Rabbenu Hakham Yoseph Hayyim, zy’a”a
Author of BEN ISH HAI
By Mr. Hayim V. Habousha , ‘a”h
Copyright Midrash BEN ISH HAI
During the past 300 years Babylonian/Iraqi Jewry produced dozens of Rabbis, authors of many works in all fields of Judaic studies. However, one distinguished Rabbi, Hakham Moshe Hayyim (1752-1837) became the founder of a very noble and very learned family. Hakham Moshe Hayyim is the grandfather of the great sage Hakham Yossef Hayyim.
Hakham Yossef Hayyim was born in Baghdad on September 1,1834, where he died on September 6, 1909 at the age of 75.
After studying in the Kuttab or “Istad”, he entered the Midrash Beth Zilkha Rabbinical Seminary where he studied with Hakham Abdallah Somekh, head of the seminary. He displayed such a sharp intelligence and wonderful memory that he was compared to “a plastered cistern that does not lose a drop”. Hakham Yossef Hayyim studied both Qaballah and non esoteric fields. He read by heart Talmud and Posqim, and became a treasure house of Jewish knowledge. He composed many books touching upon all areas of Judiasm and, thanks to his revered personality, he won fame throughout the Jewish world. He answered all questions sent to him from all parts of the worlds. He corresponded with and was praised by the authoritative Rabbis of Eres Yisrael, Saloniki, Constantinople, Smyrna and Aram Soba. He was also in touch with leading Ashkenazi Rabbis such as Rabbi Schneour Zalman Dov Ber ben Shlomo, Abraham Anushisky of Vilna and Rabbi Yossef? Shaul Ben Rabbi Aryeh Levush halewi Nannson.
At the age of twenty five and upon the death of Eliyahoo, his father, on September 6,1859, he filled his role as preacher of Baghdad in the great Synagogue on the Shabbath preceding Yom Kippur, Pureem, Pesah and Shabuoth. During these four Shabbathoth Hakham Yosef Hayyim was the sole preacher in Baghdad, and the entire Jewish community crowded in the great Synagogue to hear his three hour sermon.
Besides his time studying, Hakham Yossef Hayyim was involved in many charitable projects for the Iraqi community. He had a love for Eres Yisrael and generously gave his moral and financial support to several charity funds in Jerusalem. As a result of his influence, the Baghdadi born millionaire, Yossef Abraham Shalom of Calcutta, bequeathed a sizable amount of money to the Porath Yossef Yeshiba in the old city of Jerusalem.
On April 6, 1869 Hakham Yossef Hayyim set out on a trip to Eres Yisrael with his brother Hakham Yehezqel. They reached Damascus after less than a month, though usual traveling time was three months. Jewish leaders saw in this a miracle of? “qefisath haderekh”. When in Hebron, he prayed in the Ma’arath Hamakhpelah. From Hebron, he went to pray at the graves of sadiqim in Tiberias, Safed and Meiron, the burial place of Ribbi Shimon Bar Yohai.
While in Israel, he met with all prominent Rabbis and Qabbalists, Ashkenazim as well as Sepharadim: Rabbi Shlomo ben Yeheqel Yehuda (founder of Hessed El Yeshiva), Rabbi Yossef Chaim Sonnefeld (future Rabbi of the holy land.), Hakham Eliyahu Mani (Rabbi of Hebron), Hakham Refael Yedidya Hai Abulafia (saint and renowned kabbalist).
On his return from Eres Yisrael, Hakham Yossef Hayyim brought with him sacks full of sanctified earth and two small stones. The earth was scattered over the floor of the ancient Beth Hakenesseth which was not paved though built from stones from Eres Yisrael, brought over by the original exile in the time of Nebuchadnezzar.? One stone came from the ground before the Kothel Hama’arabi and was imbedded in the wall by the entrance of the ancient synagogue. From that time on, all those entering or leaving the building would first kiss the mezuza, and then touch and kiss this special stone, thus fulfilling the verse in tehillim “For her servants have appeased her stones and prayed upon her soil”.?? He wed the second stone from the mount of olives by a craftsman who had etched out upon it a facsimile of the Kotel flanked by two cypress trees, was set apart to be buried alongside him when the time came.
Hakham Yossef Hayyim had three sisters and four brothers, Moshe, Nissim, Yehezqel and Sasson. Besides being learned in Torah, they engaged in business. Out of respect for their eldest brother, business was conducted under the auspices of? Hakham Yossef? Hayyim who never interfered in their dealings. The brothers were very successful. However, a downturn occurred in the business in November/ December 1881: creditors refused to compromise and the four brothers were arrested and put in jail for more than a year before proven innocent of any fraud and released. As a result of this crisis the mother died of grief in 1882, and Hakham Yosef Hayyim vowed a self imposed house arrest for seven years from Jan. 1882 until Aug. 1889.
Hakham Yossef Hayyim went twice on a pilgrimage to the tomb of the prophet Yehezqel in the village of Kafil (Tshefel), 17 hours away from Baghdad. In the winter of 1907/1908 he stayed there for three months writing his book “Mareh Yehezqel”.
He died there on Sunday August 30, 1909 close to the holy site. His body was brought to Baghdad where the coffin arrived two days later. The funeral took place at night and was attended by the entire Jewish community of Baghdad together with thousands of non Jews of that city. Seven days of public mourning were decreed by the Jewish leaders and eulogies delivered by many Rabbis, among them the Hakham Bashi R. Moshe Shamash, Hakham David Papo, Hakham Sasson Israel, Hakham Ezra Reuben Dangoor , Hakham Shimon Aghassi and Hakham Yosef Sharin the emissary of Jerusalem. Hakham Yossef Hayyim was also eulogized in many cities in Europe, in India (Bombay), in China (Shanghai) and in Hong Kong.
Hakham Yossef Hayyim never held an official position in the Jewish community. He was known by the title of “Il Hakham” which he inherited from his grandfather and father. It is to be noted that the Arab prefix “Il” or”Al” is the equivalent of “Heh Hayedia” in Hebrew which denotes the aristocratic lineage of the person .
Hakham Yossef Hayyim declined offers by wealthy philanthropists to fund his publications. The scope of his work is outstanding and dealt with all aspects of Torah: revealed and mystic. Rabbi Yaakov David Ridvaz of Slutzk and then Safed said, “A fragrance of sanctity and purity emanates from the works of this Reish Galutha of Iraq.”
It was said of Hakham Yossef Hayyim “A lion has ascended from Babel.”- “a luminary who shone upon the earth and its inhabitants like the sun at its zenith”. “Yossef was the ruler upon the entire land: he was the provider of Torah, piety, humility, lovingness, astuteness, incisive brilliance, erudition, and halakhic authority for all Jewry”
May the soul of “Il Hakham” intercede for all of Israel. Amen.
Copyright Midrash BEN ISH HAI?
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