For Jews, books and reading are an essential part of our culture and faith. Sefer Ha-S’farim, the Book of Books, the Tanakh, which includes the Torah, the Nevi’im (Prophetic Literature), and the Ketuvim (Writings), is the earliest testimony to our rich and diverse literary culture. The biblical noun sefer has a long history in the Hebraic-Judaic culture. Let us explore the meaning of the word sefer and a few other words that derive from the same root.
The word sefer appears over 180 times in the Bible. As such it had several meanings. For example, there are places where sefer simply meant a letter sent from one individual to another. In one of the stories about King David, the king sent a sefer to his Chief of Staff Joab to inform him what he wished him to do (II Sam 11:14). Similarly, the King of Aram sent a sefer to the King of Israel requesting his help (II Kgs 5:5).
In other places in the Bible sefer meant a document written on parchment or clay as a testimony and remembrance. In the Book of Exodus, for example, we read that in order for the Israelites to remember the war with their enemy the Amalekites, God ordered Moses to write the story of the war, a zikaron ba-sefer, a reminding document (Ex 17:14). We also know that sefer was the name of the documents compiled in the annals of the kings of Judah and Israel (I Kgs 11:41; 14:19, et al). Sefer Torah (Dt 28:61; II Kgs 22:11) and Sefer HaBrit (Ex 24:7; II Kgs 23:2) are also examples of sefer as a compiled documents, the first of law and the latter of the covenant.
The word sefer was also used in biblical times to indicate a legal document such as a divorce written to a woman. In the Book of Deuteronomy we find that a husband can write to his wife a sefer k’ritut, a bill of divorcement (Dt 24:1). We find a similar use of sefer k’ritut in Isaiah 3:1 and Jeremiah 3:8.
The biblical Hebrew word sefer was close in meaning to the Semitic Akkadian shipru, which meant a letter or a message and derived from the verb shaparu meaning to send a message or to write a letter. It is also similar to the Aramaic sifra, a word of the same meaning. Interestingly, sefer (document or note) is derived from the verb s.p.r, which means to count, to recount, to number, to tell or to narrate. It is related to the Akkadian saparu, meaning to write and send a message and to the Ugaritic spr, meaning to write or a letter. One might ask, what is the connection between narrating, counting, writing and sending a message? Narrating events means recounting the information and recording it. Many times the information was written in the form of a document, which was sent to its proper destination. This is, for example, the kind of sefer sent by Mordecai to all the Jews of the kingdom to announce the celebration of Purim (Esther 9:20).
The person who was responsible to record the documents and recount the stories was called a sofer, a scribe.
The connection between sofer and sefer is easily identified. It is not surprising that both words have a common root. The sofer was not only responsible to write legal and regal notes, but he had the awesome responsibility of recording documents of faith. He had to know the laws and the history, and be familiar with the lore. He had to know how to write and maintain accuracy in copying the documents. Therefore, the sofer counted every letter on the line and page to make sure he neither omitted nor added to the original. It is not surprising that in Hebrew, the verb to count, safar, the noun sofer, and the word for document, sefer are closely related. The best example of a biblical sofer was Ezra. He was highly regarded by the Persian authorities and was chosen, due to his knowledge and wisdom, to lead one of the waves of returnees back to Yerushalaim to rebuild the Temple (Ez 7:6-27).
With time the role of the sofer changed. Some sofrim (pl.) retained the traditional roles copying the holy books, copying the prayers on the parchment of tefilin as well as on the parchment of the mezuzot. Such a sofer is known by the name sofer s’tam, the acronym for S (s’farim), T (tefilin), M (mezuzot). Others moved beyond the traditional role. They wrote their own books, recounted their own stories and narrated imaginary and real events.
Thus sofer in modern Hebrew is writer or author, and sefer in modern Hebrew is a book, not a document or a letter.
One more comment regarding the verb s.p.r. In Arabic, similar to other Semitic languages, the verb sfr means to send a message or to travel. This Arabic verb entered the African Swahili language in the form of safari, meaning to travel. The word continued its migration into the English language and in 1928 was first recorded by The Daily Express in an article that described a British hunting trip in East Africa. And so a Semitic word, which in Hebrew means a letter sent by a messenger, was transferred by a linguistic safari to mean a special excursion in Africa to hunt for wild game. To conclude this short trip into the meaning of sefer I wish you all an exciting safari in the world of s’farim as written by sofrim.