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The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit

[ben Sira]The Wisdom of ben Sira

The recovery of the Hebrew text of Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus from the Genizah is a well-rehearsed story. The first such fragment to come to light, brought to Cambridge from their travels in Egypt and Palestine by Mrs Lewis and Mrs Gibson, was enthusiastically identified by Solomon Schechter and acted as a catalyst for his expedition to Cairo and for other identifications elsewhere, particularly in Oxford, London and Paris. Indeed, it is now clear that some such fragments had been retrieved from the Genizah in earlier years and there was considerable competition between various academic institutions, particularly Oxford and Cambridge, in the matter of prior claims and publication. A whole set of fragments, some of them from as early as the tenth century, surfaced in Cambridge during Schechter's initial sorting of his Cairo material and were published by him and Charles Taylor as a new Hebrew edition, followed by a handsome portfolio of facsimiles two years later. In his introduction to their edition, The Wisdom of Ben Sira, which appeared in Cambridge in 1899, Taylor told the story of the discovery and had the following remarks to make, substantially still valid, about the importance of the Hebrew Ben Sira for biblical studies:

By a surprising series of discoveries in recent years, much of the Hebrew of Ecclesiasticus, a book which had been known to the modern world only through Versions and some Rabbinic Quotations, has now again been brought to light. The Revision of the Authorised Version of 1611, undertaken in 1870, having at length been accomplished, it was said in the Preface to the Apocrypha (1895), of the book Ecclesiasticus: ``Considerable attention was paid to the text; but the materials available for correcting it were but scanty."...

Ben Sira's book is of unique interest to the scholar and the theologian as a Hebrew work of nearly known date, which forms a link between the Old Testament and the Rabbinic writings. The first step to its right appreciation is to note its discursive use of the ancient Scriptures, and the author's free way of adapting their thoughts and phrases to his purpose. The Hebrew restores allusions which were lost or obscured in the Versions.

If the Genizah evidence was insufficient to prove that there had been an original Hebrew version in the second century b.c.e., and that much of it had survived in rabbinic circles, the further work of M. H. Segal and J. Schirmann in the late 1950s and Yadin's discovery soon afterwards at Masada of texts that tallied with the oldest Genizah version completed the process of the book's rehabilitation to the Hebrew literature of the Second Temple period.

Adapted from: Stefan C. Reif, A Jewish Archive from Old Cairo (Curzon Press, Richmond, Surrey, 2000), pp. 112-13, 118-19

The whole story of the Cambridge Genizah fragments of Ben Sira is told in S. C. Reif, "The Discovery of the Cambridge Genizah fragments of Ben Sira: Scholars and Texts" in the latest volume to cover research in the whole field, edited by P. C. Beentjes, The Book of Ben Sira in Modern Research. Proceedings of the First International Ben Sira Conference, 28-31 July 1996, Soesterberg, Netherlands (Berlin-New York, 1997), pp. 1-22.

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ŠUniversity of Cambridge; last revised February 2002