Obituary'Blau provided a profound analysis of a unique literature'

Prof. Yehoshua Blau, giant of Semitic languages, dies at 101

Israel Prize-winning scholar of biblical Hebrew grammar and Judeo-Arabic fled the Nazis in 1938 to settle in pre-state Israel, where he continued publishing even after hitting 100

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Prof. Yehoshua Blau poses for a picture at his home in Jerusalem on August 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prof. Yehoshua Blau poses for a picture at his home in Jerusalem on August 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prof. Yehoshua Blau, a giant in the field of Semitic languages, died in Jerusalem on October 20, 2020 at the age of 101. The Israel Prize winner was active well into this year, when he continued to publish research articles and authored books — some of which are still awaiting publication — including on texts found in the Cairo Genizah.

Born in Cluj, Romania (Transylvania), in September 1919, Blau and his family fled the Nazis in 1938 for pre-state Israel. Father Pinchas (Paul) had been a founding editor of the Hungarian-language Zionist newspaper “Uj Kelet.” Prior to immigrating to Palestine, Blau had been enrolled in a rabbinical program in Vienna and maintained an Orthodox practice even after pivoting to academia.

After enrolling in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Blau studied Hebrew, Bible, and Arabic, earning a Masters degree in 1942. He married Shulamit (who still lives) in 1945 and they had two children: A scientist son and a daughter who was an Arabic teacher.

Blau’s formal doctoral studies were delayed by the War of Independence, in which he fought. He was awarded a PhD in 1950 for his dissertation, “The Grammar of Judeo-Arabic.”

Prior to his academic career, Blau was also a teacher in high schools and published several Hebrew grammars. Blau also briefly taught at Tel Aviv University, but found his life-long scholarly home at the Hebrew University from 1957 until his formal retirement in 1986, a year after winning the coveted Israel Prize. He continued to serve as a professor emeritus and to informally guide graduate students well into his late 90s.

Prof. Yehoshua Blau poses for a picture at his home in Jerusalem on August 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Blau is most well-known for his work in biblical Hebrew grammar, the linguistics of Semitic languages, and Judeo-Arabic. One former graduate student sang Blau’s praises, telling The Times of Israel the professor was a force of nature who dealt with every possible subject. Other fields of research were the historical development of Hebrew linguistics, the renaissance of Hebrew, Middle Arabic, and Christian Arabic.

“These linguistic types had never been sufficiently studied or assessed before, because they were outside the scope of Muslim culture. In his studies, Blau provided a profound analysis and thorough description of a full-fledged and unique literature,” reads an encyclopedia entry on Blau.

Since the 1950s, Blau was an active member of the Academy of Hebrew Language and served as its president in 1981–93, after which he continued to edit its journal, Leshonenu, until 1999. Until recently, he attended the full plenary sessions, in which new Hebrew terms and grammar are ratified.

According to his profile, Blau was elected as a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in 1968 (head of Humanities, 1989–95), and elected a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy in 1983.

Watch a Hebrew-language interview with Prof. Yehoshua Blau from 2018:

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