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  • Meir Benayahu (1924–2009) In Memoriam
  • Matt Goldish (bio)

Meir Benayahu, who passed away in Jerusalem on April 26, 2009, was a singular phenomenon in the world of Jewish scholarship. He was a pioneer in the study of Sephardic, Italian, and Middle Eastern Jewries during the early modern period. He was also one of the most prolific scholars of Jewish studies anywhere, and a leader in the use of Hebrew manuscript sources. Anyone who works in this area today will attest that Benayahu's studies have been fundamental and critical to his or her research. Benayahu taught us not only about facts and texts but also about where to look and how to exploit the masses of early modern Hebrew manuscripts.

Benayahu was the son of the Rishon le-Tzion, Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim, a Baghdadi scholar who moved to Israel in 1925 and served as Chief Sephardic rabbi from 1955 to 1973. As a young man Benayahu ceased using his family name in professional life and instead adopted his middle name as a family name. This is how it is listed on all his publications.

The first of these publications, amazingly, appeared when Benayahu was but seventeen years old. Clearly he was fascinated by the library of rare books and manuscripts his father had brought from Baghdad, which he must have perused with great attention as a youth. Indeed, one of the most curious things about Benayahu is that he did not become a professional rabbi, nor did he go into business, the two directions typical for modern scions of great rabbinic families. Instead he chose the direction of academic Jewish studies—a decision that must have seemed quite odd to his family and friends. Scholars of this type were few in Palestine at the time, especially in the field of Sephardic and Mizrahi history, and there was little money or prestige to be gained. This propensity for the unconventional was a strong characteristic of Benayahu's personality.

A few years ago I met a professor of hydrology who had studied in high school with Benayahu, and he told me a revealing anecdote. The [End Page 657] rabbi who taught them used to chide that "Nissim [i.e., Benayahu] knows all about the binding on the books …" Even at that time this was certainly an unfair insinuation, for Benayahu had an excellent command of rabbinic sources. The story does, however, convey a sense of Benayahu's early penchant for scholarship outside traditional modes.

Everything about Benyahu's work and persona transmit the sense that the man lived as much in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as he did in the twentieth and twenty-first. His unique and instantly recognizable prose style reads more like elegant early modern rabbinic composition than modern Israeli Hebrew. His knowledge of the hakhamim from the Euphrates to Fez was encyclopedic. He was so steeped in their writings that on numerous occasions he was able to identify the author of an unknown treatise or reunite fragments of a divided manuscript simply by recognizing the handwriting. During the years when I would see him almost daily at the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem, he never called me by my own name, nor did he seem to care much what it was. When I was working on Jacob Sasportas, Benayahu called me Sasportas; when I was studying Solomon Aailion, he called me Aailion, and when I was into David Nieto, that was my name too.

I also learned that anything I found in a manuscript and thought was exciting and new must be run by Benayahu, because the odds were very high that he was already familiar with it. This happened to me repeatedly—and Benayahu always knew about parallel texts or related material I had not found. I vividly remember showing him a manuscript of Aailion material I was studying from the Ets-Haim Library in Amsterdam, then watching in alarm as he ran over to an upper shelf and almost toppled over jumping to reach a volume of Kiryat Sefer from the 1950s. He returned with a look of great satisfaction to show me where he had mentioned seeing this manuscript decades earlier.

Indeed, Benayahu traveled...