Chacham Yosef Chaim (1832-1909), known as the Ben Ish Chai, was a highly-revered Torah scholar and master of Kabbalah. Based in Baghdad, Iraq, he was recognized by the Sephardic community both locally and abroad as an eminent Halachic authority.
Yosef Chaim was born on the 27th of Av, 1832, into a long chain of rabbinic figures renowned for their spiritual influence on the Baghdad Jewish community over the centuries. His father, Chacham Eliyahu Chaim, the son of Chacham Moshe Chaim, was the head rabbi and leader of Baghdad's Jewish community.
At the age of seven, Yosef Chaim fell into a deep pit in the courtyard of his home while playing with his sister. He was eventually saved by a miracle, and in gratitude to G‑d he decided to devote his life to the study of Torah. As a young boy, he spent many hours absorbing Torah from the books in his father's extensive library. He went on to attend Beit Zilka, the Jewish seminary of Baghdad, headed by Rabbi Abdallah Someich.
As a young boy, he spent many hours absorbing Torah from the books in his father's extensive libraryWhen Yosef Chaim was fourteen years old, a question arrived for his father from Rabbi Chaim Palag'i, the chief rabbi of Turkey. His father was very busy and unable to answer for several days, so the young Yosef Chaim answered the question in his father's stead. The Turkish rabbi was so impressed with the boy's response that he predicted he would be a great sage. In a letter to Yosef Chaim's father, he enthused: "Your son, dear to your soul, has already preceded you and decided this case. May his father rejoice in him…"
In a special room secluded for study, Yosef Chaim continued to strive toward spiritual perfection, studying all of the Torah day and night. At midnight he would rise to recite the Tikkun Chatzot, lamenting the destruction of the Holy Temple, and at sunrise he would recite the morning prayers. For six consecutive years, he fasted by day and ate only at night, to weaken physical drives that could interfere with his Divine service. He built a mikvah, a ritual bath, in his home, so he could purify himself at any time.
At the age of eighteen, he married Rachel, the daughter of Rabbi Yehudah Someich, a relative to his teacher. Together, they had one daughter and a son. Yosef Chaim was known for the attention he showered upon his children, teaching them Torah and conversing with them, despite his demanding schedule. He often composed little riddles and puzzles to entertain them, some which are recorded in his book Imrei Binah.
Leader of the Baghdad Community
When Yosef Chaim was twenty-five years old, his father passed away, and he became the unofficial leader of the Baghdad community. The title chacham – "wise one," the traditional Sephardic title bestowed upon rabbis – was appended to his name. Despite his young age, he was highly respected, and one of his disciples, Rabbi Dovid Chai Hacohen, testified that if Rabbi Yosef Chaim had lived during the time of the Temple, it would never have been destroyed. For unlike then, when the Jews disregarded the admonitions of the prophets, the entire Baghdad community lovingly obeyed every word uttered by Rabbi Yosef Chaim. During his lifetime, per his influence, all the Jews of Baghdad observed Shabbat and Torah law. Chacham Yosef Chaim refused a salary for his public service. Instead, he supported his family by partnering in his brother's business. He personally funded the publishing of his books, refusing sponsorship or charity, and any income from these books would be distributed to the poor. He was also known to donate his books for free to Torah scholars.
He personally funded the publishing of his books, refusing sponsorship or charity, and any income from these books would be distributed to the poorHe attempted to bridge the gap between the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities, who often followed widely differing practices, by referencing his contemporaries abroad, and reflecting on their approaches in his own writings. He felt strongly that Torah scholars needed to show mutual recognition for one another, even when they disagreed, lest their names be forgotten with the passage of time.
Though his legal decisions carried weight primarily amongst Sephardi populaces, his Ashkenazi counterparts recognized his genius, held him in high esteem, and often quoted his rulings.
For fifty years, from his appointment until his death, he lectured for one hour daily on Torah law and aggadah (historical and anecdotal material) in the Tsallat L'ziri, "the small synagogue." Four times a year, he lectured at the Great Synagogue of Baghdad, built with dirt from the land of Israel.
Chacham Yosef Chaim understood that cut-and-dry Torah law would not appeal to many, so the bulk of his discourses were coupled with Kabbalah and Aggadah. He helped his followers make associations between Biblical lore and the law, so their hearts would be drawn to the wisdom of Torah, and they would remember it.
His seminal work, the Ben Ish Chai, is based on the three-hour classes he presented each Shabbat. He'd begin each lecture with a Kabbalistic interpretation, in simple language, of the Torah portion of the week, and then present a selection of related practical laws. Two important figures guided his work: Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, and Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Arizal.
His approach was based on preservation of local traditions, even in Halachic rulings. He would not recommend a change in local tradition unless there was compelling reason to do so. His rulings testify to his innovative approach which gave credence to local tradition, and to Ashkenazi and Sephardi rulings alike.
The Ben Ish Chai became the standard reference book for Torah law among Sephardim. It appealed to a wide audience, scholars and commoners alike, including women, who were usually not provided a religious education. Due to its widespread popularity, Chacham Yosef Chaim came to be called by the name of his book.
The Ben Ish Chai became the standard reference book for Torah law among Sephardim. It appealed to a wide audience, scholars and commoners alikeMany stories testify to his greatness. On one occasion, a scholar from Baghdad visited a great rabbi in Jerusalem, Rabbi Yaakov Shaul Elishar, to request his blessings. The elderly sage responded, "Why have you come to me? You have Chacham Yosef Chaim in Baghdad. There is no one like him in the world."
Chacham Yosef Chaim deeply loved the Land of Israel. He supported the Jewish settlement by printing all his books there, and throughout his life, gave money to the messengers from Israel who came to collect for the poor. In 1869, he journeyed to Israel where he visited the gravesites of numerous holy figures in Jerusalem and Hebron, and met with eminent Kabbalists. Though offered a rabbinical post there, he decided to return to Iraq. He brought back with him a large stone to be placed at the entrance to the synagogue where he lectured.
Days before his death, on the 8th of Elul, Chacham Yosef Chaim went on pilgrimage to the grave of the prophet Ezekiel, and he became sick shortly after. On the 13th of Elul, 1909, he died and was buried that same night. He was deeply mourned, his funeral attended by over ten thousand people—Jews and non-Jews alike. Years after his death, Jews still made it practice to visit his gravesite every Friday.
Despite his passing over 100 years ago, his legacy is very much alive in the hearts of those who continue to live by his seminal work, the Ben Ish Chai. Many of his disciples became great Jewish scholars who continued to disperse his teachings.
Despite his passing over 100 years ago, his legacy is very much aliveThe extensive work of Chacham Yosef Chaim encompasses all aspects of Judaism: Torah law, Kabbalah, Q&A's, sermons, parables, proverbs, and prayers, liturgics and poetry for Shabbat and holidays. His work reflects simultaneously broad knowledge of the sciences, medicine, astronomy, physics and economics. His approach to Torah, though stringent, is imbued with love for its practice, and his followers, whose numbers continue to grow even today, revere his commitment to Torah law and the inspiration he brought to it.
Many schools, particularly in Israel, have been built in his name. Thousands continue to glean from the wisdom of Chacham Yosef Chaim, studying his books, but more importantly, living by them.