"The proverbs of Solomon." (Chapter 10, v 1). From here until the end of the book, the greater part of the text consists of one-verse proverbs or at times short series of verses elaborating on a single idea. Sometimes an overall theme can be discerned in consecutive proverbs, yet often there is no specific relationship between one proverb and the next: each is a jewel in itself.

We have no information about how or why these proverbs were arranged as they are, but a very interesting clue as to how they have come down to us in their present form is contained much later in the book in Proverbs 25:1: "THESE ALSO are the proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied (HE'TEEKOO)." This verse introduces another seven chapters of proverbs.

Metzudas David comments on the above-quoted verse: "It would appear that the material from the beginning of the book until this point [i.e. until ch 25] was copied over and available in everyone's hands, whereas from this point until the end of the book the only copies were in the hands of Hezekiah's officers, who copied these words from scrolls of Solomon that were available to them. This is why the text says 'these ALSO are Solomon's proverbs' i.e. even though they were not available to everyone, nevertheless these too are his words which Hezekiah's officers copied, and they can be trusted as to the fact that these words came from the mouth of Solomon." [Hezekiah became king 13 generations or 235 years after the death of King Solomon.]

About a century and a half ago it became fashionable for a certain breed of Biblical "scholars" who in rebellion against traditional rabbinic explanations of the Bible to indulge in what they called "Biblical criticism" in which they tried to cast aspersions on the divine origins of the Bible (and, by implication, on its binding nature) by claiming that different parts of various books were written by different human authors and later redacted into their present form. However, nowhere in any of the classical rabbinic commentators is there the faintest hint that the authors of the Biblical books were anyone other than as stated in the text in each case or as handed down in rabbinic tradition, and there is no reason whatever to distort the literal meaning of the text or, for example, to take the above-quoted verse as explained by Metzudas David in any other way except literally.

Rashi on the above-quoted verse in Proverbs 25:1 comments that the word HE'ETEEKOO, rendered as "copied", also has the connotation of "they STRENGTHENED", noting that when Hezekiah became king [after a lengthy period of rebellion against the Torah under previous kings] he established centers for students in every city until eventually a check was made from Dan to Beersheva and not a single ignoramus was found (Sanhedrin 94b). It would make perfect sense that a highly innovative revivalist Torah leader like Hezekiah would reveal new materials that had previously been handed down only among the inner circle of the House of David, in order to strengthen Torah observance in his kingdom.

We may infer that the redaction of Proverbs took place in two stages: the greater part of Solomon's proverbs were arranged in his lifetime, presumably at his behest, and copied by scribes for circulation among the people, while later on in the time of Hezekiah, supplementary materials were added from private royal manuscripts thereby giving the work the form in which we have it today.

How should we study this treasury of wise epigrams and aphorisms? In the absence of a continuous "story-line" it can be hard to take in, absorb and internalize verse after verse of such wisdom. It is somewhat like touring a vast museum of dazzling treasures: even with the best will in the world, one's eyes are likely to glaze over after a time. Moreover, practically every single verse is accompanied by an enormous wealth of rabbinic midrash, commentary and explanation dating from Mishnaic and Talmudic times until the present day. Each verse of Proverbs provides topics for lengthy consideration, discussion and debate, and may be susceptible to interpretations that go in radically different directions. Each of the four standard levels of Biblical interpretation (PaRDeS) can certainly be applied to Proverbs: (1) PSHAT, the "simple" or "literal" meaning; (2) REMEZ, the "allusions" to various Torah ideas, historical events, etc.; (3) DRASH, the teachings that are derived from the verse through the hermeneutical methods of Torah interpretation (such as the 13 Rules of R. Ishmael or the 32 Rules of Rabbi Eliezer son of R. Yose HaGlili as printed at the end of full editions of Talmud Bavli Brachos); (4) SOD, the "secret", "mystical" or "esoteric" dimension of the words, which consist of divine names and numerical formulae, etc. - for the entire Bible was written through prophecy and holy spirit.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught that in studying any part of the Torah, the essence of the mitzvah is simply to read the words in order one after the other trying to gain a general understanding without seeking to master every last detail. He also taught that wherever one is studying in the Torah, one's primary purpose should be to derive practical guidance in order to improve one's character and behavior. Thus he taught that one should always try to find oneself in each text - to see how it relates to one's own issues and concerns.

Precisely because of the tremendous wealth of wisdom collected in Solomon's proverbs, one must expect that it cannot all be assimilated at one time. At different junctures in life, different sections, verses and phrases will become more meaningful. It often happens that a certain phrase or idea may seem very strange and incomprehensible, until life brings one to a certain point where suddenly its truth shines out in a flash of illumination. In order to prepare for such moments, we would do well to learn a lesson from the humble ant, who spends the entire summer working hard dragging heavy grains for storage until the winter, when she can relax, eat and enjoy the fruits of her labors (see Proverbs 6:8).

Almost all the proverbs in our present text, Chapters 10 and 11 consist of a single verse devoted to one idea, the first half of the verse stating a thesis and the second half its antithesis. The mode of thought is that of oscillation between holistic HOCHMAH-wisdom and analytic BINAH-understanding. It is precisely the contrast between the thesis and antithesis that throws light on the meaning of each one, thereby generating the synthesis - DA'AS, "knowledge", "comprehension".

The overall theme of the proverbs in chapters 10 and 11 is the contrast between the character, attitudes and behavior of the Tzaddik (the righteous person) and those of the Rasha (the wicked villain) and their respective destinies in God's order of Justice, where goodness is rewarded in the world to come while evil is punished in Gehennom. The mind of the Tzaddik is characterized by the qualities of HOCHMAH ("wisdom"), BINAH and TEVUNAH (different aspects of "understanding") while the Rasha is KHESEEL and EVEEL, both of which mean "foolish", lacking in DA'AS. The Tzaddik is generous and forgiving, while the Rasha is mean and selfish. The Tzaddik blesses; the Rasha curses, insults and disparages. The Tzaddik is straight and honest; the Rasha is deceptive and treacherous. The Tzaddik is pure and sincere, the Rasha stubborn and crooked. In accordance with their respective characters and behavior, the Tzaddik is rewarded with long life and wealth in the world of Truth, while the Rasha faces bitterness, disaster and death when the bubble bursts and the emptiness of his fantasies is revealed.

Ch 11 v 31: "Indeed, the Tzaddik is recompensed on earth." - "even the Tzaddik pays the price in this world for a sin he commits" (Rashi) - ".how much more so the wicked and the sinner!" - "Then why should the wicked man trust that all will be well for him just because he is successful for the moment? If even the Tzaddik is punished, how much more so will the wicked man be punished either in his lifetime or when he dies" (Rashi).



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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