#451 (s5766-41 / 15 Tamuz 5766)

A Good Environment for Torah Study

The Ohr Hachayim would sit engrossed in Torah study until his last coin was spent, and only then engage in his expert craft.

A Good Environment for Torah Study

Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar - known as the "Ohr HaChaim" - was a leading 18th century sage and kabbalist who lived in Morocco. There, he earned his livelihood as a silversmith. However, he always made Torah study his primary occupation, and his craft secondary. He would sit engrossed in Torah study, until his last coin was spent, and only then did he engage in worldly matters. But as long as he had money, he would not work.

Two emissaries from the court of the King of Morocco once came to him with a certain amount of gold. "The King has heard that you are the foremost expert in your craft," they said. "Therefore, he sent us to commission you to fashion a piece of the finest jewelry in honor of his daughter's wedding. You will be paid a princely sum. However, you must complete the work in ten days."

At that time, our master, Rabbi Chaim, still had enough money to cover his daily expenses. So, he refused the royal commission, explaining that he was not available for work at this time.

The two messengers were astonished by his refusal. And being vicious haters of the Jewish people, they were overjoyed to realize that now they had an excellent opportunity to denounce Rabbi Chaim. They returned to the palace and told the King that the Jewish silversmith had rebelled willfully and disdained the royal commission, and thus had dishonored the crown.

The king was also shocked, but declared that he would give the Jew one more chance, since his skills were unique. He told the messengers to go again and threaten the rabbi with dire punishments if he would not cooperate and accept the work.

But once again, Rabbi Chaim refused the work, insisting that he could not violate his principles and turn away from Torah study when he was not in need of money, not even for the king.

The two emissaries gleefully reported back to the king Rabbi Chaim's second refusal. Upon hearing, the King immediately commanded that Rabbi Chaim be cast into a den of lions, this being the punishment for treason.

When the police came to arrest Rabbi Chaim, he asked for permission to bring along a volume of Psalms and his talit and tefilin. They laughed at him and exclaimed, "Do you think you are going to a hotel? You are on your way to be killed in a lions' den!" However, the Jewish sage paid no heed to their words, and packed his bag. Unsuspecting, his wife asked him, "Where are you going?" He answered simply, "I shall return soon."

They took their prisoner straight to the lions' den and threw him in. When the lion keeper heard, he strolled over to the cage, wondering if he would be in time to see the fierce beasts tear the Jew apart.

He was amazed by what his eyes beheld. There sat Rabbi Chaim, wearing his talit and tefilin, reciting Psalms in a loud voice, while in front of him crouched the three lions in a semi-circle, like students before their teacher, listening attentively to his words.

Overcome with fear, the lion keeper ran to inform the King. But the king refused to believe him and said he would come to see for himself.

When the King, accompanied by his royal entourage, arrived at the lions' den and saw this awesome sight, he became furious. He accused the keeper of having fed the lions instead of starving them for this occasion, as he had ordered.

The keeper replied that he had indeed fulfilled the king's instructions, but the king refused to believe him. He told the keeper to take a long pole and stick it through the bars to poke the lions to stir them up, because obviously they were lethargic from overeating.

The keeper did so, and almost lost his arm when the first lion he touched quickly leapt at him with teeth bared, snarling ferociously,

The king could no longer deny the evidence of his own eyes. He proclaimed before everyone, "Now I know that there is a G-d of Israel!" He commanded that Rabbi Chaim be retrieved from the pit, and when he emerged he asked him for an explanation of the miracle.

Rabbi Chaim answered, "I refrained from my work because of my immersion in the holy Torah; therefore the Torah protected and saved me!"

The King asked his forgiveness, and sent him home in peace and with great honor and many valuable gifts. When he arrived home, his wife innocently asked him how things had gone. He replied, "Alright, Baruch Hashem, but it is time to move to the Land of Israel. There aren't the proper conditions to study Torah properly here."


Editor's note:
There are several versions of this story extant in Hebrew. A nice English rendition can be found in "The Vision of Eden" by Rabbi David Sears. Thank you to Yosef <chazon2@netvision.net.il> for the submission. My version is adapted and expanded from it with details from other Hebrew sources.

Biographical note:
Rabbi Chaim (ben Moshe) Ibn Atar (1696 - 15 Tammuz 1743) is best known as the author of one of the most important and popular commentaries on the Torah: the Ohr HaChaim. He established a major yeshiva in Israel, after moving there from Morocco. Chassidic tradition is that the main reason the Baal Shem Tov twice tried so hard (and failed) to get to the Holy Land was that he said if he could join the Ohr HaChaim there, together they could bring Moshiach. He is buried outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Yrachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds of published stories to his credit.

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