By the book
Leshon Ima – Mother Tongue with Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin, Special To The Observer
As we mark Jewish Book Month, let’s explore the word sefer, the Hebrew word for book. Sefer is mentioned often in Jewish manuscripts and documents, and it has received a variety of meanings over time.
Sefer is mentioned in the Bible more than 185 times with numerous meanings. At times sefer meant a letter (II Kings 5:5) and at times a legal document (Deut. 24:1), a purchase receipt (Jer. 32:11) or a recorded document of family history (Neh. 7:5).
Sefer HaTorah, the Pentateuch, is also the Scroll of Law (Josh. 1:7-8) and Sefer Divray Hayamim Lemalkhay Yehudah veIsrael, the Annals of the Kings of Judah and Israel, was a historical document recording the life and deeds of the kings (I Kings 14:29).
The word sefer is probably derived from the Akkadian verb shaparu meaning send and the noun shipru meaning letter. The related Hebrew verb saper has multiple meanings: count, recount, number, tell, and narrate.
Other words derived from the same root are sipur (story), sifriyah (library), sefirah (counting), and sofer (scribe).
We should mention that in antiquity most documents were written on clay tablets or papyri and most historical compositions were written on parchment in the form of a scroll.
Sefer, therefore indicated both the composition and the material upon which it was written. So we find that prophetic words were recorded in a sefer (Jer. 36:2), curses were documented in a sefer (Num. 5:23), and words of instructions were also written in a sefer (Dan. 1:4).
Sefer is at the center of many Hebraic concepts. For example, Sifray Hakodesh (the Holy Scriptures) and Sefer Hasefarim (The Book of Books) are two Hebrew names for the Hebrew Bible. On the other hand, Sefarim Chitzoniyim (The Outside Books) is the Hebrew name for the Apocrypha, the books known at the time the Bible was canonized, that were considered irreligious and therefore excluded.
We should also mention the Book of Life, Sefer Hachayim, traditionally considered the book in which God records the fate of each person (Ps. 69:29) and we should not forget Sefer HaChinuch (The Book of Education), a medieval classical book of Jewish ethical principles written by an anonymous author from Barcelona, Spain.
From all that was said, it is not surprising that in Hebrew bait sefer, means school, a house of learning where the sefer is at the center.
The centrality of the sefer in the Jewish tradition is unparalleled. From the early sefer, the scroll, to the bound sefer and on to the electronic sefer of today, the importance of reading a sefer has never diminished.
As a people we always celebrated the beauty of the written word and its impact. May we continue to be enlightened by the writings of the sofrim of old and the many sefarim that are yet to be written.
Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin is a professor of biblical literature at Spertus College in Chicago and an adjunct professor of Bible and Hebrew at New College of Florida.