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Alphabet of Ben Sira

BEN SIRA, ALPHABET OF, a narrative, satirical work, written probably in the geonic period in the East. The Alphabet of Ben Sira is one of the earliest, most complicated, and most sophisticated Hebrew stories written in the Middle Ages. Four versions of the work have been printed: (a) the usual text found in most editions and manuscripts, edited with notes by Steinschneider and published in Berlin in 1858; (b) a fuller version of part of the work that was discovered by Steinschneider in a manuscript in Leiden (parts of it were added as notes to his edition); (c) a totally different version printed by Loewinger and Friedman from a Kaufmann manuscript in Budapest, published in Vienna in 1926; and (d) part of a fourth version discovered by Habermann in a manuscript in Jerusalem and published in 1958. There are more than 50 extant manuscripts of the work, in full or in part, many of which contain different versions and additional stories.

There is no reason to doubt the unity of the work as a whole, despite the fragmentary character of the different versions. All the versions share a special, satirical, and even heretical, character, and this indicates that they all were written by a single hand. They seem to reflect varying degrees of censorship on the part of editors and copyists. The complete work contains four parts. The first part is the biography of Ben Sira from his conception until the age of one year. This story, omitted in many editions, explains how Jeremiah, the prophet, was simultaneously Ben Sira's father (the numerical value of Ben Sira's name equals that of Jeremiah), and grandfather. Ben Sira's mother was Jeremiah's daughter. The old prophet was forced to an act of onanism by wicked men, and his daughter conceived from his emissions when she came to bathe. The form of this story is based on a biblical verse that tells the glories and wonders of God's deeds; thus the story satirizes not only Jeremiah, but God's deeds as well.

The second part is more sophisticated in form. It tells how Ben Sira, now one year old, meets with his teacher, who tries to teach him the alphabet. Instead of repeating each letter of the alphabet after his teacher, Ben Sira responds with an epigram beginning with that letter. The epigrams lead the teacher to tell the story of his life. It may be assumed that the original structure of this part was 22 + 12 paragraphs, each containing a letter, an epigram, and a part of the story.

The third part is the longest and contains most of the narrative material in this work. It recounts the story of Ben Sira's life and adventures in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylonia. It also includes stories told by Ben Sira himself as answers to the king's questions. These stories often include pornographic elements, as well as derogatory descriptions of biblical figures, like King Solomon or Joshua. Some of the stories in this section contain motifs from international folklore and may be based on folktales, but they were adapted to the special framework of the work and satirical elements were added to them. Examination of the various versions indicates that here, too, there were 22 stories, arranged according to the letters of the alphabet, to which 12 other stories were added.

The fourth part, which is found in most versions and gave the work its name, contains 22 alphabetically arranged epigrams attributed to Ben Sira that serve as material for discussion and interpretation by Ben Sira's son, Uzziel, and his grandson, Joseph b. Uzziel. The contents are satirical and even heretical. It may be assumed that this part was constructed in the same manner as the two previous ones – 22 + 12 sections. The work, therefore, displays elements of unity both in structure and in its ideological aims. It is all but impossible, however, to discover the background upon which such a work could have been written. Some scholars (L. Ginzberg and others) believe that it aimed at ridiculing the story of Jesus' birth; but the basis for such a conclusion may be found only in the first part, and even this is not very clear, for the irony seems to be directed more against God than against Jesus. It is hardly possible that the author was a Karaite, as some of the abusive stories are directed against biblical figures, and not only against the Talmud and Midrash. It seems likely that the author did not belong to any organized group or definable ideological movement, but was merely a writer with an anarchistic tendency who used satire to ridicule all the institutions of established religion in his day.

Another difficult problem is the relationship between this pseudepigraphal work and the original proverbs of Ben Sira. Some of the proverbs and epigrams included in the work are originally in the work of Ben Sira, but many such proverbs are found in talmudic literature, and the author probably took them from there. The author of the pseudepigraphal work did not even know Ben Sira's first name. There is only one slight connection that might be accidental: the Wisdom of *Ben Sira has a preface written by the author's grandson, who edited the work, and in the pseudepigraphal work the figure of a grandson is also present.

It is impossible to fix even the approximate date of this work. It has been suggested that a quotation from the work is included in the tenth-century Arukh, but this now seems very doubtful. The Alphabet, however, seems to have been written in the East after the rise of Islam.

Maimonides and other authorities attacked the work vigorously, but it was generally accepted as part of the midrashic tradition, to the extent that a circle of Ashkenazi ḥasidic mystics in the 12th and 13th centuries attributed some of their mystical compilations to works and theories received from Joseph b. Uzziel, who inherited the wisdom of Ben Sira and Jeremiah. The anarchistic and heretical elements in the work went unrecognized, probably because of the censorship exercised by copyists, who prevented the full version from being known to readers.


M. Steinschneider (ed.), Alpha Betha de-Ben Sira (1858); D.Z. Friedman and D.S. Loewinger (eds.), Alpha Betha de-Ben Sira (1926) (= HHY, 10 (1926), 250–81); A.M. Habermann in: Tarbiz, 27 (1957/58), 190–202; I. Reifman, in: Ha-Karmel, 2 (1873), 123ff.; A. Epstein, Mi-Kadmoniyyot ha-Yehudim (1957), 111–5; J.L. Zlotnick, in: Sinai, 18 (1946), 49–58; S. Lieberman, Sheki'in (1939), 32–42.; J. Dan, in: Molad, 23 (1965), 490–6; Lévy, in: REJ, 29 (1894), 197–205; Zunz, Vortraege, 106–11; S.H. Kook, Iyyunim u-Meḥkarim, 1 (1959), 231–3.

[Joseph Dan]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.