For the first century-and-a-half of academic Jewish studies, scholars approached the Talmud armed primarily with knowledge of Judaism and of Greco-Roman antiquity. Such knowledge is undoubtedly necessary for studying the Mishnah (the older stratum of the Talmud) and the Jerusalem Talmud, both of which were produced in Roman-ruled Palestine. But the far more significant Babylonian Talmud reflects the teaching of rabbis who lived in Persian-ruled Mesopotamia during the 3rd through 6th centuries, a place where the dominant religion was Zoroastrianism and the literary language Persian. The late Yaakov Elman, an Orthodox Jew who had been a meteorologist, bookseller, and publisher before turning to fulltime scholarship, rought knowledge of this period in Iranian history to the study of Talmud. Shai Secunda reminisces about Elman, who died last month at the age of seventy-four:
While [Elman’s] early work was strictly philological and focused on topics such as the relationship between the early rabbinic compilation known as the Tosefta and the Babylonian Talmud, he moved on ingeniously to combine Iranian and talmudic studies in a hybrid that became known as Irano-Talmudica. Elman was the not the first scholar to realize that studying Babylonian Jewry’s Persian context could illuminate the Babylonian Talmud, but he is the one who built it into a real movement of flesh-and-blood people from different fields. . . .
Yaakov began this Irano-Talmudic stage of his career at age fifty, on a fellowship at Harvard. There he befriended professor Oktor Skjærvø, a tall, wry Norwegian master of Indo-Iranian languages. Oktor and Yaakov . . . soon became inseparable, spending many hours each day studying Middle Persian in Skjærvø’s large, book-lined office. Occasionally attending faculty parties in the evening, they appeared as the ultimate odd couple. . . .
Traveling the world for Jewish and Iranian studies conferences, Yaakov became a tireless evangelist for reading the Talmud alongside Middle Persian texts, regularly launching into detailed discussions of Zoroastrian law and describing it, to the astonishment of many, as “halakhic,” “rabbinic,” and “strikingly parallel” to Jewish law. . . . The tiny field of Old Iranian studies, which had been languishing due to lack of interest, gained tremendously from the sudden, unexpected infusion of these Talmud scholars.