The Greatness Of The Holy Ben Ish Chai, The Mekubal R’ Yosef Chaim from Baghdad

The Ben Ish Chai was arguably one of the greatest Tzadikim of the past 300 years

In the annals of Jewish history, there have been few Rabbis who earned the esteemed title of “the glory of their generation,” (פאר הדור, “pe’er hador”), and Rabbi Yosef Chaim, known as the Hakham Ben Ish Chai, unquestionably stood among them. He was versed in all facets of the Torah and was beloved by all who knew him, making him undeniably one of the greatest sages of his era. That’s a rare combination.

At the tender age of 10, he departed from his father’s library to become a disciple of his uncle, R’ David Chai Ben Meir. At just 16, he married Rachel, the niece of his mentor, Rabbi Abdullah Somaich, and by the age of 25, he assumed his father’s mantle as the leading Rabbi of Baghdad following his father’s passing.

ben ish chai

The title Ben Ish Chai (the living man)

The title Ben Ish Chai comes from Benayahu Ben Yehohyada, David HaMelekh’s greatest warrior and general. R’ Yosef Chaim received the revelation that he was the reincarnation of Benayahu and so gave his nicknames to many of his works such as “Ben Ish Chai,” “Benayahu,” “Ben Yehoyada,” and “Rav Pe’alim”.

Hakham Yosef Chaim’s enduring legacy, the “Ben Ish Chai,” is a universally accepted reference work in Sephardi and non-Sephardi households alike. His unique approach to teaching halacha, beginning with a discourse on a Kabbalistic topic before elucidating the Halachic rulings, distinguished him as a luminary in the realm of Torah scholarship.

The brilliance of the Ben Ish Chai was already evident in his youth, although it reached full maturity after years of arduous Torah study, prayer, and character refinement. It was through these efforts that he earned the title “Ben Ish Chai,” a customary practice among Kabbalists that also included the renunciation of worldly pleasures.

Encounter with the Mekubal Rabbi Eliyahu Mani

An anecdote about his encounter with Rabbi Eliyahu Mani, a renowned Kabbalist who expounded on the Kabbalah of the Rashash (Rabbi Shalom Sharabi), illustrates this aspect of his character. They had known each other in their youth but crossed paths again in Chevron during the later years of the Ben Ish Chai’s life.

Rabbi Eliyahu Mani was astounded by the transformation he witnessed: a holy figure with a sharp and brilliant mind, surrounded by devoted students. Curiosity led him to inquire, “By what merit have you achieved all of this?” The Ben Ish Chai’s response was illuminating: “I denied myself every form of pleasure I could conceive of, including the tradition of burying watermelons in the sand to keep them cool and flavorful during the Baghdadi summers.”

The concept of denying oneself pleasure is one of the most misunderstood and neglected aspects of Halacha. Holy individuals willingly abstain from indulgence as a means to overcome their physical desires, enabling them to delve deeper into the study of Torah. This, in turn, leads to a lighter and more spiritually attuned state of being, better suited for the service of Hashem.

Interestingly, there exists a particular fast known as the “fast of the Ra’avad” (Rabbi Avraham ben David), which involves leaving a portion of a beloved meal uneaten. When a person can restrain themselves from consuming that final, cherished bite, it is considered a form of fasting, endearing them to Hashem and potentially yielding incredible spiritual benefits.

Stories of Miracles about the Ben Ish Chai

The remarkable deeds of the Ben Ish Chai left an indelible impression on those who were fortunate enough to know him. Miracles were a regular occurrence in his presence, and his prayers were unfailingly answered. His amulets were sought after for the salvation they promised.

It is even recounted that the local Arabs would temporarily shutter their shops in the bazaar and humbly bow in reverence as the Ben Ish Chai passed by—a testament to the awe-inspiring presence he embodied. Sadly, after his passing, a troubling shift occurred, and the Arabs began to harass the Jewish community, ultimately leading to the mass exodus from Iran during the 19th century.

One notable incident illustrates the extent of his influence. The Jewish community in Baghdad found themselves in need of lettuce for Pesach, and the Ben Ish Chai had issued a ruling suggesting that it was preferable to consume the lettuce stems to avoid excessive scrutiny of the vegetable. As Pesach approached, the local Arabs conspired to inflate the price of lettuce to ten times its usual cost. While the wealthier Jews could afford it, the less fortunate turned to the Ben Ish Chai for help.

Without hesitation, the Ben Ish Chai approached one of the Arab merchants, holding a lettuce head in his hand, and calmly inquired, “Is this worth twenty coins?” Astonishingly, bugs began to emerge from the lettuce head and scattered about. He repeated this inquiry with another lettuce head, and the same miraculous phenomenon occurred again. This continued a few times until the entire stall was overrun with bugs, prompting the Arabs to relent and provide the Jews with the needed lettuce free of charge.

DALL·E 2024 01 09 10.56.30 A hyper realistic and detailed image of a crowded market in the ancient Kingdom of Israel. The scene is bustling with activity and full of vibrant col

The Halachic Approach of the Ben Ish Chai

Among the many Jews who originated from Iraq, the Ben Ish Chai stands as the primary authority. His monumental work, known as the “Ben Ish Chai,” often diverges from the Shulchan Aruch, yet it steadfastly upholds a strict adherence to Halacha.

An illustrative incident underscores his unwavering commitment to Halacha. Once, the Jewish community in Iraq faced an unprecedented challenge when they were unable to obtain Etrogim in time for Sukkot. A solitary orphan in the entire country possessed a single tree in his garden bearing just one flawless Etrog. According to Halacha, the Etrog used on the first day of Sukkot must be owned outright by the individual performing the Mitzvah of shaking the Four Species.

Technically, it would have been feasible to utilize the Etrog and pass it among the community members for the Mitzvah, provided it was unequivocally given as a gift without any intention of return.

However, due to the young age and orphan status of the boy, he could not engage in any Halachic sales. Desperate for guidance, the Jewish community turned to the Ben Ish Chai for a ruling. After exhaustive research, he regrettably concluded that the Mitzvah of shaking the Four Species could not be fulfilled on the first day of Sukkot under these circumstances.

A significant debate persists regarding the final resting place of the Ben Ish Chai, with some asserting that he is buried in Baghdad while others claim he rests in Har HaZeitim, Jerusalem.

May the merit of the revered Ben Ish Chai continue to serve as a protective shield for us all.

For more information on this dispute, see here.

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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