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:
“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.
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) December 6, 2013