by Dr. Marc Bregman
Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature, HUC-JIR/Jerusalem
If there ever was a legend that is the product of the collective Jewish imagination, it certainly must be the legend of the remarkable woman known as Serah bat Asher. The Hebrew Bible mentions only that she was the daughter of Asher, one of the sons of Jacob. She is first mentioned in the list of seventy people who went down to Egypt in the time of her grandfather Jacob (Genesis 46:17). Significantly, she is the only woman mentioned in the much more extensive census of Israelites who left Egypt at the time of the Exodus several hundred years later (Numbers 26:46, I Chronicles 7:30). Her appearance in these two widely-separated genealogical lists led the rabbis of the Talmudic period to conclude that Serah "spanned the generations" between Joseph and Moses. Having granted her such remarkable longevity, the Sages went on to include this extraordinary woman among those few immortals who "never tasted the taste of death" and "entered Paradise alive" (Yalqut Shimoni 2:367, Derekh Eretz 1:18). No wonder that this female figure from the beginning of Israelite history provided an irresistible stimulus for those who crafted Jewish legend throughout the ages.
One rabbinic legend relates that it was Serah who revealed to Jacob that his son Joseph was still alive in Egypt. She acquired immortality when her grandfather blessed her, saying "My child, may death never rule over you for you brought my spirit back to life" (Sefer Ha-Yashar, Va-Yigash). Another legend tells how Serah received via Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and her father Asher "the secret of redemption": how to identify the one who was destined to redeem Israel from Egyptian enslavement. When Moses announced to the Israelites "God will surely redeem you," Serah declared: "This is the man who will liberate Israel from Egypt for this is what I learned from my father" (Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer 48, Exodus Rabbah 5:13). Serah is also said to have helped Moses find Joseph's bones on the eve of the Exodus in order to fulfill the oath; Joseph had made his brethren swear not to leave his remains behind when God redeemed them from Egypt (see Genesis 50:25 and Exodus 13:19). For only Serah survived from the generation of Joseph and therefore only she knew that the Egyptians had hidden Joseph's body in a metal casket, which they had sunk into the depths of the Nile (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Be-Shallah, ed. Lauterbach, Vol. I, pp. 176-177). Serah makes another appearance in the time of King David. The Sages identify her as the unnamed "wise woman" who saved the town of Avel from being sacked by coming forward as "one of the peaceable and faithful in Israel" (Midrash Samuel 32 on II Samuel 20). In this way, Serah became the archetypal "Wise Old Woman" of Jewish legend. The Sages also tell of how Serah appeared in their own day to correct an influential rabbi's idea of how the sea looked when it parted before the escaping Israelites. Significantly, she is able to supply this information on the basis of her own personal experience; for as she says: "I was there!" (Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana, Be-Shallah, ed. Mandelbaum, p. 188). The chief work of medieval Jewish mysticism, the Zohar (III, 167b), assigns Serah pride of place in Paradise. There she presides over one of the palaces reserved for righteous women, teaching them Torah and leading them in prayer.
Despite the Talmudic tradition that Serah was granted immortality, the Persian Jews of the city of Isfahan believed that this biblical figure actually lived among them, until she died in a great synagogue fire in the 12th century CE. Her mausoleum was an important pilgrimage site for the Oriental Jewish community, and Serah remains a popular name among Kurdistani Jewish women. In our generation, storytellers in Israel continue to spin new tales about the many miracles Serah is said to have performed, such as healing the sick and saving the Jewish community from evil decrees, as did Queen Esther.
Serah did indeed "span the generations" from biblical times until today. The ancient rabbis went so far as to boldly claim that Serah never died. She does indeed live on in the many legends that generations of Jews have told about her. The separate strands of tradition about this immortal lady of legend still beckon to be retold and reunited. This "wise woman," from among the first generations of our people, is again becoming a living presence among us as we recount her story in our day. For Jews of today, Serah bat Asher serves as a traditional model for our contemporary women leaders, imbued with worldly wisdom, Torah learning, and spiritual power.
Dr. Bregman was invited to present the annual lectures in honor of Rabbi Albert T. Bilgray in March, 1996, in Tucson. The complete version of his presentation, Serah Bat Asher: Biblical Origins, Ancient Aggadah and Contemporary Folklore, has recently been published by the University of Arizona. Dr. Bregman is now working on a narrative retelling of the legends of Serah, with a scholarly introduction and source commentary.
Copyright © 1998 Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Most recent update 13 Oct 1998