Breaking New Ground in Ancient Persia

Apr 14, 2004 — Yaakov Elman is probably the only person in the world who could forecast the weather in Middle Persian — a skill that would have been a hot ticket about 18 centuries ago in the Near East. Fortunately, this one-of-a-kind scholar has other talents and other goals.

Above all, he wants to broaden study and discussion of the Babylonian Talmud (the most significant of the Talmuds) and to bring such deliberations “down to earth” by focusing on the legal, cultural, religious, and linguistic contexts of the Persian Empire. As Prof. Elman explains, “The Jews and Persians spent about 1,200 years living in close proximity in a kind of ‘Torah Umadda’ situation.”

But how does one get to be a meteorologist and a Middle Persian scholar? If the Bronx-born Prof. Elman is any example (actually, he’s the only example), one must be eminently practical and insatiably curious.

Yaakov’s aptitudes were evident at age 12. Dissatisfied with the limited range of his yeshiva education, he taught himself modern Hebrew. Later, around 1960, he discovered a series of Hebrew articles on the Bible in the ancient Near East. That finding fired his passion for an academic career and he is now associate professor of Jewish studies at YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.

The necessities of life, however, put his ambitions on hold. Yaakov’s father died when he was 19. On the advice of his mother, he pursued work more accommodating to his shy personality.

“I was withdrawn, a bookworm,” he says. “She was right at the time.”
Then came a brief stint at City College studying chemistry. “I realized I couldn’t spend my life designing perfumes,” he says. “I switched, for no great reason, to meteorology; it was practical.” Well, not quite. Jobs allowing for Sabbath observance were few-and-far-between. Weather, he explains, is 24/7. He eventually found a position in private industry, where he had to work every “‘four-letter’ shift there is.”

Yaakov started taking courses in Semitic languages at Columbia. By 1974, he had a master’s in Assyriology, which led to a job managing a Hebrew bookstore. His expertise became well known to the academic clientele, who decided that such a promising young scholar should do more than peddle books. They arranged for him to study tuition-free at NYU, where he earned a doctorate in rabbinic literature in 1986.

Prof. Elman soon found a home at YU, as well as a base for his uniquely omnivorous brand of Talmudism, which combines a strong interest in Jewish thought with more conventional textual considerations and now feeds upon Jewish as well as Zoroastrian, Manichean, and Christian sources from the Middle Persian epoch.

“I call it the cholent theory of cultural influence,” he says, referring to the Eastern European Shabbat dish, a hodgepodge of stewed foods. “In Babylonia in the third and fourth centuries, there were all kinds of elements percolating, combining, and recombining.” (Prof. Elman is quick to share credit for this insight with James Russell of Harvard University and Shaul Shaked of Hebrew University.)

According to Prof. Elman, this area of study has languished for eons because Talmudists have not studied Middle Persia and experts in Middle Persia have found the Talmud too difficult.

“You really need a Talmudist to do this, as Iranist Vera Moreen [of Swarthmore College] pointed out to me,” says Prof. Elman, who learned Middle Persian on his own and is filling in the chinks with the help of Prof. Oktor Skjaervo, the Aga Khan Prof. of Iranian at Harvard University.

“I am bringing the two fields together. This is revolutionary for both sides. It gives us an entirely different view of the Jewish community of Babylonia and its place within the cultural matrix of the Persian Empire. This community was one of the crucial communities in all of Jewish history.”

Given the importance of this research, Prof. Elman spends several days a week at Harvard, working with Professor Skjaervo, who heads the Near Eastern languages and cultures department.

Relatively new to the field, Prof. Elman is already well known among the world’s community of Persian scholars. During the 2002–03 academic year, while on sabbatical from YU, he was a Harry Starr Fellow in Judaica at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard University, affording him time to work on one book and start another.

“He is a multi-faceted jewel in the crown of wisdom, a helpful colleague, a gentle friend,“ says Prof. Russell, the Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard. “He has become an expert in Iranian law and lore, bringing his new and profound learning to the study of Talmudic tradition.”

“Yaakov is no less than a force of nature,” adds Prof. Skjaervo. “He is single-handedly carrying out a crusade among his colleagues for the importance of Pahlavi [Middle Persian] studies. It may well be the salvation of Old Persian studies.”

In 2003, Prof. Elman co-led a global research collaboration on the materials from the Cairo Genizah, a repository of priceless medieval Hebrew and Judaic manuscripts. Also on Prof. Elman’s agenda is a form of scholarship called omnisignificant biblical exegesis. “The general rabbinic claim that every word of the Torah has been weighed and counted has never been challenged. But despite repeated claims, Orthodox scholars haven’t been that thorough in their work. The most complete omnisignificant commentary I know of was done by a Reform rabbi, Benno Jacob,” he explains. In an article in Jewish Studies: An Internet Journal, he adds, “Not every feature of Scripture was interpreted by the rabbis either halakhically or aggadically [allegorically]. Our collections of midrashim hardly constitute a comprehensive omnisignificant corpus; not only do they fail to deal with many verses, and even whole biblical chapters, but features that are considered significant—legally or morally—in one context are ignored in others.”

“I have a good memory and a lot of intellectual curiosity, and I don’t sleep much,” says the professor, explaining his wide and deep scholarly interests.

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