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15th of Tammuz: Remembering the Holy Ohr HaChaim

In synagogues around the country, and especially at his gravesite, Jews remembered the holy 18th-century Rabbi Chaim ben Attar.
By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 6/27/2010, 11:23 PM / Last Update: 6/27/2010, 10:45 PM

The 15th day of Tammuz (Sunday of this week) is the 257th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Chaim ben Atar, known as the Holy Ohr HaChaim. Hundreds of Jews went overnight to visit his Mt. of Olives gravesite in Jerusalem, and his memory was commemorated in many synagogues around the country as well.

Born in 1696 in Morocco, he was known as the Ohr HaChaim (Light of Life) because of the commentary of the same name that he wrote on the Torah. Many Jews study this commentary on the weekly Torah portion each week.

He fulfilled a life-long dream and moved to the Land of Israel in 1742, just a year before his death – but managed to establish two yeshivot in Jerusalem during that short time, one in Kabbalistic studies and one for Talmud and Jewish Law.

The Ohr HaChaim is one of the few Jewish Sages who earned the title "the holy." Some explain that this was because of the emphasis he placed on the special, treasured nature of the Nation of Israel and its holiness. The Baal Shem Tov was said to have said that the Ohr HaChaim had a "spark of the Messiah" and was worthy to be the Messiah himself.      

Rabbi Chaim ben Attar was known to support Torah scholars and was active in communal affairs. He supported the Jews in the Land of Israel and their institutions even before he moved there himself, and sought to lessen the influence of the Karaites (non-Rabbinic Jews who do not believe in the Oral Law).

Among his students was the famous Chida, Rabbi Yosef Chaim David Azulai.

On this past week's Torah portion, which tells the story of Bilam the Gentile prophet, the Ohr HaChaim comments that there are sinful people who are willing to do Teshuva (repentance) and accept the yoke of Torah – but only on condition that they die immediately, that is, they will repent just before they die. But "this is the way of the wicked Bilam," the Ohr HaChaim writes, "who wanted to enjoy forbidden pleasures his whole life, and then to die as Moses, as he says: 'May my soul die the death of the straight ones, and may my end be like him' (Num. 23,10). But Israel's way is different; G-d does not want the sinner to die, but for him to repent and live. We live teshuvah; we don't live plain lives, without Torah and its commandments; we live to overcome our evil inclinations and fulfill the Torah."