Skip to content.

Feminism and Women's Studies

Sections

The Alphabet of Ben Sira - (circa 800 CE)

It is The Alphabet of Ben Sira which introduces the incarnation of Lilith which has, to this point, been only vaguely, if at all, invoked: that of the first wife of Adam. The history of this text, however, is vital in understanding and interpreting its contents, and so a rather extensive description is necessary. Most of this description will rely heavily on Rabbinic Fantasies, edited by David Stern and Mark J. Mirsky, for this very recent text (1998) contains information which most earlier scholarship only glides over.

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).

The passage which tells the story of Lilith is 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. 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, fine. 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 and Mirsky, eds. 183- 184)

This text is probably the most important of the founding texts for the myth of Lilith, for it introduces the portion of the story that has been most quoted, appropriated, and heralded today: that of Lilith as the first wife of Adam who flees the Garden of Eden because she refuses to be in subjection. What makes it so important to this particular study, however, is the contrast between the irreverent, non-traditional, parodying text and the story itself. This brings about a number of important revelations.

First, one must note that this story is only told in response to the King's plea that Ben Sira cure his son. The King wants to know the significance of the angels whom Ben Sira inscribes onto an amulet: Snvi, Snsvi, and Smnglof. Ben Sira's answer explains the existence of this amuletic tradition and then proceeds to tell this story of Lilith as an explanation of "how Lilith acquired the power to hurt children, that is, how she became a child-stealing and strangling demon, and the reason why the invocation of those mysterious three names has the effect of driving her away and of saving the patient" (Gaster 157). Indeed, there is no reason at all for these two strains of the Lilith legend to be connected. Ben Sira -- or, more properly, the anonymous author of The Alphabet of Ben Sira -- could have supplied any number of stories to explain why it is Lilith who has the power over children and why the amulets with Snvi, Snsvi, and Smnglof's names deter her from harming them.

Since the story centers on the fact that Ben Sira has created this child-saving amulet for the King, it is certain that the amuletic tradition must have been something with which the rabbis, and others who may have read The Alphabet, would have been familiar. It seems, therefore, that this tale of Lilith is completely incidental and unique. It was created by the anonymous author of The Alphabet sometime between 600 and 1000 CE and used simply as another facet to parody the Bible, the Talmud, and other rabbinic teachings. This is further evidenced in the facets of the tale itself.

First, there is the irreverent tone of the passage (as with the entire book), and, more specifically, its explicit references to sex. Lilith's refusal to "lie below," was certainly not something that the rabbis would have applauded. Rather, it would be seen as sarcastic entertainment, something purely inconceivable and, thus, laughable. The association of Lilith with Adam and Eve, furthermore, was most likely done in order to draw a parody from the Bible which would be easily recognized.

So this story of Lilith as a first Eve seems to be purely incidental, something to explain the amuletic tradition that could also invoke interest and laughter, draw upon the Bible and Talmud, and go along with the irreverent tone of the rest of this medieval work. What is particularly odd about this is that this story -- one which was certainly not meant to be taken seriously -- has taken root in modern culture. Indeed, this passage is quoted more than any other in explaining the myth of Lilith, while the facets of the amulets, child- killing, and the succubus myth are customarily ignored.

Since this passage has become the basis for most later interpretations of Lilith, however, it is important to note a number of ideas which arise. Lilith is indeed Adam's equal, for she is made from the dust just as he was; her ability to flee comes from the power of uttering the Ineffable Name; and she is the mother of countless children, one hundred of which die every day. This final point is important in that while Lilith is constructed as a child-slaying witch, she is, nevertheless, endlessly fertile. The progression of the story also seems to indicate that Lilith's decision to become the child-slayer stems from her anger at having one hundred of her own children murdered by God every day. Thus, she maintains the balance of Good and Evil in the world. Finally, it is the names of the angels that prevent Lilith from harming children, for it is to them, not to God, that she made her oath.





amy.scerba@english.cmu.edu

Last modified 2005-02-11 09:52 AM

Personal tools