Passing on Traditions... Serach bat Asher

Alternative seder symbols are not as unusual today as they were twenty years ago. From Oranges on the seder plate (from Susannah Heschel, to symbolise the fruitfulness of the community when all are included) to Miriams' cup (which according to the learned Annette Boeckler at Leo Baeck College has much older roots than we often give credit to, to olives to hope for peace and freedom in Israel. As a rabbinic student my Midrash teacher suggested I explore the figure of Serach Bat Asher for an essay, and she has been providing me with inspiration ever since. She is someone I would love to see brought into the seder because I think she represents something very compelling about Pesach.

The first mention of her is in Genesis in a big long list of names of those who travelled down to Egypt with Jacob to be reunited with Joseph. We are told the names of all the sons that go down to Egypt, and their sons who went with them. It must have been an impressive caravan. But in the midst of this long list, we hear about the sons of Asher:
וּבְנֵי אָשֵׁר יִמְנָה וְיִשְׁוָה וְיִשְׁוִי וּבְרִיעָה וְשֶׂרַח אֲחֹתָם וּבְני בְרִיעָה חֶבֶר וּמַלְכִּיאֵֽל:
And the sons of Asher; Jimnah, and Ishvah, and Isui, and Beriah, and Serach their sister; and the sons of Beriah; Heber, and Malchiel (Gen 46:17).

It did not escape the beady eye of the Rabbis’ that this mention of a sister was strange. Generational lines in the Bible do occasionally mention women, but not often, and in these lists she is the only female other than the matriarchs and Dinah (Jacobs' only daughter), so there must have been some significance to Serach. We do hear about her once more in Torah (and the previous mention is cited again in Chronicles), though we are not told much more. In Numbers 26 a census is taken of the Israelites in the desert, to see who would be able to fight and aid in conquering Canaan. The census is taken, and important names in the tribes are recorded. In verse 46 we hear “And the name of the daughter of Asher was Serach”. So we know who Serachs' father and brothers were. But this mention of Serach in Numbers suggested to the Rabbis and writers of Midrash, that not only did she go down to Egypt with Jacob, but, she also left Egypt with the Exodus, some 400 years later.

For the Rabbis, these 2 mentions were the starting point for a wonderful narrative around Serach. She joins a small group of men and women who are considered to have never died, and she becomes a tool of the Rabbis, who used her in Midrashim to fill in gaps in stories, for example an anonymous woman in 2 Samuel 20 is named as Serach. In this way, a rich life tapestry is woven for Serach, with no need for modern novels to bring her to life (though I do think she would be a great candidate for such a work!) The first question the Rabbis needed to answer is what on earth she did to merit such a long life. So the Rabbis ascribe Serach the task of informing Jacob that Joseph is still alive. The original account doesn't mention much of anything, let alone Serach, but in Midrash it is explained that the brothers feared the news might shock Jacob to death, and so Serach delicately delivers the news of Josephs' presence in Egypt in song, and enables him to take it on board gently. Jacob blesses her saying ‘if this is true, the bearer of the news shall live forever’ (Midrash HaGadol 46:25).

Serach also helps to solve a riddle left to us in Exodus, when we learn that Josephs' bones were taken out of Egypt with the Israelites. How did they know where to find them? Serach showed Moses of course ! As she was there when Joseph would have been buried, and when his coffin left Egypt with the Exodus (Sotah 13a), she begins to provide a generational link between those who came down to Egypt, and those who left. In a similar vein she is said to have provided the prophetic proof that Moses was the leader that the slaves had been awaiting . In all of these tales she is the key bearer of information, and a link from one generation to another. The Rabbis suggest that Serach must have been a woman of incredible integrity and merit to warrant such an honour, but what is fascinating is that a woman so closely linked to the exodus story, and who is such a key transmitter of information from generation to generation, gets no mention in the Haggadah, the text that tries to do exactly what Serach does, according to tradition.

Serachs' presence through Jewish time does not end in the Tanakh, and she even pops up in the Rabbinic period itself, where we read in a collection of Rabbinic sermons from sometime around the 6th century (Pesikta de Rav-Kahana 11:13):
Rabbi Yochanan was sitting and expounding, how the waters were made into a wall for Israel. Rabbi Yochanan explained they were like opaque walls. Serach the daughter of Asher grew angry and said, “I was there and they were like nets”.
So not only is Serach a key transmitter of inter-generational information, she is permitted to contradict a Rabbi in her transmission of how it really was when they crossed the Red Sea! Few women are given such privilege in Rabbinic Literature, and those that do, such as Beruriah, have been known to meet rather nasty ends!

But what was Serachs' end? There is a synagogue cemetery in Istfahan, Iran, that is named in her honour and claims to have her grave located in their midst . In the Rabbinic tradition, however, no burial place was necessary for her, because she is one of only 10 or 11 people who is said to have not died, but to have entered paradise (or the Garden of Eden) alive (Midrash Avot, Otzar ha-Midrashim). This was the result of Jacob’s blessing, and allows her to be present throughout Jewish time. This meritorious woman, who has appeared at crucial moments in Jewish History to perform righteous and important deeds, and who has been the holder and giver of oral tradition, does not die, but continues indefinitely, and could, potentially be called upon to tell us how things really were again. Perhaps next to Elijahs' cup (who also never died) we should have a Cos Serach, a cup of Serach.

Unfortunately we will not live forever. But, like Serach, we are all important as links in the chain of Tradition. We all have Serachs' power to pass something meaningful onto the next generation, as gently as Serach did with Jacob, or as forcefully as she did with Rabbi Yochanan. Pesach asks us to hand on something of importance, meaning and joy to the next generation. Perhaps Serach will appear to help us, but in case she doesn’t, all of us will have to learn and explore for ourselves, to ensure that the next generation have something they also feel able to hand on. May something powerful and freeing be transmitted to you, so that you might pass it on.

2012 addendum: Having just been asked how to bring Serach into the Seder, I would suggest, introducing a cos (cup of) Serach, next to the cos Eliyahu - as  their lack of death is shared there is an obvious parrallel, and emphasise her story as a reminder of why it's important for us to have an oral tradition, by perhaps jumping from her story to recollections from older participants of the Sedarim of their childhood.


  1. Another important post. Thank you. I retweeted it for my peeps.

  2. do you know a link that talks about the cemetery serach bat asher in Isfahan, Iran. we're trying to find more information about it. It would be greatly appreciated if you can inform of us of it as soon as possible! Thanks a lot!

  3. Hi there, is an interesting blog about a vist there with photos. is brief...

    THis is a fantastic article on Serach, which mentions the grave on p. 10 - good luck!

  4. thanks a lot!!!!!

  5. Debbie, I published a "Serach at the Seder" Haggadah supplement for this recent Pesach and think you'd enjoy it. You can download it for free from my website or give me an email address and I'll send you a newer version.
    Maggid Yitzhak Buxbaum


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