History

Rabbi Abraham Azulai and The Sultan's Sword

Rabbi Azulai and his family are part of the rich history of the thriving Jewish community in Hebron.

16.12.15, 19:04
(Photo: The CHIDA, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai, great grandson of Rabbi Avraham Azulai)
 
Avraham ben Mordecai Azulai (circa 1570 - 1643) was a Kabbalistic writer and leader of the Jewish community of Hebron. His mystic writings are still studied today and a legend involving his descent into the Cave of Machpela is part of Jewish folklore of the Land of Israel.
 
Named after his grandfather, Rabbi Azulai's family came from the Castile region of Spain and fled the Spanish Inquisition for Fez, Morocco where he was born. 
 
Rabbi Azulai writes in the introduction to his book Chesed LeAvraham that his dream was to live in the holy land of Israel. Hardship in Morocco during those years was also a factor, as the Jewish community suffered intolerance, hunger and disease.
 
On his journey to settle in the land of Israel, his ship sunk and Rabbi Azulai's many writings were lost. He considered it a miracle his life was spared. He used the shape of a boat in his signature after the incident.
 
In Israel he studied with the great Rabbi Chaim Vital the foremost disciple of Isaac Luria. Rabbi Luria, known as the Holy Ari'zal of Safed, was considered the father of contemporary Kabbalah and a great influence on Rabbi Azulai. Many of the Safed kabbalists spent time in Hebron such as Rabbi Shlomo Adani, one of Rabbi Azulai's contemporaries.
 
A plague drove Rabbi Azulai to seek refuge first in Jerusalem and then in Gaza which had a thriving Jewish community. There he studied with the great poet and mystic Rabbi Israel Najara, who wrote a short poem in honor of the printing of one of Rabbi Azulai's books.
 
In his book Baalei Brit Avraham, Rabbi Azulai states:
 
"When I came to the destination and the inheritance of the holy city of Kiryat Arba / Hebron, may it be speedily rebuilt, like fats and grains, my soul will be satiated for all the discomforts I have suffered. For now, I have merited with pleasantness a good land of gold, my eyes merited to see the hidden holiness and not the profane."
 
It was in Gaza that he completed his seminal Kabalistic work Chesed LeAvraham. It was published after the author's death by Meshullam Zalman ben Abraham Berak of Gorice, in Amsterdam in 1685.
 
The work is a treatise with an introduction, and is divided into seven "fountains" each one being subdivided into a number of "streams." An excerpt of the work Chesed LeAvraham, taken from the 5th fountain, 24th stream, p. 57d, of the Amsterdam edition reads as follows:
 
On the mystery of Gilgul (reincarnation) and its details: Know that God will not subject the soul of the wicked to more than three migrations; for it is written, "Lo, all these things doth God work twice, yea thrice, with a man" (Job xxxiii. 29). Which means, He makes him appear twice and thrice in a human incarnation; but the fourth time he is incarnated as a clean animal. And when a man offers a sacrifice, God will, by miraculous intervention, make him select an animal that is an incarnation of a human being. Then will the sacrifice be doubly profitable: to the one that offers it and to the soul imprisoned in the brute. For with the smoke of the sacrifice the soul ascends heavenward and attains its original purity. Thus is explained the mystery involved in the words, "O Lord, thou preservest man and beast" (Psalms xxxvi.7 [R. V. 6]).
 
After returning to Hebron, he completed a commentary on the Zohar entitled Kiryat Arba.
 
His two daughters both married Hebron scholars. One married Rabbi Binyamin Zeevi, who tragically died when his son was four years old. That daughter raised her son Abraham Chaim Yisrael Zeevi and taught him Torah. He later became a great rabbi and community leader in Hebron and wrote Orim Gedolim, a study of rabbinical law, and Yemin Moshe, a study of the Shulḥan Aruch.
 
Rabbi Azulai's other daughter married the scholar Rabbi David Yitzhaki. Their son, Abraham Yitzhaki was an eminent rabbi in Jerusalem and the author of responsa entitled Zera Abraham.
 
Rabbi Azulai's son Isaac Azulai was a noted kabbalist who lived at Hebron and authored the book Zera Yiẓcḥaḳ. He died at Constantinople, presumably while traveling as an emissary for Jewish communities in Israel. His son was the famous author known was the CHIDA.
 

(Title page of Chesed LeAvraham by Rabbi Abraham Azulai, published in Vilna, 1877)
 

Rabbi Azulai died in Hebron on November 6, 1643 and was buried in the ancient cemetery of Hebron where his grave can still be visited today. He was buried in the same tomb as his friend and contemporary Rabbi Eliezer Ben Isaac Arha who was instrumental in having his works published.
 
Other books include Or HaHammah, Zohrei Hammah, Ahava Betaanugim and other works on the Bible, Mishnah and Jewish mysticism.
 

 
The CHIDA
 
Rabbi Azulai's great-grandson was Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724 -1806), better known as the CHIDA, who was a prolific writer and world traveler. 
 
He was sent as a shadar (shaliach derabanan) or emissary from Hebron to European communities including Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, England and France, to raise funds for Hebron and make rabbinic rulings. After years of travelling, he died in Italy in 1806. After the establishment of the State of Israel, his coffin was brought to Israel and he was buried in Jerusalem. 
 
In his journals, he described numerous instances of miraculous survival, among them, close class with the Russian navy.
 
Among his books is Shem HaGedolim in which he chronicles the great sages of the Jewish people, among them his own great-grandfather Rabbi Avraham Azulai.
 
 
(Rabbi Avraham Azulai's grave in the ancient cemetery in Hebron, Israel. Credit:  אורלילי / Wiki Commons)
 
The Sultan's Sword and the Cave of Machpela

Rabbi Abraham Azulai is the subject of an old legend involving the sword of a Turkish sultan (pasha) which has been reprinted in numerous contemporary collections of Jewish folk tales, first found in the book Zichron Yerushalayim.
 
The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire made a journey from his seat of government in far off Turkey to places of importance in his domains. He made his way to the Cave of the Machpela in Hebron. Adorned in the traditional ruling garb, the Sultan's gold sword, studded with diamonds and precious stones hung at his side. The Sultan wondered from room to room, finally entering the huge hall named after the Patriarch Isaac.
 
The center of attraction in the Isaac Hall is a small circular hole in the floor, near the wall shared by the smaller Abraham Hall. The hole is perhaps the most sacred spot in the entire illustrious structure above the burial caves of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, for it leads down into the caves themselves. Pilgrims from all over the world journey for weeks and months, only to have the opportunity to stand by this small dark circular opening, leading into the cave, which according to tradition, was excavated by Adam, the first man.
 
The Sultan leaned over the revered aperture, peering down into it. As he bent over, his precious sword fell from his side, down into the cavity in the ground. Hearing the clang of metal hitting the ground, the Sultan realized that his sword lay in the caves underneath. The Sultan called the officer of the guard and ordered him to lower a soldier through the hole into the caves below, to retrieve his sword.
 
Quick to respond to the Sultan’s order, the officer selected a soldier nearby. Another soldier wrapped a rope around his waist and lowered the soldier into the underground cavern. No sooner had they done so when, without warning, piercing screams penetrated from inside the hole below. Quickly they pulled up the soldier but he was dead. The Sultan ordered that another soldier be lowered into the caves. So it was, and his fate was precisely as was his predecessor.
 
The Sultan continued to send soldiers into the caves until it became apparent that all who enter the caves do not exit alive. The Sultan turned to his hosts and exclaimed, "Who will return to me my sword?" The Arabs, looking at one another, answered without hesitating. "Why not send down a Jew? If he dies, none of us would care, and if not, you will have your precious saber back". So the Jews were ordered, on pain of death, to supply a volunteer to be lowered into the caves to return the Sultan's sword to him.
 
The Jews Hebron had heard what happened to the Sultan's soldiers. How could they send one of their own to his death? They prayed and fasted, hoping to avert the decree. Realizing that they had no choice, they looked one to the other. Who would dare to enter the sacred Caves of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs? The elderly rabbi of the community, Rabbi Abraham Azulai, solved the dilemma. "I will enter the Holy Caves. Have no fear". And so it was. After praying and pleading before the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Rabbi Abraham Azulai immersed himself in the mikve and dressed in white garments, the traditional dress of the dead. He set forth to the Cave of the Machpela.
 
With a rope tied around his waist, Rabbi Azulai was lowered into the cave. When his feet hit the ground, Rabbi Azulai looked around him and found, standing by his side, three bearded men. "We are your patriarchs", they told him, "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob". Rabbi Azulai, was dumbfounded. Finally he said to them, "Why should I leave here and go back above. I am elderly, and here I have found my Forefathers. I desire only to stay here with you."
 
The Patriarchs insisted, "You must return the sword to the Sultan. If not, the entire Jewish community of Hebron is liable to be wiped out. But have no fear. In another seven days you will return here, to be with us."
 
So the saintly Rabbi returned to the Isaac Hall, above the cave of the Patriarchs, and with him, the Sultan's sword. The Sultan was pleased. Upon seeing their beloved Rabbi return alive, the Jews of Hebron declared the day a holiday. Rabbi Abraham Azulai spent the next week with his students, teaching them all he knew, all the esoteric teachings of Torah. Day and night he learned with them, instructing them, imparting to them all that he knew.
 
Seven days after being lowered into the Cave of the Machpela, Rabbi Abraham Azulai, returned his soul to his Maker, dying peacefully in his home. He was brought to rest in the ancient Jewish cemetery in Hebron, overlooking the final resting place of his beloved Forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
 
 
NOTES:
 
המחלץ שנשאב למערה - Sultan's sword story
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