The Hebrew Book of Creation and the Syriac Treatise of Shem

ARAM, 24 (2012), pp. 203-218  Meir Bar-Ilan

 

Introduction

The aim of this paper is to outline the connection between two books that originated in different cultures, one written in Syriac and one in Hebrew. Additionally, one is almost unknown, while the other has the status of a best-seller. Needless to say, until now those scholars who have studied one book have not studied the other; this is the inaugural paper in which an intellectual connection between the two is posited.

A. The Syriac Treatise of Shem: technical notes

The Syriac Treatise of Shem appears in Syriac MS 44, ff. 81b-83b in the John Rylands University Library of Manchester.1 It was first published in 1917 by Alphonse Mingana (1878-1937), who also edited the text.2 Many years later James H. Charlesworth published a revised version of the text in three different forms, among them his acclaimed edition, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (1983).3 The Treatise of Shem is an astrological manual belonging to a genre that some call calendologion, in which the horoscopes of people and places are related; one of its most interesting characteristics is the connection typically made between one’s fate and his name. The content of this book will be discussed more thoroughly after certain necessary clarifications concerning the book’s attribution, provenance, and date are delineated.

A.1 Attribution to Shem, son of Noah

The Treatise of Shem begins with a header; the coming discussion will focus upon this feature of the text. Charlesworth translated it as follows:

The Treatise Composed by Shem, the Son of Noah, Concerning the Beginning of the Year and Whatever Occurs in it.

Charlesworth was not surprised to find this attribution to a Biblical hero, though unknown from any other source, because he had postulated that the authorial ascription of Shem to this text was similar to the case of the attribution of the Apocalypse of Ezra (Revelatio Esdrae) to another Biblical hero. There is a great difference between the situation of the Treatise of Shem and that of other books to which various Biblical heroes were attributed, however. In the Apocalypse of Ezra (or Baruch), for example, the protagonist is mentioned frequently in the text; an angel calls the hero, and his name is dispersed repeatedly throughout the book that is attributed to him. Unlike this case, in Treatise of Shem, the name of the hero appears only once in the header. Consequently, any Biblical scholar who is familiar with Biblical superscripts, such as those in Psalms,4 for example, should ask himself whether this attribution was made by the original author or by a later scribe who might have added the superscript.

Before further discussion of this attribution it is necessary to draw attention to two specific words in Syriac, since they have the potential to reveal significant information about our problem. There are two different words in Syriac that sound like homonyms and that are written almost identically. The word “name” in Syriac is pronounced Shem and is written with Shin-Mem (e.g., Gen. 2:11). However, Shem, son of Noah, is spelled in the biblical text with shin-yud-mem (Gen. 6:10), so the difference in Syriac between Shem, a Biblical hero, and a ‘name’ depends solely on a small Yud. Therefore, it is assumed that the original superscript was Treatise of Shem, which means a Treatise of Name, while a later scribe mistakenly added a small Yud, which lead (he or his follower) to the mistaken idea that he held the book of a biblical hero, not a volume concerning names. While reading the book it becomes evident that Treatise of Shem has nothing to do with any Biblical hero (the figure of Shem is mentioned only once), but rather it tells (a total of 12 times) the connection between one’s name and one’s fate.

The assumed addition of a small extra Yud is not improbable if one considers the work of the specific scribe. Charlesworth quotes Mingana’s opinion about the copyist who ‘was an extremely bad Syriac scholar’ and also expresses his judgment that Cod. Syr. 44 is ‘the most unsatisfactory Syriac manuscript which I have ever seen’. It is also necessary to add that in the Hebrew Bible (as well as in the Syriac Bible) there are several cases where an extra Yud (that serves as a means of accent) appears for no recognizable purpose (according to spelling rules that were developed later),5 so the assumption that a Yud was similarly added to the superscript here is highly probable. Thus, a new attribution was mistakenly made to the son of Noah, which caused Charlesworth to believe that this was the original Syriac tradition.

In other words, the Treatise of Shem had nothing to do with the son of Noah, except for the fact that there was a later scribe who misspelled the word Shem by adding extra Yud and so caused this false attribution. Thus the attribution of the book to Shem, son of Noah, is not an original literary attribution but rather a later scribal error.

A.2 Provenance of the Treatise of Shem

Charlesworth was of the opinion that ‘the Treatise of Shem was composed in Alexandria’. He came to this conclusion because of the many references to the Nile and to Alexandria, together with the mention of boats and fishing. These led him to hold firmly to his conclusion. A quote from the book about ‘Robbers who come from Palestine’ just served to reinforce his opinion.

However, when one investigates any book’s provenance it is not recommended to focus on one place-name only, but rather to bear the whole geographical picture in mind. This methodological warning is directed towards the brief discussion (filling only about a half of a page) made by Charlesworth, who neglected to tell his attentive reader that many other places are referred to in the book. Moreover, a look at the entire list of geographical names will show why there is not sufficient reason to accept Charlesworth’s view, especially when one takes into consideration that he holds an astrological book in his hand.

Let us look at all the geographical places according their order of appearance in the book:

Chapter Places
1 Nile, Egypt, Africa, Damascus, Hauran, Palestine
2 Egypt, the entire earth, Nile
3 Nile
4 Nile, Alexandria
5 Nile
6 Hauran, Bythnynia, Alexandria, Nile
7 Africa, Galilee, Hauran, Damascus, Nile, Egypt, [Gali]lee, Beth Bardune (?)
8 Nile
9 Egypt
10 Damascus, Hauran
11 Palestine
12 Nile, Egypt, Palestine

When looking at all these place-names it is clear that Egypt and the Nile are mentioned proportionally more than other locations. However, using these names as a key-factor to determine the text’s provenance leads one to realize that proportion of word count is not enough, but rather that the whole picture must be considered. The reason for this is very clear: the book in hand is an astrological manual, and as such the author’s intention is to give predictions concerning all probabilities. Just as he relates to the whole year and to names from the whole alphabet (infra), he writes about ‘the entire earth’ from Damascus in the north to Egypt and Africa in the south. The author does not write about the Nile per se, but about the overflowing waters of the Nile (mentioned not less than 9 times), and it seems that he is interested in this because it is, no doubt, more dramatic than any other natural phenomenon in the Middle East (the Euphrates included, since both rivers behave very differently). It should not be overlooked that the author not only tells about the Nile, but he also predicts rainfall during 11 months (out of 12, by writing ‘rain’ 14 times), and rain is not an Egyptian phenomenon (in northern Egypt there is an average of only one rainy day per year). In any event, an astrologer who knows that natural phenomenon move like a wheel should be aware of the broader picture, and therefore any place-name mentioned should not be taken as the singular provenance of the author in the first place.

While staying cautious concerning the use of the place names to determine the provenance of the author, three factors should nonetheless be considered. First, the text is written in Syriac, and there is more probability that a Syrian text in a Syrian manuscript was written in Syria than in any other location. Second, the connection between astrology and weather prediction is attested to in Babylonia,6 but not in Egypt or any other place in the ancient world, certainly because there is almost no rain in Egypt, and weather in the surrounding desert stays the same throughout the year. Third, the author mentions Hauran and Bythnia, places that very few have heard of. Now, Hauran is in southern Syria, while the location of Bythnia (Btonia in the Syriac text) is somewhat questionable. Charlesworth thought that this place is in northern Trans-Jordan, or as he suggests, ‘this is Batanaea, north of Hauran’. One may suspect that the word, instead of referring to an unknown place, denotes Bythnia (Βιθυνία in Greek), a region in Anatolia, in modern (north-west) Turkey. Since there is no way to determine the exact word in its original form, one should accept the location of Hauran as certainly a Syrian region. Chances are that people outside of this area have never heard this name; even today, this is a seriously underdeveloped area. In other words, the unknown place should be understood as disclosing the author’s geographical location (especially since in this region Syrian is spoken, the language in which the book under discussion was composed).

All in all, the Treatise of Shem, written in Syriac and containing Mesopotamian traditions, should be acknowledged as having been composed in Syria, perhaps by a person who originated in Hauran.

A.3 Date of Treatise of Shem

The way that Charlesworth discusses the date of the text is questionable, to say the least, and so I present here a new approach to deal with this problem.

It is true that determining any text’s date is not an easy task, certainly that of a text about which very little is known concerning its intellectual milieu. Moreover, an astrologer who has the entire earth in mind, as well as the entire year and many other changeable factors, must have written a text with the capacity to be adapted to a wide range of cases, and thus his words may be applicable to several years if not centuries. Anyone who reads modern astrological horoscopes may see that such a style of writing also prevails today. This genre thus makes the life of the historian of an astrological book much more difficult than that of a historian of politics, for example. Thus, robbers that come from Palestine,7 according the author of the Treatise of Shem, in certain astrological circumstances, cannot be taken as disclosing the date of the text. Wars have always occurred, so they too cannot be taken as reflecting a specific time, but when the author talks about the wars of the Romans, this may be a clue as to time period. Chapter 3, for example, mentions wars between the Romans and the Parthians, so this might reduce the reflected time to the early centuries of this era (presumably 69 BC – 216 AC). However, reading Charlesworth closely reveals that in the text there are no Parthians at all; they were added by the editor in a lacuna (contra Mingana), and one cannot come to any historical conclusion based on a speculated emendation.

Charlesworth interpreted the mention of the Romans to reflect the Roman period, and since he considered Alexandria to be the birth-place of the text he concluded – after a commentary on the text that resembles deciphering the Oracle – that the text was composed (by a Jew) ‘after 31 BC, probably by the late twenties, when the victory at Actium had become a major part of Roman Propaganda’. Unfortunately, this looks to me like the type of homiletic interpretation that a serious scholar should abstain from for more than one reason.

It should be noted that the Syrians called Byzantium Rome (or New Rome), as has already been noted by Mingana; this understanding increases the range of the era the author might have been living through. However, the main problem with Charlesworth’s conclusion is of a different category. If this Syrian text was written in the first century BCE, it would seem that Charlesworth should have cried: ‘Eureka!’ for that would mean that he had found the earliest Syriac text ever to be written. However, it appears that this joy would have been premature, since there is no evidence whatsoever indicating such an early date.

Since there is no compulsory internal evidence concerning its date, all one can take into consideration is the nature of the text as an astrological Syrian document, and such texts are known to have come into existence at a much later date.8 This does not lead us to any specific date, but since Arabs are not mentioned in the narrative it seems that the text originated before the Arab conquest.

This hypothesis is augmented when one reads a Jewish Aramaic poem that was composed in the Byzantine era, during the 4th-7th centuries.9 The poet discusses varieties of Zodiacal happenings, such as what happens to the earth if the new moon of the new year tends southwards or northwards, and these omens tell the poet, that is, the astrologer, how the grain will grow the coming year. The poet continues to discuss such omens for each and every month of the year, similarly to the system that the Treatise of Shem is based upon, so it looks as if the two texts have much in common. The respective authors share not only (almost) the same language but also the same concepts and words, such as prices of grain, Egypt, shortage of water in the Nile, prosperity, diseases, the lot of (four-footed) animals, how the sea will behave, wars, and more. It is easily seen, even without a deeper insight into the texts, that both evolved from the same culture and originated in the same Zeitgeist.

The Aramaic Jewish text that has parallels in the Syriac manuscript reveals, or so it appears, that the Treatise of Shem was purportedly composed during time period of the 4th-7th centuries, but as a consequence of the disclosure of its affinities with the Book of Creation (infra), one can now narrow the range of centuries, so that it is to be assumed the book was composed during the 5th-6th centuries.

The bottom line of this chapter is threefold: first, the Treatise of Shem has no connection to pseudepigrapha, though some later scribe “corrected” the name of the book and thus it was attributed to Shem, son of Noah, while its name was in fact Treatise of Name, without any intention to indicate a pseudepigraphic work. Second, its date is certainly not from the first century BCE, but rather from the 4th-7th centuries, and third, its provenance was (northern) Syria. It is needless to add that the inclusion of this book in the Pseudepigrapha is simply a mistake.

These conclusions lead to another refutation: the Treatise of Shem is assumed to be of Jewish origin. When one claims that a Jewish person wrote a book in Syriac, one must show a parallel to this phenomenon. A century ago Moritz Steinschneider, one of the greatest scholars in Judaic studies, an orientalist and bibliographer, already wrote that no Jewish author had written in Syriac,10 and we have not discovered anything new in this field since that fact was recorded. There is nothing that can conclusively support the assumed Jewish origin of the book except the name of Passover that is mentioned in it. However, it is common knowledge that not only Jews recognize the holiday of Passover but Christians do as well. Mentioning ‘Pascha’ in a calendrical book does not suffice to make a book Jewish, especially when the content shares much in common with Mesopotamian non-Jewish traditions, as well as mentioning both Damascus and Hauran. No doubt, the Treatise of Shem is not a Jewish book.

B. The Hebrew Book of Creation

At first glance there is almost nothing that the Hebrew Book of Creation and the Syriac Treatise of Shem have in common, except that in both books the names of all the Zodiac signs appear. Unlike the Syriac book, that was unknown until the 20th century, the Book of Creation has been well-known since the 10th century. Moreover, some 60 commentaries have been written on this volume, and its role in Jewish culture is unique: the book is considered to be the foundation text of the Kabala, the Jewish esoteric tradition. In the Jewish tradition the Book of Creation won an acclaim that only canonical books have achieved. Not only that, but it was attributed to Abraham the Patriarch (though this is not explicitly stated in the text). For these [good] reasons the book has been translated into several languages: not less than three times into Latin (in 1552, 1587, and 1642) and later into numerous modern languages, such as German, English, and others.11

The content of the Book of Creation is far from being clear. Except for the description of the Creator as creating the world by tying one Hebrew letter to each and every sign of the Zodiac, to the moving stars, and to the three elements (fire, water, and wind), nothing is clear in this book. With no exaggeration, it is considered the most difficult book in the whole Hebrew literary tradition (some add in literature of any known language). When one reads the text it makes no sense, though with one or two exceptions, the words themselves are reasonably comprehensible.

Before any further discussion it should be noted that already more than a century ago it was stated that this book contains astrology,12 but for one reason or other, Gershom Scholem, the Lord of Kabala in the 20th century, ignored that idea,13 and thus the relationships between astrology and the Book of Creation have yet to be analyzed.14

B.1 Reading the Book of Creation

Many scholars have tried to read the Book of Creation and failed. Somehow, the book makes no sense, though the reason for that is not apparent. Even R. Yehuda Halevi (12th c.), one of the greatest Jewish poets and philosophers of the Middle Ages, was confused by this book. In his famous book the Kuzari, where Halevi tries to explain the Book of Creation, he writes as follows (4:25): ‘the hint is understood generally but it is difficult to explain it in detail’. This statement is made by a scholar whose command of the Hebrew language has almost no peer, so one must indeed ask what makes the text so difficult. With this warning in mind, hereafter the difficulties of the text will be delineated as well as suggestions offered as to how to nonetheless read the book.

First, there are few paragraphs in the text that are not bizarre. One example is the concluding paragraph, which is a short story about Abraham the Patriarch that describes a scene in which the Lord was seen by him, kissed him, and made a covenant with him. The story is a kind of homily, retelling the Bible in a new mystical way, but nonetheless intelligible. Unlike this relatively straightforward paragraph, the majority of the text suffers from three different problems: 1) too many numbers, 2) too few verbs, and 3) too many repeated words. These problems will now be discussed in this order.

In this short book 20 different numbers are recorded, many of them repeated several times (e.g., the number ‘twelve’ appears 25 times), and this makes for a total of some 190 numbers (written in 235 words) that appear in a text of only some 2000 words (number-words included)! In all, that is, 11% of the text is numbers. Truly, this fact is not well understood, so one should take into consideration that the book of Esther is the book with the largest percentage of numbers in comparison to any other Biblical book, and the percentage of the number-words, out of the total of 3045 words in that document, is only 3.31. It thus appears as if the significant difference between these figures of 11% versus 3.31% indeed wants to tell its own story, though its exact meaning is not easy to understand. One fact is evident: The Book of Creation contains more numbers than most Jewish religious books, if not all of them. This is, so it is believed, why the text sounds unintelligible.

The other phenomenon that adds to the book’s strangeness is the lack of verbs in the text. Usually, in any language, each and every sentence has at least one verb, but there are many sentences where several verbs appear. This is the case, for example, in the concluding paragraph of the present book. The story of Abraham the Patriarch is easy to understand, since it is told using several verbs (inter alia, nine consecutive verbs). This makes the text intelligible. However, in some paragraphs in the Book of Creation there is not even one verb, and in some cases, though there is the grammatically requisite verb, the meaning of the text is still far from clear. The verbs are separated one from the other in some cases by 50 words, and even by as many as 61 (#37), which creates the impression of just a pile of words rather than a meaningful passage. R. Yehuda Halevi was not alone when he stated that the details of the book are not clear. If one can’t comprehend the details, it is no wonder that the full picture is also blurred.

As already mentioned, a significant amount of numbers appear in the text, and many of them appear several times. However, not only numbers are repeated; many words also occur several times, unlike the text of a normative book. For example, the word ‘world’ appears 35 times, ‘soul’ appears 34 times, ‘year’ appears 31 times, ‘wind’ appears 26 times, and so forth. That is to say, together with the many numbers which are present in the text, this book is unique in its word dispersion, and unlike a “regular” document. Looking at the types of words in the text and the way that they are multiplied shows that this is not a regular prose or poetry composition. Oddly enough, though each and every word is intelligible, the repetitions make the book strange, very strange.

As a matter of fact, it is not easy to say what is wrong in the Book of Creation or how to explain it. Former scholars have looked into its content, but it seems more productive to examine its structure. The more one looks at the volume the clearer it becomes that the problem with the text is its unprecedented composition. However, careful analysis is necessary in order to understand how to solve the difficulty of reading this text. Now, the excess of numbers does not appear to be a problem, and the most one can deduce out of these many numbers is that the author was fond of numerical configurations. This in and of itself is not a new idea, since it was formerly observed that in this text there is a mathematical exercise entailing combinations (computing sums of words out of two different letters in Hebrew); additionally, it has already been stated that the author of the Book of Creation was a mathematician.15 Though the author discusses combinations of letters of the Hebrew alphabet, it is easily comprehended that this branch of mathematics complements the author’s astrological focus, since astrologers customarily discuss combinations of people, dates, stars, and so forth. In Antiquity and afterwards, mathematics went hand in hand with astronomy and astrology, and these sciences were considered as one aspect of mathematics. In all, the many numbers in the Book of Creation reveal a lot about the author’s capabilities in mathematics and astronomy, aptitudes which are evident from his mention of ‘Tali’ (an Hapax legomenon in the book that derives from Syriac = Draco) and astrology. In all, this data accumulates to create the “academic profile” of the author of the Book of Creation: a mathematician, astrologer, and astronomer.

Too many numbers in a given text is one matter, but a small number of verbs and repeated words are different phenomena that are usually not considered problematic. In this case, it appears that the basic answer to these two problems is that the book is compiled from several lists, and one cannot discuss the meaning of a list in a literary text without reference to the seminal work on this subject done by Jack Goody.16 There is not sufficient room here to review Goody’s discussion of lists; suffice it to say that usually lists have no verbs, as is the case with a telephone book, and this may explain the shortage of verbs in the Book of Creation. Usually a list can be presented in a table, but the problem with the lists in the book under discussion is that they are not drawn from a regular table, which is rectangular, but rather taken from a circular table. Just as a year is circular, so are these lists. Furthermore, lists of months or of Zodiac signs are normatively drawn in a circle, and preferably in groups of three. The Zodiac names are placed at the beginning of a list, and additional concepts are subsequently added. The resulting circle represents the connection between the months, the Zodiac, and the Hebrew letters, in a depiction of the concept, which appears in the book, that the Lord Himself tied a letter to each and every Zodiac sign.

Thus, the investigation of the Book of Creation proceeds to three discs, or “wheels” in the book (par. 18, 55, 59), and with the help of the text one can situate many lists on the discs. The larger disc is divided into 12 sections according to the zodiac signs; the middle disc is divided into 7 sections according the 7 planets; and the smallest disc is divided into 3 sections, according the 3 elements, probably according a Pythagorean concept. On the whole there are 22 sections, corresponding to the number of letters in the Hebrew Alphabet. On the discs there are about 160 words, but when calculating these words and their multiplications in the book, it is quite clear that these discs comprise some 50% of the whole text, if not more. What is even more noteworthy is that these “wheels” give a sense of the whole book. All of the words on the discs come from the Book of Creation, and are recorded in a circle-line according to their appearance in the book, so one may look at the discs as a kind of typography to the original text. When watching the words and letters on the disks and rotating the discs back and forth, it becomes evident that they are the product of an astrologer. One who is aware of the Zodiac man, based on micro-macro cosmos,17 will find this concept reflected in the discs, since each and every section of the human body is related to one zodiac sign, or one of the planets, or the three elements. However, reading the work of former scholars of the Book of Creation leads one to wonder whether the concept of the Zodiac man was known to all those who have tried to decipher this book.

The bottom line is this: to understand the Book of Creation one should be acquainted with astrology as well as with the list theory (or: Listenwissenschaft), and if one needs a shortcut he should look into the discs, since they represent the book, or at least its essence.

B.2 How to use the discs

There is no one type of astrological book. On the contrary, just as two prophets or two poets can express similar ideas in different ways, such is the case with astrologers: each wrote his own treatise in a different mode. There are astrological works that demonstrate the author’s scientific knowledge, while there are others that tend to look like magic books. Each and every astrological book has its own character, though there are times when it is not easy to define the exact differences between two types of works.

The Treatise of Shem is a manual, as it is clear from its construction according the months of the year, and in each section there are condition-sentences, such as: if an event occurs in heaven, then something on earth will happen as well. This type of condition-sentences is common in many astrological works, and therefore it seems the author had learned his field from a specific source or sources, and that he compiled his book with the assistance of his former colleagues’ works and experience. However, the astrological information in the Book of Creation is not easy to use. On the contrary, it looks like the author drew close connections between astrology and the Lord of monotheism by depicting God as creating ties between the Hebrew alphabet – the elements of the world – and the 22 “zones” that symbolize the micro-macro cosmos, certainly derived from non-Jewish sources. However, except for this matter, the author kept silent, and did not offer predictions nor say anything about what would happen when these or other astrological conditions will occur.

Looking at the discs created out of the Book of Creation will lead one to suggest readings of some sorts of probabilities in these rich discs. Just as the author of the Treatise of Shem wrote that in this or that circumstance a specific event will happen, so must be the case with the discs of the Book of Creation. Suppose one who was born under the sign of Taurus came to see a doctor on Tuesday claiming that his right nostril is bleeding. Couldn’t the astrologer tell his patient what to do? The many human body organs mentioned in the discs lead one to assume that the author of this book was a doctor-astrologer, as we know this occupation was practiced from antiquity until the high Middle Ages.18

The conclusion of this discussion is that with the aid of the theories and the new typography suggested here, the text of the Book of Creation seems to be more intelligible than had previously been the case. However, it is not clear how all the astrological information was processed. It is hoped that a scholar with wide-ranging knowledge of astrology will delve into this problem, and in the future will step forward with an idea as to the exact manner in which the discs were used. In other words, what is needed is a “translation” of the book from theory into practice, in order to compile a manual according the Book of Creation.

C. Two astrologers: two books

There is no doubt that the Book of Creation is a Jewish religious document; although it depicts God as The Creator, it portrays Him in a very different way from that in which He is depicted in the book of Genesis. While other aspects of the book might be considered of dubious content, there has been an agreement concerning the religious value of the book for centuries.19 Several of the greatest sages among the Jews have written commentaries on this book, and although the commentaries are highly diverse as to their judgment of the book’s contents, there is an agreement concerning the author’s motivation to discuss the greatness of The Creator. Unlike the Hebrew book, however, the Syriac counterpart has no religious merit. It is true that the text mentions God a few times, but in a very sporadic way. As already stated, the book is a manual that lists many sorts of probabilities; this has nothing in common with descriptions of the way God rules the world.

Although there are many differences between the Hebrew Book of Creation and the Syriac Treatise of Shem, it looks like the authors share some common values, or intellectual milieu, and hereafter additional similarities between the books will be discussed. First and foremost, both books are astrological in nature, though the authors express their astrology in different ways. The Syrian author gives his monthly predictions according to his own tradition, while his Hebrew counterpart says nothing about practical usage of his astrological conceptions. In the Book of Creation there are no conditional sentences, and though it is clear that the author of this book was quite interested in depicting God as The Creator, the reader has to guess how the Zodiac signs or stars influence one’s life.

C.2 One’s fate depends on his or her name

There is one aspect of astrology that these two authors have in common: the connection of letters to the Zodiac. This branch of astrology, which is not well known, is examined here.

The author of the Treatise of Shem connects one’s fate with one’s name in the following manner. For eight of the Zodiac signs he writes a prediction that affiliates the letters of one’s name to one’s fate. Here is an example: (Taurus) ‘everyone whose name contains Beth or Yudh or Kaph will become ill’. Additional statements of this type in the text show that fate depends upon letters; this is also the case of the Book of Creation, though in a different manner. According to the Jewish author, God connected – literally: tied – to each Zodiac’s sign a different letter, but the author tells nothing about the meaning or the usage of this knowledge. In any event, one can make the following comparison between the Syrian and the Hebrew volumes:

Zodiac The Treatise of Shem The Book of Creation
Aries He
Taurus Bet, Yudh, Kaph Waw
Gemini Taw, Heth, Mim Zein
Cancer Heth
Leo Teth
Virgo Yude, Semkath, Beth, Nun Yudh
Libra Yudh, Beth Lamed
Scorpio Taw, Yudh Nun
Sagittarius Beth, Pe Sameh
Capricorn Qoph Ain
Aquarius Lamed, Pe Sade
Pisces Kaph, Mim Qoph

The Syrian connection between letters and Zodiac signs is clear, though its use is a bit confusing for several reasons. First, this connection is made for only 9 of the Zodiac signs, and is not fully outlined in all of them, as it seems it should be (as it is in the Hebrew counterpart, though the alphabet is incomplete, because the letters are related also to the seven planets and to the three elements). Second, not all the letters appear, and third, some of the letters appear in more than one sign. However, the reader should be aware, not only of the poor output of the scribe, as related above, but also of the state of the manuscript, since it suffers from many lacuna, as has already been mentioned by its editors. This is not the place to suggest any emendation; all one can say is that the affiliation between names and fate is only partially discussed in the Syriac Treatise of Shem.

On the other hand, the Hebrew Book of Creation is very systematic, and its lists are organized according an intrinsic order. The book was not intended to be a manual, and therefore it is not easy to state the exact meanings of all of the probabilities hinted at in the book, or on the discs. The author writes nothing about predictions, but rather discusses the way that God created the world. In any event, the Hebrew writer was aware of the connection of letters to the Zodiac, and there is a reason to believe that he made up his horoscopes in the same manner that his Syrian counterpart did.

A similar connection between one’s fate and name appears in the Mandaic Book of the Zodiac, though here it is based on Numerology.20 This book, derived from several different manuscripts, should be analyzed for additional parallels with the Treatise of Shem, but it suffices to say at present that the Mandaic system proclaims that each and every person has his own numerological value, and thus makes predictions according their names. For example, when one wants to know the gender of an expected child; or who, among brothers, will die first; or if a fugitive or lost property will be returned, all he has to do is to calculate the numerological value of both people involved (such as master and slave); thus, it is apparent that one’s fate depends on one’s name. This system is not precisely the same as that employed in the Treatise of Shem, but there is no question that both systems emerged from a similar idea: one’s name is his or her fate.

From the Cairo Genizah we have an astrological text that was published some 40 years ago by Ithamar Gruenwald (T-S K 2188).21 The main issue concerning the fragmentary text is its affiliation to Physiognomic and Chiromantic, but it should be mentioned that in a few places the horoscope discussed alludes to the letters in one’s name. For example: ‘at the age of 29 years of age he will marry a woman that her name’s first letter is HET’, or: ‘…and marries a wife that her name’s first letter is HE’. The text is incomplete and thus the whole system is enigmatic. However, it is clear that in the Land of Israel, around the 6th-9th centuries, there lived an astrologer Jew who believed in the dependence of one’s fate upon his name. This is not exactly the same omen as appears in the Treatise of Shem, but the relationship is easy to discern.

It is not an easy task to ascertain who invented this connection between one’s name and fate, so there is a need to look for comparative material in order to shed light upon this problem. The numerological mode of prediction was practiced by numerologists in the high Middle-Ages, but it has been shown they merely implemented a method that had originated in the book Secreta secretum, falsely attributed to Aristotle, and probably a Byzantine book.22 Another parallel appears in the Book of Asaph the Physician, a huge volume written in Hebrew by a professional physician, probably in the 6th-7th centuries.23 This is not the forum in which to discuss yet another enigmatic book; suffice it to say that a connection was found between this book and the Book of Creation in another aspect, and though each author had his own technique as to how to connect one’s name to his fate, it looks like all authors shared the same Zeitgeist.24 In any event, unmistakably additional research is required on this aspect.

Conclusion

Two different books from two different cultures shed light on each other, being part of a shared astrological tradition. At first glance they look very different from one another, but the more one studies them the more it becomes evident that they stem from the same world of thought.

By now it is clear that Treatise of Shem needs a new introduction. It is hoped that further study will be devoted to this book, especially to deciphering its predecessors as well as its system of connecting one’s name to his fate. Though the Book of Creation has been under study for more than a millennium, it is time to reveal the author‘s affiliations with Syriac tradition; additional data on this subject will shed new light on the origin of this unique book.



JRUL Syr. 44 81v

Chapter 1: Treatise of Shem

Charlesworth Bar-Ilan Claim Bar-Ilan Conclusion
1 Attribution to Shem son of Noah Scribal error
שם - שים
No attribution,
No pseudepigrapha
2 Provenance Egypt Nile – Rains / Damascus, Hauran Syria
3 Date First century BC The earliest? about 4-7th centuries
4 Author Jew Nothing is Jewish
Mesopotamian traditions
Non-Jew

Chapter Places
1 Nile, Egypt, Africa, Damascus, Hauran, Palestine
2 Egypt, the entire earth, Nile
3 Nile
4 Nile, Alexandria
5 Nile
6 Hauran, Bythnynia, Alexandria, Nile
7 Africa, Galilee, Hauran, Damascus, Nile, Egypt, [Gali]lee, Beth Bardune (?)
8 Nile
9 Egypt
10 Damascus, Hauran
11 Palestine
12 Nile, Egypt, Palestine

Chapter 2: Book of Creation

Reasons for illegibility of the Book of Creation:
1. Too many numbers: 235 out of some 2000 words (11%).
2. Few verbs
3. Too many repeated words (world – 35; soul – 34; year – 31).

Conclusion: mathematician wrote lists organized in circular discs to compute probabilities of occurrences.

Chapter 3:One’s name makes his fate

Zodiac The Treatise of Shem The Book of Creation
Aries He
Taurus Bet, Yudh, Kaph Waw
Gemini Taw, Heth, Mim Zein
Cancer Heth
Leo Teth
Virgo Yude, Semkath, Beth, Nun Yudh
Libra Yudh, Beth Lamed
Scorpio Taw, Yudh Nun
Sagittarius Beth, Pe Sameh
Capricorn Qoph Ain
Aquarius Lamed, Pe Sade
Pisces Kaph, Mim Qoph

1. http://enriqueta.man.ac.uk:8180/luna/servlet/view/search;jsessionid=774ADD4FA3E3840002D8F46FA7B2B261?q=Syriac+Ms.+44+

2. A. Mingana, Some Early Judaeo-Christian Documents in the John Rylands Library: Syriac Texts, Manchester: University of Manchester, 1917, pp. 52-59 [text], 24-29 [transl; repr. from Bulletin of The John Rylands University Library, 4 (1917), pp. 59-118.

3. James H. Charlesworth, ‘Rylands Syriac Ms. 44 and A New Addition to the Pseudepigrapha: The Treatise of Shem, Discussed and Translated’, Bulletin of The John Rylands University Library 60 (1977), pp. 376-403; idem. (ed.), The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Doubleday, New York, 1983-1985, I, pp. 473-486; idem. ‘Die “Schrift des Sem”: Einführung, Text und Übersetzung’, Wolfgang Haase (ed.), Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (ANRW), II.20.2 Berlin – New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1987, pp. 951-987.

4. W. Bloemendaal, The Headings of the Psalms in the East Syrian Church, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1960; Bruce K. Waltke, ‘Superscripts, Postscripts, or Both’, JBL, 110 (1991), pp. 583-596; Harry F. van Rooy, ‘The “Hebrew” Psalm Headings in Syriac Manuscript 12T4’, JNSL, 25/1 (1999), pp. 225-237.

5. For example Lev. 19:16; Psa. 68:36; 2 Chro. 6:42.

6. A. H. Hunger, ‘Astrologische Wettervorhersagen’, Zeitschrift für Assyriologie, 66 (1976), pp. 234-260.

7. Between Palestine and Egypt there is a desert that robbers cannot cross without being noticed. However, from Palestine to Syria the situation is very different (compare: Judges 11:3).

8. G. Furlani, ‘Astrologisches aus syrischen Handschriften’, ZDMG, 75 (1921), pp. 122-128; E. A. Wallis Budge, Syrian Anatomy pathology and therapeutics, 2 vols., London – New York: Oxford University Press, 1913 (esp. II. 519-714).

9. J. C. Greenfield and M. Sokoloff, ‘Astrological and Related Omen Texts in Jewish Palestinian Aramaic’, JNES, 48 (1989), pp. 201-214; M. Sokoloff and J. Yahalom, Jewish Palestinian Aramaic Poetry from Late Antiquity, Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1999, pp. 223-229 (Hebrew); M. Bar-Ilan, ‘Aramaic Piyyutim from the Land of Israel and their Sitz im Leben: J. Yahalom and M. Sokoloff, Shirat Benei Maaraba’, Mahut, 23 (2001), pp. 167-188 (Hebrew).

10. M. Steinschneider, ‘Allgemeine Einleitung in die Jüdische Literatur des Mittelalters’, JQRos 16 (1904), pp. 373-395 (esp. 388).

11. L. Goldschmidt, Das Buch der Schöpfung, Frankfurt a.M. 1894; A. Kaplan, Sefer Yetzirah, Northvale, New Jersey, London: Jason Aronson, 1995; A. Peter Hayman, Sefer Yesira: Edition, Translation and Text-Critical Commentary, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004.

12. A. Epstein, ‘Rechererches sur le Séfer Yecira’, REJ, 29 (1894), pp. 61-78.

13. G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, New York: Schocken, 1941 (rep. 1946), pp. 75-78.

14. M. Bar-Ilan, Astrology and Other Sciences among the Jews in the Land of Israel During the Hellenistic-Roman and Byzantine Periods, Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 2010 (Hebrew).

15. Gad B. Zarfatti, Mathematical Terminology in Hebrew Scientific Literature of the Middle Ages, Jerusalem: Magnes, 1968, pp. 37-40 (Hebrew).

16. J. Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977, pp. 74-111.

17. A. Sharf, ‘Shabbetai Donnolo’s Idea of the Microcosm’, E. Toaff (ed.), Studi Sull ’Ebraismo Italiano, Roma: Barulli, 1974, pp. 203-226; George P. Conger, Theories of Macrocosms and Microcosms in the History of Philosophy, New York: Russell & Russell, 1922 (rep. 1967).

18. Tamsyn S. Barton, Power and Knowledge: Astrology, Physiognomics, and Medicine under the Roman Empire, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994; Felix Klein-Franke, Iatromathematics in Islam, Hildsheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1984.

19. God appears under different names some 13 times, and is also described as the circumciser of Abraham.

20. E. S. Drower, The Book of the Zodiac, London: The Royal Asiatic Society, 1949, pp. 68-69, 98-99.

21. I. Gruenwald, ’Further Jewish Physiognomic and Chiromantic Fragments’, Tarbiz, 40/3 (1971), pp. 301-319 (Hebrew)

22. M. Bar-Ilan, ‘(Review of) John S. Lucas, Astrology and Numerology in Medieval and Early Modern Catalonia, Leiden – Boston: Brill, 2003’, Review of Rabbinic Judaism, 8 (2005), pp. 287-300.

23. S. Newmyer, ‘Asaph the Jew and Greco-Roman Pharmaceutic’, Irena and Walter Jacob (eds.), The Healing Past, Leiden – New York – Köln: E.J. Brill, 1993, pp. 107-120; Elinor Lieber, ‘An Ongoing Mystery: The So-Called Book of Medicines Attributed to Asaf the Sage’, Bulletin of Judaeo-Greek Studies, 8 (1991), pp. 18-25.

24. Another system of prediction according to one’s name is known from Antiquity: Ramsay MacMullen, Enemies of the Roman Order, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1966, p. 135.