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Yosef Chaim or in Iraqi Hebrew Yoseph Ḥayyim (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 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. Rabbi Yosef Chaim came to be colloquially known by the title of this book.
Yosef Chaim was born in Baghdad where his father, Hakham Eliyahu Chaim, 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 and was very close to dying. 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 who later founded the Shoshanim LeDavid Yeshiva in Jerusalem. In 1851, he married Rachel, the daughter of Hakham Ovadia Somekh. They had a daughter and two sons together; 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 authoritative, even outside Sephardi communities. 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. Part of the contention was due to Obermeyer and Chaim's conflicting views on promotion of the Zohar.
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. Some of his known students are Rabbi Yehuda Fatiyah, Rabbi Yehoshua Sharabani, Rabbi Yehuda Tzadka, Rabbi Ben Zion Abba Shaul, Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira and Rabbi Mordechai Sharabi.
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:
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.
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