Tag Archives: Baghdad

Jew of the Week: Ben Ish Chai

Baghdad’s Greatest Sage

Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, the Ben Ish Chai

Yosef Chaim ben Eliyahu (1832-1909) was born in Baghdad, the son of the city’s chief rabbi. After being miraculously saved at the age of 7, he resolved to devote his life to God and His Torah. He went to study at Baghdad’s Beit Zilka school, and spent all of his extra time absorbing his father’s extensive library of religious texts. When he was 14, a letter arrived from the chief rabbi of Turkey with a question for his father regarding a difficult case. His father was away at the time, so young Yosef Chaim answered the question himself. The chief rabbi sent a letter back: “Your son, dear to your soul, has already preceded you and decided this case. May his father rejoice in him…” Not surprisingly, when his father passed away, Yosef Chaim was immediately chosen as his replacement, and officially given the title of Hakham (the traditional Sephardic term for a rabbi). He was beloved by the entire Baghdad community, who regularly crowded into synagogues to hear his penetrating sermons, and who listened to his every word and instruction. One set of those sermons – which combined Halacha (Jewish law), with Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), organized by the weekly Torah portion – was compiled into a book called Ben Ish Chai. The book was so popular that Hakham Yosef Chaim himself became known as the “Ben Ish Chai”. (The title has further significance because the Hakham believed himself to be a reincarnation of the great Biblical figure Benayah, who was called Ben Ish Chayil.) The Ben Ish Chai was known for his incredible humility and piety. He slept very little, built a mikveh inside his house so that he can purify himself daily, and at one point spent six continuous years fasting (eating only a little bit at night). He inspired Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews alike, as well as the local Arabs. It is said that during his tenure there was no Jew in Baghdad that did not keep kosher or Shabbat. Throughout this time he never took a penny for his work, and made a living through his publications and his own wise investments. Many of his students became great rabbis in their own right, and Ben Ish Chai is still among the most popular Jewish books today, especially in the Sephardi world. Hakham Yosef Chaim also wrote a number of other works, including a book of kosher stories so that Jews wouldn’t be too drawn to secular novels. He is regarded as one of the greatest Kabbalists of all time. The Porat Yosef Yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City – today one of the most famous and prestigious in the world – was founded upon his instructions and guidance. Tonight, the 13th of Elul, marks 110 years since his passing.

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Words of the Week

Just as punishment is brought upon a person because of evil speech, so is he punished if he could have spoken good words but did not.
– Zohar III, 46b 

The Porat Yosef Yeshiva near the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Yeshiva was founded by Jewish-Indian philanthropist Yosef Shalom at the request of the Ben Ish Chai. The original building was destroyed by the Arabs in 1948. It was rebuilt in 1967 following Jerusalem’s reunification during the Six-Day War.

Jews of the Week: Renée and Sir Naim Dangoor

The “Exilarch” and the First “Miss Iraq”

Sir Naim Dangoor in 2015

Naim Eliahou Dangoor (1914-2015) was born in Baghdad to a wealthy and religious family, at a time when a full third of the city’s population was Jewish. His grandfather was the Chief Rabbi of Baghdad, while his father operated the largest Arabic printing press in the world. At 17, Dangoor journeyed to England to study engineering at the University of London. Upon his return to Iraq, he hoped to work as a railway engineer but was barred from the position because he was Jewish. Instead, Dangoor was conscripted into the army. There, he met Ahmed Safwat, and the two decided to start a business together. The first major contract secured by their company (Eastern Industries Ltd.) was to replace the windows of Iraq’s government buildings. They soon diverged into property development and manufacturing. They made matches, furniture, and opened Iraq’s very first Coca-Cola bottling plant.

Renée Dangoor

Meanwhile, Naim married his cousin, Renée Dangoor(1925-2008). She was born in Shanghai, where her family temporarily lived for business. The family moved back to Baghdad when she was still a child. In 1947, she participated in the country’s first beauty pageant, and was crowned the first ever “Miss Iraq”. She married Naim the following year. Unfortunately, things got really bad for Iraq’s Jews after the founding of the State of Israel. By 1959, the Dangoors had no choice but to flee. Naim continued to operate his businesses for a few more years until the government stripped him of his citizenship and took over his company. The family settled in England and started from scratch, opening a new property development business, and establishing a community centre for Iraqi Jewish immigrants. To preserve their culture, Naim founded The Scribe – Journal of Babylonian Jewry, which would go on to publish magazine issues for 35 years, distributed in 25 countries. By 1980, Dangoor had rebuilt his wealth. He wanted to give back to his new home, and established the Exilarch Foundation to provide charitable funds to organizations across the UK. Among other things, the Foundation has provided full scholarships to over 5000 needy students. The Dangoors made the largest ever private donation to both the Royal Society of Medicine and the Francis Crick Institute (Europe’s largest biomedical research facility). After Renée succumbed to cancer, Naim became one of the biggest contributors to Cancer Research UK. He also donated a massive sum to the University of Nanjing in China, in honour of his wife who was born nearby. Among the many other beneficiaries of the Dangoors is Bar-Ilan University, which now runs the Dangoor Centre for Personalised Medicine. Shortly before his passing, at age 100, Dangoor was knighted by the Queen, making him the second-oldest person ever to receive the honour.

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Words of the Week

The idea is that you’re supposed to be a light to the nations. If you only have your light on at home, nobody else sees it.
– Rabbi David Wolpe

Clockwise from left: Hakham Ezra Reuben Dangoor, Chief Rabbi of Baghdad from 1923-1926; Naim and Renée at a Baghdad party; an Arabic newspaper announces “Miss Iraq” in 1947; the first Coca-Cola ad in Iraq, circa 1950; Naim with his business partner Ahmed Safwat.