Prof. Nahum M. Sarna, z"l

March 27, 1923-June 23, 2005

Lawrence H. Schiffman

It was my privilege to study with Prof. Nahum Sarna, ז"ל , from the day I entered Brandeis as a freshman almost forty years ago through the completion of my doctoral studies.   It was in his Orientation Week Seminar that I made the instinctive decision to enter the field of academic Judaic studies.   For five years, I took every course that he taught.   He guided me through the complexities of course selection and the various academic procedures, serving as the primary advisor of my dissertation.

But when I think back to what he taught and what we learned, it was not only the Bible that he was teaching us, but there was another dimension.   Our sages teach:

,אם אין תורה, אין דרך ארץ: אם אין דרך ארץ, אין תורה. “If there is no Torah, there is no proper comportment, if there is no proper comportment, there is no Torah” ( Avot 3:17).   In his case, דרך ארץ included the life of the scholar, the scholar’s relation to his students, to colleagues, and to the wider community—all of which were subsumed by the Rambam under the understated title הלכות תלמוד תורה .   For Dr. Sarna, as we all called him, these “laws of study” resulted from the integration of the very same traditions that had influenced the Rambam—the teachings of the Talmudic בית מדרש and the wider intellectual traditions, which by Prof. Sarna’s time, were those of the modern university.   For Nahum Sarna, in this, as in so many other aspects of his life, these two trends constituted a seamless whole.

I had the opportunity to see this even more closely because of my close friendship with his son, David, which gained me access to both another source of information about my professor, and more importantly, to the Sarna home, where I met his beloved wife, Helen, and younger son, Jonathan.

In retrospect, it is clear to me that Dr. Sarna knew that he was teaching us not how to be students, but how to be professors and scholars.   In this, he was motivated by the beautiful words of the Rambam that applied fully to the way he treated us and the way we responded.   Paraphrasing פרקי אבות ( 4:12) the Rambam writes in הלכות תלמוד תורה ה:יב --

  כשם שהתלמידים חייבין בכבוד הרב כך הרב צריך לכבד את תלמידיו ולקרבן. כך אמרו חכמים יהי כבוד תלמידך חביב עליך כשלך, וצריך אדם להזהר בתלמידיו ולאוהבם, שהם הבנים המהנים לעולם הזה ולעולם הבא.

Just as the students are obligated regarding the honor of the teacher, so the teacher must honor his students and draw them near.   Thus the sages said, “Let the honor of your student be as dear to you as your own, and a person must be careful regarding his students and to love them, for they are the children who give satisfaction in this world and in the world to come.             

For him, knowledge could only be passed on and acquired in an atmosphere of respect and love, and this is how he wanted us to relate to our colleagues and students.

But this approach brings with it a quandary:   How can one, at the same time, maintain the distance necessary to provide sufficient authority to the teacher to guide and critique in an atmosphere of personal closeness and friendship?   How can the Rambam simultaneously expect the teacher-student relationship to be built on both love and respect?

For us, this question did not even have to be asked because of the personal example of our teacher. He could demand of us total respect and uncompromising classroom preparation, not to mention exams for which we never stopped writing, and then offer a ride when he knew a student lacked transportation and was going his way.   He could scribble criticisms all over my dissertation drafts but include a note of personal regards to my family.   He knew how to provide the encouragement that students needed when facing the difficult challenges of doctoral research.   Here again, he was teaching us how to live as scholars and teachers.

This extended also to the day-to-day classroom activities.   He was known never to enter a classroom without being fully prepared.   This meticulous preparation and masterful classroom presentation was accompanied by humor, often puns—which he referred to in scholarly terminology as paronomasia—which were written into his notes.   Even so, and it took me a long time to understand this, his teaching was always accompanied by a kind of trepidation occasioned by his understanding of his role of teacher as a transmitter of tradition, and yet, at the same time, as a challenger of that tradition.   For it was his deep belief that only by critically questioning the received traditions could one come to a true understanding of their importance.   Indeed, he taught us that the modern critical approach to the Jewish tradition was the key to its eternal significance.

For us, his role as a transmitter of tradition included also his serving as a bridge to the great scholarly tradition of Europe.   While despite his British accent he really had assimilated to being American, his scholarly roots in the intellectual Orthodoxy of Jews’ College tied him to the greats of German Jewish scholarship which itself sought to integrate traditional Jewish scholarship with critical literary and historical methodology.

The Sixth Chapter of אבות , actually the ברייתא  of קנין תורה , seems to have had Nahum Sarna in mind when it wrote ( פרק 6, משנה א ):

רבי מאיר אומר: כל העוסק בתורה לשמה זוכה לדברים הרבה. ולא עוד אלא שכל העולם כלו כדי הוא לו.   נקרא ריע, אהוב, אוהב את המקום, אוהב את הבריות, משמח את המקום, משמח את הבריות, ומלבשתו ענוה ויראה, ומכשרתו להיות צדיק, וחסיד, וישר ונאמן.   ומרחקתו מן החטא, ומקרבתו לידי זכות, ונהנין ממנה עצה, ותושיה בינה וגבורה.

Rabbi Meir says: Whoever busies himself with Torah for its own sake merits many things.   Not only this, but the entire world could have been created just for him.   He is called:   friend, beloved, lover of the All-Present, lover of his fellow creatures, rejoicer of the All-Present, rejoicer of his fellow creatures.   And (the Torah) clothes him in humility and reverence, and prepares him to be righteous, pious, upright and reliable.   And it separates him form transgression, and brings him closer to (gaining) merit, and others benefit from his counsel, wisdom, discernment and might.    

In his later years, Prof. Sarna devoted much of his time to the firm establishment of Judaic Studies in Florida and to the dissemination of his wisdom to audiences all over the United States.   In this respect, he was carrying out another important function as a scholar, that of bringing the fruits of academic research to a much wider audience.   Indeed, his own books, and especially his commentaries, were aimed at a similar goal.   I would often go to speak in a community and find that he had been there recently or was soon to arrive.   Anyone who ever heard him knew of his masterful ability to communicate to audiences who didn’t know Akkadian and Ugaritic, let alone the Bible and its Jewish commentators who were so dear to him.   Perhaps this aspect of his work and the respect that he garnered both in the Jewish community here and in Israel, to which he was so devoted, and in the wider academic world, are beautifully expressed in a passage from the Aramaic Levi Document discovered both in the Cairo Genizah and the Dead Sea Scrolls:

A man who studies wisdom,

All [h]is days are l[ ong]

And hi[s reputa] tion grows great.

To every la[ nd] and country to which he will go,

He has a brother and a friend therein,

He is [not a]s a stranger in it,

And he is not li[ ke] a stranger therein…

Since all of them wi] ll accord him honor because of it

[S] ince all wish to learn from his wisdom.

[His] friends are many

And his well-wishers are numerous.

And they seat him on the seat [of] honor

In order to hear his wise words.

Wisdom is a great wealth of honor for those familiar with it

And a fine treasure to all who acquire it.


תהא נפשו צרורה בצרור החיים.

May he be bound up in the bonds of eternal life!


The Aramaic Levi Document (eds. J.C. Greenfield, M.E. Stone, E. Eshel; Leiden: Brill, 2004) p. 105.