How Sefer Hayasher has Come Down to Us
By Wayne Simpson
The Book of Jasher appears to be a chronicle of the events that befell the descendants of Jacob in the period before they entered into Eretz Israel. These events were undoubtedly recorded throughout the history of that family by a number of successive scribes. These records appear to be appended to an earlier work called the Book of the Generations of Adam... that gave a synopsis of the history of the human race up until the time that these records began to be collected for Israel. It is not clear where the original work leaves off and the running history of Israel begins. The book closes shortly after Joshua gains control of the land and Israel becomes a notion in its own rite, rather than a group of tribal wanderers. After that time other books of records were kept, many of them mentioned in the Bible. Except for this book and the Bible, none of those books are known to have survived. Jasher seems to have existed throughout the first kingdom and throughout the second commonwealth.
There is no mention of it however, until the time of Ptolemeus, king of Egypt. There is a story related in the Hebrew Preface of M. M. Noahs edition of Jasher that relates this story. Ptolemues sought to build a great library and send his men throughout the world to gather the books of the laws and the history of all nations. Ultimately, he had over a thousand such books. It was called to his attention by detractors of Israel that he should send to the Jews to get their Torah. The Jewish authorities, however, balked because they thought it inappropriate to give the Torah to gentiles. So they sent the Sefer Hayashar instead. When the king read it he was delighted, and focused all his attention on it, neglecting the rest. But detractors pointed out that the Jews had deceived the king and had not sent the Torah as he asked. Becoming angry, but remaining shrewd, he sent for seventy (some accounts say seventy-two) elders of the nation and confined them until each one had independently created a copy of the Torah in the Greek language for him. It was said that all copies were identical. This was the beginning of the Septuagint- the first translation of the Torah into another language. It is also the only mention of the Book of Jasher in that period. This story is also related in the Letter of Aristaeus, except that if focused soley on the Septuagint and does not mention Sefer Hayashar.
This same Hebrew Preface also relates the following story:Jerusalem was destroyed in 68 AD by Roman armies. A Roman officer, while destroying a large house, broke into a hidden room. There he found an old man hiding with a large library of Hebrew books which he was protecting. The officer befriends the old man and takes him and his books safely out of danger. They traveled eventually to Seville, Spain, where they build a large house and deposit all the books there for safekeeping.
These books seemed to have remained stored in this very house for almost 1500 years awaiting the time and conditions in which they can once again be copied and circulated. In the meantime centuries of persecution, famine and calamity are waged on the Jews through Europe, at first at the hands of the Romans, and later the Spanish, and the Muslims to a lesser extent. But the big power at the center of the persecution was the Catholic Church. This persecution climaxed in the Spanish Inquisition of the medieval period. Thousands of Jews lost their homes, their books and their lives during this time. There was no way they could have published any book of their history during that period. All they could do is try to preserve the literary remnants of their culture for a future time.
In 1492, on the eve of Tisah bAv, the Jews were expelled from Spain. On the following day, Christopher Columbus (himself a Jew) was allowed to take a rag tag crew from among the prisons of Spain (probably also Jews) and set out on that fateful journey of discovery. Jews were forced to migrate to any other place that would allow them. Many settled in Italy. There, in spite of continued oppression, life became more stable than it had in the centuries that went before. Jewish communities began to coalesce and experience a measure of normalcy.
In the meantime, Gutenberg had invented a method of mass printing using moveable type in about 1450. The first works to be printed were Bibles. So now a means of mass printing was available, but the political climate was still too dangerous for the Jewish community to begin to publish its treasures. In 1478 the Spanish Inquisition began. It was first directed toward the Marranos, Jews who were forced by the state to convert, but who secretly practiced their own faith. Once again the Jews were obliged to delay their hopes of beginning to publish their books. By 1502 the focus of the Inquisition was diverted toward Muslims and then in 1520 it was directed toward protestants.
With the much of the pressure off the Jews, Jewish printing establishments began to spring up all over Europe. Naples and Milan were somewhat protected from the churches control. The Hebrew Bomberg Bible was printed in 1517. Other Jewish works, prayerbooks, etc began cautiously to appear. About this time, the Hebrew Preface of Jasher says that 12 ancient copies of the Book of Jasher were found and brought to Naples. It was resolved to compile them to produce a new copy for the purpose of printing. There is said to have been a printing of 50 copies of Jasher in Naples at this time. The Hebrew preface was no doubt printed with it at that time. By 1600 the climate had continued to improve for the Jews.
In Venice, in 1613, a Jew by the name of Jacob ben Atiyah, or Jacob the Scribe, obtained a very ancient copy of Sefer Hayashar from Morocco. He resolved to have his own copy made by hand. Upon hearing of the existence of this new copy, Samuel HaQatan, agreed to sponsor Jacobs efforts to produce an additional new copy for the education of his son Joseph. But persecution and calamity caused Joseph to be driven out of his own city for a period of years. When he was able to return, he learned that most of what he had known, people and property and precious books, were all destroyed. But he was driven by a passion for the Sefer Hayashar he had never been priveleged to see. He diligently sought to find if it had survived the political upheaval of the times. At last he found it in the safekeeping of one Moses Chasan, who readily gave it to Joseph when he learned of his burning desire to print it and distribute it. Thus the 1625 Venice edition of the Hebrew Sefer Hayashar was born. It is the source for all subsequent copies of the book. It was apparently from a different original than the 12 copies which produced the Naples edition. It was published, grouped with the Hebrew preface from the earlier edition, and a new preface by the printer, Joseph ben Samuel HaQatan. Also there was a short dedicatory poem entitled " A Lovely song about the Book". I recently discovered with the help of Rabbi Avraham Sutton that the 1625 Hebrew printing of the Printers preface (written by this same Joseph) actually contains a gap of about 3 pages of material that has not been translated into English to this day. To my chagrin it is written in Rashi script which I cannot read, and as of yet I have not found anyone who could translate it. It is also a poor quality copy and it is not readily transcribed in the common Ashuritic square script.
There is another very stirring document in this edition that is a single page written in Old Italian. It is license to publish this "Libre Ritto", granted by the "Reformers of the University of Padua" and the "Most Reverend Father Inquisitor", and certifying that it contains "nothing contrary to the Holy Catholic Faith." I find this document to be very emotional because it reveals clearly how tenuous was the right for this group of Jews to publish this and other such books even at that time. They were still very much at risk for being called into question by the Inquisition.
It is not known how many were produced, but the demand apparently was good. Another Venice edition was produced, and one in Cracow in 1628, as well as one in Prague in 1668. It is also known to have been reprinted in Frankfurt, Constantinople, Amsterdam and Calcutta. It has been translated into Ladino, Latin, and Spanish. Some few of these editions have survived the centuries since those times. Undoubtedly, there was a surge in interest and many were reading the history of their beginnings from the Book of Jasher for the first time in 1500 years.
When skeptics question how this book could possibly be genuine, they have no concept just how impossible it would have been for the Jewish people to publish it all through their history since the destruction of Jerusalem. They were persecuted and suppressed, prevented from proliferating any part of their culture until the 16th to 18th centuries. Further, the technology for mass printing did not exist until 1450.
Now that it was in better circulation than it ever had been before people began to take it for granted. Attention to the book eventually died down, although it is not clear that very many copies were ever produced. In England, a copy of this book came into the hands of a Mr. Moses Samuel of Liverpool. He began to produce an English translation in the 1820s. After several years of work he was about ready to publish his work, when exciting news broke out in England that a copy of the Book of Jasher had been found in Gazna,Persia by one Ilive in 1750. It was said to have been translated into English by a man named Flaccus Albinus Alcuinus in the 9th century. Mr. Samuel resigned himself to the fact that he had been scooped, and that his own translation would be redundant. He did not realize that the competitive Jasher was a miserable forgery. Scholars and the English press quickly discovered the deception. Jasher - The only one that the English public had known- was now disgraced. Because of the unfortunate timing, there was no hope that Mr. Samuels genuine English Jasher would be accepted in England now.
At this point, Mordechai M. Noah, a prominent Jewish publisher became interested and negotiated the sale of the rights to publish the new translation in America, where the chances of acceptance were much better. Mr. Samuels name was kept out of the new publication at his own request, and in 1840 the first English translation was published in New York. It is not known how widely it was distributed. In 1878, a group of Latter Day Saints bought the copyright from the estate of M. M Noah and produced the reprint of the 1840 edition. Some key supplementary documents were deleted from the publications for some unknown reason. It is reprints from this 1878 edition that are still being distributed today in the orange cover book by Artisan Sales of Muskogee, Oklahoma. However, a few years ago, Artisan Sales distributed reprints of the earlier 1840 edition which contained the extra documents alluded to earlier. It was an inferior quality reproduction in a plastic spiral edition that easily disintegrated. So they opted to produce the better quality book even though some parts were missing.
In the 1970s KTAV publishers produced an edition of Jasher for a Jewish organization called Yosher, intended as a story book for young readers. It was a very attractive and readable book, written in modern English. It is more of a paraphrase than a translation. KTAV did not print it for long, and they seem to have forgotten that they ever printed it. Today, however, Yosher publishes it themselves under the new title Ancient Tales Amazing Torah Stories from Safer Hayasher.
I remember, years ago, reading in the Bible about the Book of Jasher in Joshua 10:13 & II Samuel 1:18, "is it not written in the Book of Jasher?" I wondered what was this mysterious book? Whatever became of it and what other wonderful things might it contain? I consulted my Commentaries and Bible dictionaries & encyclopedias. All of them basically said the same thing that the book is simply lost. I took that as the authoritative answer for a long time. But I found out that they were all wrong. The Book of Jasher does indeed exist.
One day in 1985 while browsing in the Peace of Mind new & used book store, I looked up and saw the Book of Jasher right in front of me. The date of the edition was 1840. My chin nearly hit the floor in surprise. I quickly took the book off the shelf and began looking through it. Why is there a book in front of me that doesnt exist, I thought? It is surely a fake, I believed. This book was recently printed and the publisher was obviously selling many of these books. I was there because it was a pretty good place to find used books about Judaism and obscure history. And given that this particular bookstore specialized in books touting every kind of obscure ism in existence including occultism, witchcraft and books on drugs use, I had my guard up. I was in a suspicious & critical frame of mind. My first thoughts were that this book was the creation of some modern fraudulent author trying to advance his own religious agenda. If this book was genuine, why was it so relatively unknown? I was skeptical to be sure, but I had to know more about it. I bought the book and took it home. I eagerly read it through.
It proved to be the source of endless fascination to me and it was destined to be the subject of years of research for me. It contained familiar accounts of biblical episodes, yet replete with rich details. There were also other accounts that seemed on the surface unrelated to the Bible. And the whole book was carefully marked chronologically. When I finished reading it, I read the whole book again. And during the weeks that followed I read it more slowly and carefully yet another time, paying special attention to the darker passages and to the more significant passages. I was beginning to see the potential of the book as a resource for those who study the Bible. My skepticism was disappearing in spite of the fact that some of what is related in the book contradicted the conventional wisdom of ancient historians.
Whether this was the original book of Jasher or not, it was absolutely captivating, and its story was full of information that could forge a new understanding of ancient history. Some of the darker episodes sounded so familiar, yet I could not at first pin down where I had heard them before. I had long been a student of ancient history. I had filled my personal library with books written in ancient times writers like Herodotus, Diodorus Sicilus, Pliny, Strabo, etc. I eventually realized that those familiar sounding stories were also to be found in the pages of other classical writers of ancient times. The names were slightly variant, but the stories were basically the same. I began to write treatises to explore and explain what I was finding. Those treatises appear now as appendices in the book I was soon to publish.
But in my mind I always had the question, "If this book is the real Book of Jasher, how can so many people not know of it? Why do so many authorities believe that Jasher is simply lost? " I had to know also how the book had survived. How has it come down to us today? Fortunately, the volume that I had purchased had several prefaces that told to a great extent how this had happened. By placing that information in its proper historical setting, and by supplying some additional details I was able to document the books survival up to 1840, when the first English translation was published.
I kept asking myself " why isnt someone promoting and distributing this book and why does nobody explain the wondrous knowledge it contains?" As my research and understanding increased, I began to think " I could probably publish a new edition of this book". I realized that I could perhaps be the number one authority on the Book of Jasher. I wasnt feeling boastful in thinking that. It was just that there seemed not to be another soul with the interest or motivation to do the Job. Eventually my confidence rose to the point that I was saying "I will do this". And I did. I always expected to self publish the book, but I was persuaded by an acquaintance who wrote school textbooks to submit it to publishers for consideration. I sent it to twenty publishers and got 20 polite (and in some cases very encouraging) rejections. I did not feel down about this. In fact I realized I had made the right decision to start with. And time has proven that as well. Almost miraculously the funds became available to print it, and I could ensure that the book would not just be a flash in the pan. I could promote it for as long as I care to. I chose to sell the book on the Internet. I soon made some key friends who also were Jasher enthusiasts who operated a small specialized publishing operation. They have opened some opportunities to sell the books and Amazon.com and other similar outlets. Sales have just been a constant trickle, but I am now selling the 3rd printing, and they are selling all around the world.
Struck by the relative obscurity or the book, I undertook to produce a new edition unlike any of the others. I used the same 1840 English translation by Mr. Samuel, but I included a great deal of supporting information such as 40 pages of appendixes explaining obscure sections of the book, and extensive chronological notes.
My purpose in this was simply to raise awareness of the book. I was fully prepared for many people to reject and criticize it. But this has not been the case. Controversy about its authenticity may continue for years, but many people are now reading and appreciating it for the first time. It is certainly not a best seller and I never expected it would be. It is likely to be read only by a special kind of person one who appreciates the Bible and Hebrew history and one who eagerly pursues knowledge. I have been pleasantly surprised to be contacted by hundreds of such people all over the world. And, also to my surprise, there has been almost no one who is skeptical of it. Most people are very excited to learn of it, and many buy multiple copies to give to their friends and family. I have noticed that even the few who doubt it still seem to love it and are captivated by it.
(c) Copyright 2006 by Wayne Simpson
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