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Talmudic sages on reading the Apocrypha

December 15, 2011

While the Hanukkah festival is one of the best known Jewish holidays (thanks, in no small part, to Madison Avenue and the consumer-materialist culture that has introduced a gift-giving aspect that parallels the way that Christmas has been made materialist), it has almost no textual basis in canonical Jewish texts (there is a brief passage in the Babylonian Talmud that refers to the miracle of the oil when the desecrated temple was re-dedicated and the candle lighting custom, but it does not mention the military campaign of the Maccabeans against the Syrian-Greeks.)

Primary sources for military history of the Hanukkah festival lie in the First and Second Books of Maccabees, a Greek work from the Jewish Apocrypha (although it remains in the Greek Orthodox and Catholic Deuterocanons.)  Later accounts, such as Josephus’s, seem to be based on the Books of Maccabees.  The question is, did the Rabbinic authorities permit Jews to read the Apocrypha?

Hillel Hayyim Lavery-Yisraeli tackles this question in a fascinating essay entitled “Itʹs Greek to Them: The Apocrypha in the Eyes of the Sages.”  (You will also want to read his source sheet – in fact, the source sheet is even more interesting than the essay.) Here are some excerpts from his essay:

In the Mishnah (Sanhedrin X, 1), Rabbi Akiva issues a shocking statement: one who reads “Sefarim Hitzonim” (“external books”) has no share in the world to come!  While it is difficult to precisely identify what Rabbi Akiva means by the “Sefarim HaHitzonim,” it is possible that “Sefarim Hitzonim” refers to the Apocrypha or parts thereof (ἀπόκρυφα – “those hidden away” being an approximate Greek translation of the Hebrew term which means “external books” or “the books left out).” Would that mean that reading the Books of Maccabees is forbidden?…

And what about Rabbi Akivaʹs harsh statement, that one who reads “Sefarim Hitzonim” loses her or his portion in the world to come? The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 100b) asserts that this refers specifically to ʺSifrei Minimʺ – books of sectarians or heretics (at the time these were, most probably, the Gospels or early Gnostic texts – see Rashi). The Gemara then goes on to report that Rav Yosef said one is also forbidden to read the book of Ben Sira, another book found today in the Apocrypha. After some debate, Rav Yosef himself then modifies his previous statement, saying ʺthe good parts of it may be readʺ. The conclusion is that heretical books must not be read, while neutral, secular books may be read as long as it is for some benefit.

The Yerushalmiʹs understanding of the Mishnah in Sanhedrin (X, 1) differs. To the Yerushalmi, the banned “External Books” consist of the works of Ben Sira and Ben La`anah and the like. The Yerushalmi permits reading “the works of Homer and any books written thereafter.” An explanation is given: “for they were given to read, not to toil over.” It seems that the Yerushalmi permits a Jew to read Homer because it is clearly secular literature, as opposed to Ben Sira which is religious in nature and Biblical in style but not accepted into the canon….

Interestingly, the Meiri (12th century Talmudic commentator in Provence), in his commentary on the Mishnah of Sanhedrin, qualifies Rabbi Akiva’s statement that reading “Sefarim Hitzonim” disinherits one from his or her olam haba (world to come), saying that Rabbi Akiva forbids reading those in order to “follow in their ways and beliefs,” but if one reads merely “to understand and to rule” (since sometimes halakhic decisions depend on such knowledge), it is in fact permissible. Even reading “Sifrei Minim” would be permitted if done in this way….

When the Syrian‐Greeks invaded the Land of Israel, they tried to Hellenize (modernize) Judaism in a drastic way – they forbade the study of Torah and the observance of Shabbat, and placed an idol in the Temple. The Hasmoneans [the ruling dynasty established by the Maccabee family] reacted by going to the other extreme, even killing Hellenized Jews. They tried to develop a “pure” form of Judaism that kept all outside influences out…. It is ironic that had the Jews followed the Hasmoneansʹ strict rulings as recorded in [the tractate in the Talmud known as]
Sotah, we might not know about much of the story of the Hanukkah festival which they themselves instituted. Interestingly, the Jewish holiday which could be seen as celebrating religious extremism and intolerance is actually the one for which understanding it requires reliance and consulting non‐Biblical and non‐Talmudic texts. The story of those who fought against the Greeks is known to us today only because it was preserved in Greek!

Considerable irony – a principal anti-Greek Jewish document is preserved in Greek!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 22, 2011 6:05 pm

    Any who reads this post should enjoy this one as well.

  2. December 22, 2011 6:52 pm

    Theo —

    You may want to check the links they aren’t working.

  3. December 22, 2011 6:58 pm

    CD-Host, thanks. The links were correct, but the content holder moved them. I’ve updated them.

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