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What Is the Jewish Approach to the Apocrypha?

What Is the Jewish Approach to the Apocrypha?

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The word “apocrypha” originates from the Greek and Latin words for “secret” or “non-canonical.” It is commonly used to refer to ancient, mostly Second Temple–era works that are “outside” of the Jewish Bible.1

The Apocrypha includes, but is not limited to, works such as Sirach (Ben Sira), Maccabees, Judith, the book of Enoch, Jubilees, the story of Susanna, and Baruch.

Some of these works were known to us all along, and others were recently discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Qumran Caves and in the Cairo Genizah, both of which had preserved ancient Jewish manuscripts.

Divine Inspiration

The 24 books of the Bible (Tanach) were canonized by the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah (“Men of the Great Assembly”), which included some of the greatest Jewish scholars and leaders of the time, such as Ezra the Scribe, and even the last of the prophets, namely Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. With the death of these prophets, the age of prophecy came to an end.2 Any later works are not considered Divinely inspired, and are therefore not included in the 24 books of the holy Scriptures.3

While none of the books of the Apocrypha are considered to be Divinely inspired and are therefore not included in Jewish scripture, the question of whether they have any value from a Jewish perspective is a bit more nuanced.

Is the Apocrypha Kosher?

On the one hand, we find statements in the Talmud that seem to prohibit one from even reading these works.4 On the other hand, the Talmud5 and other Jewish works6 do on occasion cite specifics works of the Apocrypha.

Some commentators explain that the Talmud’s prohibition relates to giving these books a holy status and/or the same status as Scripture, but that one may read (some of) them.7 Others explain that the prohibition was especially in force in the earlier generations, closer to the time the Apocrypha was written. Since these works were written in the style of Scripture, there was a fear that some would mistakenly surmise that they were included in it.8

Even if we were to ascertain that a certain book would be “kosher,” the surviving versions of many of these works are translations from the Greek or Latin versions, which were themselves originally translated from Hebrew or Aramaic, with many additions and deletions along the way.

When discussing the Jewish view on the Apocrypha, it is helpful to split it up into three categories:

1. Antithetical to Jewish Scripture

Some of these books contain stories or ideas that contradict Scripture and/or Jewish thought. This category includes works such as the Story of Susanna (which, among other things, gives an erroneous portrayal of Jewish law, such as the laws of false witnesses), as well as the books of Enoch and Jubilees (in that they portray the dynamics between angels, G‑d and men in a way that is contrary to Judaism), as well as various other works.

2. Historically Valuable Information

Then there are the books that may not be sacred, but are useful in that they provide valuable information, not unlike history books. This category includes works such as 1 and 2 Maccabees (as opposed to 3 and 4 Macc., which would probably fit into the previous category), as well as Judith. Since these books are not Divinely inspired, there is no assurance that their contents are fully accurate, and they are given about the same weight as any other book of history.

3. Sirach—Book of Ecclesiasticus

Deserving a category of its own is the book of Sirach (Ben Sira), which the Talmud itself quotes a number of times. Also called the “Wisdom of Sirach,” it would seem that of all the books of the Apocrypha, this work got the closest to being included in the canon. We know when Ben Sira lived, since at the very end of the book9 he praises the high priest Shimon Hatzaddik, who was one of the last members of the Great Assembly.10

It should be noted, however, that some of the quotes found in the Talmud from Ben Sira aren’t found in the version of the work commonly included in the Apocrypha. That work is actually a Greek translation made by Ben Sira’s grandson in the 2nd century BCE. The original Hebrew version had been lost for many years, and has been found only in the last century (in the Cairo Genizah and among the Dead Sea Scrolls).

Why was it not included in Tanach? Besides for the fact that it was written after the end of the age of prophecy,11 some of the teachings contained in the work were deemed not to be in sync with Jewish values. However, it appears that the rabbis considered at least some of the teachings to have value—if understood properly.12

Bottom Line

The Apocrypha isn’t Divinely inspired, and is therefore not part of the canon, and some of its works are even antithetical to Judaism. Other works may indeed contain some valuable information, but they aren’t given any more credence than any other book, and be aware that there have been various additions and deletions made throughout the ages.

Footnotes
1.
Note that depending on the Christian sect, different works may or my not be referred to as the “Apocrypha” (which they then give “quasi-biblical status” and print in the back of some of their Bibles), while others are referred to as Pseudepigrapha (Greek for “falsely attributed”), which they don’t include. Here, we are using the term “Apocrypha” to refer to all of these ancient works not included in the Jewish canon of the Bible.
2.
Talmud, Bava Batra 14b; Tosefta, Sotah 13:4.
3.
This is the implication of Avot d’Rabbi Nassan 1:4; Tosefta, Yadayim 2:5; Talmud, Bava Batra 14b–15a, and Rashi and other commentaries ad loc.
4.
See Talmud, Sanhedrin 100b.
5.
See, for example, Talmud, Bava Kama 92b.
6.
This is especially true with regard to the books of the Maccabees, since they are used as one of the main sources for the Chanukah story.
7.
See Ritva to Talmud, Bava Batra 98b.
8.
See Rabbi Reuven Margaliot, Margaliot Hayam on Talmud, Sanhedrin 100b.
9.
Ch. 50.
10.
See Ethics of the Fathers 1:2.
11.
Tosefta, Yadayim 2:5.
12.
See Talmud, Sanhedrin 100b, and Ritva to Talmud, Bava Batra 98b.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Jay Tompkins Fulton May 22, 2017

Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer shows that Asenath was the daughter of Dinah. The book of Joseph and Asenath fills in details that are missing in Genesis. For example Joseph ruled Egypt for 48 years. In my years since learning this I had learned of a ruler of Egypt arose who taught monotheism to the Egyptians. Reply

Anonymous jerusalem May 21, 2017

The Zohar is divinely inspired and not one of the twenty four canonized books of tanach. So are many other books by great Torah scholars... another one is the Tanya. Reply

Anonymous Woodbury May 22, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

The Zohar Thank you for the reply. That these writings are considered divinely inspired is enough to make them important and worth studying for all faiths. Reply

Wesley E. Smith Foresthill, CA May 19, 2017

Are the Jewish canonical Scriptures limited to 24? Please list. Reply

Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org May 21, 2017
in response to Wesley E. Smith:

24 Books of the Bible 1-5 The Five Books of Moses - The Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy).

6-13 Prophets (Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Tre-Assar (the 12 books of the Minor Prophets are in one book: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi).

14-24 The Holy Writings (Ruth, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra and Chronicles).

Note that the books of Samuel, Kings, Ezra and Chronicles are (artificially) subdivided into: Samuel I and Samuel II; Kings I and Kings II; Ezra and Nehemiah; Chronicles I and Chronicles II.

To read our online bible see The Complete Tanach with Rashi's Commentary Reply

Alexander Williamson Georgia May 19, 2017

Over time, word meanings change, language used to describe ideas change, even concepts of what is held in significance may change. Eternal truths may be expounded - full comprehension may not be fully realized in one's lifetime. Reply

Joshua Vitoff Nyack, NY May 19, 2017

I've mostly seen Jubilees and The Book of Enoch referred to by most scholars (see L. R. Helyer as well as Craig Evans) as Pseudepigrapha (falsley attributed works), but most collections of Aprocrypha or Deutorocanonical in scholarly and Catholic/Protestant circles do not include these, as they also do not include 3 & 4 Maccabees, Letter to Aristeas.

The reason for this is that Apocryphal books are usually those that appeared in the LXX (Septuagint, a Hasmonean/Herodian era translation of the Bible into Greek) but do not appear in our Masoretic text, which is the same set that we believe was canonized in the time of Malachi (as stated in the informative and well-written article above) whereas Pseudepigrapha are found elsewhere. Both were probably circulating at the time of Hillel and Shamai, but it would seem that these Rabbi's did not hold either in high regard. It would also seem that the academy at Javneh which codified the Mishnah did not either, but others might contest this. Reply

Shai Canada May 18, 2017

One apocryphal book which I’ve found quite useful in my historical research is that of Tobit, which intersects with Daniel and Esther in the most interesting and illuminative ways. If not for this book, the identity of Achashverosh may never have become clear to me. It not only supplies us with clues to the past (particularly, the origin of the Medo-Presian empire) but can also expand one’s understanding of the present-day, geopolitical world in which we live. So, it’s odd not to find any mention of it in this brief article on the Apocrypha. Reply

Deborah Britain May 18, 2017

Always useful information, thanks. Reply

suzy handler Woodland Hills, Ca May 18, 2017

Apocrypha I have always enjoyed reading the Apocrypha. This leads to discussion groups and different points of view. Reply

Leslie Joseph Buckland Jr. Kingston, Jamaica. May 17, 2017

Did Some Jewish Scholars Think That The Apocrypha Was Inspired By God? Thanks for the enlightening lesson on the Apocrypha. What I still do not understand, Teacher Yehuda Shurpin, is that if the Jewish Translators of the Septuagint Translation, believed that the Apocryphal Books were not inspired by Adonai, then why did they include these uninspired Books in their Greek Translation of the Hebrew Scriptures? Reply

Dmitry Sheinin May 17, 2017

3 and 4 Maccabees I don't see why '3 Maccabees' "would probably fit into the ... category" of those "Antithetical to Jewish Scripture." It is of inferior historicity but that does not mean antithetical to our values or otherwise unkosher.
4 Maccabees attempts to render our values in terms of Stoic philosophy. The effort may or may not be deemed worthwhile, but the values themselves, as represented in the book, seem quite authentic (Kiddush HaShem originating from both yetzer tov and yetzer ra, cf. Devarim 6:5+Rashi). Reply

Anonymous Bologna May 17, 2017

About note No. 1 Add a comment...
As regards the Catholic Church, seven Books (among them 1 and 2 Maccabees, Judith, Ecclesiasticus, not Enoch or Jubilees) are included in the Canon of the Old Testament and are called "deuterocanonical", not "apocrypha".
It is not a merely terminological difference, because, according to the Catholic Church, these seven Books are divinely inspired exactly as the ones included in the Tanakh, so they have, to use the words of the Author of this article, a full 'biblical status' and are not printed apart (for example, Baruch is printed between Lamentations and Ezekiel, the 'story of Susanna' is part of Daniel). Reply

Fred Daniel New York May 17, 2017

Apocrypha So then the book of Enoch is considered heretical ?
Is it assar to read or simply should not be taken at face value?? Reply

Cynthia Weaver Woodbury May 17, 2017

What about The Zohar? Certainly written after the age of prophets, is it at all considered important within mainstream Judaism? Reply

Shmuel Cincinnati, OH via chabadofcharlottesville.org June 8, 2017
in response to Cynthia Weaver:

Academics feel the Zohar was written in the 12th/13th century by Rabbi Moshe Deleon in Spain, basing himself on some 1st century teachings, and hoping that if he attributed it to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai he would sell more of his work.
See the interview of Rabbi Yitzchok d'Min Acco of Rabbi deLeon's widow and daughter after Rabbi deLeion's passing, both of whom admitted the forgery.
See the journal Hakirah, Vol. 2, Fall 2005, "Nekkudot, the dots that connect us," by Dan Rabinowitz, pp. 49-70, especially pp.62-64. Reply

Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org June 25, 2017
in response to Shmuel:

Regarding the origins and authenticity of the Zohar please see Authenticity of the Zohar Reply

Cynthia Weaver Woodbury June 27, 2017
in response to Shmuel:

Zohar Thank you for this reply; especially since there was a reply to your reply from Yehuda Shurpin linking to the articles cited. Reply

Michael Rudmin Portsmouth Va May 17, 2017

Please be aware that there is not good agreement within the Christian churches about what is scriptural, and what is apocryphal: the Ethiopian Coptic church considers the book of Enoch (perhaps the oldest of the works, and written in their own tongue) to be divinely inspired; most of the protestant churches hold with the Jewish canon; the Catholic church, following the lead of Jerome, includes the entire septuagent, concluding that if the seventy scribes felt it was important enough to translate then that was an indication of divine intent.

Of great interest to me, is the story in Maccabees of the holy fire; and how Jeremiah had ordered it stored; and how it came to be known as "naphtha", meaning "oil of purification" (refined oil, if you will).

Note the implication in the story of Elijah, who said, "take my life, for I am no better than my fathers." He realized that he had disobeyed divine command, and had murdered his (idolatrous) fellow israelites. Reply

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