Hacham Yehuda Alkalai was born to his mother and to his father Hacham Shlomo in 1789 in Sarajevo, Bosnia. As a child he studied Torah with his father, who was a dayan [rabbinic judge] in the Sarajevo community, and from Hacham Eliezer Papo, author of the Peleh Yo'etz. He later took Esther to be his wife. In 1825, at the age of 27, he was appointed Chief Rabbi of the Sephardi community in the town of Zemun (today part of the city of Belgrade, Serbia). As part of his role he also served as a children's teacher, for which purpose he authored his first book, Darkei Noam, for Hebrew language study, in Ladino.
In 1840, in response to the Damascus libel and the general situation of the Jews, in particular in the area in which he lived, he awoke to the need for a solution to the exile. Rabbi Alkalai's plan included choosing the Hebrew language as a language to be shared by all Jews, promoting its study, finding unifying customs for Jews of all ethnic origins, promoting Aliyah [immigration] to Israel, and establishing political life there. Hacham Yehuda Alkalai published these ideas for the first time in the Shlom Yerushalaim booklet in Ladino and subsequently in Hebrew, in his famous book, Minhat Yehuda. These ideas were publicized many years before the First Zionist Congress, for which reason he was named the Herald of Zionism.
Later in life he authored additional works on these topics – Kol Hamevasser, Sepher Haim, Goral LeHashem, Mevasser Tov, Shem Israel, Meoded Anavim, Menahem Zion, and others. Hacham Yehuda Alkalai tried to disseminate his ideas in additional ways, and traveled to Jewish communities throughout Europe where he tried to share his doctrine. In 1852 he established the Shlom Yerushalaim Company for the settlement of the Land of Israel, but it collapsed immediately after he left the city.
In 1874 he immigrated to Israel with his wife, Esther, and settled in Jerusalem. He passed away four years later, in 1878 without seeing any of his plans materialize. The town of Or Yehuda is named after him, and five of his students established the city of Petach Tikva.