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Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, author of Ben Ish Hai

Yosef Chaim (1 September 1832 – 30 August 1909) (Hebrew: יוסף חיים מבגדאד) was a leading Hakham (Sephardic Rabbi), authority on Jewish law (Halakha) and Master Kabbalist. He is best known as author of the work on Halakha Ben Ish Chai (בן איש חי) ("Son of Man (who) Lives"), by which title he is also known.



Hakham Yosef Chaim was born in Baghdad where his father, Hakham Eliyahu, was the active leader of the Jewish community. Yosef Chaim's talents were evident from a young age (composing an anonymous responsum at age 14). When he was 7 years old he fell into a pit. He was very close to dying but a miracle saved his life. When he got out the community believed it was a miracle so he decided to dedicate his life to Torah.

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, David Chai Ben Meir. (Hakham David later founded the famed "Shoshanim LeDavid" Yeshiva located in Jerusalem.) In 1851, he married Rachel, the daughter of Hakham Ovadia Somekh. They had together a daughter and two sons; Hakham Yosef Chaim also studied under his brother in law, Abdallah Somech.

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. He was widely accepted as an authority on Jewish law throughout the Middle East, and his decisions were considered to be of religious legal significance, even outside Sephardi communities. The highly respected Sephardic yeshiva, Porat Yosef in Jerusalem, was founded on his advice by Joseph Shalom, of Calcutta, India — one of Rabbi Chaim's patrons.

Yosef Chaim was buried in Baghdad, but there is also a grave attributed to him on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. His son, Rabbi Yaakov Chai, continued his legacy. His main student was Rabbi Yehuda Fatiyah.


The Ben Ish Chai (בן איש חי) is a standard reference in 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:

  • Me-Kabtziel (Miqqabṣiël): an esoteric exposition of Jewish law — which he refers to often in Ben Ish Chai — providing a more detailed explanation of the reasoning underlying certain decisions. It has been speculated that Hakham Yosef Chaim's insistence on having all his works printed in Palestine prevented this essential work from being published.
  • Ben Yehoyada (Ben Yəhoyadaʕ) and Benayahou: his commentary on the Talmud, considered a basic resource in understanding the Aggada (narrative sections of the Talmud).
  • The Responsa (Hebrew: Sheelot U-Teshuvot‎) Rav Pe'alim (Rab Pəʕalim) and Torah Lishmah.

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 wonderful, inspirational book filled with beautiful 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 Palestine in the 1940s.

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