The names of the children and grandchildren of Jacob are listed as they enter Egypt.1 One of these is Serach, the daughter2 of Asher. In the Midrash, Serach is described in considerable detail as a Who was Serach?powerful, wise woman, whom the great sages of Israel would ask for advice.

Who was Serach? Let us look in the midrashic accounts—and even travel to Iran—to gain a better understanding.

Joseph Is Still Alive!

The best known story about Serach is probably this one:

For many years, Jacob mourned for his beloved son Joseph, who he was convinced had been killed by wild animals. Many years after Joseph was last seen by his family, his brothers encountered him in Egypt, where he had risen in power to become second to the king. Joseph asked his brothers to hurry home and bring their elderly father back to Egypt, sending wagons with them to make it easier to transport their father and their families.

The brothers were afraid. Would the shock of the announcement that Joseph was still alive be too much for Jacob? They tried to think of a way to break it to him gently, and decided to ask Jacob’s granddaughter Serach to tell him in a way that would not be shocking.3

Midrash ha-Gadol4 says that Serach waited until Jacob began to pray. Then she stood in front of him and asked him questions: “Is Joseph in Egypt? Did he have two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim?” Jacob heard her questions, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent, he understood that Joseph was alive.

Yonatan ben Uziel, in his translation of the Torah,5 says, “Because Serach told Jacob that Joseph was alive, she entered Gan Eden (Paradise) without having to die first.”

Sefer ha-Yashar6 tells this story more vividly. It writes that Serach played a harp (or some other stringed instrument) and sang, “Joseph is still alive, and he’s a king in Egypt.” Because of her gentle way of breaking the news, Jacob gave Serach a blessing to live forever.

Identifying the Messengers of G‑d

The next time we hear about Serach is when Moses and Aaron announce to the Israelites that they are G‑d’s messengers, sent to free the Jews from their slavery in Egypt. The Midrash7 says that the elders of the children of Israel didn’t know whether or not to believe them. She wasn’t impressed when she heard about the miraclesThey knew that Jacob had told Asher the secret of how to identify the redeemer, and that Asher had passed it on to Serach. So they went to ask her opinion. She wasn’t impressed when she heard about the miracles that Moses did, but when they quoted the words that G‑d told Moses to tell to the Jews, “I have remembered you,” she said, “He’s the true savior! I learned from my father that the messenger who comes to save the Israelites from the Egyptians will use those words.”

Where Was Joseph Buried?

Another secret that Serach knew was where to find Joseph’s coffin. Before Joseph died, he made his brothers swear that when they left Egypt they would take his coffin with them and bring him back to the Promised Land. When it was time to leave Egypt, Moses searched for Joseph’s coffin, but he couldn’t find it. The Jews couldn’t leave Egypt without the coffin!

Serach was among the very few people who had been alive at the time that Joseph was buried. Moses went to her and asked, “Don’t you know where Joseph is buried?”

She answered, “The Egyptians put him into a metal coffin and sank it into the Nile River, so that its waters would be blessed by contact with his body.”8

With Serach’s help, Moses was able to fulfill the ancient promise, taking Joseph’s coffin with him when the Jewish people left Egypt.

Serach’s Long Life

Serach lived a long, long life. The first time Serach is mentioned in the Torah is when Jacob went down to Egypt, and the second mention is shortly before the Israelites entered the Land of Israel—a time span of 250 years. Rashi notes that she is mentioned in the latter verses to point out the unusual length of her life.9

Another story about Serach occurred many years after the Israelites had entered the Land of Israel. When King David ruled over Israel, a man named Sheva ben Bichri spoke badly of him, inciting a rebellion. He was chased by King David’s army until he reached a city called Avel Beit Maachah. Yoav ben Tzeruyah, the army’s commander, laid siege to the city and tried to breach the walls. But a wise woman convinced him not to destroy the whole city on account of Sheva ben Bichri alone. In the end the rebel was killed, and peace reigned again.10

Who was the wise woman? The Midrash11 says that it was Serach, the daughter of Asher. In the course of her conversation with Yoav, she said, “I am one who fulfills the faithful of Israel.” This is an allusion to Serach being the one to “fill” the quota of Jews going down to Egypt with Jacob, being the 70th person in the count.12

Another Who was the wise woman?fascinating story about Serach is told in the Midrash:13 Torah scholars were once studying the account of the exodus from Egypt. Rabbi Yochanan (a third-century Talmudic sage) read the sentence, “The waters [of the Red Sea] became a wall to their right and to their left.” He explained this to mean that the waters formed well-sealed walls. The Midrash continues, saying that Serach, the daughter of Asher, said in response to Rabbi Yochanan, “I was there, and the walls were transparent and let light through [like glass].”

The “Serach Cemetery” in Iran

Persian Jews call the Jewish cemetery of Isfahan, Iran, “Serach’s Cemetery.” One of its graves is considered to be Serach’s (although some of the Midrashic sources we read above say that Serach entered Gan Eden alive).

Serach is also mentioned in connection with some unique practices. For example, some communities have the tradition to say “The name of the daughter of Asher is Serach” during havdalah. There are other traditions involving Serach, such as invoking her name to ensure a safe journey, or to provide protection from people who wish others harm.14

Serach is undoubtedly a fascinating person, who inspires us with her wisdom and righteousness.

[The author was aided in his research by Shoshanah Ganan-Rosenbach’s article, “Serach, the Daughter of Asher—The Torah’s and Oral Tradition’s Descriptions.”]