What Makes a Book a Sefer?

Fun little memory that pops into my mind every so often, and now because I’m reading this blog post (still – it is a very long post and I am reading it with care and attention!), and the author discusses Josephus in quite some depth:

At the family Chanukah party, when I was 18 years old and visiting from seminary in Cleveland, the women played a game based on Scattergories. We were on teams, though the teams were large and basically the loud, vocal cousins were the main players while the rest of us shy or disinterested cousins sat toward the back and watched. Each team would pick a piece of paper with a letter on it (a Hebrew letter), and then someone would call out categories, and the team would have to name something in that category that starts with that letter.

At one point, my team had picked “yud.” And then one of the categories was “seforim.” Now, being chasidish women, most of my cousins couldn’t think of any seforim, let alone one that starts with “yud.” (There aren’t that many words that start with “yud.” EDIT: As the cousin of the sitting-in-the-corner part of the story said to me after hearing this story now: “Uh, Yirmiyah? Yeshaya?”) They joked and laughed, and time was running out, until someone said “hey, Esther Shaindel! You’re in bais medrash! You know seforim!” (The common joke because Yavneh called the study hall a bais medrash, of all ridiculous things! Who ever heard of a girls’ study hall being called a bais medrash! Sigh…)

I wasn’t very happy with the attention turned to me, where I sat squeezed into a corner with one of my cousins, my back to the bookshelf and half-turned away from the festivities.

“Yosifun,” I said, and there was a moment of silence as most of the cousins tried to think if they’d ever heard it before, and then my mother laughed and said, “Well, that isn’t quite a sefer, but it can count for now.”

I took a moment to think about that before turning back to my conversation with my cousin. What counts as a sefer, after all? Does Josephus not count because he wasn’t a rabbi? Wasn’t he? Is it because he talks about history and not theology? I had thought of this book because I could picture it on my father’s seforim shelves – doesn’t that make it a sefer?

And then I dismissed this ridiculous categorizing and looked back at my cousin, who rolled her eyes and laughed, and we ignored the game entirely after that.

One thought on “What Makes a Book a Sefer?

  1. The section of that blog post where the author talks about Josephus:

    Different Jewish traditions of the exodus from Egypt

    Returning to the issue of tradition, I find it valuable to note that concerning the events upon which the main core of Judaism is based, several significantly different traditions existed as late as about the beginning of the Common Era, and different Jewish circles and thinkers accepted whichever tradition better fit their spiritual or other needs. The different traditions popular among the Jews at that time cannot all be true, and we have no means of reasonably judging which of those traditions (if any) describes the events as they happened.

    There were mutually contradictory traditions popular among the Jews around the beginning of the Common Era about the Exodus from Egypt — one of the foundations of our faith. We have three detailed accounts of the plagues of Egypt written between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE by authors who considered themselves, and were considered by the Jewish community, faithful Jews and apologists for the Judaic tradition. The most prominent is Artapanus, an Egyptian Jewish writer who authored the book On the Jews about 100 BCE (fragments of the book came down to us in the writings of the 4th century CE Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea, who brings it in his Praeparatio Evangelica, book IX, chapter 27, sections 28-33). Artapanus stated that the forefathers of Israel laid the foundations of all human culture: Abraham taught the ancient Egyptians astrology, Joseph introduced agricultural reforms designed to protect poor and weak peasants from the aggressiveness of rich farmers — but his favorite person was Moses. According to On the Jews Moses invented civil engineering and shipbuilding, armed the Egyptians and led them to war against Ethiopia, introduced hieroglyphic writing, the Egyptian religion, and their philosophy. In short, On the Jews is clearly an apology for the Judaic tradition and its heroes, so its author would have had no reason to distort this tradition, at least when distortion would bring him no polemic gain. And yet Artapanus’s account of the plagues greatly differs from that of the Torah.

    The first plague, according to Artapanus, begins with Moses striking the Nile’s waters with his rod. The waters overflow, flood all the land of Egypt, stand, stink, and cause death for fish and thirst for men. Yet in his description the waters of the Nile do not become blood. In the course of the second plague Moses strikes the ground with his rod and the ground produces “a flying creature” — an account paralleling the Torah’s story of Aaron striking the ground to initiate the plague of lice. In this account Artapanus must be describing the plague of wild beasts (arov), for the plague of lice is explicitly mentioned among the later plagues; we have an exchange of traditions about lice and wild beasts. “The flying creature,” according to Artapanus, affects “everybody…by pestilence” — a parallel to the plague of boils. After the boils, Moses simultaneously brings the frogs, the locust, and the lice. In the Torah account, of course, these are completely discrete plagues — the second, the third, and the eighth, and the plagues of frogs and lice were brought by Aaron, not Moses (in the first plague, too, the Torah speaks of Aaron, not Moses, striking the Nile). But most astonishing is that Artapanus does not mention anything like the plague of murrain, the plague of darkness, and the plague of the firstborns.

    Another account of the plagues is brought in Philo’s Vita Mosis (“The Life of Moses”), written in the first half of the 1st century CE. Philo of Alexandria, also known by his Jewish name, Yedidiah, is perhaps the most famous of pre-Mishnaic Jewish authors. He, too, was a faithful Jew, considered the People of Israel the chosen nation, “priests and prophets for all humanity,” stated that one should not neglect the observance of any of the Jewish commandments and customs which have been divinely ordained, and fiercely rejected intermarriage. In his writings Philo praised the spiritual greatness of the personalities of the Scripture, attributed high moral reasons to the Torah commandments, and spoke with great enthusiasm of Moses and his laws. In short, he, too, was clearly an apologist for Judaic tradition, and is the last who should be accused of intentional distortion.

    Yet Philo’s account of the plagues is also significantly different from that of the Torah. Philo does speak of ten plagues (and not seven, like Artapanus), but his order of the plagues is different: 1) blood 2) frogs 3) lice 4) hail 5) locust 6) darkness 7) boils 8) wild beasts 9) murrain of cattle 10) plague of the firstborn. Philo also gives homiletic interpretations to the chronological proximity of certain plagues in his account, so he considered his order of the plagues real and accurate. This order, of course, is different from the Torah’s. Another detail in Philo’s account is that the plague of the firstborns does not hit the cattle, while the Torah says explicitly: “And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt will die… and all the firstborn of animals.” (In later tradition many homilies were said on this verse; see Rashi’s commentary).

    One more account of the ten plagues may be found in The Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus Flavius, written in 93 CE. Josephus is known, mostly due to his book Against Apion, as defending Judaism and its traditions against anti-Semitic attacks; this can also be seen in The Antiquities of the Jews. Here again it is hard to speak of intentional distortion of the tradition. In The Antiquities of the Jews (book II, chapters 12-14), Josephus brings a detailed account of the plagues — and in this report there is not a single plague which hits cattle. According to Josephus the Egyptian cattle were not hit by murrain, nor by boils, hail, or the plague of the firstborn — in contrast to what we are told by the Torah. The most interesting in this context is the plague of murrain, for according to the Torah, this plague hit cattle only (see Exodus 9:3-7). Instead of this story, Josephus brings a short, blurred, and almost incomprehensible account of people’s illness, forming a single narrative with the story of the plague of wild beasts.

    It seems that Josephus systematically rejected the tradition of the loss of the Egyptian cattle when speaking of the plagues themselves — and yet this tradition leaves its tracks in his story of Moses negotiating with Pharaoh: Josephus tells that after the plague of locust, Pharaoh permitted the Hebrews to leave with their wives and children, but demanded they leave their cattle in Egypt, for the Egyptian cattle had been lost (The Antiquities of the Jews, book 2, chapter 14, section 5). In light of Josephus’s narrative Pharaoh’s demand is unreasonable and incomprehensible, but it is easily understood in light of the story of murrain of cattle which Josephus rejected. This contradiction in Josephus’s account is, therefore, a typical result of two different traditions coexisting in the mind of a single author. These, and many other facts about the various Jewish traditions of the Exodus and their interrelationship, may be found in The Evolution of the Exodus Tradition by Samuel E. Loewenstamm (Magnes Press, 1992).

    What was the relationship of these other traditions to Scripture? How could they be propagated against Torah tradition? Clearly there was considerable diversity in the ancient Jewish world on these matters.

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