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Ḥakham, Joseph Ḥayyim ben Elijah al- (Ben Ish Ḥayy)

(1,270 words)

Author(s): Zvi Zohar
Joseph Ḥayyim ben Elijah al-Ḥakham, also known as the Ben Ish Ḥayy, was Iraq’s greatest rabbinic scholar since the gaonic period. Born in 1835, he was came from a distinguished family. His father, Elijah, was a scholar; and his grandfather Moses Ḥayyim  (b. 1750) served as chief rabbi of Baghdad for fifty-two years, from 1787 to 1839. Joseph showed extraordinary promise from an early age, and his brothers made him a silent partner in their business to provide him with a steady income so that he could devote hi…

Solomon, Isaac ben Abraham

(310 words)

Author(s): Zvi Zohar
Born in Iraq in 1835, Isaac ben Abraham Solomon studied under Rabbi ‘Abd Allāh Somekh. His primary halakhic specialization was in the field of ritual slaughter and kashrut. In 1893, he was appointed acting chief rabbi of Baghdad (Ar. wakīl ḥākhām bāshī), but he apparently lacked the charisma and decisiveness required to navigate the turbulent waters of communal politics, and failed to prevent public monies from coming under the control of dishonest individuals. In 1905, David Papo was appointed ḥākhām bāshī, and Solomon retired. He devoted the rest of his life to scholarship and the w…

Ben-Simeon, Raphael Aaron

(630 words)

Author(s): Zvi Zohar
Raphael Aaron Ben-Simeon, born in Rabat on July 4, 1847, was a halakhist who served as chief rabbi of Cairo from 1891 to 1921. Brother to Masʿud Ḥay and Jekuthiel Ḥayyim, Ben-Simeon came to Jerusalem with his father, David, in 1854. In addition to a traditional education in classical Jewish texts, which he was primarily taught by his father, Ben-Simeon also learned Arabic and European languages and read modern Hebrew works of the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment). While in Morocco on fundraising missions on behalf of Jerusalem’s Maghrebi community in 1888 and 1890, he founded the Meqiṣe Nird…

Ḥazzan, Elijah Isaac

(450 words)

Author(s): Zvi Zohar
Born in Iraq, Elijah Isaac Ḥazzan became rabbi and principal of the community school in the town of Ḥilla around 1885. He introduced the study of modern literary Arabic and modernized the school’s administration. In 1906 he left Ḥilla and went to Hong Kong to serve as rabbi and cantor of the Ohel Leah synagogue of the Iraqi Jewish community there. From then on he was known as Ḥazzan (i.e., cantor) rather than Shammash, the surname with which he was born. When the Ohel Rachel synagogue of the Iraqi Jewish community in Shanghai was completed in 1920, he was commissioned to serve there. …

Sephardi Jurisprudence in the Past Half-Millennium

(9,063 words)

Author(s): Zvi Zohar
After the riots of 1391, the situation of Spanish Jewry became increasingly difficult, and during the century leading up to the expulsion, a change in the orientation of Spanish-Jewish culture took place. The very enterprise of Torah qua study and application of Jewish law was becoming less than central to the community’s self-definition. Against this backdrop, Rabbi Isaac Canpanton (1360–1463) consciously elaborated a novel hermeneutic methodology of talmudic study, based on the insight that there was a close inner affinity between medieval semantics (based on Aristotle’s De In…

Ḥazzan, Elijah Bekhor

(1,250 words)

Author(s): Zvi Zohar
Elijah Bekhor Ḥazzan, one of the foremost Sephardic halakhists and religious thinkers of his time, was born in Izmir (Smyrna) around 1846 and died in Alexandria on June 20, 1908. The son of Joseph Ḥazzan, he accompanied his grandfather Ḥayyim David to Jerusalem in 1855. In addition to the excellent rabbinic education provided by his grandfather, who was chief rabbi of Jerusalem from 1861 to 1869, Elijah also learned Arabic, French, Italian, and Spanish. Taking great interest in events in the world at large as well as in its Jewish communities, he w…

Ben-Shimʿon, David

(692 words)

Author(s): Zvi Zohar
David Ben-Shimʿon was a Moroccan communal leader, poet, and halakhist. Born in Rabat in 1826, he was the son of Moses and Delicia Ben-Shimʿon, husband of Rachel (née Ṣabāḥ), and the father of Raphael Aaron, Jekuthiel Ḥayyim, and Masʿūd Ḥayy Ben-Shimʿon. In Rabat, he studied under Saʿadya Maraji, was the teacher of, among others, Masʿud Ṣabāḥ and Jacob Bibas, and was active in communal life. Motivated by religious yearning for the Land of Israel, he departed Rabat in 1854 and settled in Jerusalem, where he died on December 3, 1879.It was with the intent of devoting himself to religio…

Mesas (Meshash), Joseph

(854 words)

Author(s): Zvi Zohar
Joseph Mesas (Meshash), the scion of a distinguished Sephardi rabbinical family and the son of Rabbi Ḥayyim Mesas, was born in 1892 in Meknes. In 1912 he participated in the establishment of a new institution for rabbinical training in Meknes, founded on the initiative of Rabbi Zeʾev Wolf Halperin, who was also the founder of the Em Habanim educational organization. In 1924 Mesas accepted a position as rabbi of Tlemcen  in Algeria. He returned to Meknes in the spring of 1940 and was appointed dayyan, a post he retained until 1964, when he made aliya and was elected chief rabbi of Haifa, in whic…

Somekh, ʿAbd Allah

(1,097 words)

Author(s): Zvi Zohar
ʿAbd Allāh Somekh was a halakhist, rabbinic educator, and spiritual leader of Iraqi Jews both in his homeland and throughout the Baghdadi mercantile diaspora. The son of Abraham and Khātūn Somekh, he was born in Baghdad in 1813 and died there in 1889. His family traced its lineage back to Nissim Gaon, head of the Nehardea academy in the tenth century.Somekh studied under Jacob ben Joseph ha-Rofeh, and in his twenties divided his time between business and study. Subsequently he decided to devote himself to the renaissance of rabbinic scholarship and leadership in Iraq. With major fu…

Nissim, Yitzhak

(503 words)

Author(s): Zvi Zohar
Born in Baghdad on December 11, 1895, Yitzhak Nissim moved with his parents to Jerusalem in 1906, but returned to Baghdad in 1914 to study under Iraqi masters of Torah such as Simeon Agassi. After World War I he combined commercial, scholarly, and communal activities. He married in November 1919 and with his wife moved to Jerusalem in 1924. He held no rabbinic post but was deeply involved in rabbinic scholarship and had intellectual and spiritual contacts with the leading rabbis of his time, Sephardic and Ashkenazic, pro- and anti-Zionist. In 1955 he was elected Sephardic chief rabbi ( rishon…

Shindukh Family

(847 words)

Author(s): Zvi Zohar
The Shindukh family were communal leaders, rabbinic scholars, and kabbalists in Baghdad from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. The etymology of the family name is unclear; in (rather obscure) literary Arabic, shindakh means “gratuity,” while shundukh/shundakh means either “tall and powerful,” “lion,” or “repast upon completion of a journey or building.” As a Jewish surname, Shindukh first appears in seventeenth-century Baghdad. (There is an Iraqi Arab tribe named al-Shandūkh [pl. al-Shanādikha], and it is not unknown for Je…

Jacob ben Joseph ha-Rofeh

(411 words)

Author(s): Zvi Zohar
Jacob ben Joseph ha-Rofe, who died on October 2, 1851, was a rabbinic scholar and dayyan in Baghdad. He studied with Rabbis Moses Ḥayyim, Reuben Nawwi, and Nissim Maṣliaḥ, and in 1848 was described by the traveler Benjamin the Second (J. J. Benjamin II) as “Highly respected, by virtue of his fine qualities and broad knowledge.” Little is known of his life. He died of cholera, and left a learned son, Joseph, who died on October 21, 1877. Jacob left a number of literary works. Shir Ḥadash (A New Song), an extensive commentary on the Song of Songs, was included in the first volume  of Mishmeret ha-Qo…


(7,549 words)

Author(s): Zvi Zohar
The Jewish Halakhah (literally “the way to walk”) is the body of rules that has evolved through casuist discourse regulating the lives of Jewish individuals and communities. This set of rules, which is intended to guard against violation of the biblical commandments, was not absolutely immutable. Beginning with its earliest codification as the Mishnah (Talmud) in antiquity, the Halakhah has continually been adapted to life’s circumstances. Therefore, the rules have not been identical ac…
Date: 2020-05-12

Ben-Shimʿon, Masʿūd Ḥayy

(591 words)

Author(s): Zvi Zohar
Masʿūd Ḥayy Ben-Shimʿon was a halakhist and dayyan (rabbinic judge). Born in Jerusalem on August 28, 1869, he was the son of David Ben-Shimʿon, and the brother of Raphael Aaron (see Raphael Aaron Ben-Simeon) and Jekuthiel Ḥayyim Ben-Shimʿon. Orphaned at eleven, Masʿūd was raised under the aegis of his brother Raphael, whose daughter Simḥa he married. In 1893, he was invited to Cairo, where he became secretary of the chief rabbinate and chief justice of the rabbinical court. He was proficient in modern …

Ḥuṣīn Family

(933 words)

Author(s): Zvi Zohar
The Ḥuṣīn family were a line of rabbinical scholars, beginning with Ṣadqa Ḥuṣīn, who were active in Baghdad in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries and in Jerusalem in the second quarter of the twentieth.Ṣadqa Ḥuṣīn (1699–1773) was born into an impoverished family in Aleppo, but was adopted by the community’s grandee. His intellectual potential was already recognized in his teens. In 1742, when a plague decimated Baghdad’s rabbinic scholars, Ṣadqa was sent from Aleppo in response to a request from Baghdad for someone to serve as chief rabbi. In this capacity he…

Uzziel, Ben-Zion Me’ir Ḥayy

(1,265 words)

Author(s): Zvi Zohar
Rabbi Ben-Zion Meʾir Ḥayy Uzziel was Israel’s first Sephardic chief rabbi. Born in Jerusalem in 1880, he came from an illustrious Sephardi lineage. His father, Joseph Raphael, was a chief justice in Jerusalem’s rabbinic court system and hailed from a line of rabbis going back to pre-expulsion Spain. His mother, Sarah, was a member of the Ḥazan family; her grandfather Ḥayyim David and her great-grandfather Raphael Joseph had both served as chief rabbis of Jerusalem over the course of the nineteenth century. Left fatherless at the age of fourteen, Be…