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Sacred Writings and the Jewish Canon

Sacred Writings

The Mishna in Shabbat 115a tells us about a special rabbinic prohibition that was enacted in order to help people avoid the biblical prohibition of extinguishing a fire on Shabbat. If there is a fire and there is no danger to human life then one is generally rabbinically forbidden to remove objects from the burning area. In one's zeal to save property one might come to put out the fire and saving mere property does not override the laws of Shabbat. However, there is an exception. In places where carrying is biblically permitted one is allowed to evacuate "sacred writings". The Mishna says:

All sacred writings may be saved from the fire whether they are read from or not, and even though if they are written in any language [other than Hebrew] they require genizah (withdrawal). Why do we not read from them? Because of diversion in the study hall.

This Mishna raises a number of fascinating issues but we cannot discuss them all here. We will, however, address a few. What does it mean "read from or not"? What is genizah? What is "diversion in the study hall"? The interested reader is advised to study the related Gemara with commentaries for answers to these questions. Some of these answers raise further questions.

Rashi explains, and this is clear in the Gemara, that the books of Nevi'im (Prophets) are considered books that are read and the books of Ketuvim (Writings, Hagiographa) are those that are not read. Why are books from Ketuvim not read? The Gemara on 116b offers a number of explanations revolving around laypeople needing instruction in halacha and Ketuvim (such as the deeply philosophical Proverbs) distracting people during the lecture or in the study hall. However, another answer is given in the name of R' Nechemiah. He is quoted as saying that Ketuvim is not read at all on Shabbat so that people will know that if Ketuvim may not be read then certainly contracts and legal documents may not be read either.

It has been suggested that this grouping of Ketuvim with legal documents implies that R' Nechemiah did not consider Ketuvim to be part of the Bible. This claim is very weak since, after all, R' Nechemiah assumes a kal vachomer (inference from major to minor) from Ketuvim to legal documents. This alone implies a difference in status between the two.

Furthermore, R' Nechemiah was a student of R' Akiva and lived in the second century CE. Already in the first century CE Philo refers to Nevi'im and Ketuvim (De Vita Contemplativa 3:25) as does Josephus (Against Apion 1:37-43). Even well before them, at the end of the second century BCE, Ben Sira's grandson in his introduction to the Greek translation of Ben Sira refers to Nevi'im and Ketuvim. Thus, it is clear that the Jewish canon contained both Nevi'im and Ketuvim centuries before R' Nechemiah lived. But what is this canon, how did it develop, and what does it contain? To answer these questions we turn to R' Shnayer Leiman's masterly work The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture: The Talmudic and Midrashic Evidence. Most of the following is based on Professor Leiman's book.

Canon and Inspiration

A simple formulation of a book being either sacred or mundane is demonstrably incorrect. For example, the Mishna in Eduyot 5:3 says that according to the school of Shammai the book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), as to opposed to other sacred books, does not render hands impure. This would seem to imply that the school of Shammai did not consider Ecclesiastes to be part of the Bible. Yet, in Bava Batra 4a we find Bava ben Buta, a member of the school of Shammai, expounding on verses from Ecclesiastes. Similarly, the Mishna in Yadayim 3:5 has R' Yossi ruling that Ecclesiastes does not render hands impure and Megilla 7a has R' Meir saying the same. Yet we find both R' Meir and R' Yossi expounding on verses from Ecclesiastes in Kohelet Rabbah (2:13, 2:19, 3:15). The same can be found regarding R' Shimon ben Menasia in Tosefta Yadayim 2:14 and Mishna Chagiga 1:7. In Megilla 7a Shmuel says that the book of Esther does not render the hands impure because it was divinely inspired to be said but not necessarily to be written. Yet, Shmuel was a disciple of the students of R' Yehuda Hanasi (the compiler of the Mishna) and was certainly aware of the Mishna in Megilla that requires the recitation of Esther on the holiday of Purim. Furthermore, throughout the talmudic tractate of Megilla Shmuel can be found expounding on verses from Esther (e.g. 11a, 13a). Clearly, the concept of sacred writings require more than a simple formulation.

In explaining all of these and many more sources, R' Shnayer Leiman differentiated between two concepts — inspiration and being canonical. An inspired book is one that was written under prophetic inspiration (ruach hakodesh). "A canonical book is a book that is accepted by Jews as authoritative for religious practice and/or doctrine, and whose authority is binding upon the Jewish people for all generations" (Canonization, p. 14). A book can be prophetically inspired but not be canonical. For example, Megilla 14a says that there were thousands of prophets but only those prophecies that were needed for future generations were written down and included in the canon. An example of a book that is canonical but uninspired is Megillat Ta'anit. It was a book that was authoritative and binding but was never claimed to be prophetically inspired. Similarly, the Mishna and Talmud eventually became part of the Jewish canon and are therefore treated with great respect. Yet the authors were certainly not prophets.

We can therefore understand that everyone agreed that Esther and Ecclesiastes were sacred books that were authoritative and binding on the Jewish people. That is why their verses could be used in halachic arguments. One cannot contradict an uncontested Mishna and, similarly, one cannot dispute a verse in the canonical book of Esther. However, there was a disagreement whether these books were also inspired. If they were, they would render the hands impure. If not, they would not render the hands impure. But even those who claimed that Esther was not prophetically inspired to be written agreed that the book was not merely an interesting novel. It was a sacred book written by sages that was both legally and doctrinally binding.


In Shabbat 30b we find the following passage that indicates a rabbinic disapproval of the books Ecclesiastes and Proverbs:

The sages wished to withdraw (lignoz) the book of Ecclesiastes because its words are self-contradictory; yet why did they not withdraw it? Because it begins and ends with words of Torah... They also wished to withdraw (lignoz) the book of Proverbs because its words are self-contradictory. Yet why did they not withdraw it? They said: Did we not examine the book of Ecclesiastes and find a reconciliation? Here too let us search.

Were the rabbis willing to remove a book from the Bible because they found its contents objectionable? Quite the opposite. Genizah means withdrawing a book from circulation. When certain books were deemed to be misleading to the average uneducated person, some rabbis judged that it would be better to keep these books private rather than let them mislead the masses. For example, Ecclesiastes 7:3 says "Sorrow is better than laughter" and 2:2 says "I said of laughter, 'It is praiseworthy'". If one were to emphasize the second verse, without mentioning that there is another verse that qualifies the statement one could advocate a lifestyle of irresponsibility. Similarly, Ecclestiastes 11:9 says "Rejoice, young man, in your childhood; let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth." An irresponsible preacher or a careless reader can come away from reading this with a very incorrect and dangerous perspective on life. (See also Vayikra Rabbah 28:1, Kohelet Rabbah 1:3, and Moreh Nevuchim 2:28)

Because of these types of contradictions, there were those who argued that certain books should be withdrawn from public circulation. However, this does not mean that these rabbis considered these works to be either uninspired or non-canonical. As R' Leiman wrote, "This in no way casts aspersions on the sanctity or canonicity of the books. Indeed, it verifies their sanctity and canonicity... Only a firmly established biblical book, or a book or item revered on other grounds could qualify for genizah" (pp. 79-80). That the reason for recommending withdrawing a book from circulation was that the book could lead a simple reader to heresy is demonstrated in Vayikra Rabbah 28:1.

R' Binyamin ben Levi said: The sages requested withdrawing the book of Ecclesiastes because they found in it matters that lead towards heresy.

Further proof that genizah did not mean denial of a book's canonicity can be derived from the case of Ezekiel. Shabbat 13b tells us that the sages wished to withdraw Ezekiel from circulation because it seemed to contradict accepted halacha. However, Chananiah ben Chizkiah (first century CE) demonstrated that there were no contradictions and that anyone who challenged the accepted halacha based on Ezekiel could be answered.

Genizah in that case could not have meant denial of canonicity because by the time Chananiah ben Chizkiah lived Ezekiel had become an entrenched part of the Jewish canon. Already 200 years prior Ben Sira had implied that Ezekiel was part of the Jewish canon. Perhaps more significantly, nowhere do the rabbis debate whether Ezekiel renders the hands impure. Clearly, the rabbis were unanimous that not only is Ezekiel canonical but it is inspired. Otherwise there would have been a debate over whether or not the book renders the hands impure. As Yechezkel Kaufman wrote (Toldot Ha'emunah Hayisraelit, vol. 8 p. 410 n. 1) "They attempted to withdraw Ezekiel because it troubled them; but they never entertained doubts about its inspired origin."

Similarly, the proposed (but never enacted) withdrawal of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs does not imply a rejection of those books from the Jewish canon. Rather, it signifies that the rabbis correctly observed a people divided due to heretical philosophies about life; they wished to temper the disunity and discourage heresy by withdrawing from circulation books that were being distorted by heretics in order to mislead the masses.

Ben Sira

With all the preceding, we can now understand the attitude of the sages towards the book Ben Sira. On the one hand, the book is quoted a number of times in the rabbinic literature — sometimes as it were a rabbinic statement (e.g. "it is taught", Bava Metzia 112a), sometimes as if it were a biblical verse (e.g. "it is written in the book of Ben Sira", Bereshit Rabbah 91:3), and sometimes with no introduction at all (e.g. Avot 4:4). Yet, Tosefta Yadayim 2:13 says that the book of Ben Sira does not render hands impure, the Gemara in Sanhedrin 100b says that one may not read Ben Sira because there are some objectionable statements in it, and Kohelet Rabbah 12:12 says that whoever brings Ben Sira into his house brings in confusion.

The explanation can be found in a manuscript version of Sanhedrin 100b that is recorded in Dikdukei Sofrim. This version tells us that the sages withdrew (ganzu) the book of Ben Sira. As we said above, only a canonical or otherwise significant book can be withdrawn from circulation. Evidently, Ben Sira was considered an authoritative book of Jewish thought, regardless of whether or not it was divinely inspired. However, it contains some confusing verses that might mislead people into heresy. Therefore, the rabbis withdrew it from circulation and warned people that it can lead to confusion.

While we understand why rabbis would, on occasion, cite Ben Sira as a proof for a statement since Ben Sira is a canonical work, how can they quote passages from a work that has been withdrawn? The anwer to this lies in the manuscript version. "Rav Yosef said: Even though the rabbis withdrew the book of Ben Sira, we expound all the good passages in it." The book itself was prohibited for intensive study. However, occasional citation of famous sayings that originate in the book and are not controversial is allowed. This is confirmed in Kohelet Rabbah 12:12 where it says that Ben Sira was "given for discussion and not for intense study".

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Contributor(s): Gil Student
Last revised: 3/21/02
© Aishdas 2002