Berechiah ben Natronai ha-Nakdan, ("ha-Nakdan", meaning "the punctuator" or "grammarian"), commonly known as Berachya, (13th century) was a Jewish exegete, ethical writer, grammarian, translator, poet, and philosopher. His most famous works are Mishle Shualim (Fox Fables) and Sefer Hahibbur (The Book of Compilation).
Very little is known for certain about his life and much discussion has taken place concerning the date and native country of Berachyah. It is possible that he was a descendant of Jewish scholars of Babylonia. He is thought to have lived sometime in the 12th or 13th century, with some placing him about 1260 in Provence. Other theories give Northern France as his home while Joseph Jacobs arrived at the conclusion that Berechiah should be located in England toward the end of the 12th century. This was confirmed by Neubauer's discovery that, in the preface to his fables, Berechiah refers to the "turning of the wheels of fate to the island of the sea (=England) for one to die and the other to live," clearly a reference to the English massacre of 1190.
Berechiah is known chiefly as the author of a set of over a hundred fables, called Mishle Shualim, (Fox Fables), which derive from both Berachyah's own inventions and some borrowed and reworked from Aesop's fables, the Talmud, and the Hindus. Berechiah's work adds a layer of Biblical quotations and allusions to Aesop's tales, adapting them as a way to teach Jewish ethics. Manuscripts exist at the Bodleian and Munich (207 written before 1268). The first edition appeared in Mantua, in 1557; another with a Latin version by M. Hanel, Prague, 1661; other editions at Berlin, 1706; Lemberg, 1809; Grodno, 1818; Sklov, n.d.; and Warsaw, 1874. An English translation appeared in 1967 by Moses Hadas, entitled Fables of a Jewish Aesop; it has recently been republished by David R. Godine, publishers.
The fables give in rhymed prose most of the animal tales passing under the name of Aesop during the Middle Ages; but in addition to these, the collection also contains fables conveying the same plots and morals as those of Marie de France, whose date has been placed only approximately toward the end of the 12th century.
The following table exhibits the relationship between Berechiah's fables and those of Marie, as well as their connection with the Romulus, the Latin prose translations of the medieval Aesop. These show that Berechiah has only one-half of the additional fables of Marie, and that he has about thirty not in her collection. Some of these are from Avian, others from Oriental sources.
The following fable is one paralleled by Marie de France (No. 73), and derives from an Oriental source, probably the Vaka Jataka (Folk-lore Journal, iii.359):
The Wolf and the Animals
The Wolf, the Lion's prince and peer, as the foe of all flesh did appear; greedy and grinding, he consumed all he was finding. Birds and beasts, wild and tame, by their families urged to the same, brought against him before the Lion an accusation, as a monster worthy of detestation. Said His Majesty, "If he uses his teeth as you say, and causes scandal in this terrible way, I'll punish him in such a way as to save his neck, if I may, and yet prevent you becoming his prey." Said Lion to Wolf, "Attend me to-morrow, see that you come, or you'll come to much sorrow." He came, sure enough, and the Lion spoke to him harsh and rough. "What by doing this do you mean? Never more raven the living, or live by ravening. What you shall eat shall be only dead meat. The living you shall neither trap nor hunt. And that you may my words obey, swear me that you'll eat no flesh for two years from to-day, to atone for your sins, testified and seen: 'tis my judgment, you had better fulfil it, I ween." Thereat the Wolf swore right away no flesh to eat for two years from that day. Off went Sir Wolf on his way, King Lion stopped at court on his throne so gay. Nothing that's fleshy for some time did our Wolf eat, for like a gentleman he knew how his word to keep. But then came a day when he was a hungered and he looked hither and thither for meat, and lo, a fat sheep fair to look on and goodly to eat (Gen. iii. 6). Then to himself he said, "Who can keep every law?" and his thoughts were bewildered with what he saw. He said to himself, "It overcomes me the longing to eat, for two yearsday by day must I fast from meat. This is my oath to the king that I swore, but I've thought how to fulfil it as never before. Three sixty-five are the days in a year. Night is when you close your eyes; open them, then the day is near." His eyes he opened and closed straightway. It was evening and it was morning, one day (Gen. i. 6). Thus he winked until he had numbered two years, and his greed returned and his sin disappears. His eyes fix the goat (sic) they had seen and he said, "See beforehand I have atoned for my sin," and he seized the neck of the goat, broke it to pieces, and filled up his throat as he was wont to do before, and as of yore his hand was stretched out to the beasts, his peers, as it had been in former days and years.
Berechiah was also the author of an ethical treatise entitled Sefer Matzref. The treatise is divided into thirteen chapters. In it he quotes Rabbi Abraham ibn Daud (died about 1198) without the formula for the dead, so that it is quite probable that the book was composed before 1180.
Sefer Hahibbur is the most famous of Berachyah's works. This book of philosophy is almost encyclopaedic in style. In it, Berachyah develops on the works of Saadia Gaon, Bahya ibn Pakuda, and Solomon ibn Gabirol.
In addition to these, Berechiah wrote a commentary on the Book of Job. He was acquainted with most of the grammarians of the 11th and 12th centuries, and his "Uncle Benjamin," whom he quotes, has been identified with Benjamin of Canterbury.
Berechiah was a translator, his version being extant of Adelard of Bath's Quæstiones Naturales (MSS. at Munich, Leiden, Oxford, and Florence), as well as of a Lapidary containing a description of sixty-three species of stones. Besides these works, Berechiah is also said by Zunz to have contributed to the Tosafot (Sanh. 20b), and, as his name implies, was probably an expert in Hebrew grammar, for which reason he is quoted by Moses ben Issac ha-Nessiah of London, in his Sefer ha-Shoham. As this work was probably written before 1215, these references confirm the date and place suggested above.
|Wikisource has original works written by or about:
- Adventures in Philosophy: A Brief History of Jewish Philosophy
- Jacobs, "Fables of Æsop," i.175.
- Jewish Quart. Rev. ii.522
- Neubauer, Cat. Bodl. Hebr. MSS. No. 1466, 7, originally belonging to Cotton, and 1421, 5, with six additional fables
- MS. in Bodleian.
Jewish Encyclopedia bibliography
- Zunz, G.S. iii. 237, 238;
- Renan-Neubauer, Les Rabbins Français, pp. 490–499 (containing full previous bibliography);
- Steinschneider, Hebr. Bibl. xiii.80 et seq.;
- Jacobs, Fables of Æsop, i.168–178;
- idem, Jews of Angevin England, pp. 165–173, 196–199, 278–280;
- Neubauer and Jacobs, Jew. Quart. Rev., ii.322–333, 520–526 (compare ibid. vi.364, 375);
- Steinschneider, Hebr. Uebers. pp. 958–962;
- Gross, Gallia Judaica, p. 180.