Hacham Yosef Haim

< Tammuz 5784 July 2024 >

A Short Tribute

Hacham Yosef Haim, son of Hacham Eliyahu and known as the Ben Ish Chai, was born in 1834 in Baghdad, Iraq. At the age of 7, he fell into a deep pit and, after his rescue, decided to devote his life to Torah. He first began his studies in his father's library, and then continued with Hacham David Chai Ben Meir, with his maternal uncle. Hacham Yosef Haim excelled in his studies, and by the age of 14 had already anonymously published halakhic responsa.

In 1851, he married Rachel, the daughter of Hacham Ovadia Somech, and the couple had a daughter and two sons born to them. His father died in 1859, and despite that Hacham Yosef Haim was only 25 years of age, the Jewish community now considered him its leader. Hacham Yosef Haim, however, refused to fill any official role in the community, and earned his living from a family business partnership.

Hacham Yosef Haim sought to involve people from all levels of the community in Torah study. This is evident in his sermons, which show numerous layers of interpretation, each of which is geared to different parts of the public, and include many parables and tales.

Hacham Yosef Haim was also proficient in secular disciplines, including astronomy, physics, medicine and economics, and he encourages general study in his writings. He had extensive Torah knowledge that included Kabbalah, and Ashkenazi as well as Sephardi halachic rulings. Hacham Yosef Haim had an interest in Hassidism and he introduced this learning in his method of halachic ruling, creating an integration of Sephardi-Kabalistic and Ashkenazi – Hassidic ruling.

The nusach [prayer style] composed by Hacham Yosef Haim shows the influence of Ha”AR"I's customs. His nusach overtook those that preceded it, and is now current among Sephardim and mizrachi Jews, and his halakhic method gained acceptance in India, Persia, Syria and the Land of Israel.

In 1869, Hacham Yosef Haim left for a journey to the Land of Israel with his brother, Hacham Yehezkel. They made pilgrimages to tombs of tsaddikim in the Galilee and spent a few days at Benayahu ben Yehoyada's tomb. Hacham Yosef Haim testifies that deep secrets were revealed to him at Benayahu's tomb, and that he gave several of his books titles relating to Benayahu ben Yehoyada for that reason. He made every effort to have his books printed in the Land of Israel so as to support its Jewish community, and ensured that contributions made to the Land of Israel reached their destination.

The many books he authored cover many domains: Torah commentary, ethics, Halacha, sermons, Kabbala and sciences. His book, Ben Ish Chai, compiles sermons and halachot ordered in alignment with the weekly Torah reading portions. Ben Ish Chai can be found on the bookshelves of many homes, and Hacham Yosef Haim was named after it. His book Benyahu contains interpretations of Torah verses, some on a Kabbalistic basis; Torah LiShma (which he wrote under the name Yehezkel Kahli) is a book of his responsa, Or Haim is a collection of sermons for joyous occasions, and Ben Yehoyada is a series of books on Torah and Talmud.

In 1908 Hacham Yosef Haim left for the tomb of Yehezkel (Ezekiel) the Prophet. A year later, he tried to make the same pilgrimage but was prevented from reaching his destination by illness. He passed away on 13 Elul, 5669 (1909).

Hacham Yosef Haim was buried in Baghdad and his remains were eventually laid to rest on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

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