Chacham [Sephardic equivalent of “Rabbi”] Yosef Chaim, known as the “Ben Ish Chai,” became the Rav of Baghdad at the age of twenty-five, in the year 5619 (1859), the year following the death of his father, Chacham Rav Eliyahu. He became one of the greatest of the modern-day Sephardic “poskim” (individuals who receive and respond to “halachic inquiries,” questions regarding Jewish Law). His approach was eclectic; he considered the opinion of Ashkenazic scholars as well as Sephardic, and insisted that the opinions of “Acharonim” (Torah scholars from the 16th century onward) be considered along with the Talmud, of course, and the “Rishonim” (Torah scholars from North Africa, Egypt, Europe and Palestine between ca. 1000 C.E. and ca. 1500 C.E.) These included such great authorities as the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Akiva Eiger and the “Chayei Adam,” among many others.
The “Ben Ish Chai” delivered a “drasha” every morning, consisting of “halachic” (legal) and “aggadic” (non-legal, historical and anecdotal Talmudic material), and on Shabbat delivered a three-hour sermon every week, for fifty years. He was a very holy person; some said that he had “ruach ha-kodesh” (Divine inspiration) though he himself denied it. One of the stories he told was of an Arab sheikh who experienced such awe and reverence before the Name of HaShem, that he achieved a level of “ruach ha-kodesh.” Chacham Yoseph Chaim explained that this was in line with the fairness of HaShem; that it is neither age nor gender nor even religion that determines whom the “Shechinah” (the Divine Presence) rests upon; it depends only on one’s behavior in the eyes of HaShem.
In response to a question as to whether a person should pray by rote, even without “kavanah” (correct intention), he cited the “Nefesh HaChaim” of Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, who maintains that a person should emphatically pray under those circumstances, because the first step of prayer is just to say the words, even without “kavanah.”
The Chacham’s Shabbat sermons served as the basis for his most famous work, the “Ben Ish Chai,” (also the name that he has become identified with). Each sermon contains an explanation of the weekly Parashah using Kabbalistic ideas, followed by halachic discussion of various topics. The work “Ben Ish Chai” can be found in the majority of Sephardic households, and it is their classic halachic reference manual.
The Chacham married Rachel, the daughter of Rav Yehudah Someich, in 1851, and was a good husband and father to his children, a daughter and two sons. He spent time with them, discussing matters of Torah, as well as matters of interest to the children, depending on their ages.
He wrote religious poetry for many occasions, including his most famous in this genre, “Va’amartem Ko L’Chai,” in praise of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. On Lag BaOmer, at Meiron in Eretz Yisrael, the burial site of the G-dly Tanna, this “zemer” is sung and danced to by thousands of visitors, by the dazzling light of torches.
He was known for his love of Eretz Yisrael, and supported messengers who came to collect money for the poor there. In 1909, he visited the Holy Land, and was received warmly. On the eighth of Elul, 5669, he visited the tomb of the Prophet Yechezkel, and became sick shortly thereafter, and died. His body was returned to Baghdad, and was buried that very night. The number present at his “levaya” (funeral) was huge, and consisted of Jews and non-Jews alike, who came to give honor to this great man.