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The Incredible Life of the Chida

Written by Rabbi Yehoshua Alt, 8/8/2020

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The Incredible Life of the Chida

We know of the many Sefarim of the Chida (17241806), such as Shem HaGedolim and Maagal Tov. What is the story behind this great man and his Sefarim?  


The Chida[1] started writing Sefarim when he was 12. Not long after his marriage in 1742, the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh visited Yerushalayim who set up his Knesses Yisrael Yeshiva, of which the Chida became a member of. In the works he wrote afterwards, the Chida often cites the teachings and customs of the Ohr Hachaim, whom he considered to be his teacher par excellence. He was also a student of the Rashash—R’ Shalom Sharabi.


In 1753, at the age of 29, the Chida was appointed as an emissary to represent the communities of Eretz Yisrael since funds were badly needed as well as to keep alive interest in the Holy Land. The Chida traveled extensively, including to Egypt, Italy, Germany, Holland, England, France, Sicily, Rhodes, Turkey and Syria.[2] Since he loved Sefarim and learning, this trip was a great opportunity for the Chida. He spent all available time in the libraries of the cities he visited, studying ancient manuscripts and books.


During his five years as a Rav in Egypt—beginning in 1764—the Chida unearthed many Genizos (buried treasures of ancient manuscripts) and further added to his vast knowledge of books and authors. Later he returned to the Holy Land and devoted himself to the further study of the inner wisdom of the Torah and mysteries of Hashem’s creation—Kabbala.


In 1772, he embarked on a similar trip to the one he took in 1753. Each trip lasted in excess of five years. Although be knew how wearisome such travels would be from his past experience, his love for his people and his desire to discover new treasures of Hebrew literature made him accept the urgent request. He writes that, during his sojourns, he often slept at night on a wooden bench, yet he also diligently studied 53 pages of Zohar every day. Again the Chida searched through dusty museums, libraries and private collections in search of centuries-old treasures of wisdom. He therefore became familiar with many thousands of manuscripts. He was thankful for the opportunity to visit Paris, not for its beautiful boulevards and curiosities, but for the five thousand manuscripts he discovered in the Louvre and other collections. On his journeys, when he visited numerous libraries, he would spend nights copying rare texts by hand. Out of these visits grew his remarkably compact and informative classic of bibliographies of great Jewish scholars who preceded him, together with their works, entitled Shem HaGedolim.


His second trip was completed in Livorno (Leghorn), Italy, where he remained for the rest of his life. When he reached the port city of Livorno, he was placed in quarantine for 40 days (as was standard practice in that city for any foreigner from the east). While in quarantine he compiled his work Shem HaGedolim.


The Chida was a radiant, majestic, impressive, yet remarkably modest personality. This is shown in the detailed diary of his trips, called Maagal Tov. He attributes all the honor he received to the fact that he represented the Holy Land. When he visited King Louis XVI of France in the beautiful castle of Versailles (before the Chida had a chance to introduce himself), the king was greatly impressed that he asked what country's ambassador this visitor was. The king, one of the most powerful rulers in Europe, had never seen a more stately and impressive looking ambassador! This and many other events we learn from the Chida’s diary (Maagal Tov). In it, the author records his observations and experiences in the course of his travels, which also gives insight into the political, economic, and religious life of those days.


In 1778 when the Chida settled in the quiet and prosperous Jewish community of Livorno he began writing his major works. Livorno was then a center of Hebrew printing. He found there all the necessary facilities for publishing his works, and generous people who loved Sefarim that helped him do it. A certain physician, Michael Pereira de Leon, a descendant of one of the oldest Jewish families in Italy, enabled the Chida to devote all his time to his writings, taking care of all his financial needs. Approximately 60 Sefarim of the Chida have been published although he wrote many more. His works include the Birkei Yosef on the Shulchan Aruch and the historical Shem HaGedolim. In 1779, he married his second wife, Rachel. His first wife, also Rachel, had died in 1773.  On May 17, 1960, 154 years after his death, the Chida’s body was reinterred by being brought to Eretz Yisrael for burial.

Rabbi Alt merited to learn under the tutelage of R’ Mordechai Friedlander Ztz”l for close to five years. He received Semicha from R’ Zalman Nechemia Goldberg. Rabbi Alt has written on numerous topics for various websites and publications and is the author of the Sefer, Fascinating Insights: Torah Perspectives On Unique Topics. His writings inspire people across the spectrum of Jewish observance to live with the vibrancy and beauty of Torah. He lives with his wife and family in a suburb of Yerushalayim where he studies, writes and teaches. The author is passionate about teaching Jews of all levels of observance.

[1] The Chida’s mother passed away when he was 8 years old, following an epidemic.

[2] The job of raising the necessary funds was much more complicated than we realize. The right candidate for the mission, ideally, combined the characteristics of statesmanship, physical strength and endurance, and Torah knowledge and understanding. They had to have the right stature and bearing to impress the Jewish communities they visited. They often had to be able to arbitrate matters of Jewish law for the locals and, ideally, they were multi-lingual so that they could communicate with both Jew and non-Jew along the way. Finally, they had to be willing to undertake the dangerous, time-consuming mission that would take them away from their families for so long. At that time, travel was far more time-consuming and much more dangerous than it is today, especially for Jews. One in ten emissaries sent abroad for these fundraising missions never made it back alive. Emissaries would often divorce their wives before leaving, so that if they died along the way and their deaths couldn’t be verified, their wives would be able to legally remarry. If they returned safely from their journey, they would remarry their wives, who would sometimes wait as long as five years for their husbands to return from their mission. 

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