Rabbi Avraham Azoulay
Rabbi Avraham Azoulay was born in the town of Fez, Morocco in 5330 (1569). His father, Rabbi Mordechai, descended from a great line of sages among the Jews of Spain, and the Azoulay family was one of the most dignified and honorable in all of Spain. Rabbi Avraham the Elder (the father of Rabbi Mordechai) was one of Spain’s greatest rabbis.
Rabbi Avraham Azoulay’s parents and grandparents left Spain during the inquisition, on the ninth of Av 5252 (1492). The Gaon Rabbi Avraham the Elder was among those Jews expelled from Spain, and it was then that he embarked for Morocco with his entire family. During that time the king of Morocco was merciful and lenient toward Jews. He welcomed them with joy, knowing that they would be useful for the expansion of his kingdom, with their true value consisting of their abilities. Their innate talent for commerce, their skill in crafts and the sciences, their knowledge in numerous fields, and their wisdom would be judiciously used. A great number of exiles settled in Morocco and contributed to the expansion of the country. Some were eminent physicians, while others were counselors to the royal court or emissaries to foreign countries, such as Turkey, Holland, England, and a host of others. Thanks to their linguistic abilities and competence in political matters, Jews were called upon to exercise roles as ambassadors abroad.
Rabbi Avraham the Elder settled with his entire family in the town of Fez. All the residents of the town, Jew and non-Jew alike, esteemed him not only for his great scholarship in the revealed and hidden aspects of Torah, but also for his reputation as a worker of miracles, which always followed his blessings.
As a child, the grandson of Rabbi Avraham the Elder (who was named Avraham after him) set himself apart from the other children of his age by his great intelligence. Everyone saw in him a child prodigy who exploited his extraordinary talents solely for the study of the holy Torah. His reputation as a Gaon in the revealed and hidden Torah spread throughout the entire town and to its surroundings, yet despite this great reputation his behavior was marked by great humility. He addressed himself to everyone as an equal, and he never felt that he was as grateful as he should be toward others.
In 5360 (1599), the situation for Jews in Morocco deteriorated. Rabbi Avraham was 30 years old when the town of Fez, where he had lived and experienced peace and calm up to that day, was transformed into a city of destruction. In addition to the civil war that began, famine and pestilence added to the devastation of the Jews. Faced with all this suffering, Rabbi Avraham decided to leave Morocco and settle in Israel. He hoped to be able to devote himself to Torah study and find refuge among the holy Rabbis there, namely the wise disciples of the saintly Arizal.
Rabbi Avraham arrived in the land of Israel in 5370 (1609) and settled in Hebron. He yearned to live in peace, yet Heaven had decided otherwise. Having barely arrived in Hebron, an epidemic broke out and Rabbi Avraham was forced to leave the city and settle in Jerusalem, then in Gaza. In the introduction to his book Chesed l’Avraham, he describes his misfortunes and wanderings.
It was in the town of Gaza that Rabbi Avraham would write his commentary on the Tanach entitled Baal Brit Avraham, a book based on Pshat and Kabbalah. He would also write Chesed l’Avraham in Gaza.
A mystery surrounds the death of the Tzaddik. The story goes as follows:
One day, the Grand Vizier of Constantinople decided to make a pilgrimage to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, which was also a holy place for Muslims. When the Vizier arrived at the entrance to the tomb and knelt down, his sword fell to the bottom of the cave. He ordered one of his servants to go down into the cave and bring back the sword, and so one servant was attached to a rope and lowered down. When the rope was hoisted back up, the servant was dead. The Vizier ordered other servants to go down, yet one after the other came back up dead. The furious Vizier decided to call upon the Rabbi of Hebron, Rabbi Eliezer Archa, and told him: “I’m giving you 48 hours to get my sword back from the bottom of the cave, and if it’s not returned to me by that time, I’ll order the execution of all the Jews in the city.”
All the Jews of Hebron assembled in its synagogues and recited prayers of penitence and lamentation, imploring the Creator of the world to save them from this tragedy. Rabbi Eliezer decide to draw lots, and the one chosen would go down into the cave of the Patriarchs to bring back the Vizier’s sword.
As soon as morning prayers were completed, Rabbi Eliezer proceeded to draw lots in front of the whole community. The name of Rabbi Avraham Azoulay was drawn.
Rabbi Avraham immediately began to prepare himself with great, deep reverence. He immersed himself in the mikveh, donned white clothes, and began to study the secrets of Torah. The Kabbalists of the city accompanied Rabbi Avraham Azoulay to the entrance of the cave and blessed him so that Hashem would make him succeed in his undertaking without any harm coming to him. In the synagogues of Hebron, Jews united with prayers, tears, and moaning that tore Heaven apart.
Rabbi Avraham Azoulay was let down with a rope, and a few minutes afterwards the Vizier’s sword shot back up attached to the cord, but without Rabbi Avraham. Several hours passed. Finally, the voice of Rabbi Avraham could be heard, and he was lifted out of the cave, his face beaming with great joy.
“I encountered the Patriarchs,” he whispered to his close friends, deeply moved by the event. He also said that the time of his departure from this world had been revealed to him, and that the next day he was to render his soul to His Creator.
During the night, he instructed the secrets of Torah to his students and friends. He had the appearance of an angel of G-d.
As soon as daybreak occurred, he immersed himself in the mikveh and dressed himself entirely in white. After prayers he recited Shema Israel, his face radiating with a light that was no longer of this world. One hour later, he rendered his soul to his Creator. It was the eve of Shabbat, Heshvan 24, in the year 5404 (1643).
Rabbi Avraham left behind a son and two daughters. His son Rabbi Itzchak, who was also a great teacher of the generation, was the father of the Gaon Rabbi Chaim Yossef David Azoulay (the author of Shem Hagedolim), who was known as the Chida.
In his book, the Chida evokes his grandfather, Rabbi Avraham, with great fear and respect. Up to our days, the name of Rabbi Avraham Azoulay is praised by all those who have the merit of tasting the delicate flavors that emerge from his holy books.