Or Ha-Hayyim

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

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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.

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