Prof. Nahum M. Sarna, z"l

March 27, 1923-June 23, 2005

Brandeis University Press Release

Former Brandeis professor and leading biblical scholar dies at age 82

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Released on: June 23, 2005
Contact: David Nathan 781-736-4203 or

Nahum Sarna, the Dora Golding Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University and one of the world's foremost Jewish Bible scholars, died Thursday, June 23, in Boca Raton, Fla. The former Newton resident was 82.

Sarna served as one of the translators of the final volume, "Kethuvim" ("Writings"), for the much-heralded Jewish Publication Society translation of the Bible and was general editor of a groundbreaking set of Bible commentaries. Sarna was committed to making modern biblical scholarship accessible to a lay audience.

"This is a tremendous loss," Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz said. "Nahum Sarna was an extraordinary leader in the field of biblical studies, and I and the rest of his colleagues will miss him very much."

"Understanding Genesis," published in 1966, won the National Jewish Book Award. It was followed by "Exploring Exodus" (1986), "Commentary on Genesis" (1989), "Commentary on Exodus" (1991) and "Songs of the Heart: An Introduction to the Book of Psalms" (1993). Sarna also wrote more than 100 scholarly articles and lectured around the world.

Sarna's work was rooted in a 19th century movement dedicated to the scientific study of Jewish civilization and a more modern approach to the Hebrew Bible. His commentaries explained the structure of the narrative, gave meaning to archeological finds, offered historical and cultural background, and put the Bible's teachings in a spiritual and moral context.

Sarna's research centered on Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, and Job. He developed the idea of inner-biblical interpretation, that later biblical texts interpret earlier ones.

Born in England, where he remembers his father reading to him every Shabbat from a book entitled "Bible Readings with My Children," he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of London. He received his rabbinical ordination at Jews College in London and later earned a Ph.D. in biblical studies and Semitic languages from Dropsie College in Philadelphia.

He taught at Gratz College in Philadelphia from 1951-57 before he was appointed librarian and served on the faculty at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He joined the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis in 1965, and served as chair of the department for seven years. After retiring from Brandeis in 1985, he taught at Columbia, Yale, and Florida Atlantic University.

In 1969, Sarna joined a small group of senior scholars who founded the Association for Jewish Studies. He later led the fledgling organization.

He is survived by his wife of 58 years, Helen (Horowitz), of Boca Raton, Fla.; sons Jonathan, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis, of West Newton, and David of Teaneck, N.J.; and five grandchildren.

Services were held on Friday, June 24 at the Silver Auditorium in the Sachar International Center (International Business School) at Brandeis. Burial was at Beth El Cemetery, Baker Street, West Roxbury. In lieu of flowers, remembrances may be made to Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, 35 Morseland Ave., Newton, 02459 or Brandeis University, 415 South St., Waltham, 02454-9110.


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