Posted in Obituaries

Yaakov Elman, 1943-2018

Yaakov Elman, 1943-2018 Posted on February 20, 2019

Professor Yaakov Elman’s death on June 29, 2018 was a great loss for Talmudic scholarship and Jewish studies more broadly.  Elman was born on August 30, 1943 in the Bronx, NY.  His entrance to the ranks of Talmud scholarship was somewhat unusual.  After completing his B.S. at City College in 1966, Elman worked for eight years as a meteorologist and then for ten years at Rabinowitz’s Hebrew Bookstore on the Lower East Side. During this time he received an M.A. in Assyriology at Columbia University (1974).  In 1983 Professor Lawrence Schiffman recruited him to the PhD program in the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.  Elman accepted this invitation and received his PhD in 1986.  In 1985 he began to work as an associate editor at Ktav Publishing House, and continued to work there until 2001 while simultaneously pursuing his academic career.  His doctoral thesis focused on the Tosefta, and was later published as Authority and Tradition in Talmudic Babylonia (1994). In 1987 Elman was hired by Yeshiva University, where he was appointed Herbert S. and Naomi Denenburg Chair in Talmudic Studies and taught until his death.

In 2002-3 Elman was awarded a Harry Starr fellowship at Harvard University. There he studied Pahlavi (Middle Persian), the language of the Sasanian Persian Empire in Talmudic times, with Prods Oktor Skjaervo, one of the world’s leading Iranologists.  In subsequent years Elman devoted much of his energy to understanding the Babylonian Talmud in its Iranian context and investigating the interaction between Persian and Jewish law. This was a much neglected field of study, due in large part to the difficulty of attaining proficiency in Pahlavi, which is only taught at a handful of universities in the world.  After returning to New York Elman teamed up with Dr. Mahnaz Moazami of the Center for Iranian Studies at Columbia University to offer graduate seminars in Pahlavi and “Irano-Talmudica” at Yeshiva University.  Elman opened these seminars to graduate students and scholars from other universities, a tremendous service to the field and a gesture of outstanding generosity.  Due to Elman’s efforts, the last ten years has witnessed a surge of interest in this area of scholarship, and a great many rich publications by Elman himself, his students, and other scholars who were stimulated by his work.

Elman’s scholarship was prolific and diverse. Although rabbinic literature in general and the Babylonian Talmud in particular were his primary interests, he wrote over 100 articles on a wide array of topics: the Vilna Gaon, Dead Sea Scrolls, Ancient Near Eastern languages and traditions, orality, the Cairo Genizah, Nahmanides, Rabbi Isaac Hutner, medieval and early modern biblical exegesis, history of halakha, liturgy, Persian law and literature, and Jewish theology. Elman’s scholarship is characterized by an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish sources combined with thorough engagement with the historical and cultural contexts.  Many of his articles quote from a dizzying array of Ancient Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, Persian, and Medieval Christian texts and authors.

Elman was extremely generous with his time. He was always willing to sit down and think through a work in progress with a colleague or student, providing bibliographic suggestions and quoting relevant sources from his prodigious memory.  He was very supportive of younger scholars and graduate students, and encouraged women to pursue Talmud scholarship when few ventured into the field. Elman was outgoing, affable, sincere and extremely modest. He expressed excitement and joy at the work of colleagues, and great pride in the scholarship of his students. His presence will be sorely missed. May his memory be for a blessing.


Jeffrey Rubenstein
New York University