Timely Thoughts

A Tribute to Yaakov Elman

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Mahnaz Moazami

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series of reflections in memorium for Dr. Yaakov Elman, which includes articles by David Berger, Shana Strauch Schick, and Meira WolkenfeldShlomo Zuckier, and Richard Hidary.

Having had the good fortune to work closely with Professor Yaakov Elman over many years, it is an honor for me as well as a consolation to share my thoughts on this occasion [of thirty days to his passing].

It is difficult for me to imagine Yeshiva University, as an institution, without Yaakov Elman’s presence. Yaakov’s incredible vitality and indomitable spirit throughout his long struggle against illness gave us the hope that this day would not come so soon.

But, as hard as it is, we must not forget to celebrate Yaakov’s extraordinarily rich and productive life. The courage he showed in fighting physical adversities was also very much present in other aspects of his life. He was never afraid to explore his inner convictions and to express them convincingly. It was this mixture of profound original thought and vast erudition that enabled him to reshape discourses that gave life and impetus to the newly fledged academic discipline of Irano-Talmudica. 

For the last fifteen years Professor Elman had devoted himself to studying the interaction between Rabbinic and Iranian cultures and religions. His endeavors have transformed both disciplines.  His writings have demonstrated that our understanding of the Babylonian Talmud’s laws, rituals, and beliefs can be deepened by a study of similar material in Sasanian Zoroastrianism.

To sit in a class of his was always an adventure. He was a colorful man with many brilliant and sometimes quite far-reaching, but always stimulating, observations on history, religion, peoples, and places.  The range of his command of the sources–historical, political, economic, social, and cultural– and his deep immersion in religious history and languages of the period was simply extraordinary. His critical sensibilities and insights were stunning.  

Intelligent, sensitive, formidably informed, Yaakov Elman brought to students and peers alike lucid assessments of the interactions of Sasanian Iranian and Babylonian Jewry. He opened up a new field using the literature and culture of the Persian rulers of Babylonia to shed light on the Babylonian Talmud, the history of rabbinic Judaism, and Middle Persian studies as well as the study of religions in late antiquity.

The world has lost a brilliant mind, his family a dear husband, father, and grandfather, Yeshiva a valuable professor. His scholarly contributions and our memories of a remarkable personality will remain with us. 

But I dearly miss his radiant presence.

Mahnaz Moazami is an Associate Research Scholar at Columbia University. She studied History of Religion at the Sorbonne University (France) where she earned her DEA and PhD degrees in a joint program in Comparative Anthropology of Religions (Africa, America, Mediterranean, Far East).