Yosef Hayyim

Yosef Hayyim
יוסף חיים מבגדאד

Yosef Chaim of Baghdad,
author of Ben Ish Hai
Born (1835-11-01)1 November 1835
Died 30 August 1909(1909-08-30)

Yosef Chaim (1 September 1835 – 30 August 1909) (Iraqi Hebrew: Yoseph Ḥayyim; Hebrew: יוסף חיים מבגדאד) was a leading Iraqi hakham (Sephardi Rabbi), authority on halakha (Jewish law), and Master Kabbalist. He is best known as author of the work on Halakha Ben Ish Ḥai (בן איש חי) ("Son of Man (who) Lives"), a collection of the laws of everyday life interspersed with mystical insights and customs, addressed to the masses and arranged by the weekly Torah portion.


He initially studied in his father's library, and, at the age of 10, he left midrash ("school room") and began to study with his uncle, Rav David Chai Ben Meir who later founded the Shoshanim LeDavid Yeshiva in Jerusalem. In 1851, he married Rachel, the sister of Hakham Ovadia Somekh, his prime mentor. They had a daughter and two sons together.

When Yosef Chaim was only twenty-five years old, his father died. Despite his youth, the Jews of Baghdad accepted him to fill his father's place as the leading rabbinic scholar of Baghdad, though he never filled the official position of Hakham Bashi. The Sephardic Porat Yosef Yeshiva in Jerusalem, was founded on his advice by Joseph Shalom, of Calcutta, India—one of Rabbi Chaim's patrons.

Chaim clashed with the reformist Bavarian Jewish scholar Jacob Obermeyer who lived in Baghdad from 1869 to 1880, and excommunicated him.[1] Part of the contention was due to Obermeyer and Chaim's conflicting views on promotion of the Zohar.[2]


The Ben Ish Chai (בן איש חי) is a standard reference in some Sephardi homes (functioning as "a Sephardi Kitzur Shulchan Arukh") and is widely studied in Sephardi yeshivot. Due to the popularity of this book, Hakham Yosef Chaim came to be known as "Ben Ish Chai", by which he is referred to by many today. The book is a collection of homilies he gave over two years discussing the weekly Torah portion. Each chapter begins with a mystical discussion, usually explaining how a Kabbalistic interpretation of a certain verse relates to a particular halakha, and then continuing to expound on that halakha with definitive rulings.

Hakham Yosef Chaim authored over thirty other works, and there are many published Iraqi rite siddurim (prayer books) based on his rulings, which are widely used by Sephardi Jews. Amongst the best known of his works are:

The names Ben Ish Chai, Me-Kabtziel, Rav Pe'alim and Ben Yehoyada derive from 2 Samuel 23:20. He chose these names because he claimed to have been a reincarnation of Benayahu ben Yehoyada (described as Ben Ish Chayil, the son of a valiant man); the man in whose merit, it is said, both the first and second Holy Temples stood.

Hakham Yosef Chaim was also noted for his stories and parables. Some are scattered through his halachic works, but have since been collected and published separately; others were published as separate works in his lifetime, as an alternative to the European-inspired secular literature that was becoming popular at the time. His Qânûn-un-Nisâ' (قانون النساء) is a book filled with parables concerning self-improvement. The book, directed towards, but not limited to women, is rare since it was composed in Judeo-Arabic. It was last published in Israel in the 1940s.

See also


  1. Reuven Snir, 'Religion Is for God, the Fatherland Is for Everyone: Arab-Jewish Writers in Modern Iraq and the Clash of Narratives after Their Immigration to Israel', Journal of the American Oriental Society, 126/3 (2006), 379–99 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20064515>, p. 381; 'Yoseif Chaim (1832–1909), who forcefully condemned Obermeyer's innovations. The communal leaders also united in putting him into cherem [sic] (exclusion from communal participation) and the proclamation was read aloud in every synagogue in Baghdad.'
  2. Abraham Stahl, 'Ritualistic Reading among Oriental Jews', Anthropological Quarterly, 52/2 (1979), 115–20 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3317261>, p. 115; 'Jacob Obermeyer, a German Jew who lived in Baghdad from 1869 to 1880, found that many people read the Zohar although they did not understand its meaning. Elderly people told him that the custom was fairly new and not much in vogue in their youth.'


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