[By Reva Kaiser]
A Legend of Greatness: The Life and Times of Hacham Haim Yosef David Azoulay, is the first comprehensive, English-language, full-length biography focused exclusively on this Torah giant, who is often known by the acronym of the first letters of his name, the Hida.
This 464-page tome was painstakingly researched and written by Yehuda Azoulay over the course of two years. It is the fourth in his Sephardic Legacy Series, a collection of books about Sephardic rabbis and history, yet Azoulay is only 26 years old.
Azoulay embarked on the lofty venture of writing a series of books at the youthful age of 19, when he was studying in yeshiva. Realizing that there was a dearth of historical books written in English about the great Sephardic leaders, Azoulay undertook the challenge to fill that void.
“I realized that no one was doing it,” he says. So Azoulay mapped out a plan to research and publish 15 books. In seven short years, he’s now more than one-quarter of the way there.
“The interest in Sephardic history and tradition among Sephardic Jewry has, baruch Hashem, grown exponentially in recent years, and I feel both humbled and privileged to have been able to contribute to this trend through the publication of books about great Sephardic sages,” writes Azoulay.
Azoulay’s first book, A Legacy of Leaders, was published in 2008 (he was 21), and a second volume, A Legacy of Leaders II, the following year. Both are anthologies of various Sephardic leaders. His third book, Ben Ish Hai, though, totals more than 400 pages devoted to a single rabbi, Hacham Yosef Haim.
A Legend of Greatness, Azoulay’s most recent publication, is also focused on a single individual, the illustrious Hida.
“The book focuses on the breathtaking spectrum of the Hida’s achievements: his scholarship, his writings, his personal piety, his communal activities, his travels, his family, his worldly pursuits and his interactions with many different kinds of people—Torah sages, family members, community leaders, philanthropists, simple laymen, gentile scholars and government officials,” explains Azoulay.
The Hida, who lived from 1724 to 1806, was born into a Sephardi family. He identified himself as Sephardi, but remained strongly connected to the Ashkenazi lineage of his maternal family. Named for his mother’s father, the great German scholar, Rabbi Yosef Bialer, the Hida was a link between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Torah teachings, valuing and continuing the scholarship of both.
Growing up in Jerusalem, the Hida was known as a child prodigy and was educated by some of the most renowned sages of that era, including the great kabbalist Rabbi Shalom Sharabi (Rashash) and Rabbi Haim ben Atar (Or HaHaim). At the age of 13, the Hida was already conducting Torah classes. His first literary undertaking was a commentary on the medieval Sefer Ha’agur, launching a career in Torah authorship and publication that is practically unparalleled by any other Torah scholar, Azoulay attests. The Hida wrote more than 85 books (of which approximately 60 have been published), including Shem Hagedolim, an encyclopedia of biographical information on 1,300 Torah scholars, and bibliographical information on 1,200 works of Torah literature. What is most amazing is that the Hida composed this work in 40 days without specific research—just gleaning from all the information he had committed to memory through his travels, inquiries and learning. The Hida is also known for Birke Yosef, a sefer on halacha based on the Shulchan Aruch.
The Hida’s writings cover an incredibly wide and diverse range of subjects. A leading scholar of Kabbalah, he dealt in gematria (numerical values of letters) and segulot (charms), and his essays on Kabbalah are studied and analyzed by the greatest kabbalistic scholars. The Hida’s halachic works have formed the foundation of the Sephardic halachic tradition. He also wrote historical works and composed poignant prayers that are deeply cherished today.
When he was just 29, the Hida was selected as shaliah (emissary) of the Jewish community of Hebron. For years he traveled through the Jewish communities of North Africa, Turkey and Western Europe, visiting some 160 cities and raising significant funds for the destitute Jews of the Holy Land. The Hida viewed his position of shaliah as a personal obligation to transmit Eretz Yisrael’s honor and luminosity to the Diaspora communities.
Indeed, during his travels, the Hida taught and inspired Jews of all backgrounds. He writes that, during his sojourns, he often slept at night on a wooden bench, yet was also diligently studied 53 pages of Zohar every day. Despite the hardships entailed in travel, the Hida took advantage of these opportunities to meet with great scholars and read rare books and manuscripts. On his journeys, he visited numerous libraries and would spend nights copying rare texts by hand.
The Hida’s travels took him to Egypt, where, in 1764, he accepted the position of Chief Rabbi of Cairo and served as head of Egypt’s Beit Din, in which capacity he received halachic queries from places as distant as Yemen. His distinguished positions were very demanding and left him little time for Torah study, a fact that anguished him. In a letter the Hida penned during this period to his student, Rabbi Shelomo Hasan, he wrote, “I am alone… and impoverished …in Torah.”
Even after accepting the posts in Egypt, though, it was a while until the Hida felt settled there; he did not send for his family for a number of months. Eventually, his wife and children—two sons and three daughters—joined him in Egypt. However, his time there was marked by tragedy: shortly after receiving news of his father’s death, the Hida’s own daughter died. After five years in Egypt, the Hida and his family returned to Israel, settling in Hebron.
The Hida was an effective and widely respected community leader, but was known for his humility. “He was the leading scholar of his generation in every area of Torah literature—Halachah, Talmud, homiletics, Biblical exegesis and Kabbalah,” writes Azoulay. “But he was also a world traveler, successful fundraiser, masterful lecturer, historian, expert on unpublished manuscripts, bibliographer, prolific author and community leader.”
The biography is very detailed in its descriptions of the Hida. “With his remarkable blend of charisma, humor, scholarship, eloquence, worldliness, common sense and human understanding, the Hida inspired audiences, successfully resolved conflicts in countless homes and communities, and made a strong impression on nearly everyone he met, Jew and gentile alike,” writes Azoulay. In his book, Azoulay quotes Rabbi Gavriel Pereira de Leon of Livorno who described the impression the Hida made on the communities he visited: “And he came, beautiful and crowned with holiness… And when he came, fathers, mothers, women and children ran out in joyous voices and great love to meet him and to bow before him, and they said, ‘Come with joy; we are servants to our master.’”
Non-Jews were also awed by the Hida’s presence. During the Hida’s visit to the Palace of Versailles outside of Paris, his majestic, dignified appearance caused King Louis XVI to mistake the Hida for an ambassador of a foreign country.
While he obviously did not hold such title, the Hida was certainly qualified for such a position. His approachable demeanor and wide range of interests enabled him to befriend people of diverse backgrounds and discuss with them a variety of subjects. The Hida was a sharp-witted and brilliant conversationalist with an engaging sense of humor. He loved sharing his experiences with others. In his book, Azoulay recounts a diary entry the Hida made, in which he laments the fact that, while sailing to Tunis, the hostile captain of the ship “did not allow the sailors to speak with me.” The Hida continues, “I gave them beer and fruit so they would say something to me, since I was distressed on several accounts, and in hiding they would speak a little, but they were afraid of their master. And I was distressed… for I had no one with whom to converse.”
While some people (like the sailors) were inaccessible, the Hida clearly had a direct line of communication to Hashem. During a winter trip to Amsterdam, the Hida sustained a head injury after slipping on an icy street. He lost consciousness for a short time, but after regaining it, discovered with horror that his vision had been affected by the injury. Terrified, his piercing prayers beseeched Hashem to restore his sight. To the amazement of all the congregants present in the synagogue where the Hida had been brought, upon completion of his prayers, the Hida was once again able to see.
The Hida completed his travels in 1778, and settled in Livorno, Italy. The fact that Livorno was home to one of the largest Jewish publishing houses at the time was likely a factor in his choice of new city of residence. In 1779, he took Rachel Levi, a woman from Pisa, Italy, as his second wife, following the death of his first.
While in Livorno, the Hida unofficially became the local chief rabbi, refusing to formally accept the title. He remained in Livorno until his death in 1806.
The Hida returned his soul to his Maker on Friday night, Shabbat Zachor, 11 Adar, 5566 (March 1, 1806), in Livorno, where he was buried. In 1960, more than 150 years later, the Hida’s remains were returned to Jerusalem, his birthplace, and interred in the Har Hamenuhot cemetery. The reburial, an initiative of Israel’s then Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim, zt”l, was observed as a national event.
“It would be no exaggeration to say that he was the most influential Sephardic Torah scholar since Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488-1575), author of the Shulhan Aruch,” says Azoulay. The Hida’s legacy of halachic scholarship has been incorporated into the daily practices of Judaism. In many Sephardic communities, the Hida’s halachic rulings and customs became the final, authoritative word. People would often say about the Hida, “From Yosef to Yosef, there arose no one like Yosef,” comparing Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azoulay to Rabbi Yosef Caro.
The Hida’s halachic influence also affected Ashkenazic Torah scholarship. The renowned Polish scholar Rabbi Akiva Eiger (1761-1837) often cites the Hida’s decisions in his comments on the Shulhan Aruch. And, Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s son-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Sofer (the Hatam Sofer, 1762-1839), also expressed great respect for the Hida in his own teachings. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (the Hafetz Haim, 1838-1933), author of the authoritative Mishnah Berurah, frequently quotes the Hida’s works Birke Yosef and Mahazik Berachah. The effect of the Hida’s scholarship thus continues to be seen throughout the Torah world to this day.
What made the undertaking of this book all the more personal to Azoulay is the fact that Azoulay maintains he’s a relative of the Hida. Not only is there the same last name and family origins (the Hida’s family originated in Fez, Morrocco, as do Azoulay’s), but there’s a strong family tradition from Azoulay’s great-grandfather that their family is related to, though not direct descendents of, the Hida.
In conducting his research on the Hida, Azoulay connected with and interviewed other Azoulay families around the world. He also stumbled across the archives of the Yad Harav Nissim foundation (established in memory of Rabbi Nissim), which contains original documents from the Hida’s reburial. “These archives include a treasure trove of information about the Hida’s reburial which had been stored for 50 years and never made public,” says Azoulay. “Can you imagine,” he enthuses, “that nobody opened it in 50 years?!” The archives houses more than 100 pages of documented correspondence, endorsements, bills, newspaper clippings and other materials, in addition to 28 obituaries on the Hida.
The reasoning behind publishing a volume on the Hida was twofold, Azoulay explains. “First, as with any biographical portrait of great Torah sages, the remarkable stories, accounts and descriptions of the Hida’s life will, with G-d’s help, provide us with inspiration and motivate us to raise our own standards of Torah study and observance,” he says. “Additionally, this material is intended to depict a model of a balanced, multifaceted rabbinical leader.”
Azoulay acknowledges that the project was approached with the realization that a full accounting of such an indomitable figure—particularly one who lived over two centuries ago—is impossible, and that whatever information and insight we can access barely come close to retelling the complete story of this extraordinary Torah giant.
This young, adrenelin-powered innovator is already at work on the next volume of his series, the first comprehensive, English-language biography on Rav Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Israel’s Shas party and former Sephardic Chief Rabbi, which has already been years in the making. Azoulay recognizes that this will likely be his magnum opus, not just because of the universally acknowledged greatness of this hacham, but also because of the personal relationship that Azoulay has forged with the great Torah leader.
Azoulay has clearly—and passionately—made it his life’s goal to educate all Jews, Sepharadim and Ashkenazim alike, about the greatness of the Sephardic heritage, tradition and culture. He started the Sephardic Legacy Series, upon realizing that there were practically no biographies of Sephardic rabbis written for the English-speaking public. Thanks to Azoulay, that is changing. Most of the books in his Sephardic Legacy Series have even been translated into several languages—English, Hebrew, French and Spanish—with versions in Russian and Persian to be available soon. Azoulay recently received permission from Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the Chief Rabbi of Tzfat, to write an English biography on the renowned Hacham Morechai Eliyahu, zt”l. In addition to his books, Azoulay has authored numerous articles, has plans for documentary films and is politically active.
With a relaunched website, the Sephardic Legacy Series (an official project of Azoulay’s Institute for Preserving Sephardic Heritage) has put the spotlight on Yehuda Azoulay as a promoter of Sephardic legacy, its heritage and its people. His mission to promote “Sephardic Pride” is about education and inspiration. He believes that Sepharadim must learn more about being Sephardic and that Ashkenazim must learn more about Sepharadim. Azoulay maintains that all Jews must join together in embracing our common heritage of being Jewish. But before we can do that, we must appreciate, understand and respect our differences as well.
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