Photo Credit: Israel Mizrahi

A recent acquisition I made was a piece of a fascinating episode in the history of Baghdadi Jewry and one of the few surviving autograph letters signed by the Ben Ish Hai (1835-1909), Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad. The period of Ottoman rule in Syria, Baghdad and Egypt in the late 1800s through WWI coincided with internal revolutions within the Jewish community as well as modernization and restructuring of the Jewish communities in these countries. Being under the rule of the Ottoman Empire had put the position of Chief Rabbinate of each of these countries under the influence and control of the Chief Rabbi of Turkey. This led to endless struggles between various candidates for the various Chief Rabbinate position, much strife, and hiring and firing of the Chief Rabbis often in quick succession.

This letter was written in the month of Sivan, 1881, coinciding with the heat of chaos and turmoil that enveloped the Iraqi Jewish Community. The argument between two sides regarding the appointed Chief Rabbi and his rival, Rabbi Sason Elijah Halevi Samoha (1820-1910) and those of Rabbi Elisha Dangoor (passed away 1895).


Rabbi Samoha was the first native Iraqi to be appointed to the position and was known as a strong and forceful ruler. This led to much strife between the Chief Rabbi and the ruling wealthy class, who until then had led the community more or less on their own. The year 1879 was a year of famine in Baghdad, and to stop the rising prices of wheat, Rabbi Samoha placed a cherem, a ban of excommunication on the wealthy businessmen who had sharply raised the price of wheat. This led to a break within the community with accusations hurled in every direction, eventually leading to Rabbi Samoha’s arrest by the Ottoman authorities after a claim of misappropriated funds.

After his arrest and dismissal, the community stopped paying his stipend, and a letter signed by 500 members of the community was sent to the Chief Rabbi of the Ottoman Empire at the time, Rabbi Moshe Halevi, defending their dismissal of Rabbi Samoha and their actions. Chief Rabbi Halevi was not pleased with the behaviors and reappointed Rabbi Samoha and viewed the hate to Rabbi Samoha as a personal vendetta that the wealthy class had against Samoha.

The chaos continued unabated though, and by 1881 Rabbi Samoha was again deposed and in his place Rabbi Elisha Dangoor was appointed, until he himself was removed from office in 1883 and then several years later again was appointed to the position. The Ben Ish Hai had sided with Rabbi Dangoor in this, and this detailed letter was sent by him to Chief Rabbi Halevi detailing why Rabbi Samoha should be ousted and Rabbi Elisha Dangoor should be put in his place.


Previous articleBerkeley Law Professor in Hot Water for Grabbing the Mic of a Muslim Who Invaded her Home
Next articleJudaism’s Three Voices
Israel Mizrahi is the owner of Mizrahi Bookstore in Brooklyn, NY, and He can be reached at [email protected].