Of the dark periods in our history, that of the Spanish Inquisition and the subsequent expulsion from Spain remains one of the most dismal. Hardly was there ever another era when Jews had been raised so high in their golus home
— spiritually, financially and socially — only to be plummeted into the depths of such intense persecution and suffering.
Those years formed the background of Rabbi Shmuel's youth. He, among many of his fellow Jews, withstood their trials, shunning the gilded promises made by the priests of a glittering, free life if only they would convert. Instead, thousands chose to leave their homes and wealth with barely a knapsack on their backs, uprooting themselves and trying to start anew in any country that would accept them as Jews. Anyone who survived the deprivation and suffering only did so through emunah in Hashem.
The author of Shevet MiYehudah, who lived at that time, describes in his sefer the story of one Jew who lost everything and everyone, yet still declared his staunch faith in Hashem.
He writes: The man was exiled together with his wife and two children, sent on board a ship that was barely seaworthy, and deposited on a barren island. Once ashore, the four of them began to walk inland in search of food to sustain them. The mother, by now weak and frail, could bear no more and passed away right there on the shore.
Lifting his children onto his shoulders, the father tried to continue, but weakness overcame him and he passed out in a faint, together with them. Upon awakening, he found himself lying next to his two children who were no longer alive. After burying them, he raised his hands and eyes heavenward and called out, "Ribon Ho'olomim! You are testing me with the most difficult trials, all to see if I will succumb and give up my faith. But You should know that despite everything, I declare unwaveringly, `I am a Jew and a Jew I will remain forever!' "
The Chossid Yavetz writes that the tribulations of the times were all-encompassing, so that those who were learned in philosophy and considered wise were not helped by their rich knowledge. Only emunoh peshutoh saved the Jews.
Those were the times in which Rabbi Shmuel grew up, yet he never stopped learning Torah. His wanderings led him to Salonika, where he settled and sheltered under the protective wings — physically and spiritually — of his great rabbonim.
He learned in the yeshiva of the great Rabbi Yosef Tartatzeh, also an exile from Spain. The latter spent a life wrapped in kedushoh and avodas Hashem. It was revealed after his passing by his Rabbanit that from Shabbos to Shabbos he never slept in a bed with sheets. He would merely rest for a while on the bed with his legs in a vertical position so as not to sleep too comfortably. At midnight he would rise to continue his avodas HaBorei. Rabbi Yosef himself said that out of twenty-four hours, only six were used for his bodily needs. The other eighteen were solely kodesh laHashem.
This was the holiness that Rabbi Shmuel imbibed and he was to carry the sacred treasures of his yeshiva days all his life.
He also learned under the great gaon Rabbi Levi Ben Choviv zt"l whose rebbes claimed while he was still very young that he was born for greatness.
Rabbi Shmuel overcame his suffering and became one of the leading gedolim of his time. Thousands of his teshuvos were sent to all corners of the world and his daas Torah was heard and obeyed in all the Sephardic communities. His sefer Sheilos Uteshuvos MaHarshdam covers many interesting sheilos concerning individuals, families, and even whole communities which moved to different locations, and their ensuing problems.
In one case, an eidoh that had established customs and traditions of its own was uprooted and transplanted in new territory. They now had new leaders with different traditions. Rabbeinu stood at the side of the community, instructing them not to change even the minutest details of a custom "for Torah and Yahadut is dependent on masores ovos."
We also find various responsa and correspondence with his old time chavrusa from the yeshiva of Reb Yosef Tartatzeh, the gaon Rabbi Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Oruch.
In cases where Rabbeinu was of a firm opinion he held his own, even against this great giant.
The Chidoh, Rabbi Chaim Yosef Dovid Azulai zt"l, writes in his sefer Shem Hagedolim concerning Rabbi Shmuel, "We refer to his halachos and psakim as we refer to those of the Rambam!"
Rabbi Shmuel had many great talmidim who later spread their wings and became the leaders of Sephardic Jewry. Among them was the gaon Rabbi Avrohom De Bouton author of the sefer Lechem Mishneh on the Rambam.
His grandchild relates a strange episode that occurred in his later years.
Even once the dust had settled on the roads from the weary traveling Jews, Rabbi Shmuel had his own personal tzoros in his later years. The untimely passing of his two sons-in-law left him to care for and sustain his widowed daughters and their orphaned children. However he never stopped learning and teaching Torah.
One day during a shiur in his yeshiva, he suddenly felt his eyes failing him. Within a few minutes he could no longer see and his talmidim were afraid that he would now remain blind in his old age. They tried to help him with glasses, but to no avail. Around him his pupils trembled, but Rabbeinu reassured them that yihye tov.
Then, as though nothing was amiss, Rabbi Shmuel continued learning by heart, continuing until the end of the shiur.
At the end of the day, Rabbeinu returned home and opened a sefer to resume learning. All at once his sight was restored and he could see clearly once again.
His grandson finishes with the amazing fact that from then on Rabbeinu never needed so much as glasses to enable him to read, but had sharp eyesight until the end of his days. As to his temporary blindness of those few hours, they remain a mystery.
After his passing, no great titles were inscribed on his gravestone (apparently according to Rabbeinu's instructions and will). Only the posuk, "Sholom rov le'ohavei Torasecho ve'ein lomo michshol" is written in bold letters.