An ancient Torah scroll once belonging to the great Torah sage Ben Ish Chai has been rescued from war-torn Iraq, and made its way home to Israel’s beach-side community of Netanya on Tuesday.
One of the world’s oldest Torah scrolls still kosher for use, the 400 year-old Torah was liberated in a covert operation conducted with the help of US Armed Forces still stationed in Iraq. The unique scroll is printed on gawil – thick parchments not split during the construction of the scroll – and etched with large letters. It once served the community of the celebrated Baghdadi Rabbi Abdullah and his renowned disciple, Rabbi Yosef Chaim, who came to be known as the Ben Ish Chai.
Dr. Nissan Sharifi, attorney and chairman of the Be’er Chana synagogue in Netanya, explained to Israel’s Hidabrut website that he began his quest to rescue the precious scroll after representing some Jewish US Army soldiers who had immigrated to Israel. He began to hear stories from the Jewish-American soldiers about ancient Jewish manuscripts and books in the possession of the Jewish community of Baghdad, including the Torah scroll of the Ben Ish Chai. When he heard about the existential threat facing the dwindling Jewish community of Baghdad in the wake of the withdrawal of the US from Iraq, and understood the danger to the Jewish artifacts posed by angry rioters in a turbulent post-war Iraq, he decided to try to save the scroll, the second oldest scroll which is kosher for use in the world, after the 500 year-old scroll of Rabbi Isaac Abuahav, which is currently in the Galilean city of Tzfat.
Iraqi law makes removing artifacts relevant to the country difficult to accomplish. Sharifi would not go into detail about the rescue, but told Hidabrut that the original cylindrical case ensconcing the scroll was not salvaged – only the parchments arrived in Israel.
According to Sharifi, the small remaining Iraqi Jewish community in Baghdad supported the transfer of the scroll to his synagogue. Yom Kippur was the last time the scroll was used, when Jewish Army soldiers joined the 7 or 8 remaining elderly Baghdadi Jews to make a prayer quorum (minyan). In the possession of the community remain thousands of handwritten items, manuscripts, books, and tens of Torah scrolls, all of which are threatened by the somber reality of the vulnerability of the community resulting from the US Army’s withdrawal from the area.
The Torah was received in a festive ceremony at the Be’er Chana synagogue, which was established by Sharifi in the name of his mother, who was born in Baghdad. In attendance was Chief Rabbi of Tzfat Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, son of the late former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, who was an advocate of the preservation of Iraqi Jewish traditions and a student of the teachings of the Ben Ish Chai.
In the early 1900s, as many as 300,000 Jews lived in Baghdad. A major anti-Semitic upswing following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 eventually resulted in rescue Operation Ezra and Nechemiah(named after the prophets who led the Jews of Babylon to the land of Israel), which evacuated up to 120,000 Jews from Iraq in 1 year, leaving just 6,000 by the end of 1952.