Here’s a fun version of the Serah bat Asher story I wrote up and read at a friend’s “Harry Potter” themed passover seder last year. Thought I’d share it.
We are a people of history, of memory, of continuity. We teach. And we remember.
When Moses readied the Hebrews to leave, after the final terrible plagues and after the Angel of Death had passed over their doors, there was still one last task. A promise that needed to be kept. A promise far older than the pharaoh who was even now readying his chariots and soldiers. A promise demanded by Joseph, son of Jacob the patriarch, at the very beginning of the Hebrews sojourn in Egypt. Joseph had his brothers and their children promise that someday, when they would finally leave Egypt and travel to the promised land, they would take Joseph with them.
But it is 400 years later and Moses, who was raised in Pharaoh’s house, did not know where the bones of Joseph were buried. Nor did the elders of the Hebrews. The burial had been in secret. So they went to Serah bat Asher and Serah knew. Serah knew because she was Serah the immortal, who had been there 400 years earlier. Serah was the adopted daughter of Asher, who was Jacob’s son and Joseph’s brother. Serah had been Jacob’s favorite, studying at her grandfather’s knee and learning all the old lore. She not only learned about the one God but the deep secrets of how God made the universe, and how the universe could be remade, all that Jacob had learned from Shem and Ever, the son and grandson of Noah. For her devout diligence, God had blessed her with learning and understanding.
And then Jacob blessed her with immortality. After Joseph was betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt, Jacob had broken. He mourned and grieved for Joseph, with a face wet with tears that never dried. When, years later, the brothers learned that Joseph, with God’s help, still lived and flourished in Egypt, they rushed to tell Jacob. But they feared the news might be too much of a shock, that it might kill their father. So they begged Serah to tell him, to find a way to ease the news. And Serah knew how. She took her harp and sat next to Jacob as he prayed, as she always did. She played and sang all the prayers of Jacob’s heart. As Jacob was filled with prayer and was closest to God, she sang new words to him. She sang of Joseph being alive and healthy and that Jacob would see him soon. Jacob finished his prayers, weeping now in joy, and blessed Serah, saying “My daughter, may death never prevail against you forever, for you have revived my spirit.” The blessing of a patriarch is a powerful thing.
Death never did prevail against her. So she was there when the Jacob and the brothers went down to Egypt. She was there when Joseph made the brothers promise to take him with them when they left Egypt. And she was there, years later, watching quietly from the tall grasses, when the Egyptian wizards sunk Joseph’s body in a hidden spot in the Nile river, in a metal coffin, covered with sigils and signs, such that it would never rise again. Because the Egyptian wizards knew that the Hebrews would never abandon Joseph and would never leave if they could not find his bones.
That is why, 400 years later when Moses came to her, she was able to lead him to where Joseph’s metal coffin had been sunk. She stood with Moses, as Moses, in God’s name and using the names of God that Serah had learned, said “Joseph, Joseph, the time has arrived about which the Holy One, Blessed be He, took an oath saying that I (God) will redeem you. And the time for fulfillment of the oath that you administered to the Jewish people that they will bury you in Eretz Yisrael has arrived. If you show yourself, it is good, but if not, we are clear from your oath.” Immediately, the casket of Joseph floated to the top of the water.
Serah, the immoral, had learned great secrets and had shared them with her people and sustained them.
When God divided the Red Sea, Serah bat Asher crossed the dry sea bed with Moses and Miriam and the rest of the Hebrews, marveling at the miracle.
Serah was with them at Sinai, when Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets of the commandments, as well as gifts given by angels including Moses’ sword, his great book of spells. Serah was with them when Moses fought and destroyed the giant Og, King of Bashan, who had lived since before Noah and had tried to throw down a mountain on Moses and the Hebrews (but the spell book and the giant are stories for a different night). And Serah was with them when, at last, they entered Eretz Yisrael with two arks, the holy ark with God’s commandments that was venerated by the people and a second ark, that was shielded from the people, an ark that carried Joseph’s bones finally fulfilling the old promise.
And so it was two thousand years later, when Serah lived in Eretz Yisrael, in the Galilee, in the north, that she stood outside the schoolhouse of Rabbi Yohannan and listened.
Rabbi Yohanan was [once] sitting and expounding about how the waters became like a wall for Israel [at the time they miraculously passed through the Sea which had split open before them to permit their Exodus from Egypt]. Rabbi Yohanan explained that the waters looked “like a lattice.” However, just at that moment, Serah bat Asher looked in and said: “I was there and they (the waters) were not like that but rather like lighted windows.”
It is now 2000 years after that, more than 4000 years after Serah bat Asher was born. Some believe that she still lives, still sharing her memories and helping us remember who we have been and who we are. Others believe that she moved to Persia and, during the fire at the great synagogue of Esfahan, ascended directly to heaven to again study with Jacob and to intercede with God when her people needed healing and help. Either way, Serah the immortal never died, and tonight is a night to remember Serah and to thank God for memory and wisdom and to thank our parents and teachers and friends and Rabbi’s and everyone we learn from.
I opened my last post saying, “We grow, love, and die in the flash of a firefly on a summer evening. But not Serah bat Asher. She lives forever.” But maybe that’s not right. Let’s try again….
We grow, love, and die in the time it takes for a snowflake to fall. But not Serah bat Asher. She’s still falling …. with no soft snowbank to catch her.
Serah in Exile
What did Jacob mean when he blessed her saying “may death never prevail against thee forever?” Did that mean that she would live an immortal, physical, life on Earth, as I suggested in my two prior posts? Maybe. But that isn’t what happened to either Enoch or Elijah, the other two most noteworthy immortal humans in the Jewish tradition. Both of them ascended from a mortal life on Earth to become part of the heavenly court (1). There is a tradition, in the Mizrahi Jewish community, that says Serah ascended as well. Falling up, to the heavenly court to again study with Joseph and Jacob (2).
For Serah, though, there was no miraculous whirlwind to carry her away (1), there was just a fire. She burned, trapped with other Jews of Esfahan, as the old synagogue collapsed. It was the 12th century CE and she had been living Esfahan, Persia (now Iran), since the the 9th century CE (3). She’d been moving back and forth between Israel and Persia since Israel was the Kingdom of Judah, before the Babylonian exile (in the 500’s BCE). When the smoke cleared and the stones cooled other bodies remained to be mourned but Serah was gone. She had been taken, alive, to paradise.
When the synagogue was rebuilt it became known as the Synagogue of Serah bat Asher. According to Mark Bergman, “In the Jewish cemetery of Isfahan, there was to be found, at least until the end of the 19th century, a gravestone marking the final resting place of “Serah the daughter of Asher the son of our Patriarch Jacob” who died in the year equivalent to 1133 CE. The gravesite of Serah bat Asher marked by a small mausoleum known as heder Serah, “Serah’s Room,” remained for centuries one of the most well known pilgrimage sites for the Jews of Persia (4).”
Serah the Healer
Serah’s ascension was just a transition. She was still the same immortal protector she’d been. The same daughter of Asher and granddaughter of Jacob she had always been. She just now had a balcony view and new roles and powers. In particular, she would become known as a healer and as a teacher of mystical knowledge to women (2). Her shrine was a place of healing, similar to the matriarch Rachel’s Tomb, near Bethlehem. (7) In its collection, the Israel Folktale Archives (IFA) that was recorded in 1978 by the Darshan (“Preacher”) Mulah Shmuel Shammai from Yazd, Persia (Iran) (4). While the story is probably more poetic than ethnographic, it shows how Serah was revered and the role she played. I’ve abridged the story a bit.
Once there was in Esfahan a boy name named Hayyim who lost his sight. When the physicians gave up hope of curing him, Hayyim was told by his neighbors to go and prostrate himself at the gravestone of Serah bat Asher and there to lift up his hands in supplication to the Heavenly Healer.
Here the storyteller explains as follows:
In the Iranian Exile the Jews are accustomed to prostrate themselves at the gravestone of Serah, as the custom here in Israel is to prostrate oneself at the tomb of our Matriarch Rachel in Bet Lehem. Like the tomb of Rachel, so too the tomb of Serah is located in a “room” (i.e., a mausoleum). This room has wondrous doorposts. It is well-known that only people who are of good character and deeds may enter; but anyone else—the entrance to the room shrinks before him and prevents him from entering.
Young Hayyim prayed and fasted so that he would be found worthy to enter the room and in the evening he went to the room of Serah in Esfahan and the doorposts of the entrance open wide before him. He entered and spread out his hands before the Heavenly Healer. He cried with a broken heart and offered his petition: “O Heavenly Healer, return to me by the merit of this righteous woman the light of my eyes. But if you say: I have promulgated an irrevocable decision and I cannot repeal it, then be it known to you that my soul longs for Torah. Give me, then, my father and my king, the light of Torah. Give me wisdom to understand Your teaching.”
When Hayyim had finished his prayer, he fell asleep. At midnight, while dreaming, there appeared to him a woman, whose face was like the face of an angel of God. She said to him: I am Serah bat Asher. I have joined in your prayer. Behold I bring you good tidings that God has had mercy on you and has granted your second petition.
Hayyim was happy that his prayer had been answered and awoke from his dream much encouraged. As time went on, Hayyim learned Torah. He knew it and the Siddur and the Mahzor by heart. As Hayyim grew, his dream was fulfilled. He immersed himself in the depths of Torah. He became a much sought after Hazan (“Cantor”), a well-known preacher and a famous Mulah. Behold, he is none other than the Mulah, Hayyim Rushan (“the Blind” in Iranian) from Isfahan. May his merit protect us!”
Israel Folktale Archives (IFA) number 11999. Marc Bergman, translation. (e)
So did Jacob’s blessing of immortality include spiritual ascension or is it strictly physical and Serah still walks the Earth? The answer, as is often the case in Judaism, is both…depending on which sources you’re focusing on. The two different traditions of Serah’s immortality mirror, I think, two different ideas in Judaism about what happens after we die. Judaism is very clear that something happens to us after we die. But the details are fuzzy, there are traditions that talk specifically about restoration of the body in Israel and other traditions that talk of spiritual rebirth at the side of God. I’ll get to them in later blog posts, because a Jewish monster hunter needs to be ready to deal with ghosts, both tethered and wandering, dybbuk possession, both ghost and demon), and other ways the after-death experience can come back and interfere the living we protect.
MONSTER HUNTER PRO TIPS
1. Be ready to ask for help. Healing, and other kinds of power, come from God, but we have a history of asking angels, sages, prophets, and ancestors for a little support. Hey…Moses and Abraham both talked God out of scary decrees in the past. It’s worth a try.
Notes and References (1) I will write about Enoch and Elijah’s ascensions in later blog posts. Each have a large volume of lore around them, far too much to get into here. (2) According to the Zohar, after her ascension Serah took up a new role as the teacher of Torah and mystical wisdom to women. From Zohar,“(I)n another chamber, there is Serah bat Asher, and many myriads and thousands of women with her. Three times a day, the announcement comes: The likeness of Yosef the tzadik is coming! With joy she goes out, to that curtained area which is dedicated to her, and observes the light of the likeness of Yosef. With joy she bows before it, saying, “Happy was that day, when I gave the tidings before my grandfather [that you were still alive]!” Then she returns to the rest of the women, and they delve into the praises of the Ruler of the world, and praise the Name. How many places and joys each and every one of them has! Then they return and delve into the precepts of Torah, along with their meanings.”Zohar 3:167a:5 (3) http://archive.diarna.org/site/detail/public/774/ and Schwartz Tree of Souls (4) Marc Bergman’s “Serah Bat Asher: Biblical Origins, Ancient Aggadah and Contemporary Folklore” (5) Image by Kipala.Wikimedia Commons. The image is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. (6) The shrine for Serah bat Asher at the Jewish cemetery in Pir Bakrah, in the province of Isfahan, Iran. The picture is from the “Salmiya: Glimpses of the Middle East” blog post titled “Pir Bakran” and is reused on the website “Diarna: The Geo-Museum of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Life” page about the Serah bat Asher shrine. The blog post has lots of other pictures and a description of the author, Muller’s, visit to the Pir Bakran Jewish and Sufi cemetery’s and the Serah bat Asher shrine. (7) Rachels Tomb is one of the holiest sites in Judaism has a long tradition of being a place of healing. Wikepedia has a nice write up on the Tomb.
We grow, love, and die in the flash of a firefly on a summer evening. But not Serah bat Asher. She lives forever. As I described in my last post, “Serah bat Asher: Immortal Secret Keeper,” Serah had lived for two thousand years by the time she leaned into Rabbi Yohannan’s window to tell him that the Red Sea looked like lighted glass. By 2020, she’s nearing 4000. That’s about 130 generations of Jews for whom she’s looked out. Give or take. While the Jewish tradition doesn’t chronicle all of her adventures, there are a few more to share. Which is great, because each one has something deep to teach us.
Serah bat Asher, Werewolf Hunter!
The Tanach, in II Samuel, tells of Serah saving a city during the reign of King David and of her hunting werewolves! Sheba ben Bichri, a “scoundrel” of the tribe of Benjamin, was leading a rebellion against King David. David sends his army, lead by Joab, to smack down the rebellion. First, Joab applies some pre-game stabbiness to another of David’s generals (1). Then he and his troops catch up with Sheba, who’s hiding with his troops in city of Abel of Beth-maacah. Which is a great hideout for a scoundrel. It’s up on a hill, strong walls, lots of locals to use as human shields. Perfect! To support the kingdom of Israel, and to stop the conflict before Joab tears down the city walls and applies more stabbiness to the city’s inhabitants, an unnamed “clever woman” comes out of city and demands to speak to Joab. First she convinces him that attacking is a bad move (why destroy one of David’s cities? David might want it later). Then she convinces the people of the city to decapitate Sheba and throw his head over the wall (2). While the Tanach doesn’t identify the woman, Rashi does. The clever woman was, of course, Serah who “completed the faithful of Israel. (3).”
A scoundrel named Sheba son of Bichri, a Benjaminite, happened to be there. He sounded the horn and proclaimed: “We have no portion in David, No share in Jesse’s son! Every man to his tent, O Israel!” … And David (the king) said to Abishai, “Now Sheba son of Bichri will cause us more trouble than Absalom. So take your lord’s servants and pursue him, before he finds fortified towns and eludes us.”….
[E]verybody continued to follow Joab in pursuit of Sheba son of Bichri. [Sheba] had passed through all the tribes of Israel up to Abel of Beth-maacah; and all the Beerites assembled and followed him inside. [Joab’s men] came and besieged him in Abel of Beth-maacah; they threw up a siegemound against the city and it stood against the rampart. All the troops with Joab were engaged in battering the wall, when a clever woman shouted from the city, “Listen! Listen! Tell Joab to come over here so I can talk to him.”
He approached her, and the woman asked, “Are you Joab?” “Yes,” he answered; and she said to him, “Listen to what your handmaid has to say.” “I’m listening,” he replied.
And she continued, “In olden times people used to say, ‘Let them inquire of Abel,’ and that was the end of the matter. I am one of those who seek the welfare of the faithful in Israel. But you seek to bring death upon a mother city in Israel! Why should you destroy the LORD’s possession?”
Joab replied, “Far be it, far be it from me to destroy or to ruin! Not at all! But a certain man from the hill country of Ephraim, named Sheba son of Bichri, has rebelled against King David. Just hand him alone over to us, and I will withdraw from the city.”
The woman assured Joab, “His head shall be thrown over the wall to you.”
The woman came to all the people with her clever plan; and they cut off the head of Sheba son of Bichri and threw it down to Joab. He then sounded the horn; all the men dispersed to their homes, and Joab returned to the king in Jerusalem.
II Samuel 20:1 to 20:23 (4)
So, using her wisdom and long memory to save a city of thousands from being destroyed is pretty great. But I promised werewolves…where are the werewolves‽ As I keep saying in my posts, Jewish monster hunters have to read the texts carefully. And remember that reading Torah is about making associations. This story already has Rashi associating an unnamed person, the clever woman, with Serah, a well known woman. So I’m adding my own midrash to the Serah story that fills in the family drama and generational associations. Here goes…
Sheba ben Bichri wasn’t just any rebel. He was a Benjaminite. In my prior post, Benjamin is a Predatory Wolf, I talked about Serah’s grandfather Jacob blessing her uncle Benjamin as being a “predatory wolf” e.g. a werewolf. The Jewish tradition has always understood Jacob’s blessing to be as much focused on Benjamin’s descendants as on Benjamin himself. So if Benjamin was a werewolf, then some of Benjamin’s descendants are too. And Serah would know that. She was there when Benjamin was blessed. She would have recognized Sheba for what he was as soon as he entered the city. And she rallied the town to hunt him down and throw his head over the wall.
Monster Hunter Pro Tips
1. Werewolves are vulnerable to decapitation. Particularly when in human form. 2. Stay vigilant. While we have no shortage of external foes, the enemy is also us. 3. Be a leader. Serah didn’t save her city by picking up a sword and going it alone. She rallied her town and taught them how to fight.
I love the idea of Serah as an eternal counterbalance to Benjamin’s curse. Monster hunter counterbalancing threat, all within the family. And it is a family thing. Serah is an Asherite, the daughter of Benjamin’s brother Asher. Asher had the opposite blessing from Benjamin, to receive royal rewards (6), and was known for his single-minded virtue (7). This single-mindedness for good, inherited from her father, is Serah’s third blessing, after God blessing her with wisdom and Jacob blessing her with immortality.
So Serah, as I see it, is a perfect example of a Jewish monster hunter, using deep Torah and mystical knowledge to protect Jews from the werewolves, and other threats, in our own communities. She’s not a warrior, the way Abraham was. She’s not a combat mage, the way Moses was (8). None of her blessings gave her that kind of fire power. She’s more Willow than Buffy (9). As a vigilant keeper of our memory, though, she’s what we need.
It’s worth noting that not everyone in the Jewish tradition agrees with my applause for Serah’s handling of the Sheba situation. As early as the 2nd Century CE, the rabbi’s who wrote the Tosefta debated the ethics of sacrificing a single person to save a group. In Tosefta Terumot 7.23, the rabbi’s are split (11). They seem to decide that in this case it was justified because Sheba was a criminal who was endangering in the city, that handing him over (or handing over his head) avoided the group being punished for his crime, and that Joab was a Jew. In other cases, particularly when the threat comes from outside, however it’s better to let the group die as a group, before sacrificing the individual. We’re not to be complicit in the crime.
Stay tuned for next post, when we hear about “Serah in Exile or The Death of Serah?“
Notes and References (1) David gave his generals Joab and Amasa a set amount of time to gather their troops. Amasa was late…so Joab stabbed him to death on the street and commandeered his troops. As one does. II Samuel 20 @ Sefaria. (2) According to the midrash (Genesis Rabba 94:9), Serah convinces the people of the city using the following strategy. “The woman immediately came to all the people with her clever plan. ‘Do you not know David’s reputation?’ she urged them, ‘Which kingdom has successfully resisted him?’ ‘What does he demand?’ they asked her. ‘A thousand men,’ she replied, ‘and is it not better [to sacrifice] a thousand men than to have your city destroyed?’ ‘Let everyone give according to his means,’ they proposed. ‘Perhaps he would be willing to compromise,’ she suggested. She then pretended to go and appease him, and returned with the number reduced from a thousand to five hundred, then to one hundred, to ten, and finally to one, a stranger there, and who was he? – Sheba the son of Bichri. They promptly cut off his head [and threw it down to Joab]” The translation comes from Moshe Reiss’ essay “Serah bat Asher in Rabbinic Literature.” (3) Rashi’s full commentary on this passage was “I am [from the people of the city] that are loyal and trustworthy to Yisroel. I am from the people of the city that are loyal and trustworthy to Yisroel and to the king. An Aggadic Midrash [states:] this was Serah, the daughter of Asher. I faithfully rewarded those who faithful [to God]: Through me, the location of Yosef’s coffin was revealed to Moshe. I told Yakov that Yosef was alive.” (4) A slightly trimmed version of II Samuel 20 (Sefaria.org). (5) Ok, Jan Cossiers painting Júpiter y Licaón is a scene from Greek mythology…. but you get the idea. Public Domain Image from Wikipedia Commons. I really need an art budget. (6) See Genesis 49:20 (Sefaria.org) (7) In The Testament of Asher the Tenth Son of Jacob and Zilpah, one of the Apocryphal books, Asher is quoted as saying. “All these things, therefore, I proved in my life, and I wandered not from the truth of the Lord, and I searched out the commandments of the Most High, walking according to all my strength with singleness of face unto that which is good.” Testament of Asher @ Sefaria.org. The Testaments of Asher comes from The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, which is a bit of a muddy text. The text we have took its final form around the 2nd century CE and mixes Jewish and Christian thoughts. I’m citing this text because it’s a good example, but the sentiment shows up elsewhere. (8) Yes. Abraham was a warrior and Moses was a mage. The tradition is pretty specific on both points. Abraham being a warrior is straight Tanach. See Genesis 14 (Sefaria.org) Not even Talmud. Same with Moses’s magic. Remember the whole rods to serpents and 12 plagues incidents? Oh, and his brass serpent? Yeah, that’s all at God’s direction so if we’re being Dungeons and Dragons technical, that makes him a cleric, not a mage. But my previous post about Serah, where Moses raised Joseph’s coffin from the Nile, is a good example of mage power. Abraham and Moses’s being badasses will come up over and over again. I’ll write both soon when I write about Og the giant. (9) In case you don’t get the reference, I’m talking about characters from the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Which is a fantastic contemporary monster hunting TV show (and a meditation on what it’s like to be a teenager in America). It is absolutely not based on Jewish lore, but it does have Jewish characters including Willow, one of Buffy’s “Scooby gang” sidekicks. Willow is often the brains of the team. Buffy has the punch and the willpower, but Willow has the smarts and the lore. The show also happens to have a Jewish werewolf named Daniel “Oz” Osborne. Oz isn’t a Benjamite, though, he became a werewolf the ouch way.
(10) Tel Abel beth Maachah. Near Metula, Israel. The picture is a view of the tower, with its northeastern corner of large boulders and the layers of small stones, looking southwest. Photo by Tel Abel Beth Maacah Excavations. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons license. CC-BY-SA-4.0 (11) Tosefta Terumot 7.23 (Sefaria.org). Sefaria community translation. “A group of [Jews] to whom gentiles say, “Give us one of you and we shall kill him, and if not, behold, we will kill all of them”; they should let themselves be killed and not deliver them one soul from Israel. But if they designated [the person] to them – for example, Sheva ben Bichri – they should give him to them and not let themselves be killed. Rabbi Yehuda said, “When do these words apply? In a case when he is [inside and they are] outside [a fortified city]; but in a case when he is inside and they are inside, since he will be killed and the [other Jews] will be killed, they should give him to them and not let themselves all be killed. And so did it state (II Samuel 20:22), ‘And the woman come to all of the people in her wisdom, etc.’ – she said to them, ‘Since he will be killed and you will be killed, give him to them and do not kill all of you.’” Rabbi Shimon says, “So did she say [to them], ‘Anyone who rebels against the monarchy [of the House of David] is liable to [receive] the death penalty.’”
According to the Jewish tradition, there are three righteous people who never died. Or maybe it’s seven (1). Or nine (2). It depends on the source. But all the sources I know of agree on the first three. They are Enoch, who walked with God (3); the prophet Elijah, who ascended to heaven in a whirlwind (4); and Serah, blessed by God with wisdom and by her grandfather Jacob with eternal life. Jewish monster hunters should be on the lookout for Serah. Throughout her life she has been a wise protector and keeper of our forgotten knowledge. (And as I’ll write about next week, a werewolf hunter!) Wouldn’t it be something, to sit with her for an hour and learn from her stories? Or to offer her our company and aid?
Serah’s stories are high adventure! Grab some popcorn and let’s go!
Serah bat Asher & The Gift of Wisdom
Serah was the adopted daughter of Asher and the granddaughter of Jacob, the Patriarch. She was first mentioned in the Torah in the list of Jacob’s household that moved to Egypt, under the protection of Joseph (6). This mention, to careful readers such as Rabbi’s and Jewish monster hunters, is striking. While there is a long list of Jacob’s grandsons, she is the only granddaughter named. So why was she so important? Because, along with Joseph, she was one of two spiritual heirs of Jacob. Serah’s uncles (and two cousins) might have been founders of the 12 tribes, but they were mostly jerks. Eight of them sold her (ninth) uncle Joseph into slavery, right? And, as I mentioned in my previous blog post, her 10th uncle, Benjamin, was a werewolf! Nice family, right? Well, according to the Sefer Yasher, Serah was special from the start.
And after the death of Asher’s wife he went and took Hadurah for a wife, and brought her to the land of Canaan. And Serah her daughter he brought also with them, and she was three years old; and the damsel was brought up in Jacob’s house. And the damsel was of comely appearance, and she went in the holy ways of the children of Jacob, and the Lord gave her wisdom and understanding.
Sefer HaYasher, Bereshit, Vayeshev. (7)
Serah, according to the Sefer HaYasher, is a prophet blessed by God with wisdom, similar to her uncle Joseph. It was Serah who told Jacob that Joseph was still alive. This was a big deal. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. When, years earlier, Serah’s jerk uncles claimed (falsely) that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal, it almost killed Jacob (8). Now, Serah’s uncles have gone to Egypt, humbled by drought and begging for food, and come back with incredible news. Joseph is alive, has forgiven them, is a high ranking officer under Pharaoh, and wants them to move to Egypt under his protection. But Jacob’s an old man now. How could they tell Jacob without shocking and possibly killing him? They asked Serah to do it.
Serah knew her grandfather well. She had studied with him and was devoted to him (9). She chose just the right moment. Jacob stood in prayer, strengthened by his devotion to God, and Serah joined him joyfully, playing her harp and singing (10). As the Midrash HaGadol tells it….
[The brothers said:]If we tell him right away, “Joseph is alive!” perhaps he will have a stroke [lit., his soul will fly away]. What did they do? They said to Serah, daughter of Asher, “Tell our father Jacob that Joseph is alive, and he is in Egypt.” What did she do? She waited till he was standing in prayer, and then said in a tone of wonder, “Joseph is in Egypt/ There have been born on his knees/ Menasseh and Ephraim” [three rhyming lines]. His heart failed, while he was standing in prayer. When he finished his prayer, he saw the wagons: immediately the spirit of Jacob came back to life.
Midrash HaGadol on Genesis 45:26. Translated by Avivah Zornberg (11)
Imagine the power of the moment. Jacob is caught up in his prayers and hears a beloved voice telling him what he always wanted to hear but would never have believed. His broken spirit flies away and returns whole. Joseph is alive. Jacob will live and in gratitude he blesses Serah. And, as I’ve discussed before, the blessing of a patriarch is an immensely powerful thing. Jacob says….
My daughter, may death never prevail against thee forever, for thou hast revived my spirit, only repeat thou this song once more before me, for thou hast caused me gladness with thy words.
Sefer HaYashar, Book of Genesis, Vayigash (10)
Serah has been blessed to live forever.
Ok. A quick digression. This first part of Serah’s story connects with how we Jews got to Egypt. In the second part, Serah’s story connects with how we leave. Then the third part connects with how we remember the Exodus.These connections, and the parallels between Serah’s immortality and that of the prophet Elijah’s, makes Serah’s story great to tell at a seder table.If that sounds like fun, you might check out “Serach at the Seder” by Yitzhak Buxbaum (12). He did a lovely job writing a haggadah supplement. Or make your own that fits your seder.
Serah bat Asher, Keeper of Secrets
Jacob’s descendants are crying out in slavery. 400 years has passed from the time that Serah accompanied her tribe to Egypt and a new pharaoh has forgotten Joseph. But Serah still lives. She still remembers the her youth, the high country side, the smells of cooking and animals, the singing at night, and the prayers, as well as Jacob and all she learned from him. Then Moses comes and demands, in the name of God, that Pharaoh release the Hebrews and, just as boldly, demands that the Hebrews be ready to follow him out of Egypt. The Hebrews were confused and scared. Had God finally remembered them? Would Moses demands be met? Or would Moses’s demands bring down additional suffering? The terrible days of Pharaoh’s army murdering newborn Hebrew boys was not that many years ago and still hung over them. Follow Moses? Or reject him? How would they decided? Again, the tribe turned Serah. The Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer tells the story….
When Moses and Aaron came to the elders of Israel and performed the signs in their sight, the elders of Israel went to Serah, the daughter of Asher, and they said to her: A certain man has come, and he has performed signs in our sight. She said to them: There is no reality in the signs. They said to her: He said “God will surely visit you.” She said to them: He is the man who will redeem Israel in the future from Egypt, for thus did I hear, “I have surely visited you” (Exodus 3:16). Forthwith the people believed in their God and in His messenger, as it is said, “And the people believed, and when they heard that the Lord had visited the children of Israel” (Exodus 4:31)
A slightly simplified version of Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 48:17 (13)
Serah had learned deep lessons of Torah from Jacob, who learned them from Isaac who learned them from Abraham and from the school Shem and Ever (9). She recognized Moses’ language for what it was, the prophesied words of God. In so doing, she connected the current generation of Hebrews to the teachings of her teachers and to their own history…and gave them courage and faith.
Finally Pharaoh gave the word that the Hebrews were free and the Hebrews scrambled to ready themselves. But there was still a major task to be done before they could follow Moses out of Egypt. The bones of Joseph had to be found. Joseph, Serah’s uncle who had brought Serah and the tribe to Egypt, had made them swear that they would not leave him behind when they would finally leave Egypt (14). And even with the chariots of Pharaoh readying themselves to give chase, the promise had to be kept.
Moses, who grew up in the home and temples of Pharaoh, did not know where Joseph had been buried. The elders of the Hebrews did not know either. The priests of Egypt, who knew of the promise, had buried Joseph in secret to keep Joseph’s holy body for themselves and to keep the Hebrews from ever leaving. But Serah knew. She’d stood and watched as her uncle’s metal casket was dropped into the same stretch of the Nile river that would later carry Moses’ wicker basket, and even later run with blood.
The Gemara asks: And from where did Moses our teacher know where Joseph was buried? The Sages said: Serah, the daughter of Asher, remained from that generation that initially descended to Egypt with Jacob. Moses went to her and said to her: Do you know anything about where Joseph is buried? She said to him: The Egyptians fashioned a metal casket for him and set it in the Nile River as an augury so that its water would be blessed. Moses went and stood on the bank of the Nile. He said to Joseph: Joseph, Joseph, the time has arrived about which the Holy One, Blessed be He, took an oath saying that I (God) will redeem you. And the time for fulfillment of the oath that you administered to the Jewish people that they will bury you in Eretz Yisrael has arrived. If you show yourself, it is good, but if not, we are clear from your oath. Immediately, the casket of Joseph floated to the top of the water.
Sotah 13a (15)
Ok. There’s a lot going on here. Metal caskets (think big amulet), Egyptian magic spells, omens of thefuture, talking to the dead. Moses is channeling a lot of God’s power. A big part of the Jewish magic tradition centers on Moses. Too much to get into here, but I’ll write lots about it later.
Moses and Serah collected Joseph’s casket and, with the Hebrews, carried it out of Egypt and through the Red Sea. Later, describing the long journey to the promised land, the book of Numbers provides a careful accounting of the Hebrews that survived a plague. Again, the count and the names are those of men (elders and warriors). And again, Serah daughter Asher, granddaughter of Jacob, is counted and named. Even then, she stood watch over us, sharing her wisdom and teaching, joining Miriam in song.
(44) Descendants of Asher by their clans: Of Imnah, the clan of the Imnites; of Ishvi, the clan of the Ishvites; of Beriah, the clan of the Beriites. (45) Of the descendants of Beriah: Of Heber, the clan of the Heberites; of Malchiel, the clan of the Malchielites.— (46) The name of Asher’s daughter was Serah.— (47) These are the clans of Asher’s descendants; persons enrolled: 53,400.
Numbers 26:44-47 (16)
MONSTER HUNTER PRO TIPS
1. Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend(17). Serah studied with Jacob. We won’t be so fortunate, but maybe we can study and befriend Serah. And, if not, there are lots of teachers and sources.
2. Be on the lookout for the immortals and other long lived folks. There are many in the tradition.Honor them and support them, as we do all our elders.
2. Blessings are powerful things. While we don’t live in the days of the patriarch’s, there have been other tzadik’s (holy people) who could change the world with a blessing. Maybe there still are.
4.Be wary of other magic.Moses used God’s power to talk to Joseph and raise his bones…but it wasn’t Jewish magic that sank Joseph in the first place.
Serah bat Asher, Teacher of the Sages
Two thousand years later, Serah was still standing watch over us, still sharing her wisdom and still singing. Somewhere around 200 CE, Serah was living in the north of Roman ruled Israel, near Galilee. It was a time of persecution (as most times seem to be). The second Temple had long since fallen and the teachings of the Pharisees had not yet been written down as the Mishna. These teachings were still taught orally, from teacher to student. Serah didn’t study with the teachers, she’d been taught by well Jacob two and half millenia ago. But she did listen in, from time to time, to understand what was being taught. And, occasionally, to make corrections.
Rabbi Yohanan was once sitting and expounding about how the waters became like a wall for Israel [at the time they miraculously passed through the Sea which had split open before them to permit their Exodus from Egypt (see Exodus 14:29, “and the waters were a wall for them on their right and on their left”). Rabbi Yohanan explained that the waters looked “like a lattice.” However, just at that moment, Serah bat Asher looked in and said: “I was there and they (the waters) were not like that but rather like lighted windows”
From Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (10:117), Marc Bergman translation (18)
Next week, I’ll continue the story of Serah, with The Exile of Serah and Serah bat Asher, Werewolf Hunter!
Ok. One last digression. I’m a long time music head. I used to write the blog Teruah: Jewish Music. Alicia Jo Rabins is one of my favorite Jewish songwritersand teachers. She’s recorded 3 album’s under the title Girls in Troublethat are both wonderful musicand masterful feminist midrash. As Rabin’s describes it, Girls in Trouble is a “indie-folk song cycle about the complicated lives of women in Torah.”Here’s her take on Serah, called “Tell Me.”
The waters parted but it wasn’t like they said, no iron wall came down to hold them. Has there been a loneliness like mine, touching all the hidden walls of time?
Last time, I wrote about Jewish magic amulets. There’s a lot of amulet lore to work through and I’m going to come back to it over and over again. There are a lot of practical tips that Jewish monster hunters need to know. But right now, I want to make an important point. Jewish magic isn’t just about about amulets or segulah (charms) written by the rabbis….who are highly trained, high status, and male (yeah…I went there)(1). Jewish magic is also a wide range of segulah, amulets, and ritual practices passed down and innovated by the women of the community (and non-rabbi men of the community). These practices sometimes get picked up and made cannon in the main rabbinic texts, but are often only available through family or communal traditions or the few decent folklore ethnographies out there. Understanding these practices is important for the apprentice Jewish monster hunter. This kind of magic is not only as demanding in terms of Jewish knowledge and faith, but is also highly tuned to local dangers, customs, and resources. And let’s face it, most of us aren’t rabbis and, like our foremothers and forefathers, need to work with what we’ve got to defend ourselves, our families, and our towns.
The Evil Eye
The evil eye, or ayin hara in Hebrew, is a great place to dig in to this. The evil eye is a critical element of Jewish magical lore, causing disease, injury, insanity, death and mayhem. Cases of the evil eye were documented across all the major Jewish ethnic groups (e.g. Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, and Sephardic). It’s so serious that, Rav, one of the sages of the Talmud, is described as having looked at a graveyard and lamented the great cost of the evil eye:
Ninety-nine [have died] through an evil eye, and one through natural causes
Fundamentally, the evil eye is weaponized jealousy. Frustration. Envy. Anger. Hate. That burning feeling we get when we want something that someone else has so badly that we’d take it away from them just so no one could have it. All that terrible emotion that we hold inside gets channelled through the evil eye, giving it power.
While that much is generally agreed on, there is some disagreement in the Jewish sources as to what exactly the evil eye is.
Some think of it as an evil omen, a spell of sorts that has the power to bring misfortune upon a person. Others think of it as a type of poison that the eye directs at things that it sees, casting them in an evil light. Yet others see it as a silent wish and prayer to Hashem (God) to pass judgment on a person or situation to judge them more strictly.
So, according to the Torah Learning Project, it’s some kind of personal magic or possibly an unworthy prayer. In other sources, including the Sefer Hasidim, the evil eye is described as a sheydim (demon) or evil angel called upon to take revenge (5). In each of these traditions, though, it is initiated by anger or jealousy, often employed unwittingly often by otherwise good people in their weakest moments. (I have them. Not proud.) The Polish Jewish ethnographer Regina Lilienthal, in her amazing 1900 study of Ashkenazi beliefs on the Evil Eye, observed that:
It is very difficult to take precautions and guard against the evil eye, people claim, because everyone has a moment during the day when he or she can set the evil eye on others. Even pious persons can do such a bad thing unknowingly and even against their will, that is, in a totally mechanical and unwitting fashion. Sometimes parents cast the evil eye on their children. This is why every person must resolve, early in the morning, that during the day he or she will not cast an evil glance on any person.
Regina Lilienthal, The Evil Eye. 1900 (6)
Because the evil eye is fueled by jealousy, it is particularly dangerous around a community’s most life affirming moments, particularly birth and marriage. This isn’t surprising, right? Those moments are joyful specifically because someone has just gotten something wonderful, that maybe you don’t have and you want. This understanding about the connection between joy and jealousy has deeply influenced Judaism. There’s a long list of practices ranging from deflecting questions that might indicate your current joy (e.g. answering “how are you” with “Baruch Hashem (Praise God)” instead of answering (7) to deep spiritual and ethical practices. The Mussar (ethical) literature, for example, talks deeply about ways to over come timtum ha’leva (a “stopped-up heart.”) in order to avoid jealousy (8).
But we’ll stay focused. Aside from humility, there is a long list of practical techniques for avoiding the evil eye. Way too many to cover in this post. Right now, I’m going to focus on four techniques;
The shir ha’amalot amulet, an Ashkenazi and Sephardic technique for protecting children
The hamsa, a Sephardic and Mizrahi amulet for general evil eye protection
Henna tattoos, a Mizrahi technique for protecting the bride
And, in case the first three fail, a Sephardi healing ritual
The first technique is theshir ha’amalotamulet. A shir ha’amalot is a parchment with the text of Psalm 121, which emphasizes God’s protection. It opens saying, “My help comes from the LORD, maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot give way; your guardian will not slumber; See, the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps!” (9). While the use of these amulets was once wide spread in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities, today only the Chabad Hassidic community still encourages their use. Chabad recommends that not only should they be used in the home, but they should also be placed in hospital rooms to reclaim the birthing room as Jewish space as well as to invoke divine protection (10). That means you can buy one online as Mikvah.org (11) or print one out from the Chabad site (12). It’s good to have a couple in your gear box. I do.
The second technique is the hamsa amulet. A hamsa is a visual symbol of an open hand with a stylized eye in the palm. Hamsa is Arabic for five, which references the five fingers on a hand. With related gestures and verbal charms, it’s a common symbol of protection in Jewish and Islamic cultures, predating both, and has been integral to both Jewish Mizrahi and Sephardic cultures. Noam Sienna, in his essay Five in Your Eye: The Khamsa Image among Moroccan Jewry (13) gathered a number of ethnographic examples of how the hamsa was used to ward off the evil eye. According to Sienna, Moroccan and Tunisian Jews in the late 1880’s used hamsas made of silver, iron, coral, and blue stones with additional symbols of fish, salamanders, and birds. The use of the hamsa amulet was often accompanied by gestures or spoken charms. For example, Sienna notes a member of the Tunisian Jewish community, “when his children’s pictures or horses are praised, the Tunisian Jew extends his five fingers, or pronounces the number ‘five;’ he tries by this means to prevent the praise doing damage.” Other, similar, protective statements included “hamsa fi ‘ainek [five in your eye],”“hamsa ‘ala ‘ainek [five on your eye],”“hamsa ukhmissa [five and little five]”, or “hmames [the fives].”While these utterances, matched with the gesture of raising the hand, and the specifics of hamsa construction were specific to that community at that time, the practice can be adapted to any local area or community. Proper usage, though, also requires a keen sense of the moment the protection is needed.
The third technique is henna tattoos, used by Mizrahi Jews as well as Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and others. Henna is a natural orange-red or purple dye, made from the leaves of the henna plant. It is used throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia as the basis for body art that fades over time, but cannot be washed off. Applying henna tattoos is a common preparation for Mizrahi celebrations, including weddings and births. While henna tattoos can take on a wide variety of different cultural roles, one of the prominent ones is protection from the evil eye. Henna tattoos that protect against the evil eye can use hamsa symbols (see the Sienna’s Lalla ‘Aisha photo, above), eyes symbols, or a variety of other symbols.
But henna is not just a pigment. It’s a core part of the magic itself. Noam Sienna (yeah, same ethnographer who wrote the Hamsa essay), explains:
Much of henna’s importance came from the beliefs associated with the plant itself, which transmitted what is known in Hebrew as berakha, Arabic baraka — blessedness. This quality is essential not only in ensuring happiness and success but also in warding off negative forces and energies, variously understood as demons (Hebrew shedim, Arabic jnun) or the Evil Eye (Hebrew ‘ayin ha-ra‘). This protective quality is understood to be inherent in the plant material itself, as it is in other substances (for example: iron, the rue plant, the number five, or the colours blue and red).
An elderly Moroccan woman I interviewed explained that her father, a doctor and rabbinic scholar, taught her that “each plant has the name of an angel, an angel that tells it the job it has to do in the world. The angel of the henna plant is Mevi-Mazal [Bringer of Luck]. That is the job of the henna plant: to bring luck. That is why it was put in the world.”
Noam Sienna, Making Meaning Skin Deep: The Changing Valence of Henna in Jewish Culture (15)
I’ll write more about the role of protective angels in Jewish magic in later posts. For now, focusing on the henna tattoos, the practical implications are clear. First, as with the shir ha’amalot and hamsa amulets, it’s important to understand that events that bring joy bring envy and need protection. Second, Jewish amulets can take different forms, whether parchment, metal, or, in the case of henna tattoos, our own skin. Third, and finally, these amulets are beautiful, raising up the joyful moments they’re part of, even as they protect them.
MONSTER HUNTER PRO TIPS
1. Stay wary. The monsters are us. We buried the 99 in the graveyard, not demons, giants, or vampires. 2. Stay humble. Don’t draw attention to your actions. Jewish monster hunters are not big game hunters. We serve. We do not display trophies or brag at the bar. 3. Stay connected. Not just to the patriarch rabbis (1) who can create the amulets, but to the matriarchs who hold the community together. There is power, knowledge, and resources there. 4. Stay stocked. Keep your gearbox filled with a wide range of components that can be matched to local traditions, as needed. Learn how to use them and make them beautiful.
The fourth, and final, technique that I’ll cover in this post is healing rituals. Even with the best protective measures, the evil eye can still strike. How would you know? One description of the symptoms caused by the evil eye are “broken sleep, or loss of sleep, headache, constant yawning, buzzing in the ears, any kind of digestive pain or derangement, fever, depression, and general weakness. Even death may result.” (16) This list of symptoms comes from Derya Agis’ essay “Beliefs of American Sephardic Women Related to the Evil Eye,” which is based on her interviews with and readings of autobiographies of, women who are either immigrants from the former Ottoman Empire or descendants or relatives of immigrants. According to Agis’ sources,healing these effects involved prayer and rituals that were generally performed by women. Agis’ essay includes a number of wonderful descriptions, including this one:
Esther C from New York depicts the following cure against the pernicious effects of the evil eye: the performer of the ritual gathers fifteen cloves, divides them into groups of five by saying, “let the evil eye, all the evil talk go into the depths of the sea, five for the sea, five for the land, five for the people, let no badness affect X…”; this ritual is repeated three times; the performer of the ritual takes each group of cloves in her/his hand, and passes the cloves all over the body of the affected person fifteen times in total. Afterwards, the performer of the ritual gets an aluminum plate, and burns these cloves with a match.
In addition to cloves, lead is also used in rituals performed against the evil eye.
Derya Agis. Beliefs of American Sephardic Women Related to the Evil Eye (16)
Agis provides a variety of examples of evil eye healing rituals and others histories and ethnographies provide even more, including applying salt, breathing aromatic herbs, heating and popping black seeds, and melting bits of rubber or gum. Each of these methods uses local ingredients, but linked to common themes, such as purity (salt) or redirection (popping seeds) (17). One of my personal favorite redirection methods is smashing a glass at a wedding. At the moment the wedding couple is most joyful and most vulnerable, they smash a glass to inject a moment of surprise and whoosh…the evil eye is distracted and passes them by. (18)
A quick postscript: If you happen to live near Minneapolis, MN you can get Noam Sienna to do custom Jewish henna for you. Check out his shopat http://www.hennabysienna.com/. Also, in addition to his ethnographic work, Sienna also recently publishedA Rainbow Thread, an Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the 1st Century to 1969 which “collects for the first time more than a hundred sources on the intersection of Jewish and queer identities.” I haven’t read it yet, but it looks awesome. You can get more info at http://noamsienna.com/a-rainbow-thread/)
In last week’s post about the Adne ha-Sadeh I talked briefly about necromancy, which is magic for speaking with the dead. The Torah is pretty clear, this is bad stuff. But the objection isn’t a rationalist one, the Torah is absolutely clear that necromantic magic works (1). Jews are just supposed to keep away from it.
There are other kinds of magic, though, that have thrived within the Jewish tradition. For the Jewish monster hunter, the place to start is with protective amulets. Amulets are written texts, sometimes cast or scribed in metal but more typically written on parchment, that include one of God’s names, or one or more angel names, or some permutation of these names, along with bits of psalms, prayers, halachic (legal) writings, and pleas for some specific form of assistance. (For a primer, see Trachtenberg‘s write up (2)).
Right now, there are a variety of amulets available from Jewish auction houses and from scribes around the world (3). This week, for example, the latest auction catalog from the Kedem Auction house in Jerusalem (4) was released. Lot 6 from the catalog is a Birkat Kohanim amulet from 18th or 19th century Italy, which is intended for the “Protection from Evil Eye and for a Mother and Her Newborn.” (5)
The Kedem auction house describes the amulet as follows
Amulet containing the verses of the Birkat Kohanim (PriestlyBlessing) “May God bless you and protect you…” and a 22 letter Holy Name, derived from the verses of the BirkatKohanim.
Kedem Auction Catalog 65 (5)
The Kedem auction catalog is worth a read. It justifies the validity of the amulet in critical two ways. First, it spends time explaining where in the Talmud Birkat Kohanim amulets were described. This is intended to show that an observant Jew can carry such an amulet. Second, it shows that the power of the amulet is “proven” by telling the story of a similar amulet. I put quotes on the word proven because it’s a loaded term in Jewish amulet lore. According to the Talmud (Shabbat 61 A) only amulets that are proven can be carried on Shabbat. There are specific rules for proving an amulet, which typically involve three demonstrations of the amulet’s power (6).
R. Kalfon Moshe HaKohen Rabbi of Djerba (Tunisia) once wrote the verses of Birkat Kohanim on a plain piece of paper, and gave it to his granddaughter as an amulet for an easy birth. The residents of Djerba regarded it as a proven amulet, and would use it as a segulah for easy birth and recovery….
Kedem’s Auction Catalog 65 (5)
This description of R. Kalfon writing the amulet talks about R. Kalfon creating a segulah. A segulah is a charm, the text that gets put on the amulet. A segulah can be used without putting it on parchment, though amulets are usually how they’re applied. Having a holy sage put the words on parchment gives it its power.
MONSTER HUNTER PRO TIPS
1. Having a connection to a holy sage who can scribe amulets is a practical necessity. If possible, a Jewish monster hunter should have amulets against demons, curses, and the evil eye. 2. Keep an amulet kit handy, in order to repair or improvise a new amulet if needed. Improvised amulets will work better if you’re taking your mitzvot (commandments) seriously and have some scribe training.
Amulets such as the Birkat Kohanim offered by Kedem aren’t that rare. They come up at auction regularly. The last few Kedem auctions have included amulets and the current auction from the Ishtar auction house has a lot of 45 of them being auctioned together. (I really really wish I could afford to bid on this!)
These amulets are part of the family and religious life of Jewish communities around the world. This past spring, I was able to visit my daughter in Israel where she was studying for a semester (8). While there I visited the Israel Museum on a tour with the parents of some of the other students. At one point one of the parents, an American Jew of Persian descent and truly lovely person, got very excited and started pointing to one of the displays. Specifically, she was pointing to a metal amulet in a display on child birth. Her family had a very similar amulet and she had given birth to both of her children with the amulet on her chest. After her successful deliveries, the amulet was re-claimed by her mother who was ready to pass it along to other family members.
There is a race older than us, created before Adam and before Eve (1). They are said to be extinct, drowned in the great flood. But there are rumors that they survived (2) and live in the forests and the low hill country, out of our sight. You know you’re entering their territory when you cross from fresh to trampled grass or pine needles and see small animal bones and fruit rinds scattered where none had been before. And, according to the rumors, they’re delicious. A bit like broccoli.
Adne ha-Sadeh. Man of the fields. Wild animal. Ally. Diviner. Vegetable Entrée.
Without a doubt the adne ha-sadeh is one of the stranger creatures in the Jewish tradition. Since first learning about them, I have become a big fan (hence my Twitter handle @adnesadeh.) The name “adne ha-sadeh” translates as “man of the fields.” In some Jewish sources it alternately called the yadu’a (4) or the yidaaoni (5).
The adne ha-sadeh has human features but is actually an omnivorous plant connected to its roots via a long vine. It’s strong and wild, capable of chasing, catching and eating small animals and birds as well as scaling trees for fruit and nuts. Any individual adne ha-sedah’s range is limited. Out of necessity it always stays within the length of its vine, though in some cases older adne ha-sedah have vines almost a mile long. Longer vines are advantageous because they offer a wider hunting and foraging range, but long vines require greater skill and care because of the risk of getting the vine tangled. They’re thought to prefer Mediterranean and temperate climates.
Here’s one of the classic descriptions, from the Sefer HaChinukh (Book of Education, c.1255 – c.1285 CE). (6)
And [regarding] this animal…. I have seen in a book from the Geonim (early post-Talmudic authorities) that it grows with a large cord that comes out of the ground, similar to the cord of squash and pumpkins, its form is like the form of a man in everything – in the face, the body, the hands and the feet – and it is connected to the cord from its navel. And no creature can approach for the cord’s length, since it grazes around it like the length of the cord, and it devours all that it can reach. And when they come to hunt it, they shoot arrows into its cord, until it is separated, and [then] it dies immediately.
Sefer HaChinukh 514:1 (6)
From a Jewish monster hunting perspective, adne ha-sadeh are wild animals (wild vegetables?) and should generally be left alone (7). Unlike sheydim (demons) or estries (vampires), adne ha-sadeh are not a threat to Jews either physically or spiritually as long as we stay to our towns and roads and out of the wilds. Not only are adne ha-sadeh not a threat, but they are generally seen in a positive light by our sages. Rashi, for examples, makes this point in his commentary on the book of Job.
Job 23: But you have a treaty with the stones of the field, and the beasts of the field made peace with you.
Rashi’s commentary: “and the beasts of the field: In the language of the Mishnah in Torath Kohanim, they are called “adne ha-sadeh.”
Job 23, followed by Rashi’s commentary (8)
That’s a pretty big deal. Job chapter 5 opens with “Now call; will anyone answer you? To which of the holy ones will you turn?” Clearly, the expected answer is God, but jump down 23 verses and the adne ha-sadeh is added to the list, right after stones. Ok, coming after rocks isn’t super confidence inspiring, but it’s pretty awesome that wild vegetable people made the list at all. (9)
So how did the adne ha-sadeh earn this stature? By attacking pre-Exodus Egyptians during the 10 plagues! Exodus 8:17 describes God warning that wild animals will attack if the Hebrews are not released. But read the wording carefully (as Jewish sages and Jewish monster hunters do):
For if you do not send out My people, behold, I will send against you and your servants, and your nation, and your houses, swarms of wild animals. The houses of Egypt will be full of the wild animals, and so too the ground upon which they stand.
Exodus 8:17 Metsudah Chumash translation (10)
The common understanding of “the ground upon which they stand” is that it means the same thing as “the houses of Egypt”, i.e. an Egyptian will be attacked anywhere he or she goes. The Vilna Gaon, though, disagrees (11). He explains that phrase “and so too the ground upon which they stand” refers to adne ha-sadeh, who are anchored to the ground (12). Can you imagine being an Egyptian, walking outside your home only to find your gourd patch standing up on two feet and ready to fight? Now imagine this on a national scale. Yikes!
MONSTER HUNTER PRO TIPS
1. Adne ha-sadeh are not a threat outside their tethered range and should generally be avoided. But, if necessary, cutting its vine is always fatal. And delicious.
2. Adne ha-sadeh are tough fighters and good allies. Cultivating a community of adne ha-sadeh in wilds outside your community can be a prudent defensive move.
3. Protecting your local adne ha-sadeh populations from poaching will limit necromantic activity in your area.
While adne ha-sadeh are given respect for their service, they are also under threat. Loss of habitat and encroaching civilization is taking their toll, as with all wildlife. The adne ha-sadeh, though, has two additional challenges. First, they are considered a bit of a delicacy. There are multiple stories in the Jewish tradition of people being rather surprised to be served something that looks a bit cannibalistic but is actually a vegetable. For example, the Ma’aseh Book, a 15th century collection of instructional stories and tales, tells of a rabbi named Meir who was sent from Germany to Spain to visit and question a potentially heretical Rabbi Moses Maimuni (13). R. Meir visited R. Moses three times. On the second visit, he was served a surprising meal.
Then [R. Meir] went to R. Moses door and again knocked on his door, for it was getting dark. He was admitted at once, as it was time for the evening meal. The servant brought food to the table, which looked like human hands. R. Meir refused to touch it, saying that he felt unwell…
Ma’aseh Book 215 (14)
On the third visit R. Moses explained that the hands were just vegetables (i.e. adne ha-sadeh) and quite delicious. R. Moses was making a point about something important, but whatever the point was….R. Meir didn’t quite get it. He was still getting over being served what looked like human hands on a plate. He confirmed to his community, though, that R. Moses was not a heretic.
The second major threat to adne ha-sadeh is poaching. Like the rhino, which is poached just for its horn, certain adne ha-sadeh bones are valuable because it is believed that they can be used in divination (foretelling the future) and necromancy (speaking to the dead) (6). The Torah is very strict about banning both. Leviticus 19:31, for example, addresses necromancy. The Sefer HaChinukh, and other sources, make the connection to the adne ha-sadeh. (6)
Do not turn to ghosts and do not inquire of familiar spirits, to be defiled by them: I the LORD am your God.
Leviticus 19:31 (15)
And this matter is that the sorcerer puts a bone from an animal, the name of which is yidoaa (i.e. adne ha-sadeh), into his mouth, and that bone speaks through magic.
Sefer HaChinukh 514:1 (6)
Because of this, protecting the adne ha-sadeh is a great way to make sure that necromancers are missing key ingredients that they need to do their nastiness. It’s actually a shame about this association. Other Jewish sources, such as the Mishnah Torah, assert that necromancers use bird bones (16). It’s not clear if there are two different necromantic practices or if the adne ha-sadeh has been unfortunately mis-identified as an ingredient. But either way, they are in high demand.
There are a lot of stories about werewolves within the Jewish tradition. In most cases that I’m familiar with Jewish werewolves were Jewish men who were cursed to take a wolf form. (1) And not a super-scary wolf-man, just a dog with big teeth. While you had to protect yourself against them, you didn’t want to hurt them if you didn’t have to. I’ll write more about this kind of werewolf later. Recently, though, I was pointed to a story of werewolves cited within in the Torah itself (H/t to the fine Jewish educators on the JEDLab Facebook page). My best contemporary source on this is Natan Slifkin, who writes about it in his book Sacred Monsters (2) and his blog Rationalist Judaism(3). I’m borrowing heavily from Slifkin here, as well as from Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein’s shiur (Talmud lecture)“Parashat Shemot: Werewolves in the Parasha”(4).
The story is anchored in the Torah in Parshat Vayech, Genesis 49 (5). Jacob has come to Egypt, been reunited with his son Joseph, and is dying. It is time for him to give his final blessings. As the last of the patriarchs, and the guy who wrestled an angel, his blessings are a big deal. They are prophecies, not just parental bequests. Jacob does it in grand style, saying “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come…..Reuben, you are my first-born, My might and first fruit of my vigor, Exceeding in rank And exceeding in honor.” Ok, pretty great so far. Simeon and Levi, though, get a head smack. Jacob says “Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness….For when angry they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen.” (Hey, Levi….want to go cow maiming? Sure Simeon, I’m in!) Jacob goes through each of the brothers, and Joseph’s two sons in turn. The last of the brothers was Benjamin, who was blessed (or cursed?) with the statement “Benjamin is a predatory wolf; In the morning he consumes the foe, And in the evening he divides the spoil.”
Jacob’s statement is typically understood as a prophecy about the bad behavior of Benjamin’s decedents (e.g. Judges 19(6)). But Rabbi Ephraim ben Shimshon, one of the Tosafists (early commentators on the Talmud), took it more literally. If Jacob said that Benjamin was a wolf, then he must have been a man who could turn into a wolf. A werewolf.
Another explanation: Benjamin was a “predatory wolf,” sometimes preying upon people. When it was time for him to change into a wolf, as it says, “Benjamin is a predatory wolf,” as long as he was with his father, he could rely upon a physician, and in that merit he did not change into a wolf. For thus it says, “And he shall leave his father and die” (Gen. 44:22)—namely, that when he separates from his father, and turns into a wolf with travelers, whoever finds him will kill him.
(Rabbi Ephraim, commentary to Genesis 44:29, Translation from Slifkin (4))
According to R. Ephraim, not only was Benjamin a werewolf but he killed his mother Rachel. Rachel, the beloved matriarch, dead by werewolf attack! In his commentary, R. Ephraim quotes a “writer from Ashkenaz”, saying
There is a type of wolf that is called loup-garou (werewolf), which is a person that changes into a wolf. When it changes into a wolf, his feet emerge from between his shoulders. So too with Benjamin—“he dwells between the shoulders” (Deuteronomy 33:12). The solution for [dealing with] this wolf is that when it enters a house, and a person is frightened by it, he should take a firebrand and thrust it around, and he will not be harmed. So they would do in the Temple; each day, they would throw the ashes by the altar, as it is written, “and you shall place it by the altar” (Leviticus 6:3); and so is the norm with this person whose offspring turn into wolves, for a werewolf is born with teeth, which indicates that it is out to consume the world. Another explanation: a werewolf is born with teeth, to show that just as this is unusual, so too he will be different from other people. And likewise, Benjamin ate his mother, who died on his accord, as it is written, “And it was as her soul left her, for she was dying, and she called his name ‘the son of my affliction’ ” (Genesis 35:18). (Commentary to Genesis 35:27)
(R. Ephraim, commentary to Genesis 44:29, Translation from Slifkin (4))
MONSTER HUNTER PRO TIPS
1. Werewolves are afraid of fire. Take a firebrand and thrust it around and you’re good. 2. Check that newborn for teeth. It might be a werewolf.
R. Ephraim and “the writer from Ashkenaz” (who was probably R. Eleazar ben Judah of Worms or a member of his circle) were writing in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Ashkenaz (German and France) and had a lot to say about monstrous creatures. They, and other Ashkenaz pietists of the time, wrote extensively about the acts and processes of physical transformation and applied them to answering challenging halachic (Jewish legal) questions. For example, R. Eleazar wrote about the transformation of the serpent in Genesis, saying :
The serpent [in the Garden of Eden] walked upright and somewhat resembled a man. Know that those that those who know how to change the form of a man into a wolf, or cat, or donkey – the eyeball does not change. Similarly the snake that changed [when it lost its legs] did not have its eyes change. Thus one who miscarries in the form of a snake is impure as if she had given birth for the eyes [of the snake] resemble those of a human.
R. Eleazar of Worms, Sefer Hasidim(8), quoted from David Shyovitz ‘s 2014 essay “Christians and Jews in the Twelfth-Century Werewolf Renaissance”(9)
R. Eleazar is wrestling a deep question that is still highly contentious today… what is a fetus? Is it human? If it is, then we must mourn with her for the loss of a child and we must wait for her until she once again is ritually pure. R. Eleazar comes to a conclusion by connecting werewolves, who change from man to wolf and back but whose eyes don’t change, to the serpent of Eden, to a miscarried fetus that looks a bit snake-like but has rudimentary eyes. It’s the eyes that mark it as human. While this logic is a bit Monty Pythonesque (“So, logically– – If she weighs the same as a duck, she’s made of wood, and therefore is a witch?)”, this was serious stuff.
Moving on to a more practical, monster hunting, perspective, all of this raises fascinating questions about Benjamin and his tribe. How did R. Ephraim and R. Eleazar believe that Benjamin became a werewolf? Was it a curse of some kind? Did the tribe of Benjamin inherit the curse? Were there more Jewish werewolves running around in contemporary 13th century Ashkenaz? The answer… yup. There were. But that’s for a later blog post.
Our world, according to the Jewish tradition, is filled with monsters, magic, and mayhem. While it’s easy to take to a rationalist position and explain it all away (see, for example, Natan Slifkin’s wonderful “Sacred Monsters” (1)), these non-rational ideas are so intertwined with our sacred texts, rabbinic tradition, religious rituals, and folk history that we lose something vital when we ignore them. What we lose, I feel, is the feeling that the world is more than what we see in front of us. There are depths not visible to the casual observer. And whether you engage those depths through reaching for deeper spiritual understanding, a deeper mystical understanding, a deeper ethical understanding or, in my case, a deeper supernal (celestial) understanding… reaching for these depths matter. And so, I’m training as an apprentice Jewish monster hunter and learning how to work in a world filled angels (including fallen angels), demons, dybbuks, golems, ghosts, and a wide array of critters.
There’s no better place to start writing about my Jewish monster hunter apprenticeship than last week’s parsha, Noah (2). Noah is a moment of crisis in Genesis where the old world, the more mythic world of creation, is literally washed away and, reading between the lines (as our tradition loves to do), there is a scramble for who, and what, will survive.
Humans survive, for sure. Noah, and his family, build and board the ark. And all living things board the ark too. Living things = animals, right? Bobcats and raccoons. Platypi and ostriches. Naked mole rats and fruit bats. Draco lizards and axolotls. All the animals we know and a bunch that we’ve lost (sorry mastodons and dodos). According to our tradition, though, more survived than we’re generally (rationally) aware of. Here are four kinds of creature that survive the flood.
Demons! According to Rashi, the great medieval French rabbi and commentator, “even demons” (sheydim) board the ark. Rashi noted that the parsha Noah makes a distinction between “all flesh” and “all living beings” which clearly means that beings who were not flesh board too. Demons, and how to avoid and cope for them, are a major part of Jewish religious sources and folklore.
Monster Hunting Pro Tip
Geoffrey Dennis’ “Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism”(3) points to two monster hunting pro tips. First, according to Tractate Exodus Rabbah 32 (4), the best way to deal with demons is by doing mitzvot, which brings guardian angels to your defense. Second, according to tractate Pesachim 11oa (5), if you’re a bit behind on your mitzvot, “[You] should clasp [your] right thumb in the fingers of [your] left hand, and vice-versa, and say, “I and my fingers are three.” If [you] hears a voice [saying] “You and I are four,” [you] should respond “You and I are five” and so on, until the demon gets angry and leaves.
Fallen Angels! While not a common theme in the talmud and later writings, early Jewish writings talk extensively about fallen angels. Genesis 6:4, for example, describes the Nephalim as “the divine beings [who] mated with the human women (6).” According to The Book of The Watchers, part of the apocryphal Books of Enoch (250-200 BCE), it was the evil of the Nephalim and their children that needed to be wiped out by the great flood (7). While the Nephalim seem to have been wiped out, they live on through their children.
Giants! And who were the children of the Nephaim? Evil giants! These giants “…devoured all the toil of men, until men were unable to sustain them. And the giants turned against them in order to devour men.” (Book of the Watchers). While the great flood (might have) wiped out the Nephalim, it did not wipe out all of the giants. According to Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (23:8) one giant, Og, survived. Og struck a deal with Noah who then fed and sheltered him. (8) Og, later the king of Bashan, would live a long life until he forgot his oath and was killed by Moses. Og’s children would form giant clans that ranged all across Canaan.
Og, the giant, riding a unicorn. (9)
Unicorns! The exact meaning of re’em רֵּ֣ים is not known. It is often translated as “ox” and interpreted as the great aurochs, or wild bulls, which recently went extinct (1627 CE). In the Jewish tradition, however, re’em were understood to be giant one horned animals, the size of mountains. Talmud tractate Zevachim 113b:7-9 (10) asks the question the obvious question “how did the reima remain [after the flood]? Given its large size, it clearly could not have fit into Noah’s ark.” One answer, from Rabbi Yannai is “They brought reima cubs into the ark, and they survived the flood.” Another answer, from Rabbi Yoḥanan is “They brought only the head of the cub into the ark, while its body remained outside.” Hence, as shown in the illustration from “Aunt Naomi’s Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends (9)” Og the Giant could ride the mountain sized unicorn through the flood, as we might ride a horse across a flooded river
If you’re going to be ready to deal with demons and dybbuks, you need your gear. Right? Right! Last year I got to teach a class on Jewish monsters for the high school students at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, Michigan. To make the class more fun I built some gear boxes and filled them with everything a Jewish monster hunter needs.
I’m a big fan of Larry Coreia’s urban fantasy “Monster Hunter International.” One of the minor characters is a Jewish monster hunter named Mordechai Byreika, who was born in Poland and died during WWII. I had fun imaging that these were his gear boxes. I modeled them after vintage ammunition boxes. The front stencil reads, in Yiddish, “Religious Items. For Non-military use. Republic of Poland 1918.”
The first box is loaded with gear including a Jewish exorcism kit, hardwood ash for seeing demons, gear for dealing with estries (Jewish vampires), anti-Lilith amulets, and bunch of other great stuff. I’ll detail it in later blog posts.
The other box was loaded with books. Obviously. An old family Tanach, Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer HaRazim, the Sword of Moses and the Books of Enoch and a bunch more. Again, I’ll detail them all in later posts.