Monday, January 15, 2007

Literary Fun with the Apocrypha

In an attempt to find the source for Adam's third wife, in which endeavor Yair helped greatly, I stumbled upon a fascinating book called Rabbinic Fantasies which includes excerpts from a work titled The Alphabet of Ben-Sira.

Upon reading the book today, I came upon this delightful selection:

    A year later Leviathan gathered all the creatures in the sea, but the fox and the weasel were missing because they had not entered. When Leviathan sent for them, he was told what the fox and weasel had wisely done. He was also told that the fox was exceedingly clever. When Leviathan heard of the fox's wisdom, he grew envious and sent large fish with orders to trick the fox into coming. The efish went and found the fox strolling by the seashore. Seeing the fish amusing themselves along the shore, the fox became curious and waded in. They asked, 'Who are you?'

    " 'I am the fox,' he replied.

    " 'Then you surely must know that a great honor awaits you, and that we have come for you.'

    " 'What is it?' the fox asked.

    "The fish replied, 'Leviathan is sick and about to die, and he has decreed that no one should be king in his place except the fox, because he has heard that you are wiser and more knowledgeable than all other creatures. Come with us. We are his emissaries, and we have come in your honor.'

    "But how can I go below the sea without dying?" asked the fox.

    'To which they replied, 'Ride on top of one of us, and he will carry you above the sea. Not a drop of water from the sea will touch even the bottoms of your feet. When you arrive at the kingdom, we shall lower you- how, you cannot understand now- and you will reign over all. You shall be king, happy all your lifetime. You will no longer need to seek food or to fear that evil beasts larger than you will try to devour you.'

    "When the fox heard their words, he believed them and rode on top of the back of one of them over the sea. But as soon as the waves swept over him, he began to regret what he had done and realized that he had lost his wits. Woe is me! he thought. What have I done? The fish have played a trick on me equal to all the tricks I have played on other creatures. Now that I have fallen into their hands, how can I save myself? So he said to the fish, 'Now that I have come with you, and dthat I'm in your domain, tell me the truth. What do you want with me?"

    "They replied: 'We shall tell you the truth. Leviathan heard that you are famous for being exceedingly wise, and said, "Let me slit his belly and eat his heart so that I will become wise. '

    "Why did you not tell me the truth?" asked the fox. 'I would have brought my heart with me, and then I could have given it to King Leviathan, and he would have honored me. Now you will be in trouble.'

    "Is your heart not with you?" they asked.

    "No," the fox answered. "For our custom is to leave our heart in our residence when we travel. If we need it, then we fetch it. If not, it remains at home.

    "What shall we do now?" the fish asked.

    "I lodge near the seashore. If you wish, bring me back to the place you took me from, I will take my heart and come with you, and then I will give it to Leviathan. He will honor me and you. But if you bring me as I am, heartless, Leviathan will be angry, and he wuill devour you. As for me, I have no fears, for I will tell him, "My lord, they did not inform me in advance. When they told me about you, I asked them to bring me back so that I could take my heart, but they refused."

    "The fish immediately thought, 'That makes sense.' They returned to the place by the seashore from which they had taken the fox. He climbed off the fish and danced, rolling himself in the sand.

    "Take your heart quickly and let us go," they said.

    "Fools! Go away! Had I not my heart with me, I would not have entered the sea with you. Is there a creature that walks about without having his heart with him?"

    "You played a trick on us!"

    "Fools! I have already played a trick on the angel of death, and I can certainly play one on you.'

    "The fish returend in shame and told Leviathan. He said to them, "Verily, he is smart, and you are fools. About you speaks the proverb, 'The smugness of the thoughtless shall destroy them" (Proverbs 1:32).' Then Leviathan ate them. Andn since that time, every species, including man and his wife, are to be found in the sea- except for the fox and the weasel.

    Rabbinic Fantasies, 194

Now, when I read this, I knew that I had read the story before; I even knew that it had involved a monkey and a crocodile, where the crocodile wanted to eat the monkey's heart, and the monkey cleverly avoided this by claiming he had left his heart at home. At first I thought it was from the Just-So Stories, but upon some searching, discovered that what I remembered was from the Jataka Lore of Buddhists.

That story is called "The Monkey's Heart."

Now, the Jataka stories are dated from 300 BC- 400 AD, while The Alphabet of Ben-Sira is dated from AD 700-1000. My first thought was that The Alphabet of Ben-Sira must have incorporated this common folktale, but perhaps the author of The Alphabet of Ben-Sira took a common story that had been around for ages and incorporated it into his work (the same way that he does Talmudic stories and other midrashim.)

To support that point (namely, that Jataka Lore draws upon Judaic sources), I bring you the following parallel.

Look at this story from the Jataka Lore.

    The Future Buddha as Judge

    A woman, carrying her child, went to the future Buddha's tank to wash. And having first bathed the child, she put on her upper garment and descended into the water to bathe herself.

    Then a Yaksha, seeing the child, had a craving to eat it. And taking the form of a woman, she drew near, and asked the mother, "Friend, this is a very pretty child. Is it one of yours?" And when she was told it was, she asked if she might nurse it. And this being allowed, she nursed it a little, and then carried it off.

    But when the mother saw this, she ran after her, and cried out, "Where are you taking my child to?" and caught hold of her.

    The Yaksha boldly said, "Where did you get the child from? It is mine!" And so quarreling, they passed the door of the future Buddha's Judgment Hall.

    He heard the noise, sent for them, inquired into the matter, and asked them whether they would abide by his decision. And they agreed. Then he had a line drawn on the ground; and told the Yaksha to take hold of the child's arms, and the mother to take hold of its legs; and said, "The child shall be hers who drags him over the line."

    But as soon as they pulled at him, the mother, seeing how he suffered, grieved as if her heart would break. And letting him go, she stood there weeping.

    Then the future Buddha asked the bystanders, "Whose hearts are tender to babes? Those who have borne children, or those who have not?"

    And they answered, "Oh sire! The hearts of mothers are tender."

    Then he said, "Who, think you, is the mother? She who has the child in her arms, or she who has let go?"

    And they answered, "She who has let go is the mother."

    And he said, "Then do you all think that the other was the thief?"

    And they answered, "Sire! We cannot tell."

    And he said, "Verily, this is a Yaksha, who took the child to eat it."

    And he replied, "Because her eyes winked not, and were red, and she knew no fear, and had no pity, I knew it."

    And so saying, he demanded of the thief, "Who are you?"

    And she said, "Lord! I am a Yaksha."

    And he asked, "Why did you take away this child?"

    And she said, "I thought to eat him, Oh my Lord!"

    And he rebuked her, saying, "Oh foolish woman! For your former sins you have been born a Yaksha, and now do you still sin!" And he laid a vow upon her to keep the Five Commandments, and let her go.

    But the mother of the child exalted the future Buddha, and said, "Oh my Lord! Oh great physician! May your life be long!" And she went away, with her babe clasped to her bosom.

Sound familiar? Maybe like 3:16 onward in Kings I?

Fairytales and folktales are often extremely similar. It is very difficult to figure out which telling was the "original" telling. Common stories, like that of Cinderella, exist in all cultures. Obviously, 'Brothers Grimm' and 'Andersen' did not compose stories, rather they simply compiled popular folktales and fairytales of the time and incorporated them into a collection.

I find it intriguing that Jewish folktales/ ascribed history made it into the Buddhist collection of stories. Firstly, it is entertaining; secondly, I read the Jataka version first, which meant I initially thought the Ben-Sira version to be a retelling (and perhaps it was! But Solomon lived much earlier than when the second Jataka tale was written, so I think not. Then again, it could have been an oral tradition, and only written down in 300 BC-400 AD. So who knows?)

And, if anybody influential ever happens to read this, I would love to have a class at YU comparing the various examples/ places where folktales and fairytales crop up in Judaic tradition /aid in understanding the text. I think such a class would be fascinating.


Anonymous said...

I had never heard of "The Alphabet of Ben-Sira" before. Learn something new every day!

Ezzie said...

Ah, Ben-Sira. You should read Ben Sira itself. :) Megillas Esther knocked it out of the canon...

You and my FIL would get along very well. Forget coming here for Shabbos - go there! You'll enjoy it immensely. (But still come here. :) )

Anonymous said...

Very, very cool. Yes indeed. (really.) Thanks for making me read it all. Folks, it's worth reading all of it, even if you don't have Chana on your back forcing you to read it like I do.

I know you personally.... ;-)

Lela Harbinger said...

you forgot to mention shakespeare

Anonymous said...

The Alphabet of Ben Sira is an anonymous work, which has been dated anywhere from the seventh to the eleventh century. While it was stated in 1900 that this text "dates in every probability from the seventh century," more recent scholarship has placed it in the eight, ninth, or tenth centuries (Gaster 155, Stern and Mirsky, eds. 167, Pereira 79). The ninth century, therefore, has been chosen as a mean of those more recently cited dates. Its place of composition is uncertain, but an examination of internal textual evidence has led scholars to place it in a Muslim country (Stern and Mirsky, eds. 167).

The text itself is in the style of an aggadic midrash (commentary on the Bible) and tells the story of the conception, birth, and early education of the "prophet" Ben Sira. The final section of the work, where Lilith is mentioned, takes place in the court of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. Here, Nebuchadnezzar sets forth various ordeals for Ben Sira, who responds with twenty-two stories (mimicking the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet) to answer the questions posed by the king. What makes this text particularly unique and fascinating is its irreverent tone, especially in its treatment of various Biblical characters and rabbinic motifs and its obvious parodies of specific Talmudic passages. The text begins, for example, with a group of men masturbating in the bathhouse and proceeds to talk "seriously" about "farts," urinating donkeys, and the copulation of ravens.

For this reason, some scholars have decried it as "an anti-Jewish satire," while others have assumed that it was "an antirabbinic tract intended to disparage the genre of aggadah" (Segal 2, Stern and Mirsky, eds. 167). However, the viewpoint offered by Norman Bronznick in his introduction to Stern and Mirsky's edition of The Alphabetseems to be the most substantiated. He states: "'The Alphabet' may be one of the earliest literary parodies in Hebrew literature, a kind of academic burlesque -- perhaps even entertainment for rabbinic scholars themselves -- that included vulgarities, absurdities, and the irreverent treatment of acknowledged sancta" (168). This is substantiated by the fact that The Alphabet was known to have been "read as popular entertainment in most rabbinic communities throughout the Middle Ages" (168).

Anonymous said...

"...a class at YU comparing the various examples/ places where folktales and fairytales crop up in Judaic tradition /aid in understanding the text. I think such a class would be fascinating."

The closest example I could think of is where Rabbi Wieder spoke about different (Pagan?) legends, myths, and rituals in his various Bible courses, and suggested a pshat via those legends, but I doubt an actual course revolving this very topic would be given in the future. Although it would be fascinating, sure.


dbs said...


Just curious, what is the closest thing to this type of course at Stern?

Lela Harbinger said...

by the way, adam did not have three wives. there were two shedim, sure, but they weren't his wives. lillit was one, macholet the other. deep depression vs. ecstatic hyperness. can't remember much else except that i just bought a christian fantasy novel called lillith ;-)

Chana said...

Canadian Princess,

What's the source for Macholet? Lilith is brought down in 'The Alphabet of Ben-Sira.' The second wife is depicted (and there must be a source, though I can't find it) of having been constructed in front of Adam, made of gristle and bone; he was disgusted by her and didn't want her, which is why God subsequently puts him to sleep when creating Eve.

Anonymous said...

side question--on the nature of the same themes running through stories, can one read biblical themes in (non-sacred) Jewish literature as another type of aggadah?