The Legacy of The Ben Ish Chai

ben ish chai kabbalah masters Aug 30, 2023

Ish Eshkolot- A man who all is found by him

Few figures of recent generations left a significant imprint on each generation, even after passing.

Rabbi Yosef Chaim, or the Ben Ish Chai, was born in Bagdad on the 27th of Av in 1834, and he passed on the 13th of Elul 1909.

The Ben Ish Chai was one of the greatest Sephardic leaders in recent generations. His influence was felt in all countries, even among Ashkenazi Jews and Chassidic communities.

It is said that Rabbi Yosef Chaim felt a deep soul connection to Benayhu Ben Yehoyada, the general of King Solomon who was called "Ben Ish Chai- a man of life." He named all of his books for the famed general. 

Rabbi Yosef Chaim's leadership was not expressed in an official position, but he was the address for any question and knew how to adapt his leadership to all segments of the public.

Leading the assembly of the Kabbalists, through his comprehensive halachic decisions that reached the Jewish communities in Iraq and its surroundings, to his personal guidance for children – Rabbi Yosef Chaim authored more than a hundred scholarly works, some published under different names due to modesty. Most remained unpublished and were lost, but those printed reflect his profound and wide-ranging character.

Alongside deep commentaries on the Bible and the Talmud, he wrote many Kabbalistic books through which his approach of making the inner teachings of the Torah accessible to all who seek God's name is reflected.

His works include sermons on the Torah alongside hundreds of soulful piyutim (liturgical poems). His legal works in halacha and responsa literature fill shelves with books of ethics, morality, stories, and allegories. In addition to Kabbalistic writings and profound prayers, his unique "Kanun al-Nas" stands out, a special book for women containing explanations of Torah and morality in Judeo-Arabic, including popular sayings.


Unique in his generation

An event that occurred in his life at the age of seven. While playing, Yosef Chaim fell into a well in the courtyard and almost drowned. His uncle, who reached the well with a rope, managed to rescue the child. Yosef Chaim vowed to dedicate his life to Torah studies.

At the age of fourteen, he was accepted into the central yeshiva in Baghdad, "Beit Zalka," led by Rabbi Abdallah Somech. His first halachic response, which displayed his scholarly greatness, appeared in the introduction to his book of responsa, "Rav Pe'alim," when he was only sixteen years old.

In matters of halacha, he was once consulted regarding an etrog (citron) with a doubtful status. After Rabbi Eliyahu Chai ruled on the matter, scholars in Jerusalem replied surprisingly, stating that they had already received a response from "your son, the young and wise," who had encompassed all the earlier and later opinions on the matter and reached the same conclusion.

His halachic decisions, often leaning towards matters beyond Kabbalistic concerns, sometimes echoed the decisions of the European Chassidic communities. His commentary on the Talmud brings the debate between the GRA (Vilna Gaon) and the Baal Shem Tov regarding the intention of prayer.

He often quotes the "Shulchan Aruch HaRav" authored by Rabbi Zalman of Liadi, and in his sermons, he cites letters from "Bnei Yissaschar" and Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov.

Likewise, he received admiration from European rabbis and Kabbalists, such as the Ridbaz and the author of "Leshem," Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv (grandfather of the Leshem), and in Chassidut Biala, it is said that the third Rebbe, Rabbi Yissachar Dov, refrained from inscribing "unique in his generation" on his father's tombstone, as long as Yosef Chaim was alive.

On the 7th of Elul, 5699, Rabbi Eliyahu Chai passed away, and on the seventh day of mourning, Rabbi Yosef Chaim addressed thousands of Jews in Baghdad to eulogize his father. His powerful oratory skills were revealed for the first time, and he decided to take over his father's leadership. On that day, Rabbi Yosef Chaim officially began his public role.

He continued to give regular daily lessons, two per day, one after the morning prayer and another after the afternoon prayer, on Shulchan Aruch and Choshen Mishpat, as well as Torah and ethical matters. Many of his written works are based on these lessons and sermons.

The synagogue of Baghdad, known as 'Salat al-Zahirī,' housed around a thousand seats for study. Every Sabbath, a sermon lasting about three hours on Jewish law and the weekly Torah portion would be delivered, accompanied by parables, allegorical stories, and moral lessons. As is known, the book 'Ben Ish Chai' contains only two years' worth of sermons out of the many years during which Rabbi Yosef Chaim served as a rabbi.

On the Shabbat of Repentance, Remembrance, the Great Shabbat, and the Shabbat before the holiday of Shavuot, multitudes of Jews from Baghdad would gather at the 'Salat al-Kabīrī' - the large synagogue in the city that could accommodate around ten thousand seats for study - to listen to the teachings of Rabbi Yosef Chaim.

The last figure of our generation who had the privilege of attending sermons in his youth under the shadow of the 'Ben Ish Chai' was Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri, of blessed memory, one of the greatest Kabbalists of the previous generation.

He recounted his memories of one of the grand sermons. "It was a significant event, and a strong emotion prevailed among the listeners. A feeling akin to Yom Kippur accompanied the attendees. After the sermon, there was a sense that the Messiah would come immediately. I remember where I sat in the synagogue and even the number of benches," Rabbi Kaduri recounted.

"Even as a young child, I used to sit on the steps of the synagogue's podium, where the 'Ben Ish Chai' stood and delivered his sermon. The children would touch the fringes of his robe and kiss it. The sight of the podium was awe-inspiring. The 'Ben Ish Chai' stood at the center of the podium, and around him, about 80 Kabbalists sat, all dressed in shining white. Those who witnessed this sight will never forget it.

The remarkable thing was that his voice carried the farthest; thus, his sermon could be distinctly heard even in a gathering of sometimes over ten thousand people and even in the adjacent street. In those moments, complete silence reigned, and even the babies did not cry."


Love for the Land

Rabbi Yosef Chaim held a deep love for the Holy Land. Despite the presence of fine printing houses in Baghdad and the danger of transporting handwritten manuscripts on camelback for extended journeys, Rabbi Yosef Chaim decided to print almost all of his writings, specifically at the Fromkin Press in Jerusalem.

This was done both to strengthen the hands of the city's residents and to imbue the books with the sanctity of Jerusalem through the printing process and their long journey back to Baghdad.

In the 1930s, Rabbi Yosef Chaim visited the Holy Land, where he met the sages of the 'Bet El' Kabbalistic Yeshiva with whom he had a connection. He also visited the Kabbalist Rabbi Eliyahu Mani in Hebron, who had acquired lands around the city to establish a Jewish settlement there.

During this visit, Rabbi Yosef Chaim spent nearly a week near Tzfat, close to Mount Meron, and was told from Heaven that he was a soul-root of the Tanna Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Since then, he incorporated the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar, into the titles of many of his books.

During that journey, he composed the well-known Kabbalistic piyyut (liturgical poem) "Va'amartem Koh le'Chai" in honor of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, which remains popular among Jewish communities.

Rabbi Yosef Chaim was one of the founders of the 'Porat Yosef' Yeshiva in the Old City, which was established in the year 5663 (1903) and rebuilt after Jerusalem's liberation. He assisted Rabbi Yosef Abraham Shalom of Calcutta, who was close to him, in establishing a hospital for the Jews of Baghdad. "Build a Beit Midrash (study hall), which is a spiritual healing house for afflicted souls, and build it in Jerusalem, opposite the Holy of Holies," said the 'Ben Ish Chai.'

This yeshiva became the Torah cornerstone of Sephardic Jewry in the Holy Land. His close students led the yeshiva, and prominent figures like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu studied and taught there.


Archives in the Iraqi Intelligence Headquarters

A modern request for peace was uncovered from the archives of the 'Ben Ish Chai' around a decade ago when the intelligence headquarters of Iraq were occupied after the downfall of Saddam Hussein's regime by the United States military.

In this location, over two thousand manuscripts in a deteriorated state were discovered, along with tens of thousands of documents that had been looted from the Jewish community. After professional examination and comparison with other manuscripts, some of these were identified as fragments written in Arabic letters using Hebrew language (such as Yiddish and Ladino), totaling over two hundred pages.

Some were drafts of previously published books, while others apparently contained unfamiliar sermons on the weekly Torah portion. Other Torah scrolls from Baghdad that Arab antiquities dealers had sold found their way to the Holy Land and were distributed among various synagogues under the care of the security forces.

Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief Rabbi of Tzfat, recalls that his father of blessed memory, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, heard about the arrival of the ancient books from Iraq and was told that there was a Torah scroll in the main synagogue in Baghdad that was written by the 'Ben Ish Chai' himself, and his signature could be found on the last column of the scroll.

"After extensive searching, we discovered that the scroll had miraculously made its way specifically to the 'Mossad' synagogue. The Minister of Religions at the time arranged a special visit for Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu to the Mossad synagogue.

When Rabbi Eliyahu opened the scroll and saw the signature of the 'Ben Ish Chai' behind the parchment, he leaned on the side and began to cry, and all those present, including the head of the Mossad, also shed tears."

May his memory and merit be a blessing for us!

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