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The Holy Or HaChaim: Keeping the Fire in Purgatory Off

Rabbi Chaim Ben-Atar, known as the holy Or HaChaim for his famous commentary on the Torah, was born in 5456 (1696) in Morocco. Even as a young man, he was known as a holy and scholarly man of God. Near the end of 5501 (1741), he made aliyah to the Land of Israel, settling first in Acre and afterward in Tiberias and Peki’in. By 5502 he had moved to Jerusalem, establishing his yeshivah, Midreshet Knesset Yisrael. The Ba’al Shem Tov said that the holy Or HaChaim was the Mashiach of the generation. The Or HaChaim himself alluded to this, writing, “the name of the Mashiach is Chaim.” His Torah commentary was honored throughout the Jewish world and particularly among the disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov. The Rebbe Rayatz related that the Or HaChaim wrote his commentary from the Torah lessons that he would teach his daughters. The Or HaChaim passed away on the 15th of Tamuz, 5503 (1743) and is buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

When the Or HaChaim was young, he followed in the footsteps of many tzaddikim, including disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov, who set out on an “exile,” wandering from town to town without revealing their true identity.

The Or HaChaim was in a particular town for Shabbat, prayed in the synagogue and then went to the home of a local rabbi. At the festive Shabbat meal, the Rabbi related Torah thoughts. At a certain point, the Or HaChaim made a comment on what he was saying, (which was correct, but the Or HaChaim illuminated it in a deeper light). As soon as the rabbi heard what the Or HaChaim was saying, he realized that he was a great Torah scholar. He pointed to him and said, “If you have said this, it means that you are Rabbi Chaim Ben Atar. How do I know? For I heard what you said now in the Heavenly Yeshivah, where the souls of the great tzaddikim who lived in this world reside, along with angels. In the Heavenly Yeshivah, it is a mitzvah to repeat every Torah teaching in the name of the person who innovated it, for this brings redemption to the world, as is written in Pirkei Avot.[1] And when I heard this idea uttered, it was said in the name of Rabbi Chaim Ben Atar, a great tzaddik in this world.

Later, at Se’udah Shlishit (the third Shabbat meal) the rabbi spoke at great length. He went on and on and did not stop to make Havdalah to end the Shabbat. It was already completely dark outside, and the rabbi was teaching, full steam ahead. The holy Or HaChaim testified that the spiritual overseer of Gehenom came to the Rabbi and angrily demanded that he finish his Torah teaching, for as long as he was teaching Torah, the minister could not light the fire in purgatory (which had been extinguished for Shabbat) and burn the wicked souls. (We do not know the name of the city where this story took place, but the Or HaChaim said that this city was located at the entrance to Gehenom. Hence, if a rabbi, one of the tzaddikim of the generation is there and speaking words of Torah and does not make Havdalah, he can prevent the lighting of the fire in Gehenom). The rabbi did not look at the Minister, and continued teaching for another hour. Once again, the overseer of Gehenom came and asked when he would end, for as long as he does not make Havdalah, the fire of Gehenom cannot be lit.

The Rabbi continued teaching and did not pay any attention to the overseer. After several additional attempts, the overseer returned once again and furiously shouted that he has to light the fire. The rabbi could no longer ignore him and began shouting at him to silence him and stop him from disturbing him. Immediately, the rabbi turned to his audience and said that it was time to make Havdalah.

”The moment I became angry at the overseer,” he explained, “it was permissible for him to light the fire. As long as I was able to ignore him, he could not light the fire in Gehenom. But anger is like fire, which we are forbidden from kindling on Shabbat. As soon as I became angry, I ignited my own fire and then he could also go to Gehenom and light the fire there. There is no reason for me to continue teaching at this point, and now we can say Havdalah.”

This story is full of unexpected phenomena, from the Or HaChaim who masquerades as a beggar to the tension-filled face-off between the rabbi and the overseer of Gehenom. All of this is part of the secret of the sefirah of acknowledgment (hod). As a rule, departure from within one’s domain is associated with the sefirot of victory and acknowledgment (netzach and hod), which correspond to the legs. However, a departure that is done openly and publicly is more associated with the sefirah of victory, while exile (done incognito) rectifies the sefirah of acknowledgment. That is why the Or HaChaim found his way in his exile to the gateway to Gehenom. It is there that the rabbi acknowledges (hod) the Or Hachaim’s innovative teaching based on his own spiritual ascent to the Heavenly Yeshivah—representing the secret of the ascent of the sefirah of acknowledgment to the sefirah of might (gevurah), the location of the Heavenly Yeshiva according to the Zohar.

This story is reminiscent of another, famous Chasidic story, which relates a similar statement made by both the Alter Rebbe of Chabad and Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. They both told their chasidim, each in his own town, about a Heavenly mishap that had taken place in Gehenom. As it happened, Gehenom had been completely consumed by its own fire. In the ensuing debate, two proposals for repairing the damage were considered: one, to renovate Gehenom; the other: to construct a new Garden of Eden, and to transform the old Garden of Eden into Gehenom. When they cannot come to a conclusion in Heaven, the decision is given over to the tzaddikim of this world. This is what the tzaddikim related and then shared their verdict: “And I said that they should build a new Garden of Eden, and they should turn the old one into Gehenom.”

In our story, Gehenom is still working, but there is a tzaddik at its gateway who is preventing the lighting of the fire. Apparently, with his words of Torah, this unknown tzaddik is bringing not only the Shabbat into Gehenom, but teshuvah (return to God) as well. The Torah extinguishes the fire and brings the sinners back to God, and can thus ward off punishment even in a place where it should be meted out. Ultimately, even Gehenom can turn into the Garden of Eden, as long as the tzaddik does not become angry even at the angel overseeing Gehenom.

In our story, it seems that the rabbi heard the Or HaChaim’s explanation in the Heavenly Yeshiva beforehand, but did not reveal the inner explanation in his Torah teachings (due to “the honor of God is to conceal the matter”[2]) until the innovator himself, the Holy Or HaChaim, related it (the secret of “the honor of kings—the rabbis acting as kings—is to (openly) investigate the matter”[3]). We see that the power of the holy Or HaChaim is to reveal in his colleague that which is hidden in reality. This is the secret of chash-mal: the rabbi is the chash [silence] and the Or HaChaim is the mal [speech]. The sages explained that chash (חַשׁ), in addition to meaning “silence” as in the Hebrew word “covert” (חֲשַׁאי), is an allusion to “beasts of fire” (חַיּוֹת אֵשׁ). The rabbi has a special talent for fire—for better or worse. With his Torah teachings he prevents the fire of Gehenom from being lit. But with his anger, he unravels the connection between him and the Or HaChaim at his side, who was actually helping him overcome the angel overseeing Gehenom. The Or HaChaim is the light (Or) and the rabbi is the fire.


[1]. Avot 6:6.

[2]. Proverbs 25:2.

[3]. Ibid.

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