The “Better” Proverb in Rabbinic Literature

in Review of Rabbinic Judaism
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The “Better Proverb” is a rhetorical form found in ancient Near Eastern literatures, including the Bible, and in Rabbinic literature. In this paper we discuss the use of this form in Rabbinic literature, focusing on the developments and changes that occurred in the later literature. We will show that the rabbis were familiar with biblical rhetorical features, used them, and changed them if needed to meet their own rhetorical purposes and goals.

The “Better” Proverb in Rabbinic Literature

in Review of Rabbinic Judaism




In one case (B. Porten and A. YardeniTextbook of Aramaic Documents from Ancient Egypt (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Press1993) vol. 3 p. 36 line 83b) the word ‘tov’ meaning better is replaced by the word mighty: “(for) mightier is ambush of mouth than ambush of battle.” On this aphorism see S. Yona The Aramaic Words of Ahiqar and Biblical Wisdom Literature: Context Structure and Style (Heb.; unpublished M.A. Thesis; Hebrew University of Jerusalem 1990) pp. 74–76. The second case (ibid. p. 44 line 152) is incomplete: “Better he who masters . . .” Three more examples all using the same unique pattern A is better than B C and anything else can be found in (ibid.) p. 39 line 89; p. 46 lines 159–160 and see also Prov. 27:3. See also S. Yona “Shared stylistic patterns in the Aramaic proverbs of Ahiqar and Hebrew wisdom” in ANES 44 (2007) pp. 29–49.


See for example J.L. KugelThe Idea of Biblical Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press1981); M. Paran Forms of the Priestly Style in the Pentateuch (Jerusalem: Magnes 1989) [Heb.].


W. Zimmerli“Zur Strukter der alttestamentlichen Weisheit” in ZAW 61 (1933) p. 192; H.J. Hermisson Studien zur israelitischen Spruchweisheit (WMANT) (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag des Erziehungsvereins 1968) pp. 155–56; G.E. Bryce “ ‘Better’-Proverbs: An Historical and Structural Study” in L.C. McGaughy ed. SBL Book of Seminar Papers (Missoula: Scholars Press 1972) pp. 343–354; idem. A Legacy of Wisdom (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press 1979) pp. 71–75 223 n. 31; G.S. Ogden “The “Better”-Proverb (Tôb-Spruch) Rhetorical Criticism and Qoheleth” in JBL 96 4 (1977) pp. 489–505; idem. Qoheleth (Sheffield: JSOT Press 1987) pp. 99–110; Paran (see n. 9); S. Yona “Rhetorical features in Talmudic literature” in HUCA 77 (2006) pp. 76–77; T. Forti Animal Imagery in the Book of Proverbs (Leiden Boston: Brill 2008) pp. 152–153; Fox (see n. 2) pp. 488–489 595–598 939. See also C.L. Seow Ecclesiastes (AB) (New York: Doubleday 1997) pp. 185–192 240–251.


See Hermisson (see n. 10) pp. 155–156; Ogden “The ‘Better’-Proverb (Tôb-Spruch) Rhetorical Criticism and Qoheleth” (see n. 10) pp. 490 492–494.


See G.S. Ogden“Qoheleth’s Use of the ‘Nothing Is Better’ Form,” in JBL 98 3 (1979) pp. 339–350.


Fox (see n. 2) p. 597.


See R. HammerSifrei (New Haven: Yale University Press1986) p. 414 n. 33; J. Neusner Sifre to Deuteronomy vol. 1 (Atlanta: Scholars Press 1987) p. 145.


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