The story that follows is one of many wonderful stories that are told about the saintly Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, author of the famed commentary on the Chumash, Or haChaim. But first, a few words about this saintly man.
Rabbi Chaim ben Rabbi Mosheh ibn Attar was born in Morocco, in a family that had produced outstanding Torah scholars and Rabbis. Rabbi Chaim was born in 5456 (1696), just two years before another saintly Rabbi was born in a different part of the world (Poland), namely, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement. Rabbi Chaim studied under his grandfather, whose name he bore. (Sfardic Jews often name their children after living parents or grandparents.) While still a young man, he became famous as a great Talmudic scholar and Kabbalist. He led a very saintly life and was called "Hakodosh" ("holy man"). He wrote several important works, the best known being his commentary on the Chumash, which is often printed alongside of Rashi, the Ramban, and other famed commentaries.
Towards the last years of his short life (he only lived 47 years), he decided to go to the Holy Land. On the way he spent several years in Livorno and Venice (in Italy) and Damascus. He arrived in Jerusalem in 1742, with a group of 30 followers. However, in the following year he passed away (on the 15th of Tammuz). Wherever he lived he founded a Yeshiva and a synagogue which carried his name, and were famous long after the founder's death. The "Or Hachaim Synagogue" and Yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem were destroyed by the Jordanian Arabs during their occupation of the Old City. However, there are plans to rebuild the ruins, along with other sacred institutions which the Arabs had desecrated or destroyed.
And now the story.
While Rabbi Chaim was still a student in his grandfather's Yeshiva he learned the skills of a goldsmith, so that he would earn his livelihood without having to make his Torah knowledge "a spade to dig with." Later, when he had already become famous for his learning and saintliness and could have held an honored position as a great Rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva, he declined to be paid for these services. He preferred to earn his money from the work of his hands, for he was a very skilled goldsmith.
Being an excellent goldsmith, Rabbi Chaim could have earned a lot of money. But he had no desire to earn any more money than was absolutely necessary for the modest needs of himself and his family. It was his custom, therefore, to take no more time out from his learning than was necessary. As long as he had money in his pocket for the day's needs, he did not work at all, and spent all his time in his saintly studies.
Rabbi Chaim made sure that he would not be bothered by wealthy customers. He simply opened no workshop of his own. Instead he hired himself out to the best known local non-Jewish goldsmith for several hours a day, or whenever he chose to work in accordance with his needs.
Now, the goldsmith for whom Rabbi Chaim worked was no friend of the Jews, but he valued Rabbi Chaim's work so much, that he let him work whenever he wanted. Rabbi Chaim never argued about his wages. He was satisfied with whatever his employer paid him. Indeed, once the goldsmith tried to tempt Rabbi Chaim by paying him more than before. He found out, however, that far from being tempted, Rabbi Chaim was now able to stay away from work even longer, so he reduced his pay as much as he could without driving him to his competitor.
It came to pass that the Sultan was getting ready to marry off his daughter. He sent for the goldsmith and placed a large order for very fancy jewelry, to be ready before the wedding.
It so happened that Rabbi Chaim still had some money left from his previous earnings and did not come in to the goldsmith for work. When the day came for the royal order to be delivered, the goldsmith had not completed it. The Sultan became very angry and threatened to have the goldsmith thrown to his lions. But the sly goldsmith put the whole blame on Rabbi Chaim, saying that it was his Jewish assistant that had let the Sultan down by not coming to work. So the Sultan ordered that Rabbi Chaim be thrown to the lions, to be devoured alive.
The Sultan had a beautiful park behind his palace. In the park there was a special area surrounded by high walls, where the Sultan kept his man-eating lions and tigers. Anyone who was sentenced by the Sultan to die, would be thrown to these ferocious beasts. This, the Sultan decreed, was to be also the fate of Rabbi Chaim.
When the Sultan's guards came to fetch Rabbi Chaim, he asked them only to be allowed to take some of his sacred books with him, and his Tallis and Tefillin. The guards laughed, and said, "Are you going to teach the big cats the wisdom of these books?" Nevertheless they granted his request.
As Rabbi Chaim was led through the streets, Jews closed their shops and stalls and accompanied him. They wept bitterly to see their beloved Rabbi being led to his horrible death, while some of the local Arab populace jeered and made merry. Rabbi Chaim took no notice of the jeering crowd, but he consoled his grieving brethren, saying to them: "It is G-d Who takes life and gives life; He redeems and saves in time of distress. I am confident that He will spare me from the lions' teeth. Trust in G-d."
The procession came to the gates of the Royal Palace. Rabbi Chaim was led away behind the gates, and taken to the lions' den. Here he was placed in the hands of the keepers to carry out the Sultan's sentence.
The keepers put a rope around Rabbi Chaim's waist and lowered him down into the den, while he was clinging tightly to his precious books and Tallis bag which contained also his Tefillin and Siddur. The keepers knew what to expect: Blood-chilling shrieks, roars and snarls of the beasts, and then deathly silence. They had done such jobs many times. It was always the same, or so they thought.
This time, however, it was different, very strangely different! There were no screams, and no roars and no snarls. The lions and tigers remained in their places, and made no attempt to attack their "meal." The keepers decided that the beasts were not hungry, and walked away.
Three days later, the keepers came to feed the beasts, expecting to find only the broken bones of the Rabbi. They could not believe their eyes when they saw the Rabbi sitting in the center of the den, wrapped in his Tallis and Tefillin, and studying his holy books. The wild beasts were crouching all around him, keeping a respectful silence, as if they were listening to his melodious voice.
The keepers rushed to tell the Sultan what they saw. In utter disbelief, the Sultan went to see for himself, and he, too, was amazed and terrified at the awesome sight.
The Sultan ordered that a rope ladder be lowered for the saintly Rabbi, to climb out of the den. When Rabbi Chaim came up, the Sultan humbly begged his forgiveness. "Now I know that there is a G-d, the Guardian of Israel!" the Sultan exclaimed. He asked the saintly Rabbi to be his friend and adviser, and promised that the gates of the palace would always be open for him.
It was a day of light, gladness, joy and honor for the Jews, while the enemies of the Jews no longer dared lift a hand, or even speak an insult, against any Jew. As for Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, he returned home with deep gratitude to G-d, and with even greater humility in his heart.