One of the outstanding figures in the gallery of our great of the eighteenth century was Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai - author, traveler and father of modern Hebrew bibliography. Known as the Chidah, he was highly respected for his great piety and scholarship, and he wrote no less than 71 works. Thanks to his work many works of other authors came to light, as we shall see later.
He used to sign himself "ChIDA," which contains the initial letters of his name. (We shall use this short name here and save ourselves a lot of space).
ChIDA was born in Jerusalem, to a Sephardic family who had been living in the holy city for centuries. The family had given us great Talmudists and Cabbalists. The most famous of ChIDA's ancestors was Rabbi Abraham Azulai, who wrote a commentary on the sacred book of Cabbala, the Zohar. He died in Hebron, nearly two hundred years before ChIDA was born.
ChIDA's father, Rabbi Yitzchak Zerachiah Azulai, was also a very learned man. He was the boy's first teacher. Later on, the boy studied the Talmud and the inner wisdom of the Torah under the guidance of Rabbi Joseph Nabbon, Rabbi Isaac HaKohen Rapaport, and Rabbi Chaim ben Attar. The latter was a great Cabbalist, and he came to Jerusalem when ChIDA was still quite young.
ChIDA was blessed with an excellent memory, and he became famous at an early age. At the age of sixteen, he wrote his first book, entitled "Haalem Davar" ("Some Oversights"). In it he pointed out many errors in connection with the versions and editions of many works known in his time. This work was never published. A year later, he wrote his first Talmudic commentary, "Shaar Yosef" ("The Gate of Joseph") on the tractate "Horayoth."
In 1753, when only twenty-nine years old, Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai was appointed as an emissary to represent the Holy Land abroad. It was a very old custom to send a representative of the Holy Land to visit Jewish communities elsewhere. One reason for it was to collect funds in support of the holy institutions of learning in the land of Israel. Another reason was to keep alive interest in the Holy Land. Jews in all countries looked forward to the arrival of the "Meshulach" (emissary) from the Holy Land, for he was usually a man of great learning and piety, and he would inspire them with love for everything that was dear to the Jewish heart. It was therefore a great distinction to represent the Jewish community of the Land of Israel.
ChIDA spent five years on his mission, visiting Egypt, Italy, Germany, Holland, England, France, Sicily, Rhodes, Turkey and Syria. Everywhere, he was welcomed with great respect and veneration.
Being a great lover of books and learning, this trip was a great opportunity for Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai. He spent all available time in the libraries of the cities he visited, studying ancient manuscripts and books.
On his return, he spent six years in study and research in his native Jerusalem. Then he was called again to undertake a mission to the Sultan of Turkey, where the Jews suffered great hardships. ChIDA was successful in improving the position of the Jews of Turkey, for he greatly impressed the Sultan and his government.
After he completed this mission he received a call to become the Rabbi of the important Jewish community iu Cairo, Egypt. He held this post for five years. During this time he unearthed many "Genizoth" (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 G‑d's creation (Cabbalah). After three years of intensive study, ChIDA was once again called to leave the Holy Land on a visit to the Jewish communities of North Africa and Europe on behalf of the Yeshivoth and other institutions in the Holy Land.
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.
Again ChIDA rummaged through dusty museums, libraries and private collections in search of centuries-old treasures of wisdom. Only a man like ChIDA, whose love for books was so great, could have the patience to devote all his spare time to this kind of work. Thus, for instance, he was grateful 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.
ChIDA's beautiful features and majestic bearing made a deep impression on everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike. He was regarded as a saintly man, whose prayers were acceptable On High and whose blessing was therefore very desirable. Many a diplomatic mission took him to the courts and castles of kings and princes. When he visited king Louis XVI of France in the beautiful castle of Versailles, and before he had a chance to introduce himself, the king was obviously so 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 incidents we learn from ChIDA's diary, which was later published under the name "Maagal Tov," (the Good Circle). In it, the author records his observations and experiences in the course of his travels. They give us an insight into the political, economic, and religious life of those days.
Rabbi Azulal became known as a great authority on books and manuscripts. His wonderful memory helped him to acquire a vast store of knowledge and facts. He used to buy all the books he could afford, but he could not afford to buy many. However, throughout his travels he gathered material, made notes, and planned his writings.
Finally, in the year 1778, Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai settled in the quiet and prosperous Jewish community of Livorno (Leghorn), Italy, to begin writing his major works. Livorno was then a center of Hebrew printing. ChIDA found there all the necessary facilities for publishing his works, and generous book lovers who helped him do it. A certain physician, Michael Pereira de Leon, a descendant of one of the oldest Jewish families in Italy, enabled ChIDA to devote all his time to his writings, taking care of all his financial needs.
ChIDA's major work of this period was his classic dictionary of Hebrew Literature, called "Shem Hagedolim" (Name of the Great). The book contains the names and short data of some 1500 scholars and authors. The second part, entitled "Vaad Lachachamim" (Assembly for the Wise) gives the names of some 2000 works, published and unpublished, and describes their contents. Many of the books mentioned had never been heard of, and important facts about authors and books would have been lost to us but for this great work of ChIDA. It was later revised and supplemented by various scholars at different times. The "Shem Hagedolim" has become one of the most important and invaluable source books of Jewish literature and Jewish history.
ChIDA edited many important manuscripts, such as the "Seder Tanaim Vaamoraim" (History of the Teachers of the Talmud), dating back to the period of the Geonim; a digest of the Responsa (questions and decisions of Jewish law) of the ROSH (Rabbenu Asher ben Jechiel); a Biblical commentary by Rabbi Isaiah di Trani the Elder, etc. Forty of ChIDA's seventy-one works were published. Among them are commentaries on tractates of the Talmud and on the four volumes of the Shulchan Aruch, responsa, sermons, Biblical commentaries, etc. Many of his writings on Cabbalah and prayers were not published.
Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai died at the ripe old age of 83, in Leghorn, Italy. His memory continued to live in the hearts of his people. Many Jews used to make pilgrimages to his grave or send letters to be deposited there, praying that the saintly Rabbi be an intercessor for them in the Heavenly Court.