Epstein, Jacob Nahum

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EPSTEIN, JACOB NAHUM (1878–1952), Talmud scholar. Born in Brest-Litovsk, Epstein studied at home with his father, at the Mir yeshivah, and at the universities in Vienna and Berne, receiving his doctorate from the latter. In 1923 he became lecturer at the Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin and in 1925 professor of talmudic philology at the newly founded Hebrew University. He formulated the basis for a new approach to talmudic studies in which he trained generations of scholars, and such outstanding individuals as S. Lieberman, G. Alon, S. Abramson, M. Margaliot, and E.Z. Melammed. On the occasion of his 70th birthday, pupils and fellow scholars presented him with a jubilee volume. Early in his career Epstein devoted studies to books of the Bible and the Elephantine papyri, but the major portion of his life's work was dedicated to rabbinical literature, particularly to the Mishnah text about which he wrote Mavo le-Nusaḥ ha-Mishnah (2 vols., 1948). This work is considered to be the most authoritative study of the original text of the Mishnah. The author displays great erudition and critical acumen in attempting to establish the correct version of the Mishnah and its development. He clarifies many difficult passages in the Mishnah and the Talmudim. Two works were published posthumously, edited by E.Z. Melammed: Mevo'ot le-Sifrut ha-Tanna'im (1957, containing an introduction to the Mishnah and Tosefta, introductions to the 18 masekhtot of the Mishnah, and an introduction to halakhic Midrashim) and Mevo'ot le-Sifrut ha-Amora'im (1962, including introductions to nine tractates of the Babylonian Talmud, an introduction to the Jerusalem Talmud, and alternate versions of the latter, down to the end of tractate Shabbat). These works, together with the preliminary studies such as Dikduk Aramit Bavlit ("Babylonian Aramaic Grammar," ed. by E.Z. Melammed, 1960), were actually preparatory to a critical edition of the Mishnah text, which unfortunately remained an unfulfilled dream. Epstein was also concerned with establishing a correct version of the Jerusalem Talmud, a problem connected with the relationship between the editio princeps and the Leiden manuscript. He also initiated the ambitious plan of translating the Babylonian Talmud into Hebrew, accompanied by variant texts and a short commentary. Three tractates (Bava Kamma, Bava Meẓia, and Bava Batra) were published (1952–60).

It was natural that other early rabbinic texts should similarly engage Epstein's attention. He defined the Tosefta to be a supplement to the Mishnah recording older materials, omitting controversies and traditions, and commenting on established (Mishnah) texts. He also wrote studies on the halakhic Midrashim and prepared a new edition of the Mekhilta de-R. Simeon ben Yoḥai (ed. by E.Z. Melammed, 1955) which, in addition to being reconstructed from materials embodied in such other works as D. Hoffmann's edition of 1905, used fragments of this lost Midrash found in the Cairo Genizah.

In the field of geonic literature, Epstein edited the geonic commentary to the sixth order of the Mishnah (Tohorot, 1921–24; supplement, 1945), the introduction to which had studies on the *She'iltot of R. Aḥa Gaon. He devoted other studies to such medieval talmudic commentators as Rashi and his son-in-law and pupil, the early tosafist, Judah b. Nathan; Elijah b. Menahem of London; Yom Tov b. Abraham and others. His contribution to the modern study of rabbinical literature was of far-reaching importance. Epstein's essays and reviews appeared in many learned periodicals, and he was cofounder and coeditor of the quarterly Devir (1923–24), and edited the first 23 volumes of the quarterly Tarbiz (1930–52). He was an active member of the Vaad ha-Lashon and presided over several of its committees.


Sefer ha-Yovel… J.N. Epstein (= Tarbiz, 20, 1950); S. Abramson, J.N. Epstein, Reshimah Bibliografit … ve-Toledot Ḥayyav (1942); M. Schwabe, et al., Le-Zikhro shel J.N. Epstein (1952); Loewinger, in: S. Federbush (ed.), Ḥokhmat Yisra'el be-Ma'arav Eiropah, 2 (1963), 49ff.