3: Medieval midrash, "The Alphabet of Ben Sira," c. 700-1000 CE.
The Alphabet of Ben Sira is a medieval Hebrew text comprised of epigrams, aphorisms, and a narrative recounting of Ben Sira’s life in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar, of which this excerpt is a part. This excerpt from the text recounts one story about the legendary demon Lilith, mentioned in several commentaries. This text aggregates many of the demonic and supernatural attributes assigned to the mythological Lilith, Adam’s first wife. Lilith is characterized as a woman who cannot be controlled by men, or even by God. She represents a threat to patriarchal order, refusing marriage and childbearing, and disrupting family structure and continuity by killing children.
Lilith is one possible source for the mysterious mother figure in “Ummi Fi Shurl.” Just as Lilith is placed outside of the family structure and deemed harmful to children, so too is the mother figure in the story only tenuously linked to family, if at all, living under a bench in the park and denied by her own daughter. She also introduces herself to the daughter by stinging her, a sting that the protagonist at first assumes to be fatal, the bite of a black widow. There are other specific parallels to this legend, such as the above/below physical configuration that Lilith rejects, which is actualized in the positions of the characters in the story, where the mother/Lilith figure begins under the bench, below the protagonist, but eventually ends up on the bench with her. Lilith’s presence at the site of the Exodus from Egypt also recalls the protagonist’s Egyptian heritage, as well as the modern immigration of Egyptian Jews to Israel.
Suggested Activity: Ask students to identify the elements of the midrash that are present in the story, whether those elements are words, ideas, themes, locations, or personality attributes. Then, for each of these elements, have them identify how reading the midrash adds meaning or tells them something new about the story itself. Does the midrash fill in missing information in the story? Does it suggest something about the characters or the plot? Does it reflect on the reliability of the narrator? Does it suggest any deeper or hidden meanings of the story itself?
Source: Judah David Eisenstein, “Otzar Midrashim, The Aleph Bet of Ben Sira, The Alphabet of Ben Sira, (Alternative Version),” Sefaria, accessed September 2019.