By: Yehuda Azoulay
The recent war in Iraq has been a long and difficult one for American soldiers, but it has resulted in the discovery of priceless artifacts from the glorious, vibrant Jewish community of Iraq.
During the American-Iraqi war, which began in 2003, Iraqi militants destroyed much of the old Jewish cemetery in Baghdad. News of the vandalism reached former Israeli MK Mordechai Ben Porat, an Iraqi Jew who founded the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center. Ben Porat promptly appointed an emissary to travel to the war-torn region and undertake the task of restoring and preserving the destroyed cemetery.
Restoring an Ancient Cemetery, Unearthing Ancient Texts
Over the course of its work, the Center’s staff chanced upon a truly remarkable treasure buried in the cemetery: scores of ancient manuscripts from old Baghdad, including the personal library of the venerated Chief Rabbi of Baghdad, Rabbi Yosef Haim ben Eliyahu, the Ben Ish Hai (1832-1909). Many other rare manuscripts were also found accidently in an antiques shop in Baghdad.
The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center representative shipped the books directly to Israel, but the authorities learned of his activities and forbade further shipments. Ben Porat had no choice but to smuggle the rest of the material out of Iraq.
“We bought them from thieves,” he told the Haaretz daily newspaper in an April, 2008 interview, adding that the foundation paid a total of $25,000 for rescuing the manuscripts.
Among the books were a 1487 commentary on the biblical Book of Iyov (Job), and a volume of biblical Prophets printed in Venice in 1617, the Haaretz daily newspaper reported.
Saddam’s Secret Police…to the Rescue?
After further investigation, the Center discovered that some 300 rare and valuable sefarim (religious books) were confiscated from Iraq’s Jewish community by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Unbeknownst to the officials who took part in the confiscation, they were actually securing a priceless Jewish treasure. The invading US troops discovered a vast array of manuscripts in the basement of the old Messouda Shemtob synagogue, which had been converted into Saddam Hussein’s security headquarters. Unfortunately, much of the material sustained damaged when the synagogue was struck by a bomb, causing the basement to flood, however about two thirds of the books were salvageable. Many of the books were temporarily sent to the Library of Congress in Washington until they could be restored. The rest were brought to Israel by the Center.
Reclaiming Iraqi Jewish Property
The newspaper Maariv reported that the Iraqi government has demanded the return of these unique artifacts. Mr. Ben-Porat, however, contends that the collection belongs to all Iraqi Jewry.
With the help of an Iraqi Jewish philanthropist, a new organization is being established to handle all the property of the Jewish community in Iraq, including schools, synagogues, markets, shops, cemeteries, and religious books. The organization will be based in London, which is currently home to a large community of Iraqi Jews.
The discovery of these manuscripts is truly a cause for celebration. Throughout our nation’s long, tumultuous history, many valuable sefarim, manuscripts and precious Judaica items have been lost or destroyed. The treasures unearthed in Iraq, especially the personal library of the Ben Ish Hai, offer us the rare opportunity to rescue lost religious materials, and will make a monumental contribution to the world of Torah scholarship. Appropriately, the discovery was made this year, which marks the one hundredth yahrsseit (anniversary of passing) of the Ben Ish Hai. The newly discovered texts will no doubt be enthusiastically welcomed into homes and study halls worldwide, serving to further perpetuate the scholarly legacy of one of the greatest Torah leaders in Jewish history.
Yehuda Azoulay is author of the book Legacy of Leaders, which is soon to be joined by a second volume containing the biographies and stories of many more Sephardic hachamim.