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Tuesday, July 11, 2006



Title page of a first printing of the sefer Ohr HaChaim, 5502-1742. [Click to enlarge].
Today is the 15th of Tamuz, and the yahrzeit of Rabbi Chaim ibn [ben] Atar, known as the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh. Rabbi Chaim ben Atar was a Torah commentator, Kabbalist, and Talmudist. His sefer Ohr HaChaim is a famous commentary on the Torah, which merited to be included together with the commentaries of the Rishonim like Rashi, ibn Ezra, and the Ramban, in the Mikraos Gedolos.
Rav Chaim came into prominence in the mid-eighteenth century, at around the same time as the Baal Shem Tov and the Chassidic movement. The Baal Shem found a kindred soul in the Ohr HaChaim, in terms of their outlook and method – like “two prophets who prophesied in the same style.” When the Baal Shem Tov received a copy of the sefer Ohr HaChaim, he cherished it, and recommended it to all of his talmidim. Indeed, in addition to the Sephardim, Chassidim of all the various groups learn it regularly [see also below].
So close is the Ohr HaChaim's train of thought to those of Chassidim, that a Rav with whom I am privileged to learn the sefer Ohr HaChaim refers to him as the "Galicianer from Morocco."
Rav Chaim's dream was to go to Eretz Yisrael. After receiving spiritual signs approving his desire, he went on his way. He stopped over in Livorno (Italy), where he raised large sums of money for publishing his books and establishing a yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael. With thirty followers he arrived in Eretz Yisrael, four days before Rosh Hashana 5502 (1742) and settled in Acco. Rav Chaim and his students spent Yom Kippur in the cave of Eliyahu HaNavi [Elijah the Prophet] on Mount Carmel (Haifa), where they all felt a great sense of holiness and witnessed seeing a great light at the spot where according to tradition Eliyahu used to pray. The holiday of Purim was spent in Tzfas and Meron, where a great deal of time was spent studying the holy Zohar. They later moved to live in Peki'in for a few months. On the 15th of Elul 5402 (1742), Rav Chaim finally arrived in Jerusalem with his group. He immediately established a yeshiva called Knesset Yisrael and a second secretive yeshiva for the study of Kabbalah. One of his new students was Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (the Chida), who at that time was only 18 years old.
Rav Chaim and his students were constantly going on many journeys around the Land of Israel visiting gravesites of the tzaddikim. They used the opportunity to pray for the welfare of Jews all over the world, the success of their yeshiva and its financial supporters.
A Note in the Wall
A story is told of the “Ohr HaChaim”, Rabbi Chaim ben Atar (1696-1743), who had a beloved disciple who was very poor. The rabbi wrote a note on parchment and told his student to place it between the stones of the Western Wall. On his way to the Wall, a great wind blew his hat off his head. However, he refused to fetch it, for fear of dropping the parchment. Then the wind blew off his kippa. Having no choice but to fetch it, as he stretched for the kippa, the wind blew the note from his hand. When he told the rabbi what happened, the Ohr HaChaim took it as a sign of Heavenly decree and decided not to write another note. Later, a rolled parchment was found blowing through the streets of Jerusalem, addressing the Divine Presence on behalf of a poor Torah scholar, and signed Chaim ben Atar (Ta’amei HaMinhagim, p. 270).
[In] the kvittel (personal petition) that the Ohr HaChaim had sent to be placed in the cracks of the Kosel (the Western Wall), he addresses the Shechina with the words of Shlomo HaMelech: “My sister, my beloved, my dove, my perfect one” (Shir HaShirim 5:2).
The most famous of Rabbi Chaim's works is Ohr HaChaim, a commentary on the Torah. In this work he employs the four methods of exegesis: pshat - explaining the simple meaning; drash -homiletic interpretation; remez - allusion; and sod - the Kabbalistic esoteric approach. This book was enthusiastically accepted by Sephardic and Ashkenazic rabbis alike. His book Chefetz Hashem was his first book, it was a commentary on tractates Shabbos, Horayos and Chullin. His second book was Pri Toar, a commentary on Yoreh De'ah (one of the sections of Shulchan Aruch). Rishon Letzion was a book he wrote when living in Jerusalem. It is a commentary on Prophets and Writings (Nach) and a few tractates of the Talmud.
The Songs of Shlomo
In the above-mentioned Rishon LeTzion, Rav Chaim asks why Shlomo HaMelech begins “Shir HaShirim asher l’Shlomo – the Song of Songs of Shlomo.” It appears that the verse should read, “Shir asher l’Shlomo,” or “Shirim asher l’Shlomo.”
His answer is that Shlomo HaMelech wrote this for the time when the Jewish People would be in exile. He used a mashal, a parable, of Hashem as the king, and the Jewish People as the queen. The king had banished the queen, and the neighbors thought that he was finished with her – that he would never see her again, and she was gone from the thoughts of his heart and mind. However, a prince [who was a child of the king and queen] visited his father, and discovered that he still loved the queen. And upon visiting his mother, he found that she still loved the king. He then authored a song about the king’s love for the queen, and another song about the queen’s love for the king, based on this knowledge.
Thus, “Shir HaShirim” can be explained to mean a Song composed of Songs - two songs. One, that of Hashem’s love for Knesses Yisrael [the Jewish People], and the other, that which the Jewish People sings to her beloved, G-d.
The Baal Shem Tov and the Ohr HaChaim
The founder of the Chassidic movement, The Baal Shem Tov, maintained that if he could join forces with Rabbi Chaim, together they could bring Moshiach [the Messiah]. The Baal Shem Tov made several failed attempts to reach the Holy Land. In fact the Baal Shem Tov believed that Rav Chaim was the Moshiach of that generation. On the day that Rav Chaim came to Jerusalem, The Baal Shem Tov told his students: "Today Moshiach ben Yosef entered Yerushalayim".
Rav Chaim departed the world at the time of Mincha of Shabbos Parshas Pinchas. At that exact moment the Baal Shem Tov was eating the third meal of Shabbos and uttered: "The western candle has been extinguished." After Shabbos he explained: "The tzaddik in the west, Rav Chaim ben Atar left the world. The proof for that is: there is one secret about the washing of the hands (netilat yadayim) which is revealed to only one person in each generation. This secret was known to Rav Chaim. When I washed my hands for the third meal, that secret was revealed to me, and that was my sign that the "western candle' was extinguished."
the Kever [gravesite] of the Ohr HaChaim on Har HaZeisim
Rabbi Chaim ben Atar was 47 when he departed the world. He was buried outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, on Har HaZeisim [the Mount of Olives]. Before the Six-Day War in 1967, the Jordanians had control over the cemetery where Rav Chaim was buried, where they destroyed many tombstones and paved a new road. When the tractor touched the gravesite of Rav Chaim, it turned upside down and the driver was killed. They tried a second time, and again the tractor turned upside down and the driver was killed. Someone tried to use a hammer, it turned on himself and he was killed too. The gravesite was left intact.
To this day, hundreds if not thousands visit his Kever on his yahrzeit.
Zechuso yagein Aleinu, v'al kol Yisrael - May Rabbi Chaim ibn Atar's merit protect us all!
UPDATES: 1. There were literally thousands at the Tzion [gravesite] yesterday. I went for Mincha-Ma'ariv [around sunset], and hundreds were still arriving. Egged ran buses until 9:30 pm at night!
2. For another wonderful Ohr HaChaim story, see this one at Ascent's website.

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