The Hida’s Living Testimony
As cited in his journal Maagal Tov:
Translated by Jacob Savdie
Notes and footnotes are those of the author J.S
The great gaon the Hida (Haim Yosef David Azulai) z"l was born in the holy city of Jerusalem in 1724. From his youth, it was apparent that he was destined for greatness. He studied under great rabbanim; R’ Zerachia ( his father), R’ Yonah Nabon, the saintly Rashash, and R’ Yom Tov Elgazi. At age 17 he published his first monumental work, Shaar Yosef, a commentary on Tractate Horayot.
In 1753, the Jewish community of Hebron was in a terrible economic condition. The torah giants of Hebron sent the Hida on a mission outside Eretz Yisrael. The Hida would visit Jewish communities throughout the world in order to raise and collect funds for the Jews of Hebron. The Hida went on two such missions; his first lasting five years (1753-1758), and the second lasting six years(1772-1778).
Amongst the Jewish communities he visited were those found in Italy, Germany, North Africa, Amsterdam, Holland and others. The Hida kept a journal of all his travels(called Maagal Tov) which is of great historical significance, for through it we can obtain a glimpse into these great Jewish communities 250 years ago.
The following is an excerpt of the Hida’s journal dealing with his visit to the communities of Cairo and Alexandria.
We reached the village of Mit Ghamr. There were four Jews who lived there. The village had a synagogue, sifrei torah and a mikveh, for previously it was a thriving Jewish community.
We traveled in a gondola from Mit Ghamr to Bulak.
Today we reached Cairo and were guests at the home of the hacham Mahar"i (Yizhak) Menashe. I saw the Lemassriyin Synagogue(1) and in it a stone with an inscription, which states that the synagogue was built in the 5th Century. There was also a mikveh. I visited the Rambam Synagogue(2) which contains a small closed room, supposedly the Rambam’s dwelling. Within the Tehum Shabbat(3),there is a city which people call Old Cairo, and there I saw a holy and awesome Sefer Torah said to belong to Ezra Hasofer(4). The synagogue is said to be built by Jeremiah The Prophet, and that he prayed many times at the Tebah. The synagogue contains 20 marble pillars.
I traveled with Sir Refael Hiun in a gondola and we reached Reschid on Tuesday. I was a guest at the home of Hacham Alchalaf.
Iyar, 9-Sat. night
We traveled from Reschid and at the break of dawn we reached Alexandria. At the gate of the city, a large army of the Pasha was stationed. The donkeys went wild and almost pushed us off. We suffered a lot, yet with the help of G-d we entered peacefully. We were guests at the home of Rav Yitzhak Provensali. We also met the pious Rav Abraham ben Asher and he treated us most kindly. A short distance from the city there is a great synagogue which contains 26 marble pillars and is called the Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue(5) for there is a tradition that Eliyahu appeared there.
(1) Lemassriyin Synagogue-
"This synagogue is the oldest and largest amongst those in Cairo. It is the sole synagogue amongst the ancient synagogues which is still recognized by its name. For in the previous generations the synagogues were closed through the hands of evil gentiles in the year 5305 and reopened in Adar 5345 through the immense efforts of Rav Elazar Scandari z"l. Miraculously the synagogue retained its splendor and nothing was ruined save for its wooden fence. There is a document, dating the building of the synagogue to about 900 years ago during the days of the early Chalifs.
The synagogue was renewed many times and was recently renewed with great glory through the instillation of marble pillars and a marble floor. Yet its age-old splendor and glory still remain.
All communal gatherings such as the election of rabbinic judges, prayers during the Shobabim fasts, the afternoon service of Ereb Yom Kippur and more all take place in it. May it be the will of G-d that it stands forever."(excerpt from Tuv Mitzrayim compiled by the famed Rabbi Refael Aharon Ben Shimon z"l, Chief Rabbi of Egypt 1890-1921)
(2) Rambam Synagogue-
"It is a beautiful synagogue, about half the size of the Lemassriyin Synagogue. It too was renewed many times. It originally was the Rambam’s home or place of learning and when they wished to build a synagogue they honorarily called it on his name. He was buried in that courtyard until his coffin was carried to Tiberias". (Tuv Mitzrayim)
3) Tehum Shabbat -
During the holy day Sabbath it is prohibited for a Jew to travel 2000 amot (cubits) beyond the city limits based on the verse in Exodus (16,29), "One may not leave his place on Saturday."
4) Ezra Hasofer -
The synagogue is called Kenise Ezra or Ben Ezra (the name can be attributed to the great sefer torah contained within it. (J.S) There is an ancient custom that on Rosh hodesh Iyaar (following Pesach) and Rosh hodesh Heshvan (following Succoth), the men, woman, and children gather in this synagogue. They light candles and perform Hakafot (the ceremony where people dance and circle the tebah with sifrei Torah in the synagogue. In the courtyard there is food and drink, and all are happy.
Within the synagogue there is a stone monument about 2 feet high and 3 feet long covered with cloth. There is a legend that in this place Moshe Rabbeinu A’ H’ stood and prayed that the plagues should be removed from Pharaoh and his people, as it stated in the verse "When I go out of the city, I will spread my hands ( in prayer) to G-D" (Exodus 9:27) and the legend tells that originally this place was outside the city during the days of Pharaoh, and with time the area became incorporated into the city and the synagogue was built on it. Now the congregation has covered this monument with marble and greatly glorified it. (Tuv Mitzrayim)
5) Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue -
The exact date of its building is unknown, however Rav Obadiah Mibarterurah z’l’ records in his book of travels, that on his journey from Italy to Jerusalem in 1487 he passed through Alexandria and found a small synagogue and most of the congregants prays there for it is connected to Eliyahu Hanabi’. In 1790 when Napoleon came to Egypt it was destroyed.
The story is told that in 1833 the Pasha Muhamed Ali became ill. The doctors advised him that he should build a palace on the shores of Alexandria. One day the Pasha was passing through the Jewish section of the city and saw the ruins of the synagogue and was truly suprised. He met with the community’s leaders and asked them,’ Are you so poor that you can’t build your shul?’. They answered, ‘We can with your help’. The leaders told these words to the Chief Rabbi of Alexandria at the time Rav Shelomo Hazan z"l, and with his immense efforts and the generous donations of the philanthropist Moses Montefiore and the community members, the synagogue was renovated beautifully and dedicated in 1850.(based on the introduction to the sefer Hamaalot Lishlomo written by Rav Shelomo Hazan z"l).This beautiful edifice stands in great glory till this very day.(J.S.)