What is the ancient Sefer Hayoshor? Did it ever exist? Who wrote it? When was it written? These unresolved questions have reverberated throughout the centuries. They gained a new lease of life when a rediscovered Sefer Hayoshor was printed in Venice in 1625. Written in simple Biblical style, this rediscovered sefer discusses the period between the creation and the time of the Shoftim, generally echoing ideas found in other sources.
Frozen Suns and Archery Lessons
Rarely does the Tanach mention any literature besides itself. One famous exception is Sefer Hayoshor. When Yehoshua orders the sun to freeze, the verse attests (Yehoshua 10:13) that, “The sun was still and the moon stood until a nation was avenged of its enemies; is this not written in the Sefer Hayoshor?”
Did an ancient sefer indeed record some of the incidents discussed in the Tanach? It depends. According to the Targum who translates Sefer Hayoshor as Sifra De’oraisa
(the Torah), the verse is merely referring to the Torah. Indeed, Rashi explains that the verse is referring to Bereishis (48:19) where Yaakov prophesied that a descendant of Ephraim (Yehoshua) would become melo hagoyim (famed among all the nations) by freezing the sun in its tracks. The Ralbag, on the other hand, suggests that the Sefer Hayoshor was an extraneous history book, writing, “I think that Sefer Hayoshor was [a book] called by this name and it was lost during the exile.”
The same argument surfaces in II Shmuel(1:18). After the Plishtim killed Shaul and Yonasan in battle, He (Dovid) instructed to teach the sons of Yehuda archery; indeed, it is written in Sefer Hayoshor. Once again, the Targum translates Sefer Hayoshor as Sifra De’oraisa, and once again Rashi comes to the rescue, elucidating the exact verse where this event was prophesied: “Is it not written in Sefer Bereishis, which is a Sefer Yeshorim
(book of upright people, namely), Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov. Where is it hinted [there]? Your hand will be on the nape of the neck of your enemy (Bereishis 49:8). With which weapon does a person raise his hand to his forehead that is opposite to the nape of the neck? With the bow!”
Parenthetically, a parallel argument exists regarding the Sefer Milchamos Hashem mentioned in Bamidbar (21:14).Yonasan Ben Uziel writes that this refers to the Sefer Oraisa, while the Rambanwrites: “In those days there were wise men who wrote a book of the great wars.”
The idea of an ancient, authentic sefer existing parallel to the Tanach excited people. In the nineteenth century, an American publisher (discussed later in this article) wrote that the intense interest of some people in this elusive sefer led to the fulfillment of the maxim: “If there’s a book people really want to read but it hasn’t been found yet, then you must write it.”
“It is known,” he wrote, “that such have been the curiosity and anxiety to discover this missing book, that several forgeries under that name have appeared from time to time… the most remarkable of which was originally published in England, in the year 1750 by a person called Illivc, and purported to be a translation from a Hebrew work of that name found in Persia… It is a miserable fabrication….”
A controversial Sefer Hayoshorsurfaced in Venice during the seventeenth Century. The Chida (Shem Hagedolim) describes it in the following terms:
“Sefer Hayoshor consists of stories, particularly of the wars of the tribes against the Canaanites, amazing things! It writes [in its introduction] that at the time of the Churban an old man was found hidden in a wall and with him were found many valuable seforim including this one. Many people do not believe in this sefer. But the Yalkut cites from it and the author of the Yalkut lived at the
beginning of the sixth millennium. Also, Rabeinu Bechaye in his sefer in Parshas Vay- ishlach mentions it without comment. But the Ramban in his commentary seems to be doubtful for he writes, ‘If we believe in the
Sefer Milchamos Bnei Yaakov,’ see there.” Yet surprisingly, Rabeinu Bechaye (whom
the Chida lists as a supporter of Sefer Hayoshor) explains the verse in Bereishis (48:19) like those who hold that no ancient Sefer Hayoshor ever existed. Commenting on the verse, The sun was still and the moon stood until a nation was avenged of its enemies; Is this not written in the Sefer Hayoshor, the Ralbag explains in accordance with the Tar- gum and Rashi: “The sages say that this issefer Bereishis etc.” Thus, Rabeinu Bechayeholds that no Sefer Hayoshor existed in the days of the Tanach.
If so, the supporters of Sefer Hayoshordo not necessarily believe that it is from Biblical times, but simply hold that it is an authentic medrash. Disagreeing with them are the “many people do not believe in this sefer” at all.
The Ancient Sources of Sefer Hayoshor
How was Sefer Hayoshor rediscovered? The introductions of the oldest surviving version of Sefer Hayoshor (Venice, 1625) offer us three stories of the ancient sefer’s travails.
According to the publisher’s first explanation, the sefer dates back at least as far as the second Churban:
“We have a tradition,” he writes, “that when the wicked Titus destroyed Yerushalayim all his ofÞcers ran in to grab its treasures. One officer, Sidrus, found a huge house and seized all the spoil he could lay hands on. He was about to leave when he glanced at a wall and noticed a place of concealment. He destroyed the wall and building and found a room filled with many seforim… He also found all sorts of food and a very large stock of wine. In the room sat an old man reading the seforim.
“Amazed, the officer said to the old man, ‘Why are you sitting in this place by yourself?’To this the old man replied, ‘For many years I knew that Yerushalayim would soon
be destroyed. I built this house with a [secret] room and kept these seforim with me to read together with food, hoping that my soul would be spared.’
“The old man found favor with the general. He took him out and his seforim with great honor and they went from land to land until they reached Seville. There, the general found that he knew every wisdom and science and honored him. He kept him constantly in his house and he taught him all wisdoms. They built a large edifice outside Seville that remains there till this day and kept all the seforim there. While there, they wrote all that would happen to the kings of the world until the coming of the Moshiach.”
How did the sefer reach Italy from Spain? “When the kings of Edom exiled us from town to town and from land to land in bitter suffering, this sefer came to our hands,” the introduction continues. “It is called Toldos Adam and contains many stories. They came from that building in Seville and arrived in our town of Naples that is under the King of Spain. [Spain ruled over the State of Naples for centuries]. When we saw that these seforim are full of wisdom, we decided to print them like all seforim that come to our hands. But this sefer is the best and largest of them all….”
Surprisingly, the introduction then goes on to offer a totally different explanation of how the manuscript reached Naples, weaving its story into the famous story of how the Torah was translated into Greek. When King Talmai began amassing a vast library that would include all the wisdom of the world, his advisors suggested that he also order a copy of the Jewish Torah. Considering this a desecration, the Jews sent him a copy of Sefer Hayoshor instead. King Talmai discovered he had been fooled and demanded a translation of the actual Torah, leading to the creation of the Septuagint.
“Therefore,” the introduction says, “this sefer is still in Egypt until this day. From that time it spread over the world until it came to our hands to our exile in Naples that is ruled by Spain.”
These two stories leave us puzzled: Where did the publisher’s manuscript come
from, Seville, Egypt, both of them?
To complicate matters, a third introduction titled “the printer’s introduction,” (writ- ten by the printer, Yoseph ben Shmuel) offers us a third version of the manuscript’s history. The printer writes that his father had the last surviving copy of the sefer transcribed in Fez, Morocco, sometime before 1613 and that it was printed some years after this date. (This contradicts the publisher’s claim that the seferwas initially printed during the sixteenth century). He says that the scribe, Yaakov ben Atyah, copied Sefer Hayoshor from an earlier manuscript so ancient that its letters were almost illegible. Anyone less skilled could not have deciphered them at all.
It is worth noting that the publishers do not claim that their Sefer Hayoshor is the one mentioned in the Tanach. Rav Yehuda
Aryeh of Modena (1571–1648) writes that this was due not to the honesty of the printers, but rather to his protests and those of other Venetian rabbonim; Sefer Hayoshor was printed “contrary to my wishes and the wishes of the chachomim here in Venice about twenty years ago, although I did [succeed in] removing claims that it was the Sefer Hayoshor mentioned in the Torah. Some people still say that it was found after the
In the introduction to a 1987 reprint of Sefer Hayoshor, Rav Ezra Batzri (1937-, who served as Av Beis Din of Yerushalayim and is the elder brother of the well known mekubalRav David Batzri) writes that the sefer was wildly popular and enjoyed many reprints.
“This sefer was first printed in Venice about four hundred years ago in 1545,” he writes, “and due to its popularity it was reprinted dozens of times. It was printed in Ladino in Salonica in 1893 and in English in the US in 1887. It has many facts not found in other seforim and gedolei hadoros used it and cited it in their seforim, considering it like the midrashim of Chazal.”
(As mentioned earlier, the claim that the sefer was printed in the sixteenth century seems refuted by the printer’s preface.)
The English Version
Who was the pioneering spirit behind the English Sefer Hayoshor? An English Jew, Moses Samuel of Liverpool, England, convinced himself that this was the authentic
Sefer Hayoshor mentioned in the Tanach, translated it, and sold it in 1839 to Mordechai Manuel Noah, one of the best known American Jews of the nineteenth century, who immortalized his memory by founding an independent Jewish republic on an island in the Niagara River.
There were differences of opinion between translator and publisher. Samuel refused to put his name on the printed book because “my patron and myself differed about its authenticity.” Yet strangely, the frontispiece of Noah’s edition explicitly calls this work “The Book of Jasher, referred to in Joshua and Second Samuel.” Indeed, this was the first printed version of Sefer Hayo- shor to ever make such a claim. On the other hand, in his introduction, Noah backtracks and only commits himself to “pronouncing it a work of great antiquity and interest.”
In conclusion, it would appear that the Biblical Sefer Hayoshor (if it ever existed) has yet to be discovered. And if it is, who knows what secrets will be unlocked from between its ancient leafs!