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.

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5 responses to “Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky ז”ל- Guest Post by Prof. Shamma Friedman

  1. As always, Shamma wrote a beautiful and comprehensive review of Prof. Dimitrovsky’s (affectionately known as Dimi) work. It should be supplemented by a description of Dimitrovsky’s relationship to Gra”sh Lieberman. Lieberman brought, or better cajoled, him to JTS and he virtually stayed throughout Lieberman’s reign. I recall two comments in class. One was his reflections on the relative merit of Epstein and Albeck, the towering talmudists then of Heb.U. In b’keiut they were matched; in charifut, Epstein excelled. Albeck could not match the imaginative powers of Epstein. With regard to Epstein and Lieberman, he mentioned that for years he sought to assess their astounding b’keiut. He finally concluded that Lieberman prevailed. When asked how he knew, He said that in class Epstein was overwhelming, but after years of teaching saw that one with effort could pull that off. With Lieberman, on the other hand, he took many long walks and no matter what came up, Lieberman showed the same b’kieut that he showed in class.
    Lieberman was literally a world-class talmudist.
    Yehie zikhro baruch,
    Reuven Kimelman

  2. My introduction to Prof. Dimitrovsky’s work was in yeshiva with the Rashba. I think that anyone who has not learned in yeshiva gedola can hardly imagine how much effort is expended by Roshei Yeshiva in “fregging up” the scholarly notes such as these in all modern critical editions. The rishonim themselves are considered infallible. The achronim — depends on hashkafa. But according to everyone these widely distributed notes are fair game so the rammim go at them with a bren and often take them down. Of course, it’s easier to poke holes in a building than to build one.
    I only ever had the vaguest familiarity with Prof. Dimitrovsky’s other work. I like how this post took “footnotes” and breathed life into the man and contextualized his entire work.

  3. Pingback: Memories and Evening in Memory of Prof. Dimitrovsky | The Talmud Blog·

  4. I only discovered that my teacher ז”ל has left us this morning, months after his פטירה. Prof. Dimitrovsky was responsible for my acceptance to Merkaz ha-Rav and my move back to the yeshiva world. He understood not only the minds of his students but their hearts as well. I have so many memories of exchanges with him. Although I left the academy for the secular world, I ultimately returned to the world of the yeshiva which appeared to give him much pleasure. He expressed pride in me whenever I spoke to him. For him, above all else, it was Torah that mattered.
    יהי זכרו ברוך
    עוזר ישעיה הכהן גלירמן

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