Yaakov Even Sapir: Rabbi, Scribe, Author, Traveler and Researcher
By Sara Barnea
In the old Perushim (Pharisees) section of the Mount of Olives cemetery, among the tombstones of rabbis of the “Old Yishuv” (the pre-Zionist Jewish community in Palestine), there is a simple tombstone with a modest inscription that makes no mention of the work and journeys of the man buried beneath it. Rabbi Yaakov Sapir, who was the scribe of the burial society of the Perushim (or Ashkenazi) community, wrote several, lengthy epitaphs for the tombstones of the deceased, but did not receive such an honor himself. His deeds and his writings are his only memorial.
Rabbi Yaakov Sapir, son of Natan Halevi Sapir, was born in the city of Oszmiana in the Vilna district in 1822. At the age of 10, he immigrated to Palestine together with his parents and the students of the Vilna Gaon. On the Jewish holiday of Hoshana Rabba, in 1832, his parents settled in the city of Safed. However, within just two years, he lost both his father and mother.
In 1833, now an orphan, young Yaakov witnessed scenes of looting when Arab rioters attacked the Jewish community of Safed during the Farmers’ Rebellion. He fled to the nearby village of Zeitun and wrote about his experience: “We sat there for forty days fearing we would be killed by the rioters. We saw our property being seized by strangers, we lost all hope in our lives, stood there naked, stripped of our clothes. Everything was taken from our homes, the marauders left nothing – not even small pots. Our doors and windows were all smashed.”
After the earthquake in Safed in 1837, Sapir moved to Jerusalem, where, at the age of 15, he married the daughter of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman HaCohen, one of the leaders of the Perushim community. In Jerusalem, he worked as a teacher at the Eitz Chaim Talmud Torah and was the secretary and scribe for the Perushim community.
Rabbi Yaakov was a seasoned traveler, “One of the best travelers, his eyes wide open to see anything worth seeing, and his ears picking up any rumor worth hearing. There was nothing that he did not consider worth looking at and describing in great detail. He was not afraid of danger or adventures, and was a learned scholar well versed in our sacred literature…” (Igrot Eretz Yisrael, A. Yaari, p. 423).
In 1858, Rabbi Yaakov was sent as a shelucha de-rabbanan (rabbinical emissary) to India and Australia to collect funds for the construction of the Hurva synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem. In the course of his journey, he was deceived by an Arab, and, left penniless, was forced to remain in Yemen. “God planned it for the best…and from Yemen, I gained great and precious knowledge. I acquired skills that sustained my soul and I also was well paid for my work….”
His reward was that he brought news of the Jewish community in Yemen to the Jewish community in Palestine.
Rabbi Sapir dedicated the first part of his book about his travels, entitled Even Sapir, to the Jews of Yemen, describing their history, their status, their way of life and their customs.
In 1882, Rabbi Yaakov was privileged to see with his own eyes the immigration of the Jewish community of Yemen to Palestine, an event called E’eleh Batamar (“I will climb the palm tree”). Perhaps he was also able to see that after being neglected upon their arrival in Israel and forced to live in caves, the first homes were at long last built for the Yemenite Jews in the village of Silwan in 1885.