Saphir, Jacob

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SAPHIR, JACOB (1822–1885), writer and traveler; born in Oshmiany in the province of *Vilna. Saphir's father, who was the shoḥet of the townlet, belonged to the Perushim – the disciples of Elijah b. Solomon Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna. In 1832 his parents immigrated to Ereẓ Israel, settling at first in Safed. A year after their arrival his father died, and when the year of mourning was just ending, he lost his mother, too. In 1836 he fled to Jerusalem with many members of the Perushim community because of the pogroms which the Jewish population of Safed suffered at the time. Saphir was educated under the system of the disciples of the Gaon of Vilna, which prevailed in Jerusalem at the beginning of the Ashkenazi settlement there. In addition to his religious knowledge and a rhetorical mastery of the Hebrew language, Saphir also acquired a fundamental knowledge of spoken and literary Arabic, read the *Koran, and was familiar with Latin script. He became a teacher at the *Jerusalemtalmud torah Eẓ Ḥayyim. He later became the scribe of the ḥevra kaddisha of the Ashkenazim and of the Perushim community. As scribe of the community, it was his task to write poems in honor of important visitors, such as Moses *Montefiore when he visited Jerusalem in 1839. Saphir also wrote pamphlets and many articles, most of which were published in *Ha-Levanon, edited by his son-in-law, R. Jehiel *Brill. Saphir was the son-in-law of R. Solomon Zalman Hacohen, one of the Perushim leaders in Jerusalem. In 1853 he wrote a promotional letter for Ereẓ Israel lemons, and another to R. Saul Zelig Hacohen dealing with the problem of Jerusalem's Yishuv Yashan.

In 1857 he traveled to the Oriental countries as the emissary of the Perushim community, to raise funds for the construction of the great synagogue in the courtyard of the Ḥurvah of R. Judah Ḥasid and for the talmud torah. He at first intended to go to *Egypt and *Aden, and from there by sea to *India, and was among the first to see the treasures of the Fostat *Genizah, an account of which is found in his works. In Egypt he was defrauded of most of the money which was intended for his journey to India, and his financial plight brought him to *Yemen. Endangering his life, he embarked on a small sailing craft for Jedda, the port of Mecca, and from there continued to Ḥodeyda, the port of *Sanʿa, the capital of Yemen (beginning of 1858). He first thought of proceeding to Aden in order to enter the interior of Yemen by the Ṭariq al-Yaman ("Road of the South"), but lacking transport, he entered the interior by the road known as Tarīq al-Shām ("Road of the North").

After walking for three days along the desolate coastal plain (Tihāma) to the Ḥarāz mountains, Saphir met the first Yemenite Jews, and when he reached the nearby town of Jirwāh, he was deeply impressed by them and their way of life, which he mentioned in a letter to Jerusalem. From there he went on to Ḥajara, Muḍmar, Manākha, and Yafīd in the Ḥayma mountains. Near Yafīd all his possessions, including his credentials as an emissary, were stolen from him. From Yafīd he went to Qaryat al-Qābil in the vicinity of Sanʿa, where the Jews advised him not to visit Sanʿa because of the severe living conditions for the Jews which prevailed there during that period. In the meantime Saphir visited Shībam, where he celebrated Purim, and from there, by way of Kawkabān, he reached Sanʿa, staying there during the whole of Passover. With Sanʿa as his base, he visited ʿAmrān – spending Shavuot there – Ḥajjah, and Kuḥlān, which was the northernmost place that he reached. To the east of Sanʿa, he visited Saʿwān and Tanʿim. He returned by the road upon which he had come – the eastern road to Hodeyda – which he reached after a journey of eight months through the interior of Yemen. He stayed in Aden for more than a month and celebrated the Day of Atonement and Sukkot, sailing from there to India on Nov. 5, 1859. After traveling to India, Java, Australia, New Zealand, and Ceylon, Saphir once more returned to Aden, three years and four months later. On this occasion Saphir again thought of visiting the interior of Yemen, having become deeply attached to its Jews since his first visit; nonetheless, he refrained from doing this after hearing of the persecution of the Jews by the imām al-Mutawakkil. Saphir returned from Aden to Jerusalem by way of Jedda and Egypt (May 1863), after an absence of four years and ten months.

Upon his return to Jerusalem he recorded his travels in Even Sappir (2 vols., 1866, 1874, repr. 1969; condensed by A. Yaari and published as Sefer Massa' Teiman (1944, 19512). This work is outstanding for its penetrating observations and lively and fluent style. It contains valuable information on the lives of the Jews and their customs during the 19th century in the Oriental countries, particularly in Yemen. Saphir was the first to discover Yemenite Jewry in its greatness. Saphir's lifelike descriptions depict the innermost parts of the home, the village, the merchant on his business premises, the craftsman in his workshop, the elementary school teacher and his education, the synagogue and the ḥakham mōri. He also notes important details on their customs at circumcisions and marriages, and the version of the prayers for weekdays and festivals. He was the first to publish various Yemenite poems, and his details on the Hebrew pronunciation and syntax employed by Yemenite Jews are also of importance.

In 1869 Saphir was again sent to Egypt and the European countries, as emissary of the Bikkur Ḥolim hospital of Jerusalem, and he was once more the emissary of the above institution in 1873 when he went to *Russia. Upon his return to Jerusalem he continued to take an interest in Yemenite Jewry, and when he learned of the impostor who appeared as the pseudomessiah Shukr *Kuhayl, he wrote an Iggeret Teiman ha-Shenit ("Second Epistle to Yemen") in which he warned the Jews of Yemen to beware of him (published Vilna 1873). In 1883–85 he lent his assistance to the publication of Ḥemdat ha-Yamim ("The Most Delightful of Days") of R. Shalom *Shabazi, the most prominent of the Yemenite poets, and wrote a foreword to it. Saphir also lived to witness the emigration from Yemen in 1882. In his last years Saphir devoted himself to the settlement of Petaḥ Tikvah. In his letter to R. Judah *Alkalai, Saphir deals with the idea of natural ge'ulah (redemption). He also wrote a few poems in honor of Moses *Montefiore. A village in the Judean Hills was named Even Sappir in his honor.


J.J. Rivlin, in: Moznayim, 11 (1940), 74–81, 385–99. add. bibliography: A. Yaari, Sheluḥei Ereẓ Yisrael (1951), 820–22; idem, Iggerot Ereẓ Yisrael, 422–23; Em ha-Moshavot Petaḥ Tikvah (1953), 141–45; A.R. Malachi, in: Areshet, 5 (1972), 369–86; A. Morgenstern, in: Cathedra 24 (1982), 68; idem, Ge'ulah be-Derekh ha-Teva (1997), 17, 126, 128–30.

[Yehiel Nahshon /

Leah Bornstein-Makovetsky (2nd ed.)]