Tomorrow at 3 PM we say our final farewells to our dear friend Chaim at the cemetery in his home village of Omer in Israel’s Negev region. Chaim was a veteran professor of Hebrew Language and Bible at the Ben Gurion University. Scholars from around the world will undoubtedly delineate his enormous contribution to Biblical studies.I say goodbye here to a great friend and wish to contribute an intimate sketch for his memory.
No one I have known loved the Bible the way Chaim loved it. He savored every phrase, every letter, and, of course, every note of the Ta-amim. A great musician, Chaim was arguably the best Torah reader anywhere. He loved to perform, and would voluntarily take on at least half of every parashah. A perfectionist, he would lovingly devote many hours to preparation every week, even though he could read on sight better than most professionals. And he was the best “fore-lehner” imaginable. With Chaim to your right, you could count on being fed the note you needed a split second before you needed it. When a reader would begin to make mistakes or “make up” some of the notes, Chaim’s hints became louder over time. He tried his best to get the best reading possible out of his peers. Without an ounce of arrogance, he just thought a perfect Torah deserved a perfect reading. And he was the supreme tutor, so that Omer, this small and obscure community at the fringe, graduated generations of superb readers trained by Chaim.
Chaim loved everything about the Bible, including its parallels in the ancient Near East. A foremost scholar, especially of Akkadian, Chaim would put his vast knowledge to work in suggesting precise meanings of Biblical words and phrases. Chaim was a devoted disciple of his beloved Professor Moshe Held and like his teacher was a stickler for precise method. We had many conversations in which a possible nuance was considered, but Chaim would always look for the evidence and never go beyond it into even modest speculation, the appeal of the nuance notwithstanding. In considering the famous Yehoash inscription, Chaim rose to the occasion of looking into Biblical syntax as no one had done before him, and courageously stated his opinion that the Hebrew of the inscription was true Biblical period Hebrew which it would be hard to imagine an impostor could have created. As a scholar, Chaim was naturally generous, not a nature so common among scholars. He was dedicated to generosity towards his medieval predecessors, especially Ibn Ezra, whom he would praise at every opportunity for his fine sense of language. Even when some of us amateurs in the Schul would come up with questions or thoughts, Chaim was meticulous about giving more credit than actually was due in his scholarly papers. And if any of us wanted to develop our thoughts, he was enormously generous with a mixture clear thinking and encouragement.
Chaim was a Cohen who loved being a Cohen. No one has ever performed the Priestly Blessing with such fervor and musicality. In Omer, his father’s tune became his signature and I hope it will survive him as a gesture of love. As a Cohen, he thought his role in peacemaking was an obligation. Chaim made many efforts, some of them successful in bringing peace between different parties in the community. And he contributed his time freely to bring peace among couple in conflict, just because he thought it worthy.
When the ancient Jews of Eretz Yisrael wanted to critique their Babylonian brethren, one of their sayings was that the foolish Babylonians would rise in honor of the Sefer Torah but not in honor of a great man. We in Omer were spared this particular foolishness. We were blessed with a walking Sefer Torah in our midst, so we never had to make the choice.