A Eulogy

For Aharon Oppenheimer

24 February 2022
A Eulogy for Aharon Oppenheimer
A Eulogy for Aharon Oppenheimer

Tel Aviv University, the Lester and Sally Antin Faculty of Humanities, the dean, the academic staff, the administrative staff, The Haim Rosenberg School of Science and Non-Archeology and the Goldstein Goren Center for Diaspora Studies wish to comfort the family on the death of their loved one.


  Attached here is the obituary written by Professor Vered Noam to Aharon Oppenheimer:


"What is the right path a person should choose for himself? Whatever is honorable to the one who follows it, and honorable in the eyes of others" (Avot 2:1).


These are the words of Rabbi, R. Yehudah the Prince, whose illustrious figure fascinated Prof. Aharon Oppenheimer his entire life, and to whom he dedicated two monographs.


What was it about Rabbi Yehudah the Prince that so captivated Aharon? Aharon describes Rabbi as a man of contradictions: "The man whose study of the Torah was his chief priority – yet he approached the ignorant "; A man of halakha – who yet formed a close relationship with foreign cultures and the Roman authorities; A man of power – yet described as extremely humble; "The man of halakha – who yet did not shut himself off in it, but rather invested great efforts to adapt the halakha to the changing circumstances".


Rabbi's path was a beacon for Aharon Oppenheimer, who never shut himself up in an academic ivory tower, and whose eyes were open to the needs of society and the world, and to the needs and anxieties of friends and students. Aharon's rewarding path was twofold– he had the merit of engaging in the Torah and in research, and also the merit of engaging with others: public involvement, care for students, warm relationships with the many friends who shared his path, deep love of family, and the many institutions he accompanied and promoted.


The qualities of mediation between opposites by combining and balancing them characterized Aharon not only in his private life but in research as well.


Aharon Oppenheimer is one of the rare scholars who have established an entire field of research, and one with great ramifications. Some have argued that Mishnah and Talmudic literature, being halakhic, interpretive, and didactic in nature, cannot serve as a source for real history, and that engaging in research therein is limited to textual and philological insights. Aharon, in contrast, believed that the teachings of sages – like his own teachings – emerged from society and real life, and that both the society and the real life of that time can indeed be grasped. Through the diverse and multifaceted one-man's life's work he generated a tremendous research impetus, which established both a new methodological perspective and many fruitful themes and trajectories for studying the history of late antiquity from Talmudic literature.


Aharon's inclusive, humane and social perspective emerges already in his first book, which sought in particular to engage with the marginalized figure of the "ignorant" (Am Ha-Haaretz) within the world of sages. From this figure Oppenheimer illuminated the social history of a central and formative period in the history of Israel.


The second book is an invaluable treasure that scholars of the Babylonian Talmud and the history of the Babylonian diaspora find repeatedly useful. This book is in fact a comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date encyclopedia of all the places mentioned throughout the Babylonian Talmud. For each of the places, all Talmudic references are presented and translated, complete with variant readings, all the identifications suggested in research literature, and all historical and geographical information about them, from Greek and Roman historians to medieval Arab geographers. This entire array is accompanied with maps. Apart from the linguistic, philological and geographical discussion of each entry, the book draws a comprehensive geographical picture of the Jewish settlement in Babylon and its connection with the Land of Israel.


His other books and the ca. 100 articles he authored describe the Galilee in the Mishnaic period, the Bar Kokhba revolt and its motives, the unique personality and leadership of Rabbi Yehudah the Prince, the Jewish leadership institutions; the Roman administration in the Land of Israel; Economic life; The Jewish society on its various levels; relations of Jews with non-Jews in mixed cities; the ancient synagogues, their location and nature, and of course issues in the history of Babylonian Jewry.


Oppenheimer instilled in the international community of historians of late antiquity the awareness of the importance of Rabbinic literature as a valuable historical resource, and outlined a way to use it while being aware of its limitations and being careful of impediments. He left us a legacy of mediation and integration: how the Talmudic evidence can be examined in light of external data like the archaeological finds and the testimony of Greek and Roman writers, and how, on the other hand, the testimony of Jewish sources sheds light on what emerges from those external sources from another angle and perspective. He taught how one can extract a rich and complex historical picture from this combination of sources and findings.


When I arrived as a young lecturer at Tel Aviv University, about two and a half decades ago, I knew Aharon only slightly. I had not been privileged to be his direct student beforehand, and I entered another department than his. But Aharon accompanied and supported my academic path from the first moment, encouraged me and introduced me to senior researchers at the university and outside it. He and Nili opened their home and their hearts to us, cultivating a strong friendship that grew over the years, which often made me wonder what I did to deserve it. This generosity was not unusual; that was Aharon's way.


In his welcoming, generous and inclusive way, bridging the opposites, he was known as an excellent, attentive and welcoming teacher to his students. Despite a serious illness he had been suffering from throughout his lifetime, he did not cancel even one lesson in all his years of work at the university. His extraordinary devotion to his research students was well known within the university. They have become scholars in their own right, carrying his path forward.


Aharon was one of the leaders of the Israeli academic community and held several key positions that advanced his field of research and the study of history in Israel in general. He served as editor of "Zion" and "Cathedra" and as a member of the board of the Israeli Historical Society, a board member and a member of the "Yad Ben Zvi" publishing house, and at Tel Aviv University he was the Chair of the Department of Jewish History, Chair of the Department of Multidisciplinary, Chair of the School of Jewish Studies and Head of the Diaspora Research Center, as well as a member of numerous committees.


Beyond all these there was Nili, his partner and his ally in both private life and in research, and alongside her the daughters, granddaughters and grandsons who were most precious to him.


"…the whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last. All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron" (Numbers 20:29) We have lost a man of virtue, a man of righteousness, a man of mediation, integration and generosity in life and in research. Let us be comforted by all that he has left behind: the imprint of goodness and grace in the many paths he has walked; a subsequent generation of many students; and finally, fruit-bearing Torah and research corpora.



Prof. Vered Noam

Tel Aviv University



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