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Is the Book of Jasher a reliable work? Are the dates and information in it accurate? It looks interesting and I’m wondering if it would be worth my time to study it in depth.
Actually, there are several works by that name. You’re probably referring to the medieval Midrashic work, which I’ll discuss below. But first, some background into the book’s interesting name.
The word “Jasher” comes from the Hebrew “yashar”, which means straight or upright. Thus, the meaning of books by that name is “The Book of the Upright” (which may contain biographical accounts of upright people or dissertations on upright behavior). Understandably, as a title it has become quite popular among authors throughout the ages.
The earliest references to such a work come from the Torah itself. In Joshua 10:13, after Joshua commands the sun and moon to stand still during a battle, the verse states: “Is this not written in the Book of Jasher?” Similarly, when King David eulogizes the death of Saul and Jonathan, he praised how they taught the tribe of Judah the use of the bow, and adds: “Behold it is written in the Book of Jasher” (II Samuel 1:18). In simple reading, both verses are references to a separate ancient work, which presumably discusses both incidents in greater detail.
The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 25a), however, sees both as references to one of the other books of the Torah – most likely Genesis (or in the case of David’s reference, possibly Deuteronomy or Judges) – and it offers explanations both as to why such a title appropriately describes those books and what the specific reference was to.
The Talmud’s explanation aside, the Biblical references served as basis for the perception that some mysterious ancient work must have once existed by that name – as well as providing a catchy title which gave rise to a nice assortment of Jewish works.
There are a few well-known medieval books by that name, though none purport to be the work alluded to in the Torah. One is a work on Jewish law by R’ Yaakov ben Meir (1100-1171, known as Rabbeinu Tam, one of the early French Tosafits), and one is an ethical work by R’ Zerachiah the Greek (an otherwise unknown scholar from the 13th-14th century). There is also an early reference to an ancient Kabbalistic work by that name, which we do not have today.
The most famous work by that name – and the one you are undoubtedly referring to – is a Midrashic one authored sometime in the Middle Ages. It retells the stories of the Torah until the beginning of the period of the Judges, incorporating much Midrashic material, most of which appears elsewhere but some parts unique.
In terms of its style, its presentation is actually quite intriguing, making it a fascinating read. Unlike most Midrashic works, which contain elaborations on the Torah alone, the Book of Jasher actually retells the story of the Torah, with the Midrashic elaborations worked in to the narrative. As a result, when you read it, it actually feels like you're reading the Torah itself – but a different, niftier version, with all sorts of fascinating new details woven into the tale. This no doubt explains the work's great popularity throughout the ages.
The earliest edition we have today was printed in Venice in 1625 – with the claim that it was based on an ancient work, fortuitously whisked away from the ruins of Jerusalem at the Second Temple’s destruction. A later translator went so far as to claim it was the original Book of Jasher referred to in the Torah. But neither of these claims is taken seriously, and scholars believe the work to be no earlier than medieval in origin. (Many Midrashic works were authored in the Middle Ages, compilations of material dating from Talmudic times and earlier. Thus, the late origin of this work does not necessarily indicate the material it contains is not authentic.)
There are a few well-known medieval scholars who cite the work, such as Nachmanides and Rabbeinu Bechaye – which pushes back its original publication date to the 13th century at the latest.
In terms of the reliability of the book, for the most part it is consistent with other similar works. Much of its material appears in the Talmud or in better-known works on the Midrash. It provides detailed accounts of some little-known episodes which are not widely discussed elsewhere, such as Moses’s experiences in the land of Cush (see here) and Jacob’s battles with the tribes surrounding Shechem. Some parts, however, are more obscure and may be based on non-Jewish sources. It also contains minor errors, such as lifespans inconsistent with the Torah’s account (such as that Methuselah lived until 960 instead of 969).
When Nachmanides quotes the Book of Jasher (in his commentary to the Torah, Genesis 34:13), his language is quite cautious: “If we believe in the Book of the Wars of the Children of Jacob…” This is assumed to be a reference to this work by a different name (or possibly a similar work, as he refers to an episode which appears there at great length). However, as is clear, Nachmanides was not convinced of the work’s authenticity. Thus, in spite of its popularity, I would be hesitant to recommend it as a book which should be high on your list of texts to study. Although, again, most of its material is known to be authentic, no one can vouch for the parts which are not.
(As an aside, there is another English work by the same name, also a summary of Biblical history, published in 1751 by Jacob Ilive. It falsely claimed to be an English translation of the original Book of Jasher, but was recognized immediately as a hoax. For this reason, it is often referred to as “Pseudo-Jasher.”)
For a fascinating review of the claims of early publishers regarding the Book of Jasher’s origins and relationship to the Biblically-referenced book, see here.