How Jewish Is the Book of Ben Sira?

The book of Ben Sira, thought to have been written around 200 BCE, consists mostly of proverbs and aphorisms. While it appears (under the title Ecclesiasticus) in Catholic editions of the Bible, it never entered the Jewish canon and is largely unknown to Jews today. Yet, notes Michael Satlow, Jews continued to read and study it long after it was definitely excluded from Scripture.

Unlike other originally Jewish books now found in the [Christian] Apocrypha, . . . Ben Sira did not exactly fade away. The book continued to circulate and to be read among Palestinian Jews, even though some 2nd- and 3rd-century rabbis explicitly put it in the category of non-holy, even heretical, books. Yet in practice, Palestinian rabbinic literature shows no discomfort with reading and citing the book.

The Palestinian Talmud mentions the book once, in a story in which Shimon ben Shetaḥ quotes from it in order to justify his actions to King Yanai. While the Palestinian Talmud never cites verses from Ben Sira using the traditional terms used to introduce biblical prooftexts, in several places it introduces verses from Ben Sira with a formula like, “Ben Sira said,” as if he himself was a [talmudic] sage like any other. . . .

Indeed, the fact that Ben Sira continued to play an important role in the lives of Palestinian Jews can be attested by the very survival of the Hebrew text in the Cairo Geniza. Portions of five manuscripts were found, all carefully written. We do not know how this community (which had close ties to the Jewish community in the land of Israel) used these books; since they were not written on parchment, it likely did not use them liturgically.

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More about: Apocrypha, Ben Sira, Bible, Cairo Geniza, Religion & Holidays, Talmud

Jerusalem’s Economic Crisis, Its Arabs, and Its Future

Oct. 18 2018

The population of Israel’s capital city is 38-percent Arab, making Arab eastern Jerusalem the largest Arab community in the country. Connected to this fact is Jerusalem’s 46-percent poverty rate—the highest of any Israeli municipality. The city’s economic condition stems in part from its large ultra-Orthodox population, but there is also rampant poverty among its Arab residents, whose legal status is different from that of both Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Haviv Rettig Gur explains:

Jerusalem’s Arab inhabitants are not Israeli citizens—in part because Palestinian society views acceptance of Israeli citizenship, [available to any Arab Jerusalemite who desires it], as acceptance of Israeli claims of sovereignty over the city, and in part because Israel is not eager to accept them, even as it formally views itself as having annexed the area. Nevertheless, they have a form of permanent residency that, unlike West Bank Palestinians, allows them unimpeded access to the rest of Israel. . . .

There are good reasons for this poverty among eastern Jerusalem’s Arabs, rooted in the political trap that has ensnared the Arab half of the city and with it the rest of the city as well. Right-wing Israeli political leaders have avoided investing in Arab eastern Jerusalem, fearing that such investments would increase the flow of Palestinians into the city. Left-wing leaders have done the same on the grounds that the Arab half would be given away in a future peace deal.

Meanwhile, eastern Jerusalem’s complicated situation, suspended between the Israeli and Palestinian worlds, means residents cannot take full advantage of their access to the Israeli economy. For example, while most Arab women elsewhere in Israel learn usable Hebrew in school, most Arab schools in eastern Jerusalem teach from the Palestinian curriculum, which does not offer students the Hebrew they will need to find work in the western half of the city. . . .

It is not unreasonable to argue that Jerusalem cannot really be divided, not for political reasons but for economic ones. If Jerusalem remains a solely Israeli capital, it will have to integrate better its disparate parts and massively develop its weaker communities if it hopes ever to become solvent and prosperous. Arabs must be able to find more and better work in Jewish Jerusalem—and in Arab Jerusalem, too. Conversely, if the city is divided into two capitals, that of a Jewish state and that of a Palestinian one, that won’t change the underlying economic reality that its prosperity, its capacity to accommodate tourism and develop efficient infrastructure, and its ability to ensure access for all religions to their many holy sites, will still require a unified urban space.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Arabs, Israeli economy, Jerusalem