While still a boy he went to Ottoman Palestine with his parents, who settled at Safed, and at their death in 1836, he moved to Jerusalem. In 1848, he was commissioned by the Jewish community of the latter city to travel through the southern countries to collect alms for the poor of Jerusalem. In 1854 he undertook a second tour to collect funds for the construction of the Hurva Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter which led him in 1859 to Yemen, British India, Egypt, and Australia.
The result of this journey was his momentous ethnographic work, `Even Sapir, a travel diary in which he gave the history, and a vivid though uncritical description of the condition of the Jews in the above-mentioned countries. Saphir published also Iggeret Teman (Wilna, 1868, consciously titled after Rambam's letter of centuries earlier), a work on the appearance in Yemen of the pseudo-MessiahJudah ben Shalom, and which was largely responsible for ending Judah ben Shalom's career. Saphir died in Jerusalem in 1886.