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 throughout time.
Sefer is mentioned in the Bible over 185 times with numerous meanings. At times sefer meant 'a letter' (II Kings 5:5) and at times 'a legal document' (Dt. 24:1), 'a purchase receipt' (Jer 32:11), or 'a recorded document of family history' (Neh 7:5). Sefer Ha-Torah, the Pentateuch, is also 'the Scroll of Law' (Josh 1:7-8) and Sefer Div-ray Ha-yamim Le-mal-khay Ye-hu-dah ve-Israel, namely 'the Annals of the kings of Judah and Israel,' was an historical document recording the life and deeds of the kings (I Kings 14:29).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 sa-per has multiple meanings: 'count,' 'recount,' 'number,' 'tell,' and 'narrate.' Other words derived from the same root are sipur-'story,' 'siph-ri-yah-'library,' se-fi-rah-'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, Sif-ray Ha-kodesh, 'the Holy Scriptures,' and Sefer Ha-se-fa-rim,' 'The Book of Books,' are two Hebrew names for the Hebrew Bible. On the other hand, Se-fa-rim Chi-tzo-ni-yim, 'The Outside Books,' is the Hebrew name for the Apocrypha, the books known at the time the Bible was canonized, but were considered irreligious and therefore excluded. We should also mention the Book of Life, Sefer Ha-cha-yim, traditionally considered the book in which God records the fate of each person (Ps 69:29) and we should not forget Sefer Ha-Chi-nukh, 'The Book of Education,' a medieval classical book of Jewish ethical principles written by an anonymous author from Barcelona. From all that was said, it is not surprising that in Hebrew Bait Sefer, means 'school,' for bait sefer is a house of learning where 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.
Professor Rachel Zohar Dulin teaches Hebrew and Bible at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago.