Or Ha-Hayyim

Hayyim Ibn Atar was most famous for his Bible commentary with a mystical bent.

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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.'

Kabbalistic Ideas

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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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.