Tag Archives: Porat Yosef Yeshiva

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.

Jew of the Week: Mazor Bahaina

Rabbi and Member of Knesset

Mazor Bahaina (Credit: Knesset.gov.il)

Mazor Bahaina (Credit: Knesset.gov.il)

Mazor Mahoy Bahaina (b. 1973) was born in the Ethiopian village of Welkite. As a child, he fled the country with his family on foot, heading for Israel. It took a year and a half, most of which was spent in Sudanese refugee camps, to finally reach the Promised Land. Bahaina enrolled in religious yeshivas for study, eventually making it to the prestigious Porat Yosef Yeshiva in Jerusalem. After earning his rabbinic ordination, he moved to Be’er Sheva to support the influx of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants, ultimately becoming the chief rabbi of the city’s 10,000 Ethiopian Jews. He also sat on the city’s council, which brought him into the political sphere. Bahaina eventually got on the list of Shas (“Shomrei Sefarad”, Israel’s religious Sephardic political party). He worked for the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and as an advisor to Israel’s Minister of Finance. In April 2008, Bahaina was given a seat in the Knesset, and served as a member of parliament until the following year. He was a member of the Labor, Welfare, and Health Committee, as well as the committee for children’s rights, among others. Though no longer in government, Bahaina continues to diligently serve Israel’s public, particularly the Ethiopian community, and is working to assist the remaining Jews of Ethiopia to make aliyah.

Words of the Week

Six million of us were murdered in the Holocaust. But instead of disappearing, we decided that after 2,000 years of exile, it would be better to go home and rebuild our own country. And so we did. What took other nations hundreds and hundreds of years to build, we did in only a few. What was possible we did very quickly, and what was impossible took us just a bit longer.
– Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo