By: Louis Ginzberg
Hero of a wide-spread legend, and supposed author of a number of proverbs. His name has been variously distorted, but probably was originally or 'Aχιάκαρυς; compare , the name of a tosafist, which survives among Jews to-day; the name , in the Babylonian Talmud, is probably an abbreviation of it).Mentioned in Greek Literature.
The earliest mention of AḥiḲar is in the Book of Tobit (i. 21 et seq., ii. 10, xi. 18, "Achiacharus"). According to these passages, AḥiḲar was a relative—the texts vary as to the precise relationship—and friend of Tobit, and at the same time was lord chancellor of the Assyrian empire under Sennacherib. Mention is also made there of a certain Nadab whom AḥiḲar adopted, and who sought to repay the latter's kindness by burying him alive; "but God made good his dishonor in His sight and AḥiḲar returned to the light, but Nadab went into darkness everlasting" (Tobit, xiv. 10, 11, according to the Codex Sinaiticus). AḥiḲar is not unknown in the literature of the Greeks. Clement makes the statement ("Stromata," i. 15; ed. Migne, p. 772)—whether correctly or not is immaterial here—that Democritus obtained his wisdom in part from the Babylonian Akikarus. Probably identical with this Akikarus is the Achiakarus who, according to Strabo("Geography," xvi. 2, § 39, p. 762), received almost divine honors from the inhabitants of Borsippa (βōρσιππηνōί should undoubtedly be read, with Rendel Harris, instead of the impossible form βōσπōρηνōί). A work of Theophrastus ("Diogenes Laertius," v. 50) also bears the name of Akicharus—probably another reference to the Babylonian sage. Finally, in a mosaic at Treves ("Antike Denkmäler des Archäologischen Instituts," i. 47), at the side of the muse Polyhymnia, there is the form of a man holding a scroll in his hand, whose name was deciphered by Studemund ("Archäologische Jahrbücher," v. 2 et seq.) as "Accicar."
None of the above statements by Greek writers concerning AḥiḲar affords an explanation of the circumstances referred to in the Book of Tobit. It was reserved for recent research to discover that the Arabic, Armenian, Rumanian, Slavonic, and Syriac literatures have preserved references to a certain AḥiḲar, which are not only of value for the comprehension of the references in Tobit, but are important in the consideration of the whole range of Jewish apocryphal literature, and also of the whole fund of Jewish folk-lore and legend. The credit of demonstrating the connection between the AḥiḲar of the Book of Tobit and the hero of the Oriental legends grouped around the same name belongs to Georg Hoffmann ("Auszüge aus Syrischen Acten Persischer Märtyrer," pp. 182 et seq.), who was closely followed by Meissner and Lidzbarski with further investigations. Thanks to the publication and translation of the Oriental texts of AḥiḲar by Conybeare, Rendel Harris, and Mrs. A. S. Lewis ("The Story of AḥiḲar," London, 1898), and to the critical introduction to the last-named book, the subject may now be more fully discussed. The legend of AḥiḲar, as current in the above-mentioned languages, is somewhat as follows:Chancellor of Sennacherib.
AḥiḲar was the wise and powerful chancellor of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, son of Esar-haddon (in II Kings, xix. 37 Esar-haddon is the son, and not the father, of Sennacherib; but compare, for a similar anachronism, Sanh. 94a: indeed the later Jewish legend did not always adhere strictly to Biblical accounts). He was sixty years of age, had sixty wives (compare Cant. vi. 8; in the Aramaic folk-lore of the Talmud the number sixty is a favorite one and usually denotes any large number: B. ḳ. 92b, twice; B. B. 91a; Sanh. 7a; Ḥul. 58b), and no child had been born to him. The gods, to whom he brought many offerings, announced to him at last that he would never have a child; and they therefore desired him to adopt his sister's son, the lad Nadan (meaning "gift," like Nathan, but also possibly with a contemptuous secondary meaning, as in Ezek. xvi. 33). Rearing him tenderly, AḥiḲar himself undertook the lad's instruction.
Nadan seemed a promising youth indeed, physically and intellectually, and AḥiḲar might have rejoiced at such return for all his care; but morally the lad was thoroughly corrupt, and paid not the slightest heed to the wise counsels and maxims of his uncle. Not only was he offensively domineering in AḥiḲar's household—so much so indeed that the latter had eventually to forbid him the house—but at court, too, where AḥiḲar had presented him as his future successor in office, he used his influence with a view to destroying his benefactor. By means of forged letters and subtle intrigues Nadan succeeded in having AḥiḲar accused of high treason and condemned to death. Only through the friendship of the executioner Nabusamak (compare the Hebrew name "Elisamak") did AḥiḲar escape. Nabusamak concealed him in a subterranean hiding-place, and showed the body of a decapitated slave as that of AḥiḲar. Nadan's triumph, however, was of short duration. The king repeatedly deplored the loss of the wise counsel of his former chancellor. Waiting his opportunity, Nabusamak came forward and declared himself able to produce the missing sage. This was done, much to the king's gratification; and the latter received his lost friend with great honor.Architect for Pharaoh.
But Aḥiḥar had then no time to punish his rascally nephew; for he had to build for the king of Egypt a castle between heaven and earth, besides giving him other illustrations of Assyrian wisdom. It appears that Pharaoh had demanded of Sennacherib an architect competent to erect such a castle, and had promised to pay a large sum annually for several years if he could provide one; failing which, Sennacherib was to pay him tribute. AḥiḲar not only performed his task in Egypt successfully, but at the same time gave so many instances of his superior wisdom that Pharaoh declared he could not compete with him, and dismissed him with rich rewards for himself and handsome presents for his master. On his return home the king delivered Nadan into AḥiḲar's hands for punishment. AḥiḲar loaded him with chains and threw him into prison, where, in contrast with the scanty food doled out to him, he was richly regaled with selections from his uncle's wise proverbs—the same that he had so spurned in his youth, and for the practical utilization of which he had now no opportunity. He died miserably in prison: "for he who digs a pit for his brother shall fall into it; and he who sets up traps shall be caught in them" (Arabic text, end; compare Ps. vii. 16; Eccl. x. 8).
The foregoing brief abstract of the legend is nearly the same in all the above-mentioned versions. But there is great diversity as regards the maxims and fables that form the beginning and the close of the legend, so that it is desirable to consider the development of the legend apart from that of the maxims.Versions of Legend Compared.
It is evident, in the first place, that the Arabic version has come directly from the Syriac, and that it retains many Syriac expressions (compare, for instance, , "Thou shalt have patience," p. 2, end, which is a literal translation of the Syriac , p. 39, line 12; and p. 27, line 4 from bottom, the Syriac word is transliterated into the Arabic and left untranslated). The Armenian text also is derived from the Syriac; while the Slavonic version, from which the Rumanian is a translation, has the medieval Greek version for its foundation. Much more intricate is the problem of the connection with the so-called "Life of Æsop," by Maximus Planudes (ed. Eberhard, "Fabulæ Romanenses," i. 225 et seq.), which relates of Æsop events similar to those ascribed to AḥiḲar. Meissner, therefore, maintains that the AḥiḲar legend in its present form is simply an elaboration of Planudes' "Life of Æsop," and claims to have detected traces of its Greek origin in the Semitic version. The nature of these supposed traces, however, is sufficiently indicated by one example. In the riddle of the years, occurring in both the AḥiḲar legend and the "Life of Æsop," mention is made of two cords, one white and one black, representing day and night. Meissner claims that this proves the Indo-Germanic origin of the story; for Semites would have said "one black and one white," because they commence the day with the evening. Unfortunately for this ingenious hypothesis, in the Old Testament—the Semitic characterof which probably no one will deny—the expression "day and night" occurs nearly fifty times; while the inverted phrase is found only fourteen times. Indeed, if one were to judge simply from such external evidence, the Syriac version would undoubtedly be recognized as a direct translation from the Hebrew; for in the whole range of Syriac literature there is no work of such strongly marked Hebrew cast as this AḥiḲar legend. The following examples will illustrate this: In the Syriac the expression "Bat Kol" (p. 38, line 4) is exactly the Neo-Hebrew (a voice from heaven), meaning in Syriac simply a word; on p. 38, line 10, "if thou," etc., is an imitation of Gen. xv. 3, the Hebrew of which is badly rendered by the Syriac ; on p. 38, line 16, "linen and purple" is a reminiscence of Esth. viii. 15; on p. 39, line 1, there is a trace of Dan. ii. 4, and on p. 56, line 9, one from Dan. ii. 11. Such examples, which might easily be multiplied, show at least how closely the Syriac version follows Biblical style.Syriac Follows Hebrew Original.
In view of the fact that the narrative itself has no point of contact with Biblical literature, this close resemblance can be explained only by the assumption that the author of the Syriac version had a Hebrew original before him. This assumption becomes almost a certainty when it is perceived how deeply the AḥiḲar legend is indebted to Jewish literature for many of its essential features, though it is by no means meant to be implied that the work itself is genuinely Jewish.
In its details the contest of wits between AḥiḲar and the Egyptian sages resembles closely that in the Talmud (Bek. 8b) between Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah and the Athenian wise men; and this resemblance exists not only in the individual details, but likewise in the general fashion of replying to one question impossible of solution with another question of exaggerated impossibility. For instance, the wise men of Athens require Joshua to sew together the fragments of a broken millstone and receive in reply the request for a few threads made of the fiber of the stone (see also Lam. R. to i. 1); exactly the same question and answer are recorded of AḥiḲar in the Syriac version (p. 65) and in the Arabic (p. 24). The incident of the ropes of sand, mentioned in all the versions of the AḥiḲar legend, is found in its simplest form in the Talmud: Joshua declares himself ready to transport an outlying well into the city if his questioners will supply him with ropes of bran. The form of AḥiḲar's repartee seems a little too artificial. The resemblance between the account of Pharaoh's indebtedness to Sennacherib and a similar pleasantry related of Joshua has been pointed out by Meissner, who also demonstrates that AḥiḲar's greatest triumph—the boys, upborne by eagles, who were to build a tower between heaven and earth—is also related of Joshua, though in a strongly Judaized form. The construction of a similar air-castle plays a great part also in the Hiram legend (YalḲ. to Ezek. xxviii. 2, § 367; "B. H." v. 111 et seq.). It is to be remarked that the AḥiḲar legend is in many respects similar to that concerning Hiram; thus, Hiram's self-deification (see Ginzberg, in "Monatsschrift," xliii. 542 et seq.) seems to be mildly paralleled in the colloquy between AḥiḲar and Pharaoh, where the former refers to the Egyptian monarch's weakness and insignificance as compared with his almost divine Babylonian master, Sennacherib. The sarcasm of this comparison is intensified when one recollects that, according to Jewish legend, it was the Egyptian king who, like Hiram, claimed divine honors for himself (Mek., Shirah, § 8; Tan., ed. Buber, ii. 31).Sources of the Proverbs and Fables.
Investigation as to the sources of the proverbs and fables in the AḥiḲar legend is more difficult. Not only do the different versions differ widely in number and contents, but, from the very nature of legends, such material is extremely liable to modification and elaboration. Taking those in the Syriac version, the following numerous parallels to AḥiḲar's maxims, culled from the Bible and Talmud, may throw some light upon the connection:
No. 1. Ab. iv. 17. Eccl. R. to xii. 11.
No. 2. Ecclus. (Sirach), xix. 10 (Syriac); Ab. ii. 14.
No. 5. Ecclus. (Sirach), xxv. 21 (Syriac). The AḥiḲar text probably needs correction here.
No.7. This is probably a pun upon the Hebrew word , which means both "almond-tree" and "to hasten."
No. 8. Here, too, according to Halévy, is a play upon the Hebrew words (city) and (ass).
No. 9. A play upon the words (to split wood) and (to sit down to a meal).
No. 10. For the expression "to pour wine upon graves" compare Ecclus. (Sirach), xxx. 18.
No. 12. Compare Prov. xiii. 19, a maxim widely prevalent in various forms throughout Jewish literature; see Dukes, "Rabbinische Blumenlese," Nos. 180, 181, 600.
No. 13. Found literally in Gen. R. xliv. 12.
No. 15. Originally contained a play upon (portion) and (to quarrel).
No. 16. In place of "evil eye" (Prov. xxiii. 6) we have "a shameless one"; probably through confusion of the late Hebrew (see ḳid. 53a) with the Syriac (to be ashamed).
No. 20. Matt. v. 44.
No. 21. Prov. xxiv. 16.
No. 23. Ecclus. (Sirach), xxx. 12 (compare Syriac).
No. 34. "Son" should probably be read here instead of "slave" (see Armenian version, No. 42), in agreement with Shab. 10b.
No. 40. "Alphabet of Ben Sira," letter Lamedh: "The wise man needs a nod; the fool requires a blow."
No. 43. Ecclus. (Sirach), xxxii. 11.
No. 44. Eccl. ix. 16.
No. 46. B. B. 98b, quoted as a saying of Sirach; identical with the AḥiḲar maxim as to substance, but contradictory in form.
No. 49. Prov. xxvii. 10.
No. 50a. Ecclus. (Sirach), xxx. 17, xli. 2.
No. 50b. Eccl. vii. 2-4: the divergence is probably owing to an erroneous contraction of the verses in Ecclesiastes.
No. 51. To Eccl. R. iv. 6, quoted as a popular adage; see also a similar maxim in Pes. 113a.
No. 52. Ecclus. (Sirach), xxvii. 16.
No. 53. Ecclus. (Sirach), xx. 18, xxi. 16.
No. 54. Ecclus. (Sirach), xix. 10.
No. 55. Mek., Mishpaṭim, § 6.
No. 57. Prov. xxvii. 10, the word "not" is to be supplied.
No. 58. Ab. vi. 5.
No. 60. Prov. xxiv. 17, Ab. iv. 26; compare also No. 17 of the AḥiḲar maxims.
No. 61. Lev. xix. 31.
No. 62. PirḲe Rabbenu ha-ḳadosh, ed. Schönblum, p. 22b; ed. Grünhut, p. 65.
No. 65. Ecclus. (Sirach), iv. 26, according to the text given in "Wisdom of Ben Sira," ed. Schechter; compare also Gen. R. xliv. 15, Meg. 16b, Ber. 7b.
No. 66. Eccl. i. 8, a play upon the Hebrew word which means both "eye" and "fountain"; compare Tamid, 32b.
No. 71. "Alphabet of Ben Sira," end, where the text needs correction.
No. 73. Ps. cxli. 5, probably according to the Septuagint.
No. 74. Prov. xxv. 17.
The exhortations at the end of the AḥiḲar legend, which borrow their imagery mainly from the animal world, may be also paralleled in rabbinical literature. The following is an illustration: AḥiḲar refers to the relations between himself and his nephew when he says, "I have seen colts that were the slayers of their parents" (Syriac text, p. 70). The context seems to demand an opposite sentence; namely, that young colts sometimes die before their parents—a form which is actually found in Sanh. 52a, Lev. R. xx. 10. A comparison with the latter passage shows that the Syriac translator read the word erroneously as (slayers), thus giving it the opposite sense. It is interesting to note the almost complete agreement between AḥiḲar (Syriac, p. 19) and Gen. R. xxvi. 5. The fable of the man and the wood, known both to Greeks and Indians (see Æsop's Fables), is also found in all forms of the AḥiḲarlegend as well as in Gen. R. v. 10. It may also be mentioned that those maxims that do not occur in the Syriac version, but are met with in the others, may also be paralleled by rabbinical sayings (compare, for instance, the Slavonic version, No. 27, with Sanh. 112b, and the Armenian, No. 100, with Pes. 89b).Relation to the Hindu Version.
From all the preceding it seems fair to conclude that the AḥiḲar maxims represent some ancient collection of Jewish popular proverbs, which at a later period were combined with the legend of the Babylonian sages. Legends and proverbs then traveled together through Europe and Asia. In addition to the above-mentioned versions of the AḥiḲar story, the Hindus, like most of the European nations, possess the legend, as Benfey has shown; although he, unacquainted with the true facts, designated India as the original home of the story. It is remarkable in this connection that the Hindu version betrays many points of resemblance with the Talmudic material—points which obtain in no other forms of the story. Thus, for instance, one of Viçakha's problems was to determine the sex of two serpents which had no distinctive marks about them: both task and solution are found in the Midrash on Proverbs (i. 1) related of King Solomon. In the Hindu form of the legend and in cognate forms, it is considered the highest triumph of the sage to distinguish which end of a wooden rod was situated downward in the tree in which it grew, and which end upward. In the Jewish Solomon legend the same question is described as being the last and the most difficult of those propounded by the queen of Sheba to the king, and its solution is exactly in accord with that of the Hindu version (see the Yemen Midrash described by Schechter, in "Folk-Lore," 1890, pp. 349-358).A Jewish Substratum.
Although the weight of the preceding testimony is in favor of the suggestion that the AḥiḲar legend and the system of legends and maxims connected therewith point to a Jewish substratum, the material extant hardly warrants the conclusion that it is a product of genuine Jewish folk-lore. For a purely Jewish work there is too little religious material in it; a fact which in the postexilian period—for this is the earliest date possible—is somewhat surprising. The AḥiḲar of the Book of Tobit and the AḥiḲar of the legend have many points of similarity; but it can not be said with certainty that they are identical. That the AḥiḲar legend finds employment in the New Testament is true only to the extent that some proverbial sayings of the AḥiḲar collection appear in the latter in a somewhat modified form, which may really only show the extent to which the legend had spread, and not a strictly literary connection. Of the AḥiḲar legend proper, the New Testament contains absolutely no traces, Halévy and Rendel Harris to the contrary notwithstanding.
- Benfey, Die Kluge Dirne, in Ausland, 1859, pp. 457 et seq., and especially 511 et seq.;
- Conybeare, Rendel Harris, and Agnes Smith Lewis, The Story of AḥiḲar, London, 1898 (contains the Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, and Greek texts, with a translation of the first three, as well as a Slavonic version and an exhaustive introduction);
- Cosquin, in Revue Biblique, viii. 50 et seq., 510 et seq.;
- Gaster, in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1900, pp. 301 et seq. (contains a Rumanian version and an English translation);
- Halévy, in Revue Sémitique, viii. 23 et seq.;
- Jagic, in Byzantinische Zeitschrift, i. 107 et seq.;
- Kuhn, ibid. pp. 127 et seq.;
- Lidzbarski, in Z. D. M. G. xlviii. 671 et seq.;
- Die Neu-Aramäischen Handschriften, i. ii.;
- Meissner, in Z. D. M. G. pp. 171 et seq.;
- Reinach, in Rev. Ét. Juives, xxxviii. 1 et seq.