When Rabbi Jacob Levi Saphir (1822-1886) was 10, his family moved from Oshmiani, a town in the greater municipality of Vilna, to the city of Safed, Palestine (Israel). By the time he was 14, Saphir had been orphaned and relocated to Jerusalem after the residents of Safed rebelled against Mohamad Ali, Pasha of Egypt.
For the next two decades, Saphir remained in Jerusalem. He married and became a rabbi and a teacher. It is said that he was also fluent in German, Spanish, Italian and Arabic, as well as Yiddish.
Saphir’s adult travels began in the mid-1850s, when he was asked to raise funds for the rebuilding of the famed Hurvah Synagogue. His journey lasted for close to 5 years, during which time he visited Egypt, Yemen, India, Australia, New Zealand and more. All of his travels were recorded in a book he later published under the title Even Saphir (Stone of Saphir).
Although many of the countries Saphir visited had ancient Jewish communities, recorded descriptions of their lives were still rare. His travels to Australia occurred only a few years after the Australian gold rush. Thus Saphir was one of the first to record the sociological development of these communities during a time of mass immigration.
In addition to Even Saphir, Saphir composed several smaller works. His Iggeret Teiman Hashenit (Second Yemenite Letter, the first Iggeret Teiman was written by Maimonides) has been credited with undermining Judah ben Sholom, a false messiah in Yemen who managed to raise tremendous funds for himself under false pretenses.
In order to publish Even Saphir, Saphir was forced to travel again, with his further journeys taking him to Europe to seek a publisher as well as to raise funds for publishing and for several important Jerusalem charities.
Beyond his published works, Saphir was one of the first Jewish researchers to understand the importance of the Cairo Genizah (depository of religious papers). He died in Jerusalem in on 3 Tammuz 1886.
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