the later biblical books, bears a contemporary impress of the second century b.c.e., and its faith, in general, is that of subsequent Pharisaic Judaism (everything is foreseen but man has freedom of choice: 15:15–17; cf. Avot 3:15). It also reveals some influence of Greek literature and idiom: men grow and fall like leaves on a tree (14:19; cf. Iliad 6:146–9); he becomes wise who is unfettered by affairs, corresponding to the σχολαστικός, the Greek man of leisure. The work also contains a trace of the Greek gnosis and perhaps also of its philosophical thought (cf. 42:29–33 (20–23)). Unlike other books of proverbs, in which the authors address themselves to youth, the Wisdom of Ben Sira attaches prime importance to the well-ordered family, the effective basis of which is the father. It is primarily to him that the author addresses himself, advising and instructing him. A man should marry a suitable wife, beautiful and kindly-spoken, who, assisting him, will bring him supreme happiness. He should rear his sons in the Torah, marry off his daughters while they are young, and deal faithfully with his fellow man.

From a literary viewpoint, the work is well constructed. Most of the maxims are arranged according to subject matter, and the various sections have headings such as "The fear of the Lord," "Honoring parents," "Humility," "Lovingkindness," and the like. For the rabbis of the early talmudic period the work had an importance almost equal to that of the book of Proverbs. Its aphorisms, quoted either in Ben Sira's name or anonymously, are scattered throughout talmudic literature and are cited by both tannaim and amoraim, such as R. Levitas of Jabneh (Avot 4:4, cf. Ecclus. 7:13), Akiva, and Rav. Several of Ben Sira's maxims are to be found in other books of the Apocrypha, the New Testament, the Syriac version of the book of *Aḥikar as well as in the writings of early medieval Jewish scholars. Ben Sira's influence on ancient Hebrew prayers and piyyutim is particularly great. Although the Wisdom of Ben Sira is quoted in talmudic literature with the introductory phrase "as it is written," ordinarily reserved for biblical quotations, and is once explicitly mentioned among the books of the Hagiographa (bk 92b; cf. Ecclus. 27:9), it was not included in the canon. Some amoraim even forbade it to be read (Sanh. 100b; tj, Sanh. 10:1, 28a). In the book of Proverbs the ethics are personal and worldly, and its general character is bound up with its secular origin, even though the religious content of the book is of prime importance. In the Wisdom of Ben Sira there is a notable difference. Wisdom, which is spoken of in the book of Proverbs as a primordial fascinating entity, is in Ben Sira identified with the Torah given to Israel, emphasizing that it is the true basis of all divine and human wisdom. In the Wisdom of Ben Sira there occur for the first time a number of ideas subsequently found in the aggadah, such as that Israel as well as the Torah was among the first acts of God's creation (cf. Ecclus. 36:15 and Gen. R. 1:4) and that the people of Israel (37:29 (25)), the Temple (17:20 (13)) and the priesthood of Aaron and of Phinehas (45:26, 45 (15, 24)) will endure forever (cf. Sif. Num. 92; Lev. R. 2:2). Ben Sira is also the original source for several customs which are later found in the halakhah (e.g., the blessing on seeing a rainbow – 43:13 (11)), and contains the earliest reference to the accepted basis of the Eighteen Benedictions and the like. The sages delivered homilies based on Ben Sira's maxims, but changing their form and language. They were even rendered at times in the mishnaic Hebrew or Aramaic spoken by the sages. Excerpts from these maxims, current among the masses, were collected in small compilations, not always in the original order, and they included not only biblical verses but some aphorisms which were not Ben Sira's. As a result these verses and aphorisms were erroneously ascribed to Ben Sira by the rabbis.

The original Hebrew text was no longer extant after the time of Saadiah Gaon (10th century). In the 19th century the work was translated from the Greek into Hebrew by Judah Leib *Ben-Zeev S.I. Fraenkel, and others. In 1896, however, S. Schechter discovered among the *Genizah fragments in Cairo a page of the original Hebrew work. During the next four years, Schechter and other scholars found many other fragments from various manuscripts, comprising about two-thirds of the entire book. In 1929 Joseph Marcus found a fragment from a fifth manuscript containing 46 verses; in 1957 J. Schirmann found a new folio, and in 1959 yet another folio of manuscript b, as well as two folios of manuscript c. These fragments consist at times of no more than portions of verses, and contain many mistakes, omissions, and corruptions, as well as numerous additions and repetitions. Nonetheless, they presumably preserve an early or even original version. Some fragments of the Hebrew original (6:20–31) were discovered in Qumran Cave ii. In 1964 Yigael Yadin discovered at Masada fragments containing chapters 39:27–44:25, which indicate that manuscript b of the Genizah represents substantially the original Hebrew version of the book. The Wisdom of Ben Sira was included in the Septuagint, from where it made its way into the Christian Bible. It was translated into Syriac in about 300 c.e. by a Christian (apparently a Jewish apostate). Although these versions contain very many mistakes, by comparing them with the Hebrew version it is generally possible to establish the original text of the work.

[Moshe Zevi (Moses Hirsch) Segal]

A critical edition of Ben Sira, giving the Hebrew original, including fragments from the Genizah, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Masada, with facsimiles, was published (1973) by the Historical Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, under the aegis of the Hebrew Language Academy, with Professor Z. Ben *Ḥayyim as chief editor. It provides a complete concordance of all the words in these texts, with textual notes.

On the question of the date of the author and the book, see *Ben Sira, Simeon son of Jesus.

See also *Apocrypha and *Bible, Canon.

In the Arts

In literature and art the Wisdom of Ben Sira has not inspired great creativity. In music, by contrast, Ben Sira's work has proved to be of considerable importance. The use of its texts may be considered under three headings: (a) The Priestly Office. The text beginning Ecce sacerdos magnus ("This is the high priest"), a paraphrase based on the praises of Moses and Aaron in chapters 44 and 45, is used in the Catholic liturgy for the commemoration or welcome of high ecclesiastical dignitaries, especially popes and bishops. The traditional plainchant melody was used by Palestrina as a cantus firmus (compositional foundation) in the first of his published masses (1554), which was dedicated to Pope Julius iii; and also for festive motets on the text itself, such as those written by Constanzo Porta (book of motets for 6 voices, 1585, dedicated to Pope Sixtus v) and Tomas Luis de Victoria (4 voices, in his Motecta festorum totius anni … 1585). The last, like the Palestrina mass, has since been sung at many papal coronations. An Ecce sacerdos motet appears in the Opus musicum by Jacob Handl (Gallus; 1550–1591), in which other settings of Ben Sira texts also appear. It may be assumed that the attention of composers was drawn to Ben Sira as a text-source by the feeling of obligation, which the Counter-Reformation inspired, that no part of the liturgical cycle be neglected by composers. (b) "Now praise the Lord." The short hymnic passage in ch. 50:22–24, adopted by the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, was set by William Byrd (1545–1623) as an impressive six-voiced anthem, Behold now praise the Lord. The rhymed German paraphrase Nun danket alle Gott, by Martin Rinkart (first published by him in 1636 as a grace at table), became famous as the "German Te Deum" when it was sung on the occasion of the peace treaty ending the Thirty Years' War in 1648 to a chorale-melody composed by Johann Crueger (first published in the same year). Translated by Catherine Wink-worth in 1858 as Now thank we all our God, it became popular in the English-speaking church; and both the German and the English versions have been sung on many historic occasions. Bach used the chorale-melody for his cantata no. 192, Nun danket alle Gott, and at the conclusion of his cantata no. 79. Felix *Mendelssohn adapted it for the Festgesang which he wrote for the 400th anniversary of the invention of printing, celebrated at Leipzig on June 25th, 1840.

(c) "Let us now praise famous men." The opening passage of the "Praise of the Fathers," ch. 44, in the English version of The Book of Common Prayer, has been set for choir by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1923), Cyril Scott (1935), and other English-speaking composers.

Settings of other texts include those by Heinrich Schuetz; the rhymed Dutch paraphrase Ecclesiasticus by Jan Fruytier (1965), which used the tunes of Clemens non Papa's famous Souterliedekens ("Little Psalter Songs," 1556); and the three-voiced canon on "Non impedias musicam" ("Do not impede the music," ch. 32, 52), in G.B. Martini's Storia della Musica (vol. 1, 1757).

[Bathja Bayer]


M.H. Segal, Ḥokhmat Ben Sira (1933); idem, Sefer Ben Sira ha-Shalem (19582), contains detailed bibliography; idem, in: Tarbiz, 29 (1959/60); Grinz, in: Beḥinot, 6 (1953/54), 85–93; Schirmann, in: Tarbiz, 27 (1957/58), 440–3; A. Kahana Ha-Sefarim ha-Ḥiẓonim, 2 (1959); Charles, Apocrypha; A.A. Di Lella, Hebrew Text of Sirach (1966); C.C. Torrey, in: Alexander Marx Jubilee Volume (1950), 585–602; Yadin, in: Eretz Israel, 8 (1967), 1–45.