Persia and the Talmud

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As a Yeshiva University alumnus, I get quite a bit of mail from the school that I place directly into the garbage. Last week I received a copy of YU Today but did not immediately throw it out because a picture of R. Hershel Schachter on the cover caught my eye. I proceeded to read that article, which was entirely uninteresting, and then saw an article about Dr. Yaakov Elman that looked promising. And it lived up to its promise. (I just found the article online here.)

Aside from providing a biography of Dr. Elman’s interesting life, stories that I had heard piecemeal and never really believed, the article details his most recent intellectual endeavour. Dr. Elman has taken a profound interest in the Persian background of the Babylonian Talmud. What was the Persian legal and sociological context in which the sages of the Talmud lived and, perhaps more importantly, in what intellectual and theological trends were they swimming – whether reacting to or passively accepting? This is an area of tremendous importance that has received almost no treatment at all. Such considerations in Palestine during the times of the Mishnah and later have been exhaustively treated, but Persia has been left untouched. Dr. Elman is delving into this area and, in the process, revitalizing the field of Persian Studies.

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.”

This seems to me to be an extremely important development and may put Yeshiva University, once again, on the map of academic Talmudic Studies. I wish Dr. Elman much success in his investigations.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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