Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series of reflections in memorium for Dr. Yaakov Elman, which includes articles by David Berger, Mahnaz Moazami, Shana Strauch Schick, Meira Wolkenfeld, and Shlomo Zuckier.
I first met Dr. Elman when I walked into his classroom as an undergraduate at Yeshiva University taking his Revel Graduate School course, Introduction to Amoraic Literature. I remember being mesmerized at how he seemed to know each of the Amoraim almost first hand – when and where they lived, what they taught, what they wore and ate, what was their personality, halakhic approach, hashkafah, whether today they would be considered Haredi or Modern Orthodox. He brought the world of the Talmud to life for me in a way that I had never experienced before. Dr. Elman continued to be a mentor and guide for me ever since.
Several years ago he encouraged me to study Middle Persian in order to understand the background of the Talmud Bavli. “After all, how difficult can it be,” he told me with a wry smile, “there are only eleven letters in their alphabet.” So during a sabbatical, I joined the course of Dr. Mahnaz Moazami at Yeshiva University. It turns out that each of those eleven letters can have between three and six different sounds. There is no way to know what sound it makes unless you know the whole word; but you don’t know the word until you sound it out! At least I understood Dr. Elman’s wry smile, and could better appreciate the herculean effort he made mid-career to become one of world experts in Sasanian literature.
In the meantime I continued with my research relating to the Greco-Roman rhetorical backdrop of both the Talmud Yerushalmi and Bavli. The next year, I presented a paper at AJS on the topic and Dr. Elman, as usual, sat right in front. Dr. Elman was passionate about Persian studies; for him, pursuing Greco-Roman connections to the Bavli was the closest thing to blasphemy. Yet after I nervously asked for his feedback after the paper, he graciously and enthusiastically approved of my direction and findings. That meant the world to me.
I have made sure to pass every major research idea I’ve had by Dr. Elman. I would present the idea, he would fold his arms and look up for fifteen seconds of long silence as he scanned his mental database of all of the Talmud, commentaries, and every journal article current and past. More often than not, thankfully, I received a positive verdict along with a dozen sugyot and further references that were essential to the research. He wasn’t just a specialist in one field, but a master of so many areas, making his insights uniquely valuable.
Two years ago, I sent Dr. Elman a manuscript of my book asking for his comments. At the same time, he asked me whether one of our colleagues, who was being judged for tenure, had received a reply. I told him that, indeed, our colleague did just receive tenure. He wrote back this email (all punctuation and caps in the original): “You made my night!!! I am SO happy! As much as I was happy seeing your book! That was the joy of the day!” I can just hear his enthusiastic voice through his words. He was always encouraging and personally excited by the accomplishments of his younger colleagues.
In addition to everything I have learned from Dr. Elman personally, he also had a profound impact on my synagogue and my community. Dr. Elman lived only a few blocks from me and he taught in our community synagogues on many occasions, including a memorable series of classes in my parents’ home.
His connection with my synagogue and my Rabbi, Hakham Moshe Shamah, actually began quite serendipitously back in days of Rabinowitz bookstore over forty years ago. The story involves Rabbi Solomon Sassoon, who was the teacher of Rabbi Shamah, as well as my then future father-in-law, Ronnie Benun. Rabbi Sassoon had been developing some complex theories that he revealed only to very advanced students, sometimes only after years of study with him. One day, my father-in-law drove Rabbi Sassoon to the Rabinowitz bookstore, Rabbi Sassoon went in and returned to the car after fifteen minutes. He reported that he had just met a most impressive individual and told him all of his theories right there on the spot between the isles. My father-in-law was even more flabbergasted when he found out that the gentleman was “just” the bookstore clerk, and yet was able to comprehend in a few minutes what other took years to appreciate. Dr. Elman was simply the kind of person with whom you recognized his genius and sincerity within a minute of conversation.
Several years later Rabbi Shamah decided to publish his Torah commentary with Ktav Publishing and began to work closely with Dr. Elman. Dr. Elman made time for weekly meetings for over a year to carefully read and comment on Rabbi Shamah’s book, above and beyond his responsibility as the general editor. He agreed to devote this time because, as he said, “This is a commentary that I want to be available for my children.” When I went to visit Dr. Elman in his home last year he said that Rabbi Shamah’s book, Recalling the Covenant was “the most significant Orthodox biblical commentary in our generation.” That approbation means so much to Rabbi Shamah and his congregants and students. Although Dr. Elman never wanted to be a shul rav, he did have a significant impact at least on my synagogue.
I asked Dr. Elman earlier this year to contribute an article to a festschrift in honor of Rabbi Shamah. He agreed immediately and began telling me about the topic. When I visited him this past March, however, he was barely awake and only able to express a few sentences, which he used to apologize that he didn’t have the article ready yet. Here he was fighting for his life, and it was this obligation that was on his mind. When I visited him again three weeks later, he had made a significant recovery. He was sitting in a chair while his hospital bed was piled with books. He began to dictate to me the article that he had all worded out in his head. I interrupted that I wouldn’t be able to get all the information down and that there was no rush, he could send it in a few months. Sadly, we won’t have the benefit of that article and of so much more scholarship that never ceased to flow from his endless spring of knowledge and curiosity.
On that same visit, he expressed his deep gratitude to Dr. Richard White, who took care of Dr. Elman like a brother. He then recounted the academic achievements of his grandchildren: one got honor roll, another was valedictorian, and another got an A on a paper. After an impressive list, he paused and said in a more serious tone, how he got so much joy from studying Torah with his son-in-law and all of his family, and that his greatest pride comes from their attachment to frumkeit. That each of his children and grandchildren were devoted to Torah and mitzvot, and possessed yirat shamayim was far more important to him than everything.
I would like to conclude with an analysis of a sugya that Dr. Elman loved to teach from Bavli Moed Katan 28a:
אמר רבא: חיי, בני ומזוני, לא בזכותא תליא מילתא, אלא במזלא תליא מילתא. דהא רבה ורב חסדא תרוייהו רבנן צדיקי הוו, מר מצלי ואתי מיטרא, ומר מצלי ואתי מיטרא. רב חסדא חיה תשעין ותרתין שנין – רבה חיה ארבעין, בי רב חסדא – שיתין הלולי, בי רבה – שיתין תיכלי. בי רב חסדא – סמידא לכלבי ולא מתבעי, בי רבה – נהמא דשערי לאינשי, ולא משתכח.
Rava said: [Length of] life, children, and sustenance depend not on merit but rather on mazal. For take Rabbah and R. Hisda as examples. Both were absolutely righteous rabbis, for each master prayed for rain and rain came.
Yet, R. Hisda lived to the age of 92; Rabbah only lived to age 40. In R. Hisda’s house there were 60 marriage feasts, in Rabbah’s there were 60 bereavements. At Hisda’s house there were purest wheat bread for dogs and it went to waste. At Rabbah’s house there was barley bread for humans and even that could not be found.
One reason Dr. Elman taught this often was because of its similarity with the view expressed in a 9th century CE Persian text, the Dadestan I Denig:
The sages have said that there are some things through allotment and some things through deeds. They have judged as follows: being born, wife, child, authority, and property are through allotment. Priesthood, warriorhood, husbandry, righteousness, and wickedness are through deeds.
A second reason this was important to Dr. Elman is because it confirmed a theory he had published years earlier showing that the Yerushalmi tended to express a conservative, measure-for-measure view regarding theology. The Bavli, in contrast, more often ventured into alternate views that some suffering was not the result of sin. Perhaps, he surmised, the Bavli’s openness to conceding that suffering can sometimes be undeserved, a result of unlucky mazal, derived from its Persian setting. More significantly, however, he had a personal affinity to Rava’s view because, as he once wrote, it is “based on our experience of the world.”
Perhaps, then, we can apply this teaching back to Dr. Elman himself. Regarding his children, בני, he could not be more proud of the successes of his children and grandchildren in all ways, thanks of course to his devoted wife Bryna.
Regarding sustenance, מזוני, Dr. Elman was very rich in at least two senses. He was שמח בחלקו, happy with what he had; pursuit of material gain was not even a meaningful category for him. Instead, he was rich in that which he valued most in his professional life, the Torah and scholarship that he attained, published prolifically and taught to his many students.
Regarding length of life, חיי, we wish that he could have lived to 92, like Rav Hisda and beyond. There was so much more that he could have contributed to the world. If it were based on merit, surely that would have been the case. But that was not his allotment, nor God’s will. Instead, the responsibility is left to each us to fill the gap in whatever small way we can by continuing to study his works, teach them to our students, and follow his example in his middot, his kindness, his enthusiasm, his humility, and his yirat shamayim.