Prof. Nahum M. Sarna, z"l

March 27, 1923-June 23, 2005

Jonathan D. Sarna

Ashre ha-ish asher lo halakh be-atsat reshaim, uvederekh khataim lo amad, uvemoshav letzim lo yashav. Ki im be-Torat hashem kheftso, uvetorato yehge yomam valaila.

And in my Father’s beautiful translation: “Happy is the one who has not followed the counsel of the wicked, or taken the path of sinners, or joined the company of the insolent; rather the teaching of the Lord is his delight, and he studies   that teaching day and night.”

Leaving aside this last difficult year, my Father, in the eyes of the Psalmist,  was a truly happy person.   And the opening passage of the Book of Psalms, which I just read, was one of his favorite verses – in many ways a lodestar for his life.   When I picture my Father in my mind’s eye, I inevitably picture him studying.   His favorite room, by far, was his book-lined study: there he sat morning, noon and long past nightfall, reading, writing, and teaching.  

My Father defined Torah very broadly:   absolutely nothing Jewish was alien to him and he read widely in the literature of antiquity, and in many other subjects too [he once astonished me by discussing, authoritatively, the anarchist writings of  Piotr Kropotkin.]   He had an immense scholarly curiosity and he felt that the more he knew, the better he could understand God’s work.  In this, he emulated the Medieval Bible commentators, about whom he wrote a very important scholarly article; they were, he showed, immersed in both Jewish and general culture.   For similar reasons, he revered such modern   scholars as Yehezkel Kaufmann and Saul Lieberman. They were, like Abba himself, renaissance scholars: fully conversant with Jewish sources and thoroughly at home in general scholarship as well.

Abba descended from bibliophiles.   His Father (my grandfather) Jacob Sarna, hailed from the community of Konin in Poland, remembered for its splendid Jewish public library, and Jacob Sarna was himself a significant booklover.   After moving to London, where my Father was born, my Grandfather Sarna headed the Jewish section of Foyles bookstore in London and later was an independent Jewish bookseller.   The Sarna home in London was not a wealthy home   -- Grandpa lost most of his money in the Depression – but it was a learned and intensely Zionist home, a home where everyone loved and spoke Hebrew, a home where the news of the day was read and dissected, a home where Jewish learning and literature   was prized above all else.   Coming from such a home, it is no accident that my father and all three of his sisters were bilingual, and all four became published authors.

Perhaps because he was a middle child, and he had a slightly older sister, Ruth, who always excelled in her studies, Abba did not immediately shine academically.   Later in life, he loved to tell the story of the elementary school teacher who despaired of his antics and advised his mother (my grandmother) to take him out of school and apprentice him to a baker!   Fortunately, my grandmother ignored the school teacher’s advice and instead enrolled Abba in the new Jewish secondary school in London, where his keen mind displayed itself.   At his bar mitzvah, the famous Rav Eliyahu Dessler gave the drashah as a form of encouragement to a young man who, unlike most children of Jewish immigrants at that time, was continuing his Jewish education. Later, the great Jewish scholar Isidor Epstein (famed as the editor of the Soncino Talmud) took Abba under his wing.   Although the wealthy patrons of Jews’ College in London disdained Jewish scholarship and wanted my Father to commit himself to the active rabbinate, Abba persevered.   He graduated top of his class at Jews’ College, where he was ordained, and he won First Class Honors from London University.

Abba’s studies coincided with the Second World War. Although exempt from the draft as a rabbinical student, he trained as a firefighter   -- which later allowed him to treat his young sons to an occasional much-appreciated fireman’s carry – and he spent long lonely nights atop high buildings on guard duty, where he had a frighteningly up-close view of the nightly bombings of London.   For many years he did not talk about this traumatic time, but after September 11 th some of those tormenting memories rushed back to him.

After the war, in 1947, Abba married my Mother, whom he had known since they were both teenagers.   Ima always boasted that Abba never even dated anybody else but her, and their marriage, proved to be a remarkably productive and longlasting partnership.   For years Ima typed and edited Abba’s work, and she made it possible for him to devote himself to scholarship.   They complemented one another, respected one another, and loved one another.   And their devotion lasted literally to my father’s dying day – 58 years of marriage.

In 1949, Abba took his wife and their newly-born son, David, to Israel, where my father expected to live out his life-long Zionist dreams and to pursue a Ph.D. at the Hebrew University.   Those were hard years in the nascent Jewish state, and the professors at the Hebrew University, who had lost their campus in the War of Independence, were taking no graduate students.   So after a few years, Abba moved on to the United States where he studied at what was then the central diaspora institution for advanced Jewish Studies:   Dropsie College in Philadelphia – for years he was its most illustrious living alumnus. At the same time as he pursued his doctorate, Abba began his American career as a teacher.

Abba first teaching job was a disaster which he only described for me many years later.   It seems that he was employed to teach confirmation class at a local Philadelphia synagogue, and the rabbi gave him a free hand to teach whatever he liked. Not knowing what confirmation was, Abba decided the 14 and 15 year olds under his charge should study the Gemara, Massechet Shabbat, so that they might better understand the laws of Sabbath observance.   The gum chewing, paper-airplane throwing students (Abba remembered them as barbarians) had other ideas, and spent the year resisting everything that their greenhorn instructor proffered.   Forty years later, one of the students in that class, now a professor of law, lamented to me how much he regretted not having taken advantage of all that he might have learned had he but paid attention to what Abba was trying to teach..

Fortunately, Abba’s next teaching position, at Gratz College, was much more successful. There he inspired the community’s best and brightest young Jews, and quickly became the school’s most beloved instructor.   Several famous Jewish scholars got their start from Abba at Gratz, including a distinguished professor of Talmud who learned his first page of gemara in Abba’s class.   I still regularly meet Gratz College alumni from the 1950s who recall Abba’s teaching as the high point of their Jewish education.

In 1957, armed with a learned if somewhat esoteric Ph.D. on the language of the book of Job, Abba moved to the Jewish Theological Seminary.   There he encountered some of the world’s foremost Jewish scholars – it was, in its day, perhaps the greatest collection of Jewish scholars ever assembled in one institution in the United States -- and he earned their respect and their friendship.   For a time, Abba served as librarian of the Seminary, a position of great distinction that took advantage of his remarkable bibliographic mastery.   He also wrote his landmark book Understanding Genesis, a volume that remains in print almost 40 years later, and that has taught countless students how to read the book of Genesis with fresh eyes.   In the oft-quoted introduction to Understanding Genesis, Abba spelled out his approach to the study of Tanach, an approach that combined complete mastery of the biblical text and of rabbinic tradition with comprehensive knowledge of ancient near eastern languages and of the relevant historical context.   The more one knew of the ancient world, Abba always believed, the more one came to understand and respect the Bible and its teachings.

In 1965, Abba moved to Brandeis, his academic home for more than twenty years, and the place where he secured his reputation.   He came to Brandeis just as Jewish Studies was emerging as a legitimate subject in the American university, and he trained some of the field’s finest young scholars.   The festschrift composed in his honor by his students is something of a who’s who in Jewish studies, and in 2003 when he retired for the 3 rd time, several of his greatest and most famous students came to honor him once again.   He always remained deeply devoted to those who studied with him, and they returned that devotion as their presence here today indicates.   [I would add that I have spent this year lecturing across the US, and everywhere I went I met people who had either studied with Abba or read his books. Truly he fulfilled the injunction, ha’amidu talmidim harbe:   raise up many disciples).

The Brandeis years saw Abba involved in the magnificent scholarly works for which he will always be remembered:   the Jewish Publication Society translation of the Tanach, the books Exploring Exodus and On the Book of Psalms, the JPS Torah Commentary, and many of the articles he collected a few years ago in his Studies in Biblical Interpretation..  

Finally, Abba emerged during the Brandeis years as a leading figure in the whole Jewish Studies community.   He chaired the Jewish Studies department at Brandeis for seven years.   He joined the small group of senior scholars who founded the Association for Jewish Studies in 1969, and presided over that organization.   He was appointed to the World Union of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.    And he lectured everywhere:   at all the major universities in the United States, at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, and even at the plenum of the World Congress of Jewish Studies.

And then, somewhat to everyone’s surprise, he announced his retirement, though still in his early 60s.   But he did not really retire.   Instead, he wrote several books, he worked for the Jewish Publication Society, and he commuted to Yale and Columbia where he served as a visiting professor.   It was a fairly exhausting retirement, and Abba in the end became quite ill.

A wise physician in Boston  told Abba that if he moved to Florida he would live ten years longer.   Abba, with his normal quick wit, wondered if he could get a refund if he lived less than ten years. The answer was that the doctor had no sense of humor.   Abba took the hint, retired for a second time, and settled down in Boca Raton.   On his next trip to Newton he memorably began a lecture with the words “we southerners” (delivered, per usual, in his English accent).   We wondered aloud whether, in his old age, he would finally join the Psalmist’s moshav letzim, and learn how to relax by the swimming pool.

But, as David and I suspected,  it was not to be.   No sooner had he arrived in Boca than Florida Atlantic University came a courting.   First Abba agreed to help advise them as they set up their Jewish Studies Program; then he became a visiting professor; and then he accepted the position of eminent professor.   His third retirement, in 2003, was from that position, and then it was for keeps. He had turned 80—what the Psalmist called gvurot­—and he reminded all of us at the reception in his honor that gvurot to the Psalmist meant   something that happened through an act of God.   His plan in retirement was to write a book on King Cyrus and the Jewish return from Babylon.   He had assembled many new ideas and sources on the subject, and was in the process of writing them up when ill-health intervened.   Still, I can report that until the day that he suffered a stroke, fell, and hit his head, the Teachings of the Lord remained my father’s delight, and he studied those teachings day and night.

I began by   comparing my father to the happy man described by the Psalmist, so let me conclude by citing my father’s own description of what true happiness means in Psalm 1.   “For the psalmist,” Abba wrote, “the happy state. . . proceeds necessarily from actions that are wholly controllable by the individual. Happiness results from the deliberate assumption of a commitment to a certain way of life, a course that is governed by God’s   Teaching.”   Moreover, he concluded, the happy man is “resilient, stable, and steadfast because he is deeply rooted in the spiritual and ethical soil of the Torah.”

My Father did not just write those words, he lived by them.   And, by his example,  he taught us to live by them.

Ashre ha-ish asher lo halakh be-atsat reshaim, uvederekh khataim lo amad, uvemoshav letzim lo yashav. Ki im be-Torat hashem kheftso, uvetorato yehge yomam valaila.

Happy was our father, Nahum Matityyahu ben Yaakov Yehuda, who did not follow the counsel of the wicked, or take the path of sinners, or join the company of the insolent; rather the teaching of the Lord was his delight, and he studied that teaching day and night.”

Tehe Nishmato Tsrurah Betsror Hahayim.


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