Updated: Feb 1
Few Rabbis throughout Jewish History have been called the glory of the generation. TheHakham Ben Ish Chai, Rabbi Yosef Chaim, from Bahdad was certainly one of them. Versed in all areas of the Torah, and beloved by all the Ben Ish Chai was arguable one of the greatest sages of his time. From the age of 10 he left his father’s library to study with his uncle David Chai Ben Meir. When he was only 16, he married his master Rabbi Abdullah Somaich’s niece, Rachel, and at 25, he took his father’s position as leading Rabbi of Baghdad after he died.
His work Ben Ish Chai, who gave him the nickname, is a widely accepted reference in Sephardi and non-Sephardi homes everywhere. In his unique approach, Hakham Yosef Chaim taught the halacha according to the weekly Parshiot, beginning with a discussion on a topic of Kabbalah, and then bringing it down to the Halachic ruling.
The denial of pleasure
The Ben Ish Chai’s genius was already well-known during his young years, though not fully matured. It was only after much toil in Torah, praying, and fixing his middot that he acquired the title Ben Ish Chai. As is commonplace among Kabbalists, this also included the denial of pleasure.
There’s a story in which the great Kabbalist Rabbi Eliyahu Mani (who expounded on the Kabbalah of the Rashash) knew Rabbi Yosef Chaim when the latter was young. They parted ways, but met at Chevron during the Ben Ish Chai’s later years. Rabbi Eliyahu Mani was astonished to see the holy figure of his friend, with a fierce and sharp mind, and surrounded by students. After some greetings were exchanged, he asked “in what merit did you get all of this?” The Ben Ish Chai replied “I denied myself all forms of pleasure I could think of. During summer, it is customary for the Jews in Baghdad to bury their watermelons in the sand so they stay cool and tasty. Even that I denied myself.”
The negation of pleasure is one of the ideas most misunderstood and neglected in Halacha. Holy people deny pleasures and that’s how they can break their desire for physicality. This, in turn, allows them to receive more and more Torah. The body also feels lighter and better suited for Avodat Hashem.
Interestingly enough, there’s a type of fast which people can do called “fast of the Ra’avad” (Rabbi Avraham ben David). It consists of leaving a portion of the meal one would carve and not eat it! When a person can subdue his desire for the last bite of something he loves that in itself is considered a form of fasting, is very beloved to Hashem, and can bring great spiritual benefits.
On the wonders of the Ben Ish Chai
Those that knew the Ben Ish Chai were acquainted with his miracles which had become commonplace. His prayers never returned empty-handed and his amulets were sure to bring the much needed salvation. It was related that even the Arabs would close their stores in the local Bazaar and bow down to the Ben Ish Chai when he passed by. This is probably one of the best indications that he was truly awesome and, in fact, after his passing, the arabs began to harrass Jews, leading to the mass exodus from Iran that occurred at the 19th Century.
There was one time when the Jews of Baghdad needed to buy lettuce for Pessach. One of the rulings of the Ben Ish Chai was that it was preferable to eat the stems of the lettuce and not waste too much time inspecting the vegetable.Knowing that the Chag was approaching, the Arabs colluded to sell lettuce at 10 times the normal price. The rich Jews had no problem purchasing it, but the poorer ones turned to the Ben Ish Chai.
Without wasting a moment, the Ben Ish Chai went to one of the Arab merchants, held one of the lettuce heads in his hand and asked “Is this worth 20 coins?” Immediately, bugs began to crawl out of the lettuce head and spread out. The Ben Ish Chai then took another lettuce head and asked the same thing. Again, the miracle happened. The miracle kept happening a few times until the whole stall was filled with bugs and the Arabs agreed to supply the Jews with lettuce free of charge.
His Halachic approach
The Ben Ish Chai is the main authority for many Jews that came from Iraq. His magnum opus called Ben Ish Chai often goes against the Shulchan Aruch but never compromises on the strict adherence to Halacha.
Once, the Jews of Iraq couldn’t get Etrogim in time for Sukkot. Only one orphan alone in the entire country had one tree in his garden with only one good Etrog. According to Halacha, the Etrog for the first day of Sukkot needs to be fully owned by the one doing the Mitzvah of shaking the 4 species. Technically speaking, we can use an Etrog and pass it around to everyone to do the Mitzvah, but it has to be considered a full-fledged gift with no intention of return.
However, since the boy was young and an orphan, he could not sell anything halachically. The Jews went to the Ben Ish Chai for a ruling and after much research, he sadly concluded the Mitzvah of shaking the 4 species could not be done in the first day of Sukkot.
There’s a big discussion whether the Ben Ish Chai is buried in Baghdad or Har HaZeitim, Jerusalem. May the merit of the holy Ben Ish Chai protect us!
This article was written and published in the zechut of all Emuna Builder Partners. May they have complete emuna and continue spreading emuna!