Did the Ben Ish Hai, Great Sage of Baghdad, Have an Alter Ego?

On a few occasions, the illustrious Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad cited a mysterious source whose name and work had never appeared anywhere else...

Levi Cooper
Many examples of Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad's handwriting and signature have survived, including manuscripts and letters in the National Library of Israel's collection

In 1973, a curious collection of answers to questions of Jewish law was published for the first time. The answers, known collectively as “responsa”, were attributed to the unknown Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali, and the collection was titled Torah Lishmah, “law for its own sake.” It covered a gamut of subjects ranging from practical Jewish law to esoteric lore. According to the publisher, the volume was printed from a manuscript transcribed by the legendary Baghdadi scholar Rabbi Yosef Hayim, better known as the “Ben Ish Hai”, the name of his most famous book.

The Ben Ish Hai passed away in 1909, and the manuscript had come into the possession of his grandson, Rabbi David Hayim, who brought it with him when he immigrated to Israel from Baghdad in 1972. The original collection supposedly contained 622 responsa, of which only 524 questions and 523 answers survived. In his introduction, the author, Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali, wrote that he began writing responsa in the year 1682 – almost three hundred years before the collection was published.

No other copy of this manuscript had ever been produced, and despite his apparent prolific output, no one had heard of “Yehezkel Kahali” before 1903, when his name first appeared in print.


First citings

Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad was one of the premier authorities on Jewish law in the 19th and very early 20th centuries, a popular public speaker, and an acclaimed mystic. In 1898 he published his Ben Ish Hai, which included ten references to an unknown work entitled “Torah Lishmah.” The references were all rather pale – the title of the book was mentioned without more detailed citation, the legal positions cited were not particularly controversial and there was little discussion about them. The author of Torah Lishmah was never mentioned. In one instance, Rabbi Yosef Hayim acknowledged that the work was in manuscript form.

Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad, the “Ben Ish Hai” (Public domain)

Three years later, in 1901, Rabbi Yosef Hayim began to publish his responsa, which he titled Rav Pe‘alim. The second responsum printed in this collection included a passage from Torah Lishmah and identified the author as “Y. Kahali.” Two years later, Rabbi Yosef Hayim published the second volume of Rav Pe‘alim, this time referencing Torah Lishmah a further four times. One of those citations nonchalantly revealed the full name of the author of Torah Lishmah – “Yehezkel Kahali.” All told, Rabbi Yosef Hayim cited the unidentified Torah Lishmah seven times in his four-volume Rav Pe‘alim.

Prior to the 1973 edition, Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali and his Torah Lishma collection were known solely from the writings of Rabbi Yosef Hayim. No one before the great Baghdadi rabbi had ever cited this scholar or his responsa.


Gematria proof

After the second volume of Rav Pe‘alim was published in 1903, Rabbi Avraham Hayim Ades, a scholar from Aleppo who had moved to Jerusalem in 1896, was intrigued by the faceless Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali whose name had just appeared in print for the very first time. After pondering the matter, he suggested that “Yehezkel Kahali” was a pseudonym through which the real author had left a hint as to his identity.

Each Hebrew letter has a numerical value. In turn, the sum of the values of the letters in a word give that word its own numerical value. Connections are sometimes drawn between words with identical numerical values. These types of calculations are known as gematria. The Hebrew names “Yehezkel” and “Yosef” have the same numerical value of 156, and the surnames “Kahali” and “Hayim” have the same numerical value of 68.

Thus – argued Rabbi Ades – “Yehezkel Kahali” is none other than the great Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad!

To test his theory, Rabbi Ades sent a number of halakhic questions to Baghdad to Rabbi Yosef Hayim and appended an extra question: Who is the author of Torah Lishmah? Rabbi Yosef Hayim duly answered each inquiry… except for the last question!

Rabbi Ades saw this as proof that indeed the work was from the pen of Rabbi Yosef Hayim.

Can we identify authorship on the basis of such calculations? Was Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s silence sufficient supporting evidence of authorship? Alas, the trail linking Torah Lishmah to Rabbi Yosef Hayim went cold …


A lost manuscript

Over forty years later, as the British Mandate in Palestine waned, a student by the name of Yosef Kachuri asked the director of the Yeshivat Porat Yosef religious seminary in the Old City of Jerusalem to send a letter to Baghdad and ask Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s grandson to forward some of his grandfather’s writings.

The dome on the right is the roof of Yeshivat Porat Yosef shortly after its completion in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, ca. 1924. Part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN), made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Porat Yosef’s director, Rabbi Ben Zion Mordekhai Hazan, had been a student of Rabbi Yosef Hayim, and was diligently publishing manuscripts of his esteemed teacher in addition to maintaining Porat Yosef. Rabbi Hazan acquiesced to Kachuri’s request and wrote a letter to his deceased teacher’s grandson. In reply, Rabbi David Hayim sent six notebooks which included 120 responsa. The responsa had been copied by Rabbi David Hayim from his grandfather’s Torah Lishmah manuscript.

Kachuri and his peers were overjoyed, and they began to make plans to publish the manuscript. Sadly, their joy was short lived. During the 1948 Battle for Jerusalem, the notebooks were destroyed by the Arab Legion – together with other books and manuscripts held in Porat Yosef’s valuable library.



In 1972, Rabbi David Hayim arrived in Israel. Perhaps following up on his prior relationship with Kachuri, Rabbi David Hayim gave the Torah Lishmah manuscript to Kachuri for publication. The work was printed a year later and in the foreword to the volume Rabbi David Hayim announced with no hesitation that there was no scholar by the name of “Yehezkel Kahali.” Rather, “Yehezkel Kahali” was a pseudonym for his grandfather. The proof – according to the grandson – was in the numerical calculation of the pseudo-author’s name.

But why did Rabbi Yosef Hayim use a pseudonym? The grandson seemed to be at a loss – undoubtedly his illustrious grandfather had reasons that he chose not to share. Nevertheless, the grandson speculated: In Jewish tradition there is a dispute regarding authors’ names. Some scholars advocated hiding authors’ names, while others encouraged authors to publish their names clearly. Rabbi Yosef Hayim published some works under his own name, and others without self-attribution – presumably trying to satisfy both opinions.

Many manuscripts by Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad, like this one in the National Library of Israel collection, have survived, making it easy for scholars to identify the Ben Ish Hai’s handwriting

Immediately after the publication of Torah Lishmah, in December 1973, the rabbinic authority of Tunisian Jewry in Israel, Rabbi Meir Mazuz, jotted down notes about the authorship of Torah Lishmah. Rabbi Mazuz, it appears, was the first scholar to publish an article addressing the issue and his conclusion was decisive: Torah Lishmah was truly the work of Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad.

Three years after Torah Lishmah was first released, a second edition was printed in 1976. In his foreword to this edition, Rabbi David Hayim added a remark about the mystical valence of the number 622, as explained by Rabbi Yosef Hayim in one of his earliest writings. Since the original manuscript allegedly contained 622 responsa, it would appear that Rabbi David Hayim was trying to muster further evidence to link the manuscript to his illustrious grandfather.

New doubts

Rabbi Shalom Messas was the doyen of Moroccan Jewry. He came from an illustrious rabbinic family, and served in the Casablanca rabbinate and later as Chief Rabbi of Morocco. In 1978, he left Morocco to fill the position of Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Jerusalem. Four years later, Rabbi Messas responded to a question about Jewish purity laws. The question has not survived, but from the answer it is apparent that the questioner sent a detailed legal analysis for Rabbi Messas’ approval. Inter alia, the questioner asked Rabbi Messas whether Torah Lishmah was written by Rabbi Yosef Hayim.

In a succinct paragraph, Rabbi Messas responded by citing a few textual features of the collection and stating that Torah Lishmah could not be the work of the great Baghdadi scholar. Regarding the claim that Rabbi Yosef Hayim had piously hidden his name, Rabbi Messas pointed out that Rabbi Yosef Hayim had published numerous works under his own name, so why would he opt for a pseudonym in the case of Torah Lishmah.

Rabbi Messas’ analysis was brief and accurate, though misguided. Indeed, the paratext – or surrounding textual features – of Torah Lishmah speaks in no uncertain terms. The work is clearly presented as the writings of Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali, with a copyist serving as the intermediary. Though Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s name does not appear anywhere in the work, the handwriting of the copyist has been undisputedly identified as that of Rabbi Yosef Hayim, and by his own admission elsewhere in his published writings – the Torah Lishmah manuscript had been in his possession.

Rabbi Shalom Messas (CC BY 2.5)

The title page – written in rhyme by the copyist – refers to another person as the author of the work who named the collection Torah Lishmah. Following the title page there is an introduction signed by Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali, where the author states that he began writing responsa in the Hebrew year 5442; that is, 1681/2. The author’s name and the year he began writing appear again as a heading before the first responsum of the collection.

When preparing the manuscript for print, Kachuri the publisher made two emendations in an attempt to link the work to Rabbi Yosef Hayim. First, he placed the year 1681/2 in parentheses and added an alternative in bold brackets – following a rabbinic printing practice of using parentheses to indicate unwanted text and brackets to indicate the desired text. The correction gave the Hebrew year as 5642 – that is 1881/2, when Rabbi Yosef Hayim was forty-eight years old. The second reference to the year was omitted. We might ponder the publisher’s decision to retain part of the original and honestly indicate to readers that he changed the text. While revealing the change reflects the publisher’s integrity, the basis for the emendation is unstated and the right to change what appears in the original manuscript is dubious. Subsequent editions of Torah Lishmah reverted to the original year with no emendation and did not excise the second reference to the year. Thus the original manuscript dates the work long before Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s era.

Kachuri also presided over a further attempt to broadcast that the responsa were written by Rabbi Yosef Hayim by dividing the collection into a five-part division that mirrored Rav Pe‘alim. This division was not present in the original manuscript.

Following the author’s forward, there are additional introductory remarks under the heading “The Words of the Copyist” – once again distinguishing between the role of Rabbi Yosef Hayim the copyist and that of the author:

“The Copyist said: Miraculously this work has reached me, in an old manuscript, and the writing was difficult to read, and I vowed to copy it in my handwriting in order to do kindness for the author, of blessed memory, for it is likely that there is no other copy in the world except for this one. … And certainly this worthy deed [mitzvah] of copying that I have done for this book will be considered like the positive commandment of returning a lost article.”

If the copyist was the pseudonymous author then he might have declared unequivocally that there was no other copy of the manuscript in the world. The copyist, however, only presumed that it was likely that there was no other copy, thus distancing himself from privileged information.

Some of the responsa in Torah Lishmah begin with words like “The copyist, may God guard him and save him, said …” There are thirteen such additions scattered throughout the volume. Once again, the copyist is clearly distinguished from the author.

Each one of the responsa in the volume is signed with the name Yehezkel Kahali, presented in a standard rabbinic form: “Thus the words of the insignificant one, Yehezkel Kahali, may the Merciful One guard him and save him.”

The sum of the manuscript’s paratext is clear, as Rabbi Shalom Messas had declared: Rabbi Yosef Hayim was not the author of the Torah Lishmah responsa.

The paratext is indeed an important source of information that should not be overlooked by scholars. Yet a pseudonymous or pseudepigraphous author would presumably expend every effort to mask his or her identity and the paratext would be the starting point for the ploy. This makes the paratext – so important in other contexts – a possible tool of deception.

It couldn’t be!

A number of leading scholars found a further reason to reach the conclusion that Rabbi Yosef Hayim was not the author of Torah Lishmah, including the great Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in a responsum entitled: “Regarding the author of the book Torah Lishmah, is it the G[aon] R[abbi] Y[osef] H[ayim]?” The responsum is dated 1947, though the text was not published until over fifty years later, in 2002. In fact, the responsum contains information that indicates that at least part of it was written after 1947. The printed version therefore reflects the evolution of Rabbi Ovadia’s position over half a century.

Rabbi Ovadia flatly rejected the numerical correlation as evidence that the Ben Ish Hai was the true author of Torah Lishmah. This conclusion was buttressed by the paratext of the manuscript that clearly indicated that Rabbi Yosef Hayim was simply the copyist and not the author.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, 1972 (Photo: IPPA Staff). The Dan Hadani Collection, The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Yet Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had a further reason to reject the identification. In his mind, it was incongruous that the great Rabbi Yosef Hayim could be behind such a ruse:

“It is extremely difficult to say – Heaven forefend – that [Rabbi Yosef Hayim] would lie in order to hide the name of the author.”

Alas, Rabbi Ovadia’s confidence unraveled when he heard from Rabbi Efrayim Zilka Hakohen about the Baghdadi tradition linking Torah Lishmah to Rabbi Yosef Hayim. In a postscript that may have been added as the volume was being prepared for print, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef noted two scholarly assessments of Torah Lishmah – one that accepted Rabbi Yosef Hayim as the author and the other that continued to deny his authorship. The case was not closed. 


A source that hadn’t yet been written

According to the author’s introduction, Torah Lishmah was written beginning in 1682, meaning that anything written after the lifetime of Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali could not be cited.  Examining the sources cited in Torah Lishmah demonstrates that this logical rule was maintained with a three-pronged approach. First, no contemporaries are mentioned by name, ensuring that Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali would not be bound to an era, a location, or an intellectual community. Second, works that were written before 1682 but first published later were purportedly cited from manuscripts. Third, works written after the estimated lifetime of Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali were cited in the copyist’s notes.

While this method of masking the author’s time period was theoretically sound, there were a few hiccups. For instance, in one responsum the author cited Kanfei Yonah by Rabbi Menahem Azariah of Fano. This work was first published in 1786, hence we would expect Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali to note that he had seen the work in manuscript. No such note exists. Alas a lone case of a few missing words could be chalked up to a scribal or copyist’s error, and is hardly conclusive evidence.

Manuscript of Kanfei Yonah, 17th century. From the National Library of Israel collection

Yet the “copyist” came unstuck with a citation of a manuscript that he could not possibly have seen in the late seventeenth century: a forgery from the second half of the eighteenth century.

Twice in Torah Lishmah, the author cites from a manuscript collection of responsa written by the medieval scholar Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel. These citations appear in a collection that was first published in 1793 and entitled Besamim Rosh.

Original publication of Besamim Rosh, 1793. From the National Library of Israel collection

It is now clear that the entire Besamim Rosh collection is a forgery perpetrated by Saul Berlin, an eighteenth century German Jewish polemicist. The theoretical seventeenth century author of Torah Lishmah could not possibly have known about responsa that had yet to be forged!

The citation of a famous forgery exposes Torah Lishmah as pseudepigraphy – a falsely attributed work. It does not, however, prove that Rabbi Yosef Hayim was the author. Perhaps the great Baghdadi scholar was indeed just the copyist? Perhaps he had been misled by an “ancient” manuscript? No scholar to date has suggested this possibility. Moreover, textual scrutiny has provided incontrovertible proof of Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s authorship.


Bringing the mystery to the lab

Rabbinic scholars who analyzed Torah Lishmah pointed to similar language and turns of phrase in the two collections of responsa – the puzzling Torah Lishmah and Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s Rav Pe‘alim. These unscientific remarks are hardly proof of authorship. It is possible that Rabbi Yosef Hayim used similar turns of phrase, intentionally or unintentionally, as those that appeared in the seventeenth century manuscript he was copying.

With the development of digital analysis tools, these anecdotal observations could be precisely tested.

In 2004, a team led by Professor Moshe Koppel from Bar Ilan University’s Computer Science Department, put Torah Lishmah to a digital test of text categorization based on computerized statistical analysis. Using machine learning techniques, the team compared the two collections of responsa – Rav Pe‘alim and Torah Lishmah – in an attempt to ascertain whether the second corpus was written by the same author as the first corpus. Furthermore, the team contrasted these works with other collections of responsa, to determine whether the similarities between Rav Pe‘alim and Torah Lishmah were standard for the corpus of responsa literature.

It is beyond the current scope to detail the team’s method for authorship verification. Suffice it to point out that they convincingly concluded that Torah Lishmah was indeed written by the author of Rav Pe‘alim. No one disputes Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s authorship of Rav Pe‘alim, so he must also be the author of Torah Lishmah.

The research demonstrated that stylistic differences between the two works are minimal and according to the researchers, they were “possibly deliberately inserted as a ruse or possibly a function of slightly differing purposes assigned to the works.”

Thus, this literary conundrum seems to have been laid to rest: Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad wrote Torah Lishmah.


Troubling questions

While identification of the author solves one problem, it opens up a host of other issues: What is the historical value of the collection? Do authors have a right to anonymity?

On the legal front there are also questions to be asked: What is the weight that should be accorded to Torah Lishmah responsa in Jewish law? Are they valid sources? To what extent is it ethically malfeasant to present one’s own work as a two-hundred-year-old manuscript? While Jewish law does not have a strict doctrine of binding precedent, a two-hundred-year-old responsum would presumably carry significant weight.

Perhaps the most perplexing question is that of motive: Why would a respected jurist and prolific writer publish his own ideas using a pseudonym?

While we know who wrote Torah Lishmah, we still do not know why it was written.

These questions continue to resound.

A version of this article was originally published in Jewish Educational Leadership. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.


Comments for this article

Loading more article loading_anomation