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The Ben Ish Chai
An outstanding Sephardic leader of the past century

by Nehama Consuela Nahmoud

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series. It is reprinted here with permission

Chacham Yoseif Chaim
5592/1832-5669/1909

It is perhaps to our benefit that many of Chacham Yoseif Chaim's works contain a photograph, taken in his twenty-sixth year. This was the year following the death of his father, Rav Eliyahu; the year Rabbi Yoseif Chaim took his father's place as Rav of Baghdad. Even those unfamiliar with the art of reading human features cannot fail to be struck by the inner power, yet calmness, nobility, and depth that his countenance reveals - truly reflecting him as a tzaddik and gadol baTorah.

Today Chacham Yoseif Chaim, known also as the Ben Ish Chai, is one of the great lights of the international Sephardic community, alongside the Chacham Chaim Yoseif David Azulai (the Chida) and the Sar Shalom Shar' abi. His place in the lives and hearts of Sephardim throughout the world is analogous to that of the Vilna Gaon or the Ba'al Shem Tov in those of Ashkenazim - and the number of his followers is continually growing.

The shitah - the approach in halachic decisions and customs - of the Ben Ish Chai is followed by thousands from all communities - Persians, Ladino-speaking Sephardim, Moroccans, Kurdistanis. Although it is one of the most machmir (stringent) in the Sephardic world, its followers only sense its beauty, seemingly unaware of its strictness.

A Family of Chachamim

Chacham Yoseif Chaim was born in 1832 to a line of great chachamim who influenced the moral and spiritual development of Baghdad, proving himself another link in that chain at an early age.

As a boy, he could always be found studying contentedly in his father's vast library. It is told that when he was fourteen he answered one of the questions sent to his father by the sages of Jerusalem. His father, busy at the time, could not tend to it until a day or so later. By the time Rabbi Eliyahu managed to send his reply, young Yoseif's answer had already reached Jerusalem and was found most acceptable. Rabbi Eliyahu received a message from Jerusalem, which included the words: "Your son, dear to your soul, has already preceded you and decided this case. May his father rejoice in him..."

Rabbi Yoseif Chaim set aside a special room for seclusion where day and night he studied all aspects of Torah - Shas ... halachah, aggadah and kabbalah. He worked tirelessly at his own spiritual perfection, aiming to purify and elevate his body to be attuned to his soul in the service of Hashem. He rose every midnight to recite the Tikun Chatzot and would say the morning prayers at sunrise. He continued this practice even after his appointment as Rav of Baghdad. He fasted the entire day for six consecutive years, only tasting food at night, to dull his sensual drives ... He had a well dug in his home so that he could have a Mikvah available for ablutions whenever he so desired ... The dean of Kabbalists of Jerusalem, Rabbi Chaim Shaul Dowek, testified: "All the Ben Ish Chai's words were ultimately based on inferences from the writings of the ARIzal ..." and that "the pathways of the heavens were clear to him."

Every Saturday night immediately following havdalah, the Ben Ish Chai would ascend to the attic of his house to study, permitting no one to disturb him. It was rumored that on these occasions, Eliyahu HaNavi would appear to him to teach him Torah. The young men of his bais hamidrash, Bais Midrash Zilcha, wanted to test the veracity of this report. So they dispatched one of their ranks, Rabbi Yehoshua Sarboni, to ... "rush up the steps and enter the Ben Ish Chai's attic room without knocking, on the pretext of posing a specific question to him. Then you will see for us whether or not Eliyahu is there."

No sooner was Shabbos over than Rabbi Yehoshua did as he was told. Half-way up the stairs, he met Rabbi Yoseif Chaim descending, who stopped to say: "My wise Yehoshua, in the bais hamidrash are they debating this perplexing problem...? Go down and tell them that the explanation is as follows..."


Rabbi Yoseif Chaim's nephew, Rabbi Binyamin Ben-Moshe, recounts once entering his uncle's home on a Friday afternoon, finding him sitting and weeping: "I asked him, ' Why are you crying? Are you in pain...?'

"He replied, 'Nothing hurts me. But just a short while ago the caretaker, who cleans the trash from the yard, passed my door. Someone invited him in to taste one of the Shabbos delicacies, and the man refused, saying that all his life he has been careful never to enjoy something belonging to others. 1 am full of envy: Here is a man so simple, and yet so much greater than me. Doesn't the Gemara tell us: Greater is he that sustains himself with his own efforts than one who fears heaven? - This is why 1 am crying.'"

His Works

After his father, Rabbi Eliyahu, passed away and Rabbi Yoseif Chaim was only 25 years old, the Jews of Baghdad accepted him as their Rabbi. They followed his halachic decisions and general advice with such complete faith that his disciple, Rabbi Ben Zion Chazon commented: "If the Jews of old would have followed the directives of the prophets in their day as the Jews of Baghdad listen to Rabbi Yoseif Chaim, the Bais HaMikdash would not have been destroyed."

While every Shabbos he would deliver his sermon in the Tsallat L'ziri (the Small Synagogue), on four Shabbosos during the year Rabbi Yoseif Chaim, as the sole preacher that week, would speak in the Tsallat L'ch'biri (the Large Synagogue)... according to Baghdadian tradition, this shul was built at the outset of the Babylonian exile by Yehoyachin, King of Judah, with earth carried from Eretz Yisrael.

The Ben Ish Chai delivered a drashah every morning for fifty years, from his appointment until his death. He also gave a shiur (lecture) in halachah and aggadah. The latter became the basis of two of his works on the non-halachic portions of Talmud: the five-volume Ben Yehoyada, and Mekabtziel, a complementary version of Ben Yehoyada. In these works on aggadah, the Ben Ish Chai always incorporated the thoughts of the kabbalah according to the ARIzal, including many gematriot and an occasional story.

One of these stories concerns an Arab sheikh who, through his humility and awe before the Sheim Hashem (the Tetragrammaton), merited a degree of ruach hakodesh. This demonstrates the idea expressed in the Tana Devei Eliyahu and the Talmud that "It matters not one's background or sex; the Shechinah rests on everyone according to the level of his actions."

The four-volume responsa Rav Pe'alim and Torah Lishmah are works on halachah, written under the nom de plume ''Yechezkiel Kahali." Both include questions from great and small, ranging from the deepest queries on the Shulchan Aruch and requests for clarification of kabbalistic concepts, to questions such as "May one name one's child after a letter of the alphabet, especially one which is in the name of Hashem?" (The answer is "yes", as we find in Pirkei Avot, ben Hey Hey, as well as Rav Yud, an Amora mentioned in Tractate Ta'anis.)

The first question in Rav Pe'alim is particularly significant to our generation, where emotions assume such a strong role. Rabbi Yoseif Chaim was asked if one should say the Tikun Chatzot prayers, in mourning for the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash, if one does not feel them in his heart. The answer is, emphatically, to say the prayers: and the Ben Ish Chai cites Nefesh HaChaim by Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, the disciple of the Vilna Gaon, to show why every level of prayer is necessary; even deep, heartfelt kavanah cannot begin to ascend to heaven without the rock-bottom level of physical utterance of the prayers.

Due to the custom among even unlearned Oriental Jews to read works of Kabbalah, the Ben Ish Chai edited a new, voweled edition of the Zohar. He added a short commentary of the Chida to enable laymen to learn basic teachings and gain inspiration. Before his edition of the Zohar had appeared, copies had to be ordered from Poland.

In addition, Rabbi Yoseif Chaim composed many pizmonim and piyutim (religious poetry) for various occasions, one of the most widely known being "Va'amartem Ko L'Chai" in honor of the tanna bar Yochai and Lag b'Omer.

Approach to Halachah

Despite his greatness in tracing halachic problems directly to Talmudic sources (as shown in his Teshuvos Torah Lishmah), the Ben Ish Chai always took into account the opinions of Oriental, Sephardic and North European Acharonim (later commentaries, from the 16th Century onward). The Sha'ul Umeishiv, the Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the Shulchan Aruch Harav, Chayei Adam and Divrei Chayim are among those often mentioned in his works.

In his introduction to Rav Pe'alim, Chacham Yoseif Chaim decries the tendency among some to ignore or even spurn contemporaries or acharonim. He also felt that every posek, regardless of stature, should take care to write with respect regarding others even when disproving their thinking, for failure to do in the past had resulted in some classic gedolim of halachah being ignored and even forgotten.

Halachah and Oriental Minhag

Rabbi Yoseif Chaim's three-hour Shabbos drashos were the basis for his most famous work, the Ben Ish Chai . His talks opened with an explanation of the week's Parshah (Torah reading) in the light of the kabbalah, followed by practical halachah on a given subject.

This book is considered to be the "Sephardic Kitzur Shulchan Aruch" - the standard reference book in all religious Sephardic homes - and is used in Sephardic yeshivos and religious schools in Israel to teach halachah. The Ben Ish Chai gives a vivid insight into the environment and circumstances in which Rabbi Yoseif Chaim and his flock lived:

The time for havdalah is given as "twenty minutes after the Moslem call to prayer" (Ben Ish Chai Toldos Paragraph 2).

Moslem law provides for five prayer periods during a 24-hour day. These prayer periods are very strictly regulated as to time, calculated by the position of the sun, and each prayer period is announced by a muezzin singing from atop the minaret of the mosque.

Formerly in all Moslem countries, as in Saudi Arabia today, both men and women observed the extreme in modesty in dress, wearing robes to their ankles, with high necks and long sleeves. Moslem women wore veils on their heads, and covered their faces, at least the lower part, with a second veil. However, they were accustomed to wearing sandals with no stockings, or went barefoot. Jewish women in those countries wore the same clothes as their Moslem neighbors. Rabbi Yoseif Chaim thus has this to say on tznius (personal modesty):

In European cities, women customarily wear shoes, so their feet are not visible. A guest from a place where women are accustomed to going barefoot must take care to act according to the custom of the place he is visiting, and consider it forbidden to pray before the sight of bare feet (Chapter 21,2).

The Chacham's Family

Chacham Yoseif Chaim married Rachel, the daughter of Rabbi Yehuda Someich, a relative of his teacher Rabbi Abd-Allah Someich. Rabbi Yoseif Chaim endowed his family life with the same brightness and creativity that he brought to all his endeavors. He frequently took time to discuss Torah and life in general with his wife and children, despite his heavy schedule. He even composed riddles and puzzles for his family, some of which are recorded in the book Imrei Binah. The following is a typical teaser from this collection:

There were two rabbis, one in a small city and one in a large city. A great Gaon wrote letters to each one of them addressing both with the title "Gaon," despite the fact that neither merited this title. His disciples said, regarding each of the rabbis, 'Rabbeinu, so-and-so is not worthy of this.' Regarding both, the Gaon said, 'Hamakom (Hamakom, usually a reference to the Deity, literally means "the place.") shall make up for his shortcomings.' What did he mean?"

Answer: "In each case, the title is in proportion to the place. In the small town, even though the rabbi seems un- worthy of the title, he is worthy because there was no one else like him in the town. In proportion to the Torah-poverty of the place in which he lived, he is a Gaon.

"In the larger community, the city's size gives the rabbi stature and thus he too merits the title. Therefore, in each case it can be said that 'hamakom' makes up for each person's shortcomings."


Eretz Yisrael

The Ben Ish Chai's strong attachment to Eretz Yisrael was evident in many ways. He personally brought a large stone from the Holy Land to be placed at the entrance of the main synagogue (which had soil from Eretz Yisrael on its floor) where he gave his drashos. All his books were printed only in the Holy Land to help support the Yishuv there. Under his influence, one of Baghdad's wealthy Jews donated his entire estate to the building of Yeshivat Porat Yoseif in the Old City of Jerusalem.

During Rabbi Yoseif Chaim's trip to Eretz HaKodesh in 1869, he visited various yishuvim, stopped at the graves of tzaddikim, and met with a number of Kabbalists then in Jerusalem. He was offered the position of Rishon LeZion (Sephardic Chief Rabbi), but, for reasons unknown to us, he did not accept.

Rabbi Yoseif Chaim and the Community

A Jewish cab driver from Baghdad gave what is probably the most eloquent testimony regarding the Ben Ish Chai's influence on his kehillah: even years after Rabbi Yoseif Chaim's death, the average working Jew in Baghdad spent four hours of his day at work, the rest of the time studying Torah.

Rabbi Yoseif Chaim's takanot (ordinances) had included the excommunication of any violator of the Shabbos, however slight his offense...Even those who came late for prayer never repeated their error.

Throughout his life no man dared defy the Ben Ish Chai, with one well-known exception. In 1876, a Viennese teacher, Jacob Obermeyer, came to Baghdad and attempted to introduce a number of leniencies in Jewish law. Rabbi Yoseif Chaim forcefully condemned these innovations, but Mr. Obermeyer was not fazed. He sent letters to Hamagid (a weekly organ of the Maskillim) attacking the position of the Chacham. When copies of the newspaper reached Baghdad, the communal leaders were shocked, and united in putting Mr. Obermeyer into cherem (excommunication). The book Toldos Yehudei Bavel (History of Iraqi Jewry) records that a sharp rebuttal, signed by twenty-seven leading rabbis and scholars, was sent to Hamagid, and that the cherem-proclamation was read aloud in all synagogues in Baghdad. It was even sent to Jerusalem, where it was published in a special edition of the Orthodox journal Halevanon (5636).

A short time later, Mr. Obermeyer was informed by telegram that his mother died - which local rabbis interpreted as a result of his defiance of the Ben Ish Chai. When he sought to have a minyan meet in his home during the week of mourning, no Baghdadian Jew would cross his threshold - until he retracted his criticisms of the Ben Ish Chai, and begged for his forgiveness.

His Legacy

Rabbi Yoseif Chaim died in 1909. He left a daughter and a son, Rabbi Yaakov, a gadol whose opinions and explanations the Ben Ish Chai incorporated into many of his works. Rabbi Yaakov later took his father's place as Rav and Maggid of the community of Baghdad and wrote works of his own.

The aura of Rabbi Yoseif Chaim shines far beyond the borders of Iraq. His spirit and warmth and inspiration are everywhere, conspicuous in hundreds of ways. One can see families gathered around the holiday table, lovingly and joyously following the order of the se'udah (festival meals) recommended in Tefilat Yesharim, the Ben Ish Chai's Machzor. His books are "religious bestsellers," not only to the Sephardic public. In Jerusalem alone one can see several small yeshivos and Talmud Torahs that bear his name, as well as others that follow his shitah. During the last three years, two new Sephardic schools that teach Rabbi Yoseif Chaim's shitah have been established in Jerusalem, one of which was founded by Rabbi Menachem Basri, one of his descendants.

An appropriate ending to a biographical sketch of Rabbi Yoseif Chaim might be the title of one of his books: Od Yoseif Chai, "Yoseif Still Lives."

(The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Tzemach Dovid)

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