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The Chida -Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai ZT"L

By Yehuda Aryeh

This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman, Monsey NY. and is reprinted here with their permission

Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai, better known by his acronym "Chida," was one of the greatest Sephardic sages of his time.

He was born in Yerushalayim, but spent more than 50 years of his life abroad, during which time he longed for Eretz Yisroel. Although he was unable to realize his dream of moving back to Eretz Yisroel during his lifetime, his longings were not in vain. Some 154 years after his petira in Laverne, Italy, he was reburied on Har Hamenuchos in Yerushalayim.

Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai, the son of Rav Refael Yitzchak Zarchia Azulai, was born in 5384 in Yerushalayim. He descended from an illustrious family that had lived in Spain until the Expulsion. It then moved to the Moroccan city of Fez, and eventually to Chevron.

The founder of the Azulai family was Rav Avraham Azulai, author of many important Torah works, among them Chessed l'Avraham, Sefer Shoshana and Hagahos al HaRambam.

The Chida was born premature, and he was so lifeless and feeble at his birth that the midwife who delivered him was certain that he wouldn't survive for more than a few hours. The Chida's grandmother, however, wrapped him in blankets and remained by his crib until he gained weight and became healthy.

The Chida was a childhood prodigy. At the age of 6, he began to study in the Beis Yaakov beis medrash, where his uncle, Rav Yona Navon, taught.

He began to write chiddushim and drashos even before his bar mitzva. After his bar mitzva, his father and Rav Yona trained him to write halachic responses. When Rav Yona went abroad on a shlichus, he corresponded with the Chida, and a strong bond of friendship that transcended the ordinary rebbi-talmid relationship developed between them.

The young Chida was also very close with Rav Yom Tov Elgazi, and the two studied together from many years. Rav Elgazi succeeded the Rashash as the rosh yeshiva of Beis Kel, and was also the Sefardic chief rabbi from 1776-1802.

The Chida then studied in the Knesset Yisroel Yeshiva, founded by the Or Hachaim Hakadosh, Rav Chaim ben Attar.

The Or Hachaim arrived in Eretz Yisroel in Av 5402, and settled in Yerushalayim. But he passed way just 11 months later, at the young age of 47.

During this brief period, the Chida studied under the Or Hachaim and absorbed much of the Or Hachaim's piety and kedusha. In his writings, the Chida cites many of the Or Hachaim's practices and insights.

The Chida also served many other sages, such as Rav Yisroel Meir Mizrachi, author of Pri Haaretz; Rav Yitzchak HaKohen Rappaport, author of Battei Kehuna; and the two great kabbalists Rav Gedalya Chayon and Rav Shalom Sharabi.

The Chida also learned in the Beit El Yeshiva, where he was one of the most outstanding students. He was a member of a special association founded by the Rashash called Chevras Ahavas Shalom. This association included 12 of the yeshiva's top students.

The members of this association adopted many practices that were intended to help them perfect their character traits and achieve piety.

In Eretz Yisroel at that time, a group known as the Committee of Eretz Yisroel's Trustees in Constantinople supervised the activities of Yerushalayim's Sephardic community and its leaders. It also represented them before the Turkish rulers.

Most of the officials on the committee were not G-d fearing and, quite often, they overstepped each other's jurisdictions. Although the sages of Yerushalayim made its decisions and regulations, committee officials attempted to gain control of the city's public affairs and to interfere in local appointments. As a result, great discord prevailed between the members of the committee and Yerushalayim's sages and residents.

In 5422, a sharp dispute arose between Yerushalayim's residents and Rachamim Cohen, one of committee's representatives in Yerushalayim. In the end, he was placed in cherem.

Eventually, tempers flared to such an extent that the members of the committee resigned from their positions. Since the Sephardic community in Yerushalayim was dependent on the committee in Constantinople for its livelihood and for its influence on local Turkish officials, it decided to send a delegation of distinguished chachamim to Constantinople to bring about a reconciliation.

The Chida was appointed head of this delegation. He was joined by Rav Yom Tov Elgazi, Rav Shmuel Elchadif, Rav Chaim Elfanderi, Rav Avraham ben Asher and Rav Yeshayahu Azulai, his son.

Before reaching Constantinople, the Chida learned that the members of the committee had reinstated Rachamim Cohen, despite the ban on him. The Chida decided that it would be futile, at that point, to try and negotiate with them. As a result, he decided to return to Yerushalayim. However, Yerushalayim's prominent residents sent him many messengers to try and convince him to continue on to Constantinople.

The Chida and his delegation reached Egypt and waited there, hoping that the situation would soon become clearer. They couldn't return to Yerushalayim because of their fear of the advocates of the appointment of Rachamim Cohen.

This dispute had adverse effects on the Sephardic community in Yerushalayim, since the committee no longer raised funds for them or kept the Turkish rulers in line. During this period, the Sephardic community suffered from a famine that took the lives of 300 of its members.

When the Chida arrived in Egypt, the local Jews recognized his greatness and appointed him chief rabbi. Nonetheless, the Chida suffered greatly in Egypt due to his longings for Yerushalayim.

Eventually, the Chida once more tried to effect a reconciliation with the committee in Constantinople. This time, he succeeded.

Many of Yerushalayim's sages, who had fled to Egypt due to the dispute, returned to Eretz Yisroel. But the Chida, who was bound by a contract to preside as Egypt's chief rabbi for five years, could not join them.

When the Chida's tenure ended, he and his family left Egypt and headed for Eretz Yisroel. In 5429, they settled in Chevron.

The Chida remained in Chevron for three years. While there, he wrote the majority of his famous Birkei Yosef on the Shulchan Aruch.

In 5413, Chevron's sages pleaded with him to go abroad once more, this time on behalf of the Jews of Chevron, whose financial situation was dire.

At that time, the function of meshulach on behalf of the Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisroel was always assigned to the most dignified and eminent chachamim. The Chida was only 29 when he set out on his journey, which included over 148 cities. Among those cities were Alexandria, Laverne, Ferrara, Modena, Venice, Frankfurt a Main, Mainz, Bonn, Dusseldorf, Amsterdam, Hague, London, Dover, Paris, Bordeaux, Toulouse and Nice.

In Germany, he suffered many disgraces. Its community doubted the veracity of his credentials, and claimed that he was a fraud. He wasn't invited to give drashos in their synagogues, or even given decent lodgings. Things changed once he reached Italy and Paris, where he was treated with much respect, and its prominent Jews helped him collect money.

Upon his return to Eretz Yisroel in 5418, he continued to study and to disseminate Torah in Chevron.

In 5433, Chevron's community once again asked him to go abroad on their behalf. During this mission, which also lasted more than five years, he visited 156 cities.

One of his first stops was Tunisia, where he was placed in a detention house for 40 days, as were all Oriental visitors to that country. During that period, he prepared his renowned Shem Hagedolim for publication.

When he was released, he headed for Laverne, where his daughter lived, and printed Shem Hagedolim and Birkei Yosef there.

While in Italy, he received a letter from Chevron, stating that the Turkish ruler had cast all of the city's Jews into a ghetto because a blood libel had been circulated against them. The ruler had threatened to slay them if they didn't provide him with a large ransom fee.

The Chida, who was greatly distressed by this letter, appealed to Italy's Jews to raise the necessary money to redeem Chevron's Jews. They responded to his appeal, and he soon dispatched the funds to Eretz Yisroel.

This journey, like his previous one, was fraught with hardship, disgrace and danger. Customs officials who were wary of his way mode of dress also harassed him.

While abroad, the Chida was very careful not to be on the road on erev Shabbos. He was also very scrupulous about his kashrus observance, and only ate at the homes of prominent talmidei chachamim.

During his trips, he visited the graves of tzaddikim such as the Rama of Paneu, Rav Moshe Zakuta and Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi. His also visited many gedolei Yisroel.

In addition, he not only collected money for the Jews of Chevron, but also inspired the Jews of the communities he visited to correct their shortcomings.

In Laverne, he exhorted its Jewish residents not to read secular literature, and tried to stem the ever-increasing influence of the Haskala Movement.

He also strengthened many of the educational networks in Tunisia, and gave shiurim in mussar throughout France.

When his mission ended, he remained in Laverne. It appears that he stayed there because it had excellent printing houses where he could publish his many writings, as well as wealthy people willing to sponsor these endeavors.

While in Laverne, he published two to four seforim each year. These works were warmly received by the Jews of the Diaspora and were distributed in Italy, Turkey, Poland, Russia, North Africa, Syria and Eretz Yisroel.

In Laverne, he spent his entire day studying. Nonetheless, he had a tremendous influence on the community.

Recognizing his greatness, Laverne's Jews addressed halachic questions to him and consulted him on many issues. He refused, however, to accept any public position, and declined the offer to preside as Laverne's chief rabbi.

As his fame spread, communities throughout the Diaspora turned to him for assistance, and asked him to pray for them.

Despite the honor he was accorded abroad, he yearned to return to Yerushalayim. His reasons for remaining in Laverne until his petira are unclear. It is believed that he was worried that the Jews in Eretz Yisroel wanted to appoint him to the position of Sefardic chief rabbi, which, in his humility, he did not want to accept.

Even though he was far from home, he remained deeply concerned for the plight of the Jews of Eretz Yisroel, and would assist all of the emissaries who came to Italy on their behalf.

The Chida, who suffered from many ailments throughout his life, was niftar on the 11th of Adar, 5466, at the age of 83. His petira was mourned by Jews all over the world. In Laverne, hespedim were delivered by Rav Yaakov diMedina and Rav Chaim Shlomo Abulafia. Many additional hespedim were given in Turkey, North Africa, Germany, Poland, Tunisia, France, Syria and Eretz Yisroel.

Rav Yosef Refael Chazan of Turkey, author of Chikrei, called him "a gadol hador who atoned for the entire generation."

Rav Yosef Dovid Zitzenheim of France, author of Yad David, said, "He was one of the most exalted Torah figures of our times, who studied Torah incessantly, until the day of his petira."

More than a century and a half after the Chida was buried in Laverne, plans were made to rebury him on Har Hamenuchos.

The arrangements for the transfer of his remains were made by the Sefardic Chief Rabbi Rav Yitzchak Nissim. It was decided to bring his remains to Eretz Yisroel because the Fascists in Laverne planned to convert the cemetery in which he was buried into a public park, and to reinter him in a new plot in a different cemetery.

When the plane bearing the Chida's coffin landed in Eretz Yisroel, the rabbanim who had escorted it from Laverne learned that during the flight, the coffin had fallen twice and, each time it was picked up, it was turned upside down.

One of the escorts was Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, who later served as Sefardic chief rabbi. After the necessary arrangements for bringing the coffin from the airport to Yerushalayim were made, Rav Eliyahu told the other escorts, "We must open the coffin and rearrange the Chida's remains."

The other rabbanim disagreed with him. However, Rav Mordechai insisted that it wasn't respectable to bury the Chida in such a state. Then, fearfully yet courageously, he lifted the coffin's lid slightly and said, "Rabbeinu HaChida, please forgive me if in any way I am not fulfilling this mitzva properly."

As his hand reached deeper into the coffin, he continued, "Rabbeinu, please do this task by yourself, lest I err."

Suddenly, the coffin began to shake, and a rattling sound - made by the Chida's remains striking the coffin's walls - was heard. The rav standing next to Rav Mordechai was so startled that he fainted.

When the rattling subsided, Rav Eliyahu examined the entire coffin with his hand to make sure that all the remains were in the right place.

From Lod, the coffin was brought to Yerushalayim. There it was met by tens of thousands of Jews, who escorted it to Har Hamenuchos. The Chida had finally come home.

(The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Tzemach Dovid)

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