In 1935, when Urbach completed his doctorate, he was already well respected. He returned to the Breslau seminary, this time as a lecturer, though he was just 23 years old. The years prior to the Second world War were especially good ones, not just for the seminary, which attracted many students, but also for Urbach, who studied, taught, made a good living and managed to send a monthly sum to his parents. However, he sensed that the future of German Jews was uncertain. In late 1938, just days before Kristallnacht, Urbach left Germany. He entered Palestine with the help of a certificate stating that he was a research fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (only 2,000 people obtained such certificates). Before he left, he celebrated Succoth with his family in Wloclawek. This was the last time he would see them; they all perished in the Holocaust.
Urbach made his home in Jerusalem and soon befriended the local intelligentsia: Agnon, Epstein, Lieberman, Asaf, Freiman and others. In 1939, he published his first book, an annotated edition of the medieval essay Arugat Habosem, which garnered much praise.
Urbach was hired to teach at the Gymnasia Haivrit in Jerusalem, joined the Haganah and later, in 1941, the British Army. In July 1942, encouraged by Moshe Sharett and Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog, he was appointed Chaplain to the Jewish Brigade in the British Army. In this capacity, Urbach advanced into Libya, Tunisia, Sicily and Italy with Montgomery's Eighth Army. He was assigned a military vehicle and driver and his job was to take care of the Jewish soldiers in the various units, liaise between them and officials, and bring reassuring word of the Jewish community (the yishuv) in Palestine to the liberated communities in North Africa and Europe. Urbach stood out during his military service as a first class educator and organizational player, though he never neglected his love of research and books. In every community he reached, Urbach sought out response of North African scholars, rare books and writings, and was eager to have the opportunity to publish his findings.
In Libya, in 1943, he wrote: "I have found ancient headstones, manuscripts of liturgical poems by local poets, and various documents. If I have time, I would like to write a comprehensive article on Libyan Jewry, past and present."
In another letter dated the same year, he wrote: "In the Portuguese Synagogue there is a wonderful rabbinic library, but they do not wish to sell anything. My only sin was covetousness."
Urbach's friends in Palestine were fascinated with his travels, encouraging him and occasionally expressing envy:
"I enjoyed your last letter a great deal, especially since you are in a city of books. How I envy you! I am racked with jealousy. Trust me, I will seek and perhaps even find, a way to reach you. You know how I am when I smell books" (publisher Shmuel Wahrman);
"My dear Urbach […] you are flying, making world history, and we are sitting here dabbling in the empty shells of existence." (A.H. Freiman)
Urbach was discharged from the British Army in 1946. By then he was married to Hannah Pinczower and the couple settled in Jerusalem. Urbach served as principal of the Maaleh school for years, after which he held several different positions in the Ministry of Education. In 1953 he was appointed lecturer in the Talmud Department at Hebrew University. For many years he devoted himself to Talmudic research, was promoted to full professor, and became a member of the Academy of Hebrew Language and the Council of Higher Education, among other things. From 1969 onward, Urbach was head of the International Association for Jewish Studies and continued to be the driving force behind the Jewish Studies Congresses that were held in Jerusalem every four years. Urbach however, did not limit himself to the academic realm. He regularly expressed his opinions on issues pertaining to religion and state, education, Judaism and current affairs. In 1966 he established the Movement for Torah Judaism and continued to write and lecture on his manifesto regarding public questions in various forums. From 1980 to 1986 Urbach served as chair of the Jewish Studies Institute at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and as president of the Israel Academy of Sciences.
The Efraim Elimelech Urbach Archive
, which is preserved and catalogued in the National Library, is testament to the fact that the nation's leaders were eager to hear Urbach's opinions and the Foreign Ministry and others often made official use of them. His public persona, and well known status outside of the academy, led to his nomination for presidency of the state in 1973 by the bloc comprised of the Freedom and Liberal parties (Gahal) and the National Religious Party (Mafdal).
Urbach published several seminal books which became foundational texts in Talmud research. Among these were Baalei Tosfot
(1955), and The Sages, Their Concepts and Beliefs
(1969), etc. Articles published in the press or journals, or found in manuscript form in his personal archive, were published posthumously by his students in three volumes entitles Collected Writings in Jewish Studies
(1998). His archive also shows that, towards the end of his life, he did a lot of research on Polish Jewry and its Responsa. Not much of this work was published. Efraim Elimelech Urbach died in 1991 (5751). His personal archive was donated to the National Library by his family, and is accessible through the library catalogue.