The Truth Behind the Legend of Serach bas Asher and Her Harp

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In Parshas Vayigash, Yosef finally reveals his identity to his brothers. It was quite shocking to them to discover the truth about their brother. While it’s clear that Yosef told his brothers his identity directly, there is a legend that explains how his father Yaakov learned the truth. It is cited, in an odd way, in The Little Midrash Says:

harp-hands-toned“Do you know which messenger was the first to bring Yaakov the news that his son Yosef was still alive?
You may have heard (that’s the odd part – ef) that is was Yaakov’s granddaughter Serach, the daughter of Asher.
The brothers picked her because they needed a smart messenger for the news. Even though it would be marvelous for Yaakov to find out the news that his son Yosef was still alive, the sudden shock of such unexpected news might do harm to Yaakov’s health. You must remember that Yaakov was an old man, 130 years old. And Yosef had been missing for 22 years!
Therefore the brothers picked Serach whom they knew to be a smart girl and who played the harp beautifully.
Serach began to play music for her grandfather and softly hummed the words, “My uncle Yosef is still alive. He is a ruler over Egypt.” She repeated these words over and over until her grandfather began to smile.”

Of course I am generalizing, but pretty much everyone who attended an Orthodox Day School or Yeshiva knows this story. But there’s a serious problem with this tale.

There is a hierarchy of Midrashim. Whether we take Midrash literally or metaphorically or some other way, Midrashim are taken seriously because they are the interpretations of our great sages. A few Midrashic texts can be dated to the period of the Talmud. Others came along later. The earlier a Midrash was written, the more gravitas its interpretations carry.

Here is the earliest and only source I could find for the story as it is retold in The Little Midrash Says:

91v And they came unto the borders of the land, and they said to each other, What shall we do in this matter before our father, for if we come suddenly to him and tell him the matter, he will be greatly alarmed at our words and will not believe us.

92v And they went along until they came nigh unto their houses, and they found Serach, the daughter of Asher, going forth to meet them, and the damsel was very good and subtle, and knew how to play upon the harp.

93v And they called unto her and she came before them, and she kissed them, and they took her and gave unto her a harp, saying, Go now before our father, and sit before him, and strike upon the harp, and speak these words.

94v And they commanded her to go to their house, and she took the harp and hastened before them, and she came and sat near Jacob.

95v And she played well and sang, and uttered in the sweetness of her words, Joseph my uncle is living, and he ruleth throughout the land of Egypt, and is not dead.

96v And she continued to repeat and utter these words, and Jacob heard her words and they were agreeable to him.

97v He listened whilst she repeated them twice and thrice, and joy entered the heart of Jacob at the sweetness of her words, and the spirit of God was upon him, and he knew all her words to be true.

98v And Jacob blessed Serach when she spoke these words before him, and he said unto her, My daughter, may death never prevail over thee, for thou hast revived my spirit; only speak yet before me as thou hast spoken, for thou hast gladdened me with all thy words.

99v And she continued to sing these words, and Jacob listened and it pleased him, and he rejoiced, and the spirit of God was upon him.

I don’t claim to be an expert researcher, but my amateur research has led me to precisely this one source for the legend of Serach and her harp and this is it. The source is from a book called “Sefer HaYashar.” But this is not the famous Sefer HaYashar written by Rabbeinu Tam. This is a much later work of aggadic interpretations on the Bible. The earliest date of publication is 1625 and it was passed off as an ancient book with a similar storyline as the Zohar. That is, it was claimed to have been written during the destruction of the Second Temple (around 70 CE), hidden for generations, and later “found” in 1552. The earliest it was written was early 16th century.

It is in the context of this book and the Zohar that Leon Modena famously and boldly called them both forgeries.

The book is full of fantastic legends that would never be considered “Torah True™” in frum circles. I don’t think there are any frum rabbis or laypeople that takes this book as a serious book of Torah. Yet, the legend of Serach and her harp lives on.

I may have somewhat of an explanation for this quirk of “Mesora™”.

Serach bas Asher is the subject of another Midrash that relates to Vayigash. The verse counts 66 members of Yaakov’s family who went down to Egpyt. Then the verse says they were 70. Everyone and their mother tries to reconcile these verses. Yosef and his two sons make 69 but the 70th is a matter of great dispute. Some Christians say the 70th was Jesus. The most well known answers in the Torah community come from the Talmud and early Midrashim. Some say it was Yocheved who was born at the gates of Egpyt. Others say God counted as number 70. Other answers abound. The Pesikta d’Rav Kahane, a very very old Midrash, says the 70th was Serach bas Asher. Yalkut Shimoni, a later Midrash corroborates the interpretation of the Pesikta d’Rav Kahane. Thus, we have a very reputable source with a Midrash regarding Serach bas Asher in another context in our parsha. It’s possible that because we had the one accepted source that already includes Serach in the Midrashic narrative of the parsha, it was an easy jump to subsume the Sefer HaYashar’s legend into the narrative as well.

The only thing these old Midrashic sources say about Serach is that she could be number 70. A much later Midrash called the Midrash HaGadol, of obscure authorship from the 14th century, is the most oft cited source on the Internet for the legend of Serach and her harp. This too is an error. The Midrash HaGadol only says that Serach was asked by her uncles to hint to Yaakov that Yosef was alive so that he wouldn’t be too shocked when he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent. So, the story goes,  she waited until Yaakov was praying and then she “wondered” aloud if her Uncle Yosef was alive and if he had two sons named Ephraim and Menashe. When Yaakov finished praying he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent and he understood that Yosef was still alive. He didn’t go into shock because he had heard Serach “wondering” about Yosef and his sons.

There is no harp in this telling of the story. Therefore it is incorrect to cite the Midrash HaGadol as the source for the legend of Serach and her harp. Further, we do not usually accept aggadic interpretations invented by Medieval commentators in the same way we accept Talmudic aggadic interpretations.

EDIT: I was alerted to the Targum Yonasan (unknown authorship and date, likely around the same time as Midrash HaGadol or later) who says that Serach told Yaakov that Yosef was alive. That’s all he says. No descriptions as to how she told him.

So we have no early sources that mention Serach at all with regard to telling Yaakov that Yosef is alive. We have one very late, somewhat reliable Torah source that says that Serach hinted it to Yaakov while he prayed. And we have one weak source that tells the story the way it is cited in The Little Midrash Says replete with the singing and the harp.

As a matter of history, it’s certainly possible that the author of Sefer HaYashar knew of the Serach legend as it was told by the Midrash HaGadol, but it is extremely unlikely. The Midrash HaGadol was not known outside of Yemen until the 19th century when it was first published. This also further clouds the issue of whether it is a Torah True™ part of the Mesorah™. Because it was not part of the non-Yemenite Mesorah™ until the 19th century, it might not have gained notoriety and reputability thus it could be considered a weak source. Alternatively, some claim that Midrash HaGadol brings to light many aggadic interpretations that were well known but forgotten over the centuries, so perhaps the story of Serach hinting to Yaakov that Yosef was alive while he prayed has an earlier source that has been lost. Also, assuming the author of Sefer HaYashar did in fact know of the version in Midrash HaGadol, he changed it to include the version with singing and a harp.

This is a summary of my research. Obviously, I could be mistaken about everything I have written. Barring the discovery of serious egregious errors, I think we have to question whether the legend of Serach and her harp should be a basic part of the way we teach and learn Vayigash.

Sources I used: Jewish Encyclopedia, Google, Toras Shleimah, Wikipedia (double-checking citations), and the original texts of Sefer HaYashar, Midrash HaGadol, Pesikta d’Rav Kahane, Yalkut Shimoni and others.

 

  • Counting Serach bas Asher as one of the 70 isn’t medrash, it’s Bereishis 46:17. She appears in the scriptural count.

    • She is mentioned in the Torah, but she is not COUNTED in the 66.

      • She is mentioned in the list of people that is summarized by the count.

        46:8-9:These are the names of the Benei Yisrael who were coming to Egypt: Yaaqov and his children (sons?). Re’uvein was Yaaqov’s firstborn. And the children of Reuvein…

        v 17: And the sons of Asher: Yimnah, Yishvah, Yishvi, and Beriah, and their sister Serach; and the sons of Beriah: Chever and Malkiel.

        v 18:And the sons of Joseph, who were born to him in Egypt, were two souls; all the souls of the house of Jacob, that came into Egypt, were 70.

        • Look, you’re asking a kasha on the Pesikta d’Rav Kahane. I don’t get it either. I am just telling you what he says.

  • mrwpants

    more m’korot. none w/ the harp – http://judaism.stackexchange.com/a/33761/3120

  • Dov Kramer

    I am also puzzled why Sefer HaYashar is as accepted at face value as it is, but the bottom line is that it has been accepted by mainstream Chareidi Jewry.

    Besides The Midrash Says (and Liitle Midrash Says), it is widely quoted by Me’am Lo’ez, and in just about every post- Seder Olam sefer that uses chronology. There is one edition that includes notes from Rav Chaim Kanievsky (from when he was quite young), where he says that we can be confident that what is contained within is based on lost Midrashim.

    In my experience, the author embellished known Midrashim, such as “fleshing out” how Serach broke the news to Yaakov. Other examples include B’reishis Rabbah making an obscure reference to Avraham making multiple trips between Charan and Canaan and Sefer HaYashar, using the Seder Olam’s “Avraham was 70 by the B’ros bein HaB’sarim,” telling us that his first trip eas when he was 55, returning when he was 70, and finally moking to Canaan when he was 75, and”real” Midrashimim saying there were 4 groups by the Red Sea (each wanting to deal with being cornered by the Egyptians in a different way), and Sefer HaYashar tells us which Tribes were in each group.

    • Odd. The stories in there are pretty wild!

      • Dov Kramer

        Yes, they are. Especially the “wars of the Chidren of Yaakov,” which read like a superhero comic book. (I recently tried to convince a friend in the publishing business, who is also into comic books, to publish a series based on them, but I doubt he will.)

        Interestingly, though. these “heroics” can be found in Yalkut Shimoni too, so they likely did have a real Midrashic source. (Which was also most likely Ramban’s source when he refers to them, not Sefer HaYashar, which Chida thought was his source.)

  • LF

    I dont understand.Its a “Befarisha” 613 Torah Avenue:http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/573572/jewish/Parshah-Song.htm

  • Truth

    There are may things taught in schools around the globe as FACTS in the Torah, while in reality they are actually taken from the “little / medrash says”. I have often questioned what is written there, as it is the opposite of what written in the chumash, but it just gives a vague reference to a medrash, and the medrash itself just says 1 word about a whole story that the “Medrash Says” has expounded on. These books seem to have been accepted – especially with schools but often is certainly not poshut pshat in the parsha, and is taught as if its Halocho l’Moshe Misinai.
    Thank you Rabbi Fink for exposing this.

  • David

    Look up in “Shem HaGedolim” by the CHIDA. He brings the different opinions of Rishonim as to the authorship and authenticity of Sefer Hayashar.