Rabbi Haim Ben Attar • “The Holy Ohr HaHaim”
The city of Sale, located on the Atlantic 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 this 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, from whom I drank living waters. 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.”
In Sale, Rabbi Haim Ben Attar earned a living through his work, which tradition says was in making clothes, especially clothes made of luxurious materials woven with gold and silver thread. At one time the governor of Sale was preparing 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. The 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, yet he maintained one principle: From the moment that he had enough money for a given week, he returned to his studies. The servants who brought him material for the bride’s dress were shocked to hear him refuse the job. They returned a second time on orders from the governor, who 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 had refused to obey him, and he ordered him thrown into the lions’ den found in his court, and this after having starved the beasts. The governor’s servants, who had chained our teacher in bringing him to the lions’ den, 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 before him, wagging their tails and apparently showing him respect. During this time our teacher had taken out the book of Psalms and begun reading it. The governor, who rushed 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 him 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 reverently feared.
Staying with his father-in-law from his youth, our teacher did not cease elevating himself in Torah. He eventually established a yeshiva in his home, where he taught Torah to the public without salary, since from his youth he had committed himself to studying and teaching. In 5492 (1732), while still living in Sale, his book Hefetz Hashem (a commentary on the Gemara) was printed in Amsterdam. Persecution, however, forced him to leave the city of his birth, and he left for Meknes and then to Fez, where he studied for several years with some students and friends. His home was open to all, and much more so to Bnei Torah who came to his door. He took care of the needs of Bnei Torah, and 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.
One story has it that an epidemic erupted for a week among the livestock of Sale, and all the animals that were slaughtered for Shabbat turned out to be treif, with exception to a calf slaughtered by our teacher. One of the inhabitants of the city, a very wealthy and honored man who regretted not being able to eat meat for Shabbat, went to see our teacher to ask him to sell 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 for 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 who was dressed in tatters received a generous portion. In his rage he heaped words of scorn upon the poor man, who was a great Talmid Chacham. Our teacher did not wish to speak to 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 when the rich man insulted him. He accepted this decree, and the following week he left his home and undertook a year of veritable exile. He did not sleep for 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 hardship 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 to 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 abode of the Shechinah, the exalted city that is precious to the Master of the world, the Sovereign in the world above and in the world below. I armed myself with courage and faced great dangers by traveling through desolate regions, all this in order to arrive in the land that I yearned for, that pure spot on earth, Eretz Israel.”
On Rosh Chodesh Av in the year 5501 (1741), he left from Livorno, Italy with a group of about 30 students 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 they took had stopped in Alexandria, and from there they were planning to travel to Jaffa and then on to Jerusalem. However the captain took them to Akko instead, where they arrived at the end of Elul 5501 (1741).
In fact, this was really a favor that G-d had done for them, since an epidemic 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, the Rav used to go with his students to pray by the graves of the Tzaddikim, regardless if they were in Jerusalem, Sefat, or 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. According to tradition, it was there that the holy Arizal had prayed. From time to time, our teacher and his students went on 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 on 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 – I who am nothing – enter that place of fire, wherein dwells the flame of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shechinah, since all the Heavenly guides and the souls of the Tzaddikim are there!”
When he visited the holy places of Tiberias, Rav Haim Aboulafia insistently begged him to settle in Tiberias and take charge of the new Jewish community there. In the end, our teacher decided to establish his yeshiva in Jerusalem, and near the end of 5502 (1742) he settled in Jerusalem 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 there: “I saw a great light at the time of Kol Nidre…and when I opened the heichal, it was truly like opening the gates of Gan Eden. There was such radiance in the synagogue that everyone was overflowing in supplications and abundantly crying in their desire to see the construction of the Temple. Believe me, I have never seen such a thing in my entire life.”
Among his students was the Chida, who was 18 years old when he joined our teacher’s group as he was going 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. The Rav had impressive strength in study for our generation; he was like a source of living waters. One perceives his wisdom in his books, yet this represents 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 an exceptional spiritual strength.”
Our teacher did not live long after arriving in the holy city, and before a year had passed 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 47, in the year 5503 .”
During the last year of his life, 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 arrayed in white. When midnight arrived, he went alone into his room, removed his white clothes, then dressed in black and prostrated his entire body to the floor and began to bitterly cry. He remained stretched out in 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 holy 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 saw this, he prostrated himself and began to pray with all his might, to the point of accepting to take upon himself the burden of the decree, thus saving the entire generation. Because of our many sins, this is in fact what happened. He departed from the world within the course of that same year. The Chida finished his account by saying that he understood from his remarks that he was Mashiach, and that he was prepared to reveal himself. However because of our many sins, it was not possible for him 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 (the sun had not yet set there), and he said: “The light of the Orient has gone out,” meaning that our teacher, the holy Ohr HaHaim, had died. At the moment he died, his friend Rav Haim Aboulafia fainted in Tiberius while in the middle of prayer, remaining unconscious for almost half an hour. In regaining consciousness, he said that he had accompanied our teacher to the gates of Gan Eden. The Sages of Jerusalem speak of his death in their approbation for the book Rishon Letzion, which appeared in 5503 (1743). In it they state: “That day, the entire land began to weep, the leaders of Zion sat in the dust, lamentations responding to tears, and people everywhere gathered to eulogize him.”
Rabbi Haim Ben Attar’s grave is located on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, and it is one of the holy places where many people come to pray during the entire year. In particular, many go there for his Hilloula on Tammuz 15.