Using “Ghost Letters” to Decipher the Wisdom of Ben Sira

The book of Ben Sira (also known as Ecclesiasticus) is a collection of proverbs and poems thought to have originally been written in Hebrew in the 2nd century BCE. Although excluded from the Jewish canon, it is included in many Christian Bibles; nevertheless, it is occasionally cited with reverence in ancient and medieval rabbinic works. The oldest surviving manuscripts of the book are in Greek and Syriac; the oldest one in Hebrew, discovered in 1896, was written in the late-11th century CE and contains mysterious faded letters, which a scholar now believes he has deciphered:

[Eric R]eymond has [made] a connection between the lost first page of the manuscript and the strange ghosts of backward letters that appear on the first of the surviving pages. He posits that the backward letters are offsets or impressions of the missing text transmitted from the opposite, and long-missing, first folio page of this ancient manuscript. . . .

A scholar of ancient Hebrew texts, Reymond has been noticing and puzzling over the faint traces of letters since he was in graduate school. Were they Arabic or some other language? Could they reveal something about Ben Sira’s text that was not known from the Greek or Syriac Aramaic translations? Could they help resolve which of the variant translations—the Greek or the Syriac—was closer to the original mark?

The discovery that the ghost letters are backward Hebrew is important in and of itself. What adds even more value to his find is that it seems to indicate that the Hebrew . . . is, for the passage in question, closer to the Syriac translation than to the Greek, which will help guide future research on the evolution of Ben Sira’s text.

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More about: ancient Judaism, Apocrypha, Ben Sira, Bible, Christianity, History & Ideas

The Proper Jewish Response to the Pittsburgh Massacre

Nov. 21 2018

In the Jewish tradition, it is commonplace to add the words zikhronam li-vrakhah (may their memory be for a blessing) after the names of the departed, but when speaking of those who have been murdered because they were Jews, a different phrase is used: Hashem yikom damam—may God avenge their blood. Meir Soloveichik explains:

The saying reflects the fact that when it comes to mass murderers, Jews do not believe that we must love the sinner while hating the sin; in the face of egregious evil, we will not say the words ascribed to Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We believe that a man who shoots up a synagogue knows well what he does; that a murderer who sheds the blood of helpless elderly men and women knows exactly what he does; that one who brings death to those engaged in celebrating new life knows precisely what he does. To forgive in this context is to absolve; and it is, for Jews, morally unthinkable.

But the mantra for murdered Jews that is Hashem yikom damam bears a deeper message. It is a reminder to us to see the slaughter of eleven Jews in Pennsylvania not only as one terrible, tragic moment in time, but as part of the story of our people, who from the very beginning have had enemies that sought our destruction. There exists an eerie parallel between Amalek, the tribe of desert marauders that assaulted Israel immediately after the Exodus, and the Pittsburgh murderer. The Amalekites are singled out by the Bible from among the enemies of ancient Israel because in their hatred for the chosen people, they attacked the weak, the stragglers, the helpless, those who posed no threat to them in any way.

Similarly, many among the dead in Pittsburgh were elderly or disabled; the murderer smote “all that were enfeebled,” and he “feared not God.” Amalek, for Jewish tradition, embodies evil incarnate in the world; we are commanded to remember Amalek, and the Almighty’s enmity for it, because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained, the biblical appellation refers not only to one tribe but also to our enemies throughout the ages who will follow the original Amalek’s example. To say “May God avenge their blood” is to remind all who hear us that there is a war against Amalek from generation to generation—and we believe that, in this war, God is not neutral.

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More about: Amalek, Anti-Semitism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays