Proverbs: Annotated & Explained
By Rabbi Rami Shapiro
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011, 238 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - February 13, 2013
Readers will benefit from this book whether they read and even studied the biblical book Proverbs before. This is one of more than two dozen books published in the SkyLight Illumination Series in which religious books, or parts of them, are translated or paraphrased anew with comprehensive easy to read introductions that explains the books and with texts on right hand pages and annotations and explanations directly opposite on the left. The series includes the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Qur'an, The Book of Mormon, and more.
In his introduction, Rabbi Shapiro tells readers, among much else, that Proverbs is, along with Ecclesiastes and Job, "Wisdom Literature." They focus on the use of human intelligence rather than reliance on God. Jews were not the only authors of Wisdom Literature; we have Egyptian compositions that are similar. Tradition states that Proverbs was composed by the Israelite King Solomon in the tenth century BCE, but many scholars are convinced that it was written by various writers and edited about the seventh century BCE.
Proverbs contains seven different collections of sayings that were blended into this single book. Book one, in nine chapters, has nine discussions that emphasize the importance of relying on wisdom. For example, in the middle of a discussion, the book states: "When wisdom is embraced, righteousness, justice, and fairness are known." Book two, from 10:1 to 22:16, contains the first collection of short sayings, usually as brief as two lines, about wisdom such as "wisdom alone brings riches, worrying never improves a situation." Book three, from 22:17 to 24:22, as its title proclaims, has thirty precepts about wisdom, some short and some longer, such as, "Turn your heart to wisdom and your eyes will be drawn to the good. Lust is a deep pit, and evil passion a narrow well – fall into either one and you are trapped."
Book four contains nine sayings which begin "These, too, are the sayings of the wise. If you have to make a judgment, show no favoritism" These sayings state clearly that they were not composed by the prior author or authors. Book five in chapters 25 through 29 is a second collection of short sayings, which are attributed to Solomon, such as, "Do not be impatient with the powerful. Respond gently to their anger." Chapter 30 is the sixth book. It contains warnings, such as "Speak no slander – not even against the wicked."Chapter 31, which Rabbi Shapiro calls "A Mother's Advice," contains the famed description of the virtuous woman, who the rabbi calls "A woman of great accomplishments."
Rabbi Shapiro's translation is both good and bad. It is good because he gives a contemporary approach to the ancient writing. This makes the teachings not only relevant but easy to understand. However, it is bad because it is not literal and readers who find themselves charmed by a saying may want to look at a traditional literal translation to see if the original author really said what Rabbi Shapiro says he said. For example, 10:1 states in a literal translation: "A wise son maketh a glad father; but a foolish son is the grief of his mother." The rabbi has: "Be wise and increase the joy of heaven, be foolish and increase the suffering of earth." The literal translation of 31:1 is: The words of king Lemuel; the burden wherewith his mother corrected hm." The rabbi has: "The advice of a mother, a solemn warning to her child. I raised you and bore you and vowed all my love to you – so listen, my child, to my advice." These are two examples that show the general style of the book. Rabbi Shapiro's version differs greatly from the literal. He did not "translate" the Proverb authors' words; he gave them his interpretations of what these authors wanted, in his opinion, to say. With this important caveat in mind, we can still say that readers will gain much wisdom from reading Rabbi Shapiro's book.