Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon:
Wisdom for a Time of Reckoning

The preponderant concern of medieval literature, Hebrew as well as Latin, is doctrinal and liturgical, and such humanistic oases as Immanuel of Rome’s Hell and Heaven, Joseph Zabara’s Book of Delight, or Berechyah ha-Nakdan’s Animal Fables are as refreshing as the Carmina Burana. So artfully composed are these works that generations of readers have been content to accept them as mere belles-lettres; actually each reflects a measure of social criticism, and usually (as Dr. Shimeon Bernstein has pointed out) criticism of the arrogance and injustice of communal leaders. Riddling criticism is naturally easiest to cloak in animal fables, where humbler creatures are often at the mercy of ravenous lions or wily foxes; below is one of Berechyah’s (No. 32 in Haberman’s excellent edition), where the tables are turned.

The style requires a word of explanation. Virtually every phrase, except for simple connectives, is taken from Scripture, distorted to give meaning in a new context. The meaning, indeed, is often secondary; inevitably virtuosity in exploiting odd phrases becomes an end in itself. In translation this virtuosity is reduced to empty turgidity, while the phrases which carry the meaning are often enigmatic to the point of unintelligibility. In translating, I have done nothing to regularize the style, but on the contrary have retained conventional Biblical phraseology wherever possible to illustrate the author’s technique.—Moses Hadas.

Wisdom meet for a time of reckoning is better than any choice vessel.

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A cock said to his hen: “There is no more wheat or ears; wherefore are we laggard? There is famine in the city and we shall die. Let us go and lodge in the villages. My brother hath a granary of barley, and there shall we dwell for a whole year, about the granary and its plenty.” The two went forth together and walked a day’s journey until they came to the town in a land of wheat and barley. There the hen built her nest, and before the year’s end there were chicks in her form and image, seven robust cockerels and a puny pullet. When she clucked to her brood they scratched for grain with their feet as did she. They ate share and share alike; there was abundance, and the mother rejoiced in her progeny. When the time of harvest came they spoke of returning to the place of their own dwelling, and the cock said: “Give ear. We shall not return to our folk empty-handed lest we be for a mockery in their eyes, as if we had come from a place of famine. Rejoice and be glad at my saying. Look upon me and do ye likewise. Each one, cock, chick, and hen, shall carry an ear in his mouth, until ye come to the land of wheat; and ye shall bring forth the old before the new.” Said the hen: “Thy counsel is good and sound. Give a portion unto seven, yea unto eight, and each shall carry an ear in his mouth.” The eighth was unequal to the burden, for he was sickly. This is what befell him. As they walked by the way of the wilderness, their band in confusion, a fox lay hidden in the forest’s thickets and watched the band as it came on. The cock was aware that it was upon him and all his host that the fox cast his eye, and he said-“Trembling hath seized me and my heart is confounded. She that hath borne seven is waxed feeble. The apprehensions of this ambush terrify me, lest he come and smite me, mother upon children. But let us plot cunningly how we may escape, lest he be master over us as he was master over our fathers, for ever is he guileful towards us.” As the cock was yet speaking the lurker emerged from the covert where he had lurked and approached the sickly one and said: “Whose are these and what do they carry in their mouths?” He answered: “The tails of foxes are they carrying, which they wrested from the foxes by their strength, and then flayed the skin from upon them.” The fox said: “If such are their deeds why then is your mouth not laden as is theirs?” And he answered: “It is for this that thou hast come towards me, for it is thy tail that I await. Thou shalt no more return to thy tent; my lot I shall make fall upon thee.” When the fox heard this he ran away, as the strong man runs a course.

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The parable is for a man whose garments are tattered and whose words are not heard. In the assembly of the rich he is for a mockery, and his timely wisdom is despised. But at the day of reckoning the wisdom that issues from his mouth is better than any precious vessel.

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