Living Legacy: Rebbis Yosef Chaim of Bagdad, the Ben Ish Chai, zt”l
By: Yehuda Alter
Friday, 13 Elul, marks the yohrtzeit of the Ben Ish Chai—a mekubal, posek, darshan, and Torah author—who is considered to this day one of the leading poskim for Sephardic Jewry.
He was born in Bagdad, Iraq, in the summer of 1835. His father was Rav Eliyahu, a Chief Rabbi of the city. The story is told that when he was a young boy, he fell into a well as he was playing. With his life in danger, he promised that if he were to emerge alive, he would dedicate all his days to Torah learning—which he did, and went on to become the Torah giant that he was.
He learned in the library of his father without letup, and from there he went to learn under some of the rabbonim in his family.
In 1851, he married, and he had a son and a daughter.
With the proximity to Eretz Yisroel, he was in regular contact with the mekubalim and great sages of Yerushalayim, and letters would be sent back and forth.
His reputation spread as a tzaddik and ga’on, but he refused to support himself from Rabbonus. Instead, he entered a partnership in a business venture, along with four of his brothers. This is how he supported his family, and funded the printing of his seforim.
With the passing of his father, he accepted the rabbinate of Bagdad, reluctantly. He was twenty-five years of age at the time. At first, he began answering all the she’eilos that came up in the community. But eventually, he began delivering deroshos in the city, and he continued for the next fifty years, until his passing.
He worked to bring Yidden closer to Jewish observance through his lectures.
In the year 1869, he made a trip to Eretz Yisroel to visit the resting places of the holy tzaddikim. He and his brother made it to Damascus in the spring of that year, and the great men of Syria accompanied him to the kevarim of the Galil.
From there, he continued to Yerushalayim, where he interacted with the gedolim there. He even sought to purchase the mea’aras hamachpeilah from the Arabs.
He was also an accomplished paytan, and the famed piyyut “va’amartem ko lechoi,” on the greatness of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, was composed by him.
In 1908, he set out of the kever of Yechezkel Hanovi, which is located in Iraq.
On his way he contracted an illness, and was niftar on 13 Elul of that year. He is interred in the Jewish cemetery of Bagdad.
Of the one hundred seforim that eh authored on every area of Torah, fifty-three were published, and they continue to inspire and illuminate to this very day.