It is with deep heartbreak that I write this obituary upon the untimely passing this week of one of our country’s greatest scholars of the Jewish book, and a longtime dear friend, Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Elman, of blessed and sacred memory.
I first met Yaakov as a student at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School on the Lower East Side in the early 1960’s, when he was the manager of the legendary Rabinowitz Hebrew Bookstore on Canal Street. There, he cultivated my blossoming love for Jewish books, especially theology, history and biography, during my daily lunchtime visits. He always had time for me, to teach me the definition of a high quality book.
It was a love that would define my life work as a teacher and a writer. Yaakov recognized the potential that my interests represented at this early stage of my life, and I am eternally grateful. Membership in the People of the Book has brought with it a deep appreciation for those who wrote, marketed, and made books available to a little boy.
With this personal tribute, I would now like to bring to your attention a short biographical sketch of who Yaakov really was.
In a brief note, one of our people’s great historians, Dr. Shnayer Leiman, wrote to me, “I was at the funeral. It is a tragic loss, though we thank G-d for the many years we were fortunate to have him with us.
His scholarly accomplishments were astounding, given his late start, the accident, and its aftermath. He has left an incredibly rich legacy for the Jewish scholars of the future. But I will remember him not only for the breath and depth of his scholarship, but also for his warmth, kindness, and intellectual honesty.”
Aside from selling books, Yaakov was the author of the section on Nevi’im in The Living Torah series founded by his dear friend Rav Aryeh Kaplan, zt”l. This volume was unique for its maps and diagrams, something never attempted before. He also wrote Hazon Nachum: Studies in Jewish Law, Thought and History, presented and dedicated to Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm for his 70th birthday. He was also the author of Reading the Hebrew Bible: Two Millennia of Jewish Biblical Commentary, as well as Authority and Tradition in Talmud Babylonia. Among my favorites was his popular Immortality, Resurrection and the Age of the Universe: A Kabbalistic View.
He published widely in the field of Talmudic study, rabbinic theology, rabbinic legal exegesis and the cultural context of the major rabbinic texts of our tradition. He was very much involved in both graduate and undergraduate teaching for most of his life, a skill honed to near perfection through his many years at Rabinowitz.
He was to become a professor of Judaic studies at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, dividing his time between Yeshiva University and Harvard, where he was an associate at its famed Center for Jewish Studies. He was to receive his M.A. in Assyriology from Columbia University and his PhD in Talmud from New York University.
Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Elman left a lasting impression on my own life’s work, in my eternal love of books, appreciating those who might differ with me, and those who have come to appreciate my work. He passed away at way too young an age. Nevertheless, he will always be viewed by this writer as a man of lasting integrity, a sage both in his own youth, and in the 75 years of his gifted life as a teacher among our people, especially, among our youth.
I will miss him forever.