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Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky ז”ל- Guest Post by Prof. Shamma Friedman

Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky ז”ל

Shamma Friedman

Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky (1920-2011) belonged to the first generation of academic Talmud scholars born and educated in Israel, and certainly one of the outstanding among them. His personality encompassed a unique blend of knowledge, talent, and devotion, a combination that was all his own.

A graduate of the prestigious Yeshivat Merkaz Ha-Rav, and before that Talmud Torah Etz Haim in Jerusalem, Dimitrovsky was loyally committed to the State of Israel in the making, and as a young man took up arms and served in the Hagana during the War of Independence. He was trained in the scholarly methods and high standards of the Talmud Department of the Hebrew University at the feet of J.N Epstein and Simha Asaf, whose methods he combined with the traditional learning and orientation he received through the tutelage of his father, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Dimitrovsky.

His spoken Hebrew was that of a native speaker, and at the same time rich and flowing naturally out of the Talmudic sources. His written Hebrew style, was likewise enriched in both these directions: from his absolute mastery of the wealth of all strata of Hebrew, stemming from his command of Talmudic and other sources, and the natural control of a native speaker, it emerged as a creation of stylistic beauty few could match.

Similarly, his research and studies, in all the various fields he addressed, all reflect this one of a kind combination of Torah scholarship, scientific methods, and religious-Zionist conviction.

Professor Dimitrovsky’s profound understanding of the complexities of the vast Talmudic corpus, down to the most minute detail, cannot be acquired except by arduous devotion to Torah study from an early age. With these strengths, Dimitrovsky created a unique scholarly profile, based on a meticulous scientific method founded on the peshat of the text, accurate historical understanding, and overall – sound common sense. He integrated a deep-seated, natural grasp of the material with fierce devotion to the beauty of Jewish tradition, even when working in the broader, secular reality of the academic setting.

These were the same qualities that led to the dialogue of love between him and his students, all during his teaching career, and above all, his inherent modesty – genuine, personal, and special to Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky. Through his years as Professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and later at the Hebrew University, Dimitrovsky trained generations of scholars of Talmud and Midrash.

These strengths mark his scholarship also: scholarly precision with loving mastery of his material persisted in his ongoing project of putting order into the texts and uncovering the depth level of correct meaning: “nahara nahara ufashtei“.

It is therefore not surprising that he gave preference to the literature of the rishonim – its profound depths require scholarly expertise as a sub-discipline in itself: “tzvat bi-tzvat asuya“. For example, Rashba, the chief disciple of the Nahmanidean school, as well as a decisor who wrote thousands of responsa – only a true scholar – astute, with the entire rabbinic corpus at his fingertips – is equal to the task of transmitting the Rashba to future generations. Dimitrovsky did so, from editing the Rashba’s novellae to compiling his responsa, with all their fragments. Every conversation with Prof. Dimitrovsky demonstrated that this was a labor of love.

Consider also the neglected, abstruse discipline of elucidating the writings of the early aharonim, namely, the masters of pilpul, who formed the link to the following generations while their own teachings were nearly forgotten, overshadowed by both rishonim and aharonim. Dimitrovsky stepped in, shed light, analyzed, and breathed new life into their words. His illumination of the semikha controversy likewise typifies his work which was devoted to the intermediate generation.

Another lost corpus restored by Dimitrovsky was the editions of the Talmud printed in Spain and Portugal before the expulsion. These disconnected dry bones were restored to their grandeur and provided with his fully innovative history of these little known prints.

Thus he was able to direct a concentrated in-depth focus to the commentarial and halakhic works of the Rashba; the printers of the forgotten edition of the Talmud dating from before the expulsion from Spain; of Y. Berav and Joseph Karo in the context the semikha controversy; and the entire genre of pilpul. Armed with profound powers of analysis on the one hand, and a restrained style, on the other, he has thereby enabled us to restore our own link to this almost-forgotten generation, and to hear – through his words – their muted majesty.

We were deeply gratified in 1994, when the unique achievements of our teacher, so well know to us, his students, were publicly recognized with the award of an Israel Prize in an official ceremony.

Shamma Friedman is the Benjamin and Minna Reeves Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at The Jewish Theological Seminary teaching at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and Adjunct Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University.

English, Postscripts

Post Script: Hayim Zalman Dimitrovsky

This past Sunday, Professor Hayim Zalman Dimitrovsky was laid to rest in his hometown of Jerusalem.  Professor Dimitrovsky was one of the greatest talmudic philologists of the previous century, and his research included pioneering talmudic higher criticism, scientific editions of medieval talmudic commentators, a collection of fragments of early Spanish talmudic prints accompanied by an indispensable guide to this phenomenon, and intellectual biographies of  schools of talmudic study.  Professor Dimitrovsky merited to learn with some of the greatest Talmudists of the early twentieth century, including J.N. Epstein and Simcha Assaf.  More importantly, from his post at the Jewish Theological Seminary and later, at the Hebrew University Talmud department, he succeeded in raising generations of scholars who not only continued his work, but advanced the field in completely new (and different) directions.  His death is a loss not only for his family, friends, students and colleagues, but for the field at large.  He was the last of a generation.

In the coming days, the Talmud blog will be sharing brief remarks in memory of Prof. Dimitrovsky from those who knew him best. May his memory be a source of comfort to all who studied with him, and all who have studied his works.