Rabbi Haim Ben Attar – Ohr HaHaim Hakodesh
The city of Sale, located on the Atlantic Ocean coast at the far end of Morocco, is not large in terms of cities. The Jewish community there, although small in number, has nevertheless left its imprint on Israel’s history because of our revered teacher, Rabbi Haim Ben Attar. Born and raised in Sale, he grew up in the city until he felt the need to leave for the Holy Land and Jerusalem, where he now lies buried.
He was born in 5456 (1696) into the Ben Attar family (originally from Muslim Spain, “Attar” means “perfume” or “perfume merchant”) and studied Torah with his grandfather, after whom he was named. As he relates in the introduction to his book Hefetz Hashem, “I studied Torah with my teacher and grandfather, Rav Haim Ben Attar of holy and blessed memory. He was a great Rav, well known, pious and humble, who in his time I drank living waters from. From my birth, I grew up on his knees and took in all his wondrous sayings. He was so pious that I would say that he almost never slept even half a night. He even spent the nights of Tammuz reciting lamentations over the destruction of the House of G-d, crying profusely, like a widow. He finished the night by studying with myself and others who, like myself, were his descendants.” In Sale, Rabbi Haim Ben Attar gained a living through his work, which tradition says was in making clothes, especially clothes made of luxury materials woven with gold or silver thread.
Once, the governor of Sale was about to marry his daughter, and when he heard that the work of our teacher was done to perfection and with great precision, he decided to entrust the creation of his daughter’s wedding dress to him. He governor had one condition, however, which was that the work had to be completed before the end of the week. As we have said, our teacher earned a living through his work. However he maintained one principle: From the moment that he had earned enough money to live on for the week, he returned to his studies. The servants who had brought him the bride-to-be’s clothes were shocked to hear him refuse the job. They returned a second time on orders from the governor, and threatened him with death should he refuse. However our teacher remained firm in his conviction. The governor could not tolerate the fact that a Jew refused to obey him, and he ordered him thrown into the lions’ den (after having starved the beasts) found in his court. The governor’s servants, who had chained our teacher to bring him to the lions, could hear the hungry roars of the big cats from afar. Yet our teacher, without being perturbed, moved firmly towards the den. The governor’s servants were even more surprised when the lions met him by lining up in front of him, wagging their tails and seemingly showing him respect. During this time, our teacher had taken out the book of Psalms and had begun to recite it. The governor, who hastened to come to the den to witness this marvel with his own eyes, greatly regretted having mistreated our teacher and ordered that he be freed. He also gave him expensive gifts and asked for forgiveness.
This is only one of the widespread stories circulating in the Jewish community concerning the greatness of our teacher, whom even wild beasts had a reverential fear of.
Staying with his father-in-law from his youth, our teacher did not cease elevating himself in Torah. He finished by founding a yeshiva in his home, where he taught Torah publicly without receiving any salary for it, for from his youth he had undertaken to study and teach. In 5492 (1732), while still living in Sale, his book Hefetz Hashem (a commentary on the Gemara) was printed in Amsterdam. However persecutions forced him to leave the city of his birth, and he left for Meknes, then to Fez, where he studied for several years with certain students and friends. His home was wide open to everyone, and how much more to Bnei Torah. Every week he would purchase a calf for Shabbat, slaughter it, and distribute the meat to Talmidei Chachamim so that they could have something to eat in honor of Shabbat.
The story goes that one week, an epidemic erupted among the livestock of Sale, and all the animals that were slaughtered in honor of Shabbat turned out to be treif, with exception to the calf slaughtered by our teacher. One of the inhabitants of the city, a very wealthy and honored man who greatly regretted not being able to eat meat for Shabbat, went to see our teacher to ask him to give him some, regardless of the price. Our teacher refused, explaining that all the meat was devoted to the needs of the Talmidei Chachamim who came to receive their portion in honor of Shabbat. While they were yet speaking, one of the poor Torah scholars that had regularly helped him came by, and our teacher gave him his portion. The wealthy man was greatly hurt by the fact that he had no meat for himself, whereas this poor man dressed in tatters received a generous portion. In his rage he heaped words of scorn on the poor man, who was a great Talmid Chacham. Our teacher did not wish to talk with the rich man, and so he left without having obtained what he wanted.
That night, our teacher dreamed that he was condemned into exile for an entire year because he did not defend the honor of the Talmid Chacham in lieu of the rich man’s insults. He accepted the decree. The following week, he left his place and undertook a year of veritable exile. He didn’t sleep more than one night in the same place, leaving the next morning to pursue his exile. He was often assailed by hunger, yet accepted this trial because of the insult suffered by a Talmid Chacham.
Noticing that he was overwhelmed with troubles, our teacher decided that the moment had come to ascend towards the holy city. As our teacher wrote, “Hashem cleared my mind, and I understood that this trial was only meant to encourage me to leave for the place that I had dreamed of, the place of the Shechinah, the exalted city that is precious to the Master of the world, Sovereign in the world above and in the world below. I armed myself with all my courage and faced great dangers by traveling in deserted regions, all this to arrive at the country that I had yearned for, that pure spot on earth, Eretz Israel. As for all the countries of the peoples of the world, their land – even the air that they breathe there – is impure.”
On Rosh Chodesh Av in the year 5501 (1741), he left from Livorno, Italy with a group of students, 30 in all, for Alexandria in Egypt. From there he was to travel to Jaffa, and then on to Jerusalem. One of his students, Rav Avraham Ishmael Hai Sanguinetti, described in a letter to his father (who lived in Modena, Italy) the entire trip from Livorno until the city of Akko. The boat that they had taken stopped in Alexandria, from where the group was to travel to Jaffa and then on the Jerusalem, but the captain instead took them to Akko, where they arrived at the end of Elul 5501 (1741).
In fact, this was really a favor that G-d had done for them, for there was an epidemic that had broken out in Jaffa and Jerusalem. This is why the Rav established a yeshiva in Akko and stayed there for nearly a year, until the middle of 5502 (1742). In Eretz Israel, he was accustomed to pray at the graves of the Tzaddikim. He would go with his students, whether it be in Jerusalem, or in Sefat and Tiberius in the Galilee.
He was warmly greeted when he arrived in Sefat, and even the Beit Midrash of our revered teacher Rabbi Yossef Caro (the author of the Shulchan Aruch) was put at his disposal. There, according to tradition, the holy Arizal had prayed. From time to time, our teacher and his students left for ziarot (pilgrimages) to the graves of the Tzaddikim, Tannaim, and Amoraim buried in the villages of the Galilee. They approached the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron with particular emotion, and even though they traveled there by riding donkeys, when they saw from afar the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on the mountain summit of Meron, our teacher descended from his donkey and began to climb on all fours, uttering with a bitter voice, “How can I – who am nothing – how can I enter into that place of fire, wherein dwells the flame of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shechinah, while all the heavenly guides and all the souls of the Tzaddikim are here!”
When he visited the holy places of Tiberias, Rav Haim Aboulafia would insistently beg him to settle in Tiberias and to take charge of the new Jewish community of that city. In the end, our teacher decided to establish his yeshiva in Jerusalem, and near the end of the year 5502 (1742) he settled in the holy city with his students. His emotions in arriving in the holy city were expressed in a letter in which he enthusiastically described his first Yom Kippur in Jerusalem: “I saw a great light at the time of Kol Nidre … and when I opened the heichal, it was truly for me like opening the doors to the Garden of Eden. There was such radiance in the synagogue that everyone was overflowing in supplications and cried abundantly in their desire to see the construction of the Temple. Even the Falachim did the same. [Editor’s Note: Apparently these were the Jewish peasants that lived in the villages neighboring Jerusalem (such as Nevi Shmuel) and who came to the city on the night of Yom Kippur to pray with the community]. Believe me, in my entire life I have never seen such a thing.”
Among his students was the Chida, who was 18 years old when he joined himself to our teacher’s group as the latter ascended to Jerusalem. Even though our teacher lived only 11 months in Jerusalem, the Chida had the time to serve and learn Torah from him. In his book Shem HaGedolim, he speaks with great praise of his grandeur: “And myself the youngster, I had the merit to be part of his yeshiva. My eyes saw the greatness of his Torah, his extreme gentleness, and his extraordinary holiness. For our generation, the Rav had impressive strength in study; he was like a source of living waters. One perceives his wisdom in his books, yet this represents but only a fraction of his insight, the greatness of his heart, and his exceptionally sharp mind. All day long there hovered over him a spirit of holiness and detachment from the world, as well as exceptional spiritual strength.”
Our teacher did not live long in the holy city, and before a year had passed from the time of his arrival, he departed from this world and joined the Celestial Assembly: “Because of the sins of the generation, he fell ill and died at the age of 87, in the year 5503 .”
During the last year of his life on earth, our teacher was awake on the night of Hoshana Rabba and recited the tikkun, his expression as radiant as the sun. His face emitted rays of glory, and he was like an angel dressed in white. When midnight arrived, he went alone into his room, removed his white clothes, then dressed in black and prostrated his entire body length to the floor and began to cry bitterly. He remained stretched out this way until the time for prayers arrived, after which he returned to his room and again stretched himself out on the floor until the time for Shemini Atzeret. He then came out dressed in white. After the holiday, his student the Chida asked the saintly Ohr HaHaim the meaning of his behavior. He responded that he had prayed for the arrival of Mashiach and that his prayer was heard. “When the Angel of Death saw that evil was on the verge of disappearing, he put all his efforts into sweeping the world up in sin, and he succeeded to such a point that the situation had reversed itself and destruction had been decreed.” When our teacher had seen this, he had prostrated himself and began to pray with all his strength, to the point of having accepted to take upon himself the burden of the decree, thus saving the entire generation. Because of our numerous sins, this is what happened. He departed from the world within the course of that same year. The Chida finishes his account of what happened by saying that he had understood from his remarks that he was Mashiach, and that he was prepared to come out and reveal himself, but because of our many sins it was not possible to do so.
Our teacher died on a Saturday evening, at the beginning of the night. At that moment, the Baal Shem Tov had just finished washing his hands for the third Shabbat meal (there, the sun had not yet set), and he said, “The light of the Orient has extinguished,” meaning that our teacher, the saintly Ohr HaHaim, had died. At the moment he died, his friend Rav Haim Aboulafia fainted in Tiberius in the middle of prayer and remained unconscious for almost half an hour. In regaining consciousness, he said that he had accompanied our teacher up to the doors of the Garden of Eden. The Sages of Jerusalem speak of his death in their letter of recommendation for the book Rishon Letzion, which appeared in 5503 (1743). They stated, “That day, the entire country began to weep, the leaders of Zion sat in the dust, lamentations responding to tears, and everywhere we gathered together to eulogize him.”
Rabbi Haim Ben Attar’s tomb on the slope of the Mount of Olives is among the holy places where many people come to pray during the entire year. In particular, there are many who journey there on the day of his Hilloula, Tammuz 15.