Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbs from the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East

Acquaintances and friends (Ben Sira 6:6)

Posted by jac/cdc on February 9, 2007

חיך ערב ירבה אוהב ושפתי חן שואלי שלום
אנשי שלומך יהיו רבים ובעל סודך אחד מאלף

chaych a-RAYV yar-BE o-HAYV u-s’-fa-tay CHAYN sho-a-lay sha-LOM
an-SHAY sh’-lo-may-CHA yi-YU ra-BEEM u-BA-al so-d’-KA e-CHAD may-E-lef

Pleasant multiplies friends, and gracious talk greetings.
Let your acquaintances be many, but your confidant one in a thousand.

These are the introductory verses to a longer poem on friendship (vv. 5–17). Ben Sira speaks about friendship more than any other book in the Old Testament. These two verses create a slight contrast: pleasant speech (lit., ‘sweet palate’) and gracious talk (lit., gracious lips) are commended in the first verse, but casually treating friends quickly multiplied as confidants is warned against in the second verse. The rest of the poem warns in several ways against “fair-weather friends” and extols the surpassing value of loyal friendship.

It is great to be “networked,” to know such-and-such and so-and-so; indeed, it can be crucially important to “work the room,” in my line of work. But these verses caution against two misapprehensions: one is to assume that every acquaintance is a confidant; the other is to never seek out closer friendship with anyone. Close friends and confidants are needed, but they only form the “one in a thousand” among one’s acquaintances. Such a one is “beyond price” (אין מחיר) according to Ben Sira (6:15).

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