Rabbi Yossef Chaim «The Ben Ish Chai»

The Ben Ish Chai

Our revered teacher, Rabbi Yossef Chaim, better know as the Ben Ish Hai, was born in Baghdad on Av 27, 1834. After the disappearance of his illustrious father, which occurred on Elul 13, 1859, he succeeded him as head of the prestigious community, the inheritor of the Jewish Babylonian tradition.

It was in 1860, the morning of Shabbat Teshuvah, that he rose to the podium of the large synagogue to give his first course. It should be noted that he gave his lesson not in the capacity of Chief Rabbi, for all his life he refused the slightest official position. Everyone understood that G-d had bestowed upon Rabbi Yossef both immense wisdom and a marvelous gift for teaching, as well as incredible speaking abilities. From then on the Ben Ish Hai, in same way as King Solomon, didn’t stop instructing the people in all the mysteries of the Torah, even the most secret ones. He did this as much by his courses as by his books. To familiarize his audience with divine truths, he employed a vocabulary understood by all. He didn’t hesitate to turn to everyday examples, or to anecdotes, to draw everyone’s attention, retain it, and in this way transmit to everyone sacred knowledge. It must be underlined that in regards to this, besides his veritable encyclopedic knowledge of Torah, nothing of the human realm was unknown to the Ben Ish Hai. Hence to spiritually uplift people to the highest levels, he first spoke to them in language they understood.

Every Shabbat, during speeches that could sometimes last three hours, he explained the Parsha of the week to the community. In addition, each morning at the end of Shacharit, while still enwrapped in his Tallit and crowned with his Tefillin, he delighted the faithful with mountains of Halachot adorned with Talmudic and Midrashic narratives. Then for a half-hour he alternated between teaching the volumes of Orah Chaim and Yoreh Deah from the Shulchan Aruch. To conclude a study cycle that ended every four years, the Ben Ish Hai organized a great feast for the learned of the city, the costs of which he assumed himself. At this occasion, he would delight his audience by means of a discourse teeming with marvelous Chiddushim (novel interpretations) of Torah and Kabbalah.

Happy were all the tens of thousands of men and women who had the privilege to see and hear him during four great Shabbats of the year: Shabbat Teshuvah, Shabbat Hagadol, Shabbat Zachor, and Shabbat Parah. His lessons then lasted four hours, but because his audience was held captive by his teachings, his charm, his pleasantness, and his well-known humility, these four hours always seemed too brief. “The sound of his voice,” said his biographers, “evoked the sound of the sea.” A great love for Eretz Israel, and in particular for Jerusalem, emanated from each of his words.

Having never accepted the least of positions, the Ben Ish Hai enclosed himself (sometimes for entire days) in his office to study and write. He would interrupt himself only for guests, and would receive with his regal bearing all those who came to consult him, greeting them with incomparably great joy and humility. By appearing at the entrance to his study, the least of his students could see the Ben Ish Hai rise, rush to meet him, make him sit beside him, and listen attentively. In the say way, the Ben Ish Hai would rise to see each of his guests off, accompanying them until the entrance of his home.

He carefully watched over the absolute purity of his food in the minutest of details, even to the choice of those who served him. In regards to this, we must make it clear that for six years out of seven, the Ben Ish Hai imposed on himself a daily fast. He thus applied the Sages’ interpretation to the Torah verse concerning the Hebrew slave, a verse that states, “Six years he shall serve, and in the seventh he shall go out free” (in other words, he shall be free from his Yetzer Hara, his evil inclination). That was but one of the mortifications and personal strictures that he demanded of himself. Thus, in the full heat of summer, when a blistering heat embraced Baghdad, he did not permit himself to eat watermelon solely for the purpose of not getting carried away by his desire. For this he waited until Rosh Hashanah, at which time he recited the blessing of Shecheyanu (“Blessed are You …Who has granted us life … and enabled us to reach this occasion”).

Rabbi Yossef Chaim, the legendary Ben Ish Hai, left this world on Elul 13, 1909. He left us with works on Torah and Kabbalah that cannot be overlooked, veritable wellsprings of knowledge from which each of us can drink.

May his merit protect us, as well as all the Jewish people. Amen




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