Monday, December 17, 2007

A Samaritan parallel to a famous saying in Pirkei Avot

This Samaritan prayer for שבת (attributed to Joshua ben Nun) appears in A.E. Cowley's The Samaritan Liturgy, the Common Prayers (Volume 1) (1909).

It contains a most interesting line, which does not take a whole lot of Aramaic knowledge to understand if you've heard its famous cognate in rabbinic literature:

לפם די עבדתה הו אגרה
In proportion to the action is the reward.1

Mishnah Avot 5:26:

בן הא הא אומר לפום צערא אגרא
Ben Hé-Hé said: According to the effort is the reward.2

The Samaritan saying in this prayer is found elsewhere in Samaritan literature, specifically in מימר מרקה which is a sort of commentary on part of the Torah by a noted Samaritan scholar of the 4th century called Marqah. 3

In that book we find the following:

וכן אמר בן בן עדן לפם די עבדתה הוא אגרה
Thus said the son of Ben Eden: "In proportion..."

We have an interesting parallel, virtually the same saying, the one from rabbinical literature attributed to an otherwise unknown בן הא הא and the Samaritan one to a בן בן עדן.

It is merely an interesting factoid that this saying is in Aramaic, because generally the sayings in Avot are in Hebrew. The exception is sayings by Hillel, which are often in Aramaic. Hillel's origin was in Babylon, so it would seem appropriate that the sayings attributed to him are in Aramaic, which was spoken by Jews in Babylon.

As it happens, the commentary on Avot the אבות דרבי נתן attributes this saying not to to Ben Hé-Hé but to Hillel, with an accompanying story illustrating where he heard it from:

הוא היה אומר...ולכולהון לפום צערא אגרא: מעשה בהלל הזקן שהיה מהלך בדרך ופגע בני אדם שמביאין חטין. אמר להם סאה בכמה. אמרו בשני דינרין. ופגע באחרים אמר להם סאה בכמה. אמרו לו בשלשה דינרין. אמר להם והלא ראשונים אמרו בשנים. אמרו לו בבלאה טפשאה אי אתה יודע שלפום צערא אגרא. אמר להם שוטים וריקים על שאני אומר לכם אתם מחזירין לי כך. מה עשה להם הלל הזקן החזירן למוטב

He used to say:...According to the painstaking, the reward.
Once Hillel the Elder was walking along the road and met men carrying wheat. "At how much a se'ah?" he asked them.
"Two denar," they replied.
Then he met others; he asked them: "At how much a se'ah?"
"Three denar," they said.
"But the former said two!" he protested.
"Stupid Babylonian!" they retorted, "knowest thou not that 'according to the painstaking is the reward'!"
"Wretched fools!" he answered, "is this the way you retort to my question?"
What did Hillel the Elder do with them? He brought them to a correct understanding.4

What do we see from all this? "[T]he saying attributed to the mysterious Ben He-he was a popular adage current in Palestine, and various sages were credited with it."5

We have a saying attributed to (1) Ben Hé-Hé, to (2) Ben Ben Eden and (3) to Hillel, who reported it in the name of wheat merchants.

1 Translation by John F. MacDonald in his Memar Marqah: The Teaching of Marqah, pg. 145.
2 Translation by Philip Birnbaum in his Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem.
3 "According to the chronicle Eltholideh...Marqah lived in the time of Babba Rabba. An angel appeared at his birth, and bade his father call the child's name Moses. As, however, this name was too sacred for common use, he was called Marqah, which has the same numerical value. He was of priestly family, though not High Priest." Some Remarks on Samaritan Literature and Religion by Arthur Cowley, JQR 8:4 (Jul. 1896), pg. 566.
4 This translation is by Judah Goldin in his The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, pg. 70.
5 "Greek and Latin Proverbs in Rabbinic Literature" by R. Saul Lieberman in Greek in Jewish Palestine, pg. 70.

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