Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Hayyim Ibn Atar, rabbi and Kabbalist, was born in Morocco in 1696 and died in Jerusalem in 1743. Ibn Atar studied with his grandfather, also called Hayyim Ibn Atar (Oriental Jews often gave their children the names of living relatives), and acquired even in his youth a reputation for advanced Talmudic learning and, through his ascetic life, for saintliness.
A strong believer that Messianic redemption was at hand and seeing his destiny in helping to hasten the redemption by living in the Holy Land, Ibn Atar resolved to establish there a Yeshivah and he left Morocco in order to fulfil his dream.
On his way Ibn Atar stopped in Leghorn, Italy, in 1739, where he resided for two years, teaching a small group of keen disciples and preaching to large audiences. In 1741 Ibn Atar set out for the land of Israel and eventually founded a Yeshivah for ascetic Talmudists in Jerusalem.
His house, with an adjacent ritual bath (mikveh) can still be seen in the Old City. He was buried on the Mount of Olives where his two wives were also buried. He seems to have had these two wives at the same time since the ban on polygamy was only accepted by Ashkenazi Jews and did not apply to Oriental Jews.
Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement, is reported to have had a high regard for Ibn Atar in whom he saw a kindred spirit. Certainly, Ibn Atar’s writings had a marked influence on Hasidism in which he is revered as a great saint, a forerunner of the Hasidic Zaddik.
Ibn Atar’s Halakhic work, Peri Toar (Fruit of Good Appearance), published in Amsterdam in 1742, displays his vast knowledge of the Talmud and Codes. But he is renowned chiefly for his mystical commentary to the Torah, entitled The Light of Life (Or Ha-Hayyim, a pun on his name, Hayyim).
The Bible Commentary
This work was published in Venice in 1742 together with the text of the Pentateuch, a sure sign of the high regard in which he was held even while he was still alive. After the fashion of calling Rabbinic authors after the title of their major work, Ibn Atar is, in fact, known as ‘The Or Ha-Hayyim’ or, among Hasidim, ‘The Holy Or Ha-Hayyim.’
The work has gone into many editions either together with the biblical text or as a work on its own, and a number of scholars have written commentaries on it.
Ibn Atar draws on the Kabbalah which he interprets in a personal, individualistic manner similar to the later Hasidic approach. He interprets biblical texts allegorically in order to convey what he considers to be their deeper meaning.
For example, he is obviously aware that the verse: ‘neither shalt thou favor a poor man in his quarrel (Exodus 23:3)’ as the plain meaning that a judge should not show favor to a poor man in his lawsuit with a rich man if the poor man is in the wrong, yet he comments that the verse has a meaning applicable to all, not only to a judge. Every poor man, he remarks, has a quarrel with God for having made him poor. When the poor man is assisted and his poverty diminished, his otherwise legitimate cause for his quarrel with God is removed.
Of a similar allegorical nature is Ibn Atar’s comment on the injunction to restore to its rightful owner a brother’s ox or sheep that has gone astray (Deuteronomy 22:1-3). The ‘brother’ is daringly understood to be God and the lost oxen and sheep are the sinners. The good, for whom God is a Brother, should not be indifferent to sinners but should seek to restore them to the good path and hence bring them back to ‘Brother God.’
Ibn Atar develops the Kabbalistic idea that the conduct of human beings on earth has cosmic effects, influencing the upper worlds. Relying on the Aristotelian and medieval theory of the four elements, he observes that, of the four, earth is the most gross and the lowest. Every creature has in its composition its special element, the other three being subsidiaries.
The element of the birds is air, of fish water, of fire the Salamander (a mythical creature coming out of fire), and of earth man. This is why man can only live on earth and cannot survive in the air or in water or in fire. Man was created as the lowest of creatures for his task is to refine the whole cosmos from the lowest to the highest.
Ibn Atar’s understanding of the image of God in which man is created is that God has endowed man with His two attributes of mercy and justice so that man can be godlike in having compassion on others and also in his capacity to pass judgment on others.
In his Halakhic work Ibn Atar exhibits a keen critical sense but in his Or Ha-Hayyim he accepts uncritically statements found in earlier works, such as the odd postulate that in the Messianic age the pig will be permitted to Jews. It is almost certain that this notion has a Christian origin yet Ibn Atar accepts it and, since the Torah is eternal, he remarks, a miracle will happen and the pig’s nature will be changed so that it will chew the cud and thus become a kosher animal.
The attainment of mystical and ecstatic states features often in Ibn Atar’s work. It was widely believed among the Hasidim that the Or Ha-Hayyim was an inspired work, compiled under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
The famed nineteenth-century Hasidic master, Hayyim Halberstam of Zans, goes so far as to discuss whether a teacher of children, who scoffed at the idea that the work was inspired in this way, should be given the sack for entertaining heretical ideas. Ibn Atar himself remarks (commentary to Genesis 6:3) that nowadays no one has even the fragrance of holiness (reah hakodesh) let alone the Holy Spirit (ruah hakodesh) but this was dismissed as extreme humility on the holy man’s part.
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