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Bible Encyclopedias
Asaph ben Berechiah

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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One of the captive Levites carried off to Assyria (1 Chronicles 6:24 [A. V. 39]), and whom Arabic and later Jewish legend says was Vezir of Solomon (Al-Nadim, "Kitab-al-Fihrist," 1:19; Jellinek, "B. H." 5:23). To him is ascribed a very remarkable treatise on medicine, called "Sefer Asaf," "Midrash Refu'ot," or "Sefer Refu'ot"—Probably the oldest treatise of its kind in Hebrew—manuscripts of which exist in the libraries of Florence, Paris, Munich, Vienna (Pinsker 15, fragmentary), London (Almanzi collection; see Steinschneider, "Hebr. Bibl." 5:23), and Oxford. The contents of these manuscripts vary; but, in general, they contain treatises on the Persian months, physiology, embryology, the four periods of man's life, the four winds, diseases of various organs, hygiene, medicinal plants, medical calendar, the practise of medicine, as well as an antidotarium, urinology, aphorisms, and the Hippocratic oath.

The introduction is in the form of the later Midrash, and ascribes the origin of medicine to Shem, the son of Noah, who received it from the angels. The only authorities cited are "the books of the wise men of India," and a "book of the ancients," from which the present work was translated. Mar Mor, the Christian of Salerno; Mar Joseph, the physician; Bonfils, the physician; Rudolf, the physician in Worms; Samuel, the physician, etc., occur in additions made to the Oxford manuscript. Steinschneider and Löw, however, have shown that the list of medicinal plants goes back to Dioscorides; and the aphorisms can only be a working over of the well-known treatise of Hippocrates. In other places, Steinschneider has suspected the influence of Galen.

On the Author's Name.

There are very few indications affording any clue to the author or to the time and place in which he wrote. The author's name varies: "Asaph ha-Yehudi" (Asaph the Jew), "Asaph Ḳaṭan" (Asaph the little), "Asaph ha-Rofé" (Asaph the physician), "Asaph he-Ḥakam" (Asaph the wise man). In the Bodleian manuscript this name is coupled with that of Johanan ha-YarḦoni, which Fürst takes to mean "of Jericho." In the Paris manuscript (No. 1197, 7) the name reads "Asaph ben Berechiah ha-YarḦoni" (Asaph the astronomer). In one place in the Bodleian manuscript Judah ha-YarḦoni is mentioned, and in a later part Samuel YarḦinaï. A Johanan ben Zabda is mentioned together with Asaph in connection with the Hippocratic oath.

In the quasi-historical introduction, Asaph is placed between Hippocrates and Dioscorides. Rapoport saw in the name Asaph a corruption of either Æsop or Æsculapius, and thought that the author might be identical either with Shabbethai Donnolo or Isaac Israeli. Neubauer ("Orient und Occident," 2:659,767) held that Asaph was a Christian of the eleventh century, who wrote originally in Arabic, and whose work was translated into Hebrew from the Latin. The more correct view seems to be that it was translated from some Syriac original, as Steinschneider holds. Hebrew, Aramean, Persian, Greek, and Latin technical terms abound. This would place its composition somewhere in northern Syria or in Mesopotamia, rather than in Palestine, as Zunz thought. In this connection it is interesting to note that Solomon ben Samuel of Urgendsh (Gurgany) makes free use of Asaph's list of plants in the Persian-Hebrew lexicon which he composed in the fourteenth century (Bacher, "Ein Hebräisch-Persisches Wörterbuch," p. 41).

Date of Composition.

The date of composition can only be determined in a general way from the quotations of the work in Jewish literature. Donnolo (born 925 in Oria), if Kaufmann is right ("Die Sinne," p. 150), is the oldest known authority who quotes the work; and till Gedaliah ibn YaḦya (sixteenth century) there were about a dozen authorities, among them Hai Gaon and Rashi, who mention Asaph's book. The date of composition would thus be in the ninth or tenth century, about the time at which Dioscorides was translated into Syriac. There is a legend that Socrates was a pupil of Asaph (Steinschneider, "Hebr. Uebers." p. 870).

A Latin rendering of a portion of the work is tobe found in a Paris manuscript (No. 655, 6), under the title "Distinctio Mundi Secundum Magistrum Asaph Hebræum, Qualiter Terra Permanet Ordinata"; it has been published by Neubauer. Steinschneider suggests that the name occurs in a corrupted form in a Greek manuscript, "Viaticum" (Paris, MS. No. 2241), as Ασιψ υἱος Ιρακίου.

  • A complete description of the work is given by Steinschneider in Hebr. Bibl. 19:35,64,84,105.
  • The introduction has been printed by Jellinek in Bet ha-Midrash, 3:155, and the Hippocratic oath by Fuenn in Karmel, 1:239, and by Dukes in Monatsschrift, 8:202;
  • compare Steinschneider, c.
  • A number of quotations will be found in Kaufmann, Die Sinne, Index, s.
  • The Aramaic terminology has been studied by Löw in Aramäische Pflanzennamen, p. 24 et passim.
  • Compare also Wolf, Bibl. Hebr. 4:789;
  • Steinschneider, Donnolo (1868), passim;
  • idem, Jewish Literature, p. 367;
  • Rapoport, in Oẓar ha-Ḥokmah, ed. J. Barasch, p. (Vienna, 1856);
  • Zunz, in Geiger's Jüd. Zeitschrift, 4:199, reprinted in his Gesammelte Schriften, 1:160;
  • Neubauer, in Orient und Occident, 2:659,767;
  • idem, Cat. Bodl. Hebr. MSS. No. 2138;
  • Fürst, Gesch. der Karäer, pp. 24, 139;
  • Monatsschrift, 6:277.
L. G.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Asaph ben Berechiah'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​a/asaph-ben-berechiah.html. 1901.
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