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The Crimean Connection

During Chanukah, when I was engaged to be married, I wanted to buy a present for my future husband; something aside from the regular “obligations.”  I felt that I wanted to buy him some kind of seforim, Jewish books, but I had no idea what books to buy for him.  Not having a brother, I didn’t know what he would already have, or what he would want.  I spoke to the Shuchat family in whose home I often spent Shabbos, and asked Rabbi Shuchat a”h,  to buy something appropriate for the gift to my choson.  I was a bit surprised when he showed me some very plain looking volumes that I’d never heard of before – the Sedei Chemed.  (Okay – laugh at me.  But I was never a yeshiva bochur, and in those days, I think this was still something rather new.)  Apparently much of this monumental work was left unpublished after his passing, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe had the Sedei Chemed published, and brought it to the attention of the entire scholarly world, to the extent that now there is not a rabbi of note who doesn't use it as a reference.
Years later, when we moved to Crimea, one of our friends and supporters mentioned to my husband that Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyah Medini, the Sedei Chemed (5593-5665; 1833-190S), had lived in Crimea, and was very close to the Krimchaki Jews here, teaching them and encouraging them in their Judaism.  Kind of like the first shliach here.  Thus we realized that we already had been connected to Crimea nearly half a century ago, from the time of our engagement.

Later, I was learning with Mr. Lombrozo a”h, the former head of the Krimchaki Jewish community here, and he told me that the Sedei Chemed had married a local Krimchaki woman, and he showed me the picture of his family.   The next time we went to Eretz Yisroel, we made sure to visit his holy grave in the cemetery in Chevron.   There had been some rock throwing incidents that day, and the soldiers wouldn’t go up to the cemetery as had been promised, but feeling the strong connection, we determinedly trekked up through the Arab neighborhood by ourselves.

Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyah Medini was born in Yerushalayim on the seventh of Cheshvan, in 5593 (1833), or perhaps a year or two later.  Originally he had only one first name Chizkiyah, but once when he was gravely ill, the name "Chaim" ("Life") was added to his name, as is customary.

He was born into a distinguished Sephardic family.  His father's name was Rabbi Rafael Eliyahu, and his mother's Kalu Vida.  Chaim Chizkiyah showed extraordinary qualities of character and intelligence from his earliest youth.  He studied Torah with unusual diligence and devotion.  His brilliant mind and memory helped him absorb knowledge with ease.  His teachers were some of the most outstanding Rabbis of Yerushalayim, in particular the Rishon L’Tzion (Sephardic Chief Rabbi) Yitzchak Kubo and Rabbi Joseph Nissim Burla, head of the Beis Din of Yerushalayim.

In the year 5613 (1853,) his father passed away.  The burden of supporting the entire family, including his wife Rivkah, his widowed mother and two young sisters fell upon the twenty year old.  However, the young scholar had never learned how to cope with such a responsibility, for he knew only his books and studies.  There was nothing for him to do but to follow the advice of the elders of his community, to move to Constantinople, where he had rich relatives, rich both in learning and in worldly goods.

Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyah Medini was warmly welcomed in Constantinople.  The Jewish community soon recognized that the young rabbi from Yerushalayim who had settled in their midst was an outstanding scholar.  The local rabbis, and there were many great scholars among them, were delighted to discuss Talmudic topics with him.  He was also offered to become a member of the Beis Din, however he refused, as he wished to devote all his time to learning the Talmud and Kabbala, and to writing.

In 5625 (1865,) his first book, Michtav Chizkiyahu, appeared.  It contained his interpretations and comments on the six orders of the Mishnah and on certain sections of the Talmud.  This work clearly showed his great erudition in the entire Talmud, and placed him among the foremost rabbis and scholars of Turkey.  His fame spread far and wide.For thirteen years he lived, studied and taught in Constantinople.  The burden of his responsibilities became too much for him, and he longed for peace and quiet, to be able to study and write undisturbed.  The opportunity came when a wealthy Jewish merchant from Crimea arrived in Constantinople on business, offering him a position as spiritual leader of the Crimean Jews. The merchant promised him adequate support and ample time for study and writing.

At that time, as for generations past, the Jews of Crimea were without a spiritual leader.  They were simple but pious and hardworking people.  Their cultural level was not high.  Here was an opportunity as well as a challenge, and Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyah Medini (ChaChaM) accepted it.

The ChaChaM was about 33 years old when he settled in Karasu Bazar, in Crimea, in 5627 (1867.)   He was received with all the respect accorded to a respected sage, and soon won the affection and devotion of his flock.  During the next 33 years of his life he lived among the Crimean Jews and was their devoted and dedicated leader.  He established yeshivos and spread the knowledge of Torah among Crimean Jewry, so that their cultural position was raised to a level unknown in that part of the world before.  The ChaChaM's influence was enormous.  His noble character and personal life were a constant source of inspiration to his community.  Despite his great learning and fame, he was a very humble person, who took a personal interest in anyone seeking his help or advice.  It is characteristic of him that he chose as sons-in-law for his three daughters, outstanding scholars who were at the same time plain artisans.  One of his sons-in-law was a shoemaker, the second a tailor, and the third a hatter! His noble character is also evidenced from his last will and testament.

The ChaChaM was a man of striking appearance, with a long white patriarchal beard and a saintly countenance.  He was revered not only by the Jews, but by the non-Jews as well, who revered him as a G-dly man.

In 5628 (1868,) his only son passed away. The ChaChaM wrote a special book in memory of his son.  He called the book Or Li ("Light Unto Me"), and published it in Smyrna in 5634 (1874.)  In his great humility the author published the book anonymously.  It contains responsa and Talmudic interpretations.

His greatest work, for which he is most famous, is his halachic encyclopedia, the Sedei Chemed.   Some of the volumes were published in his lifetime, while the rest were only published posthumously.

In this immense work, the author set for himself the task of presenting in a clear and comprehensive form each and every Jewish law, tracing it to its sources in the Talmud, with the discussions and treatment of the subject in subsequent rabbinic literature, down to his own time.  It is a treasure-store of Talmudic and rabbinic knowledge, which at once became most popular throughout the Jewish world.  The Sedei Chemed became a recognized authority on Jewish law, and his opinions and decisions were eagerly sought by rabbis around the world.

Some of the wealthiest Russian Jews, knowing that the Sedei Chemed did not welcome monetary donations, sent him rare volumes and books in the field of halacha to help him develop and perfect his great compendium, and increase the yield of his gifted mind.

In addition to the works mentioned, Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyah Medini wrote a halachic work entitled P’kaas Sadeh (Yerushalayim, 1900,) Sefer Bakashos (Odessa, 1879,) containing piyutim (liturgical poems) which Oriental Jewish communities included in their services on Shabbos and yomtov.   The latter was republished in an enlarged edition under the name N'im Zemiros (Warsaw, 1886.) He is also the author of several collections of responsa which appeared in various books by other authors.

In 1899 the ChaChaM decided to return to his native Eretz Yisroel.  He was received with much honor in Yerushalayim, but soon afterwards he was called to Chevron, where the title of "Chacham Bashi" (Chief Rabbi) and head of the Beis Din was bestowed upon him.   He immediately established a yeshivah in Chevron, where he gave regular lectures, and spread the knowledge of Torah also among the lay members of the Jewish community.

On erev Shabbos, erev Chanukah (Kislev 24th,) 5665 (1905) Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyah Medini’s holy soul left his body and he was laid to rest in the most ancient city in the Holy Land, Chevron, the resting place of our Patriarchs.

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