Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai – the Chida (1724-1806)
In the month of Sivan in the year 5484 (1724), the oldest son of Rabbi Yitzchak Zerahya Azulai and his wife Sarah was born in the old city of Jerusalem.
He was named Yosef, from the name of his maternal grandfather, and the names of Chaim and David were given to him to well. When later he became famous as an adult, people were content to call him “the Chida”, after the initials of his complete name Chaim Yosef David Azulai.
The Azulai family was considered among one of the oldest and most respected of those in Eretz Israel. The Chida was a descendant of the famous Tzaddik Rabbi Avraham Azulai, author of Chesed leAvraham, who immigrated to Eretz Israel from the town of Fez, Morocco around the year 1620.
From his most tender age, one could discern exceptional traits in the young Yosef. Frail by nature, he nevertheless studied with great concentration and without respite from morning till night.
At the age of 8, following an epidemic, his mother rendered her soul to her Creator. This death tremendously affected Yosef. He matured ahead of time and became serious for his age. He didn’t play with other children, but rather put himself to studying our holy Torah day and night. At hardly 9 years of age his father enrolled him in the Beit Yaakov Beit Midrash, an institution renown for the quality of its instruction, and from which the majority of Jerusalem’s scholars emanated. It was in this house of study that the incredible talent of the young prodigy blossomed.
Already, at the age of 12, he put into writing some original laws concerning Kashrut and also composed responsum on some aspects of Halachah.
Moreover, the young boy revealed a brilliant ability as a speaker, appearing in public to give uplifting drashot.
Not long after his marriage in 5502 (1742), Jerusalem was visited by the extraordinary Gaon and Kabbalist Rabbi Haim ben Attar (known by his nickname Ohr HaHayim Hakadosh), who set up his Knesset Israel Yeshiva.
The Chida became a member of his Yeshiva, and this brief period was time enough for him to enter into a profoundly deep relationship with the Tzaddik Rabbi Haim ben Attar.
In the works that he wrote afterwards, the Chida very often cites the teachings and customs of Rabbi Haim ben Attar, whom he considered to be his teacher par excellence.
Soon after this period in his life, the Chida managed to become one of the disciples of Rabbi Shalom Sharabi, (the Rashash) in his Beit El Yeshiva. This Beit Midrash was the headquarters of great Tzaddikim and Kabbalists who, by completely consecrating themselves to Torah study, aspired to hasten the arrival of the Messiah.
The saintly Rabbi Shalom Sharabi and two of his disciples, the Chida and Rabbi Haim de la Rosa, felt that the time was right to hasten the final redemption. These three Tzaddikim, great men of their generation, removed themselves from all earthy matters and chose to live an ascetic life of fasting and self-mortification in order to sanctify and purify themselves.
The following story takes place in winter, when a thick blanket of snow covered the city of Jerusalem. These Tzaddikim rolled about in the snow, praying with incredible devotion and fasting afterwards for three consecutive days. At the end of the fast, they went to an isolated place and began to concentrate on the “Yehudim” in order to hasten the coming of the Messiah.
However, they were suddenly petrified by the sound of a heavenly voice: “My sons, you don’t have the right to hasten the Geula [Final Redemption]. The hour has not yet come, and to prevent you from together attempting to do it again, one of you will be exiled abroad.”
Since the heavenly voice did not declare who among them would suffer this fate, they drew lots and designated the Chida.
Without hesitation, the Chida accepted the verdict and put himself on route for a long exile, during which time he would meet the great men of his generation and travel to many countries, including Egypt, Italy, France, England, the Netherlands, Germany, Sicily, Crete, and Turkey.
It is not without reason that the Chida acquired a reputation, while still alive, as a man possessed of supreme holiness, towards whom everyone looked. It is not only though his numerous praiseworthy books that he gained perpetual renown. He was a truly complete man, one who with remarkable harmony combined in himself traits and virtues that are rarely found in a single person.
Certainly, with the Chida everything was exemplary: His eminence in all domains of Torah, the influence he had on his contemporaries, the depth of his knowledge in worldly matters, and the prestige he garnered that commanded the respect and esteem of the great men of the nations. And yet his most remarkable trait was, incontestably, his characteristic humility.
We have a faithful witness in his journal, entitled Ma’agal Tov, in which the Chida recorded his personal observations as a keepsake, without any intention of publishing it. The following can be found in his journal.
“As for myself, the least of the inhabitants of the Jerusalem and Amsterdam, G-d made me find grace in the eyes of the ministers and deputies – me, the least of my brothers. I praise G-d, blessed be He, Who made my name grow even though I am devoid of all abilities.”
This is but an infinitesimally small portion of the thousands of entries abounding in his personal journal, entries that attest to his great modesty. Looking over his works, when we examine the greatness of the Chida’s genius we are left breathless before the abundance of talent that Heaven bestowed upon him. It is almost impossible for us to evaluate this spiritual giant by our own gauge. He had acquired a mastery of character that he constantly used to elevate himself in the scale of perfection.
The Chida wrote more than 100 books. One can hardly imagine how so many quality works could have been written by a single man, a man that was otherwise constantly devoted to so many other things.
The Friday night of Shabbat Zachor, on the 11th of Adar 5566 (1806), Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai rendered his pure soul to his Creator. May his merit protect us. Amen.