Serah Daughter of Asher: The Woman and the Myth

The Bible does not tell us much about Serah daughter of Asher, other than mentioning her name.  Serah’s name is mentioned in the count of the Israelites who went down to Egypt and in the enumeration of the Israelites at the steppes of Moab. Serah’s name is mentioned as part of long lists of genealogy that are important because they represent the link between the generations. Mentioning a woman’s name is such lists is meaningful because it presents Serah as an important link between the generations and as a bearer of the people’s memories. The Sages fill in the gaps in Serah’s biblical missing narrative, glorify her image and tell wondrous stories about her.  The Midrash presents Serah as a wise and righteous woman, as a prophet, healer and storyteller. Serah acts on her own accord, without being dependent of a man (father, brother or husband). In that she is unique, and the Sages empower her by giving her story mythic qualities.

What’s in a Name?

Serah is a unique name in the bible. The name interpretation corresponds with the description of the excess cloth in the Tabernacle.

And as for the overhanging part [Hebrew: Serah] that remaineth of the curtains of the tent, the half curtain that remaineth over shall hang over the back of the tabernacle. And the cubit on the one side, and the cubit on the other side, of that which remaineth over in the length of the curtains of the tent, shall hang over the sides of the tabernacle on this side and on that side, to cover it  (Exodus 26, 12-13).

The excess which remains over  can be interpreted as free, unrestrained, luxuriantly abundant; A fitting name for a woman who carries the knowledge of the ages, who is wise and immortal.

Jacob Blesses Serah

Serah is Jacob’s grand-daughter, and according to the Sages lived with her grand-father. After Jacob is notified of Joseph’s death, he is devastated: And Jacob rent his garments, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days… [refusing] to be comforted (Genesis 37, 34-35). When the brothers go down to Egypt and find out that their lost brother is second to Pharaoh, they are not sure how to convey the news to their father. According to Sefer Hayashar, Serah artfully tells Jacob that Joseph lives, and receives his blessing:

What shall we do in bringing this matter before our father? For if we impart it to him suddenly… he will be greatly astounded… and he will refuse to listen to us. And when they went on until they approached their houses, they met Serah coming towards them, and the damsel was exceedingly beautiful and wise, and a skilled player on the harp… and she hastened unto Jacob and she sat dwon before him. And she sang and she played beautifully upon the harp, and she sang in the sweetness of her voice: Joseph my uncle is alive and he reigneth over all the land of Egypt; he is not dead. And she often repeated these words.

And Jacob heard her words and it pleased him greatly, and when he heard her sing it twice and three times, the heart of Jacob was possessed by joy, through the sweetness of her voice, and the spirit of God came over him, and he knew that all her words were true. And Jacob blessed Serah for singing these words before him, and he said: My daughter, may death never prevail against thee forever, for thou hast revived my spirit… thou has caused me gladness with thy words

Serah plays the harp and sings-tells Jacob about Joseph. Gently and wisely Serah heals Jacob of his bereavement over his son, allowing him to accept and rejoice in his rediscovery. Jacob blesses Serah with immortality. In line with her immortality, the Sages also suggest that Serah entered the Garden of Eden while still alive.

Serah the Prophet

In Chemdat Yamim, Rabbi Shalom Shabazi includes Serah in the seven women prophets, and suggests that the women prophets parallel the seven channels in Kabbalah:

There are seven women prophets: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Serah daughter of Asher, Miriam, Hulda, Hannah, corresponding with the seven emotive powers (midot) reciprocating abundance

Being immortal, Serah appears at various important points in the journey of the Children of Israel. Serah goes to Egypt with the Children of Israel, and later on helps Moses locate Joseph’s grave thus ensuring the redemption of Israel.

A Magical Doe Saving Her People

Serah’s legendary character also appears in folklore. In the tradition of Persian Jews, Serah daughter of Asher is a doe that appears in front of Shah Abbas the Great (1588-1629) while he is hunting, when he follows her into a cave the doe is revealed as a beautiful woman who tells him to stop persecuting her people. Shah Abbas acknowledges the sanctity of the cave, and ceases his persecution of the Jews. Serah’s Cave is located near Isfahan and was considered a place of pilgrimage for many years.

Another custom is to add the verse “And the name of the daughter of Asher was Serah” (Numbers 26, 46) before the blessing of the wine during Havdalah as invocation for good health and peace.

Feature Photo: Orazio Gentileschi, Young Woman Playing a Violin (1612)

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