Alphabet of Sirach  

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli

The Alphabet of ben Sirach (Alphabetum Siracidis, Othijoth ben Sira) is an anonymous medieval text inspired by the Wisdom of Sirach. It is dated to anywhere between A.D. 700 and 1000. It is a compilation of two lists of proverbs, 22 in Aramaic and 22 in Hebrew, both arranged as alphabetic acrostics. Each proverb is followed by an Haggadic commentary. The work has been characterized as satirical, and it contains references to masturbation, incest and flatulence. The text has been translated into Latin, Yiddish, Judeo-Spanish, French and German. A partial English translation appeared in Stern and Mirsky (1998).

Lilith

The Alphabet of Ben-Sira is considered to be the oldest form of the story of Lilith as Adam's first wife. Whether or not this certain tradition is older is not known. Scholars tend to date Ben Sira between 8th and 10th centuries. Its real author is anonymous, but it is falsely attributed to the sage Ben Sira. The amulets used against Lilith that were thought to derive from this tradition are in fact, dated as being much older. While the concept of Eve having a predecessor is not exclusive to Ben Sira or new and can be found in Genesis Rabbah, the idea that this predecessor was Lilith is. According to Gershom Scholem the author of the Zohar, R. Moses de Leon, was aware of the folk tradition of Lilith, as well another story, possibly older, that may be conflicting.

Its reference to Lilith is in the fifth of Ben Sira's responses to King Nebuchadnezzar. It is reproduced here in its entirety:

Soon afterward the young son of the king took ill. Said Nebuchadnezzar, "Heal my son. If you don't, I will kill you." Ben Sira immediately sat down and wrote an amulet with the Holy Name, and he inscribed on it the angels in charge of medicine by their names, forms, and images, and by their wings, hands, and feet. Nebuchadnezzar looked at the amulet. "Who are these?"
"The angels who are in charge of medicine: Snvi, Snsvi, and Smnglof (In English: Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof). After God created Adam, who was alone, He said, 'It is not good for man to be alone' (Genesis 2:18). He then created a woman for Adam, from the earth, as He had created Adam himself, and called her Lilith. Adam and Lilith immediately began to fight. She said, 'I will not lie below,' and he said, 'I will not lie beneath you, but only on top. For you are fit only to be in the bottom position, while I am to be the superior one.' Lilith responded, 'We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.' But they would not listen to one another. When Lilith saw this, she pronounced the Ineffable Name and flew away into the air. Adam stood in prayer before his Creator: 'Sovereign of the universe!' he said, 'the woman you gave me has run away.' At once, the Holy One, blessed be He, sent these three angels to bring her back.
"Said the Holy One to Adam, 'If she agrees to come back, what is made is good. If not, she must permit one hundred of her children to die every day.' The angels left God and pursued Lilith, whom they overtook in the midst of the sea, in the mighty waters wherein the Egyptians were destined to drown. They told her God's word, but she did not wish to return. The angels said, 'We shall drown you in the sea.'
"'Leave me!' she said. 'I was created only to cause sickness to infants. If the infant is male, I have dominion over him for eight days after his birth, and if female, for twenty days.'
"When the angels heard Lilith's words, they insisted she go back. But she swore to them by the name of the living and eternal God: 'Whenever I see you or your names or your forms in an amulet, I will have no power over that infant.' She also agreed to have one hundred of her children die every day. Accordingly, every day one hundred demons perish, and for the same reason, we write the angels names on the amulets of young children. When Lilith sees their names, she remembers her oath, and the child recovers."
-- Stern, David and Mirsky, Mark Jay. Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives from Classical Hebrew Literature (Yale Judaica Series). Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1990. Pp. 183-184.

Editions

  • Salonica, 1514, two known surviving copies
  • Constantinople, 1519, one known complete copy in the British Library, and a defective one at the Bodleian
  • Venice, 1544, reprinted by Steinschneider, 1854; most later editions are based on this one.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Alphabet of Sirach" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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