English, Readings

Total Disaster

The word אסון is quite rare in the Hebrew Bible. It appears in Genesis 42:38 and 44:19, where it refers to Jacob’s fear of Benjamin’s death. It also appears in the oft-quoted and frequently debated law of the two fighting men who hurt a pregnant woman in Exodus 21:22-23. Neither locus is very good for explaining what the word means exactly, apart from something bad. To make matters worse, in Exodus – the only legal context in which the word appears– the Septuagint goes uncharacteristically off-script and does not translate the term but rather the sentiment of the law. (In Genesis it translates malakisthênai, which probably means “to succumb [to death]; cf. Xenophon Cyropaideia 2.3.3).

In their distress, dictionaries also include several references to Hebrew Ben Sirah: these are supposed to help, since they are in Hebrew, and they are also translated into Greek and Syriac. The Septuagint of Sirach sometimes translates אסון as thanatos, death, but in one place (34:22-23/LXX 31:22-23) the meaning in Ben Sirah is more general:

[…] בכל מעשיך היה צנוע. וכל אסון לא יגע בך.

Be modest in all your doings/and no אסון will touch you

The Septuagint here translates אסון as arrôstêma, a sicknes or illness, and not simply “death”. This is related to the meaning that survived in modern Hebrew, “disaster.” The Biblical meaning of the word – in Genesis and Exodus – is still unclear.

The verse from Ben Sirah, however, had an interesting afterlife in the Palestinian version of the grace after meals. In a geniza fragment (T-S NS 122.39, no picture on Friedberg), we find a rhyme:

ורצון תעטרינו. ומזון תשבעינו. ואסון העביר מקרבינו.

כי אתה הוא יוצרינו וזונינו וזן את הכל.

Crown us with your benevolence, and satiate us with food, and remove אסון from us

For you are our creator and our feeder, and feeder of all [things].

The choice of the word אסון is interesting. The word rarely appears in the Talmuds, and when it does it is quoted from scripture, mostly Exodus. Additionally, here אסון does not seem to mean “death”, rather something more general, an antonym of רצון. And why choose אסון for the grace after meals? Why not something that rhymes just the same and makes more sense in context, like רזון or חרון?

The wording of the blessing is best explained by the immediate context of the word in Ben Sirah; the verse immediately following is

טוב על לחם תברך שפה. עדות טובו נאמנה.

Good (LXX: clearly, lampron) bless bread with lips/the testimony of his good faith.

The verse on “modesty” is in fact a heading for a list of instructions on how to eat and how to bless, and is situated after a segment called מוסר יין ולחם, The Teaching of Wine and Bread. The composer of this blessing knew Ben Sirah, and read וכל אסון לא יגע בך in the context of the blessing for food.

This snippet of Ben Sirah joins other prayers which are based on or influenced by Ben Sirah, such as מראה כהן, said at the end of the Ashkenazi Avoda Service on the day of Atonement, based on Ben Sirah 51, שבח אבות עולם.  Perhaps the entire Avoda Service itself is also based on the same chapter in many ways, but that is for another time and another post.