The Incredible Life of
We know of the many Sefarim of the Chida (1724–1806), such as Shem HaGedolim and Maagal
Tov. What is the story behind this great man and his Sefarim?
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
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. 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.
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.