Auction Closed

December 17, 05:06 PM GMT


150,000 - 250,000 USD

Lot Details



Two tefillin shel yad (each 1 1/2 x 1 in.; 40 x 25 mm) and two tefillin shel rosh (1 5/8 x 1 1/8 in.; 42 x 28 mm and 1 3/4 x 1 1/4 in.; 44 x 30 mm, respectively), all four painted black with long black straps emerging from them. All four worn around edges; leather dry; paint chipped and faded in places; slight staining. Tefillin shel yad housed in a worn purple velvet pouch with gold-colored drawstring; tefillin shel rosh housed in a worn gold-colored velvet pouch with gold-colored drawstring. Accompanied by two letters on paper, comprising the Judeo-Arabic correspondence between David Solomon Sassoon and Rabbi Jacob ben Joseph Hayyim on the subject of the tefillin of the latter’s father, both with fold lines and some slight wear; each letter housed in a plastic sleeve along with its translation into Hebrew.

Two pairs of tefillin that belonged to the great Rabbi Joseph Hayyim of Baghdad.

The commandment of tefillin is derived by rabbinic tradition from four passages in the Torah (Ex. 13:1-10, Ex. 13:11-16, Deut. 6:4-9, Deut. 11:13-21) that require the placement or binding of a “sign,” “reminder,” or “symbol” both on the arm and between the eyes. These two leather boxes are known, respectively, as the tefilin shel yad and the tefillin shel rosh, and each of them contains all four of the aforementioned passages written on parchment. However, whereas the texts in the shel yad are all inscribed on one large slip of parchment, those in the shel rosh are copied onto four separate pieces, each of which is placed into one of the shel rosh’s four compartments. In the Middle Ages, a dispute arose between Rashi (1040-1105) and his grandson Rabbeinu Tam (1100-1171) about the exact order in which the shel rosh slips should be arranged: Rashi understood that they must be placed in the order in which they appear in the Torah, while Rabbeinu Tam held that the last two passages, Deut. 6:4-9 and Deut. 11:13-21, should be reversed. General practice follows the opinion of Rashi, but many authorities, including Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488-1575) in the Shulhan arukh (Orah hayyim 34:2-3), recommend that the pious make sure to don Rabbeinu Tam tefillin as well.

In his Sefer ben ish hai, R. Joseph Hayyim of Baghdad writes that fulfillment of the commandment of tefillin sustains the existence of the heavens and the earth, and he expounds upon the intentions one must have while donning them. Like Caro, R. Joseph Hayyim encourages God-fearers to wear both sorts of tefillin, but they do so for different reasons: Caro feels that only one decisor, Rashi or Rabbeinu Tam, could have been correct in his understanding of the nature of the commandment, so because there is a doubt as to whom to follow, a God-fearer should try to fulfill both opinions. R. Joseph Hayyim, by contrast, cites Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi as having heard from the prophet Elijah that both opinions are true; a God-fearer, then, would elect to satisfy each as an enhanced way of fulfilling the commandment. In fact, for R. Joseph Hayyim, Rabbeinu Tam tefillin are, in a certain sense, of higher status than Rashi tefillin and should therefore be positioned above the latter when both pairs are worn at the same time (first year, Parashat va-yera). Moreover, while Caro does not allow Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam tefillin to be stored in the same pouch, since only one of them is actually sacred, R. Joseph Hayyim sees no problem in keeping one pouch for both types of tefillin shel yad and another for both types of tefillin shel rosh (first year, Parashat hayyei sarah).

The present lot comprises one set each of Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam tefillin that once belonged to R. Joseph Hayyim. As documented in multiple sources, the family of Solomon David Sassoon maintained a close relationship with the Ben ish hai, the latter having made time in his busy schedule to correspond with Solomon David, Flora, Rachel, David Solomon, and Mozelle Sassoon. R. Joseph Hayyim even requested that Solomon David send photographs of Rachel and David Solomon so that he could add them to the other pictures he kept of members of the family. In honor of David Solomon’s birth in 1880, R. Joseph Hayyim gifted the newborn a diamond ring and asked his father to make sure to request a set of tefillin from him once the boy became a bar mitzvah. (Indeed, around the time that auspicious day arrived, David Solomon received from his father a pair of tefillin that had been written under R. Joseph Hayyim’s supervision, as well as a personalized Esther scroll and a golden Star of David sent by the distinguished rabbi to celebrate the occasion.)

The sets before us, however, were used by the Ben ish hai himself. Following the great sage’s death on August 30, 1909, David Solomon penned a letter (dated November 14, 1909) to R. Joseph Hayyim’s son Rabbi Jacob in Baghdad, wishing him consolation and asking him: “If you can, please send me the Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam tefillin that the departed—may he abide in Eden—would wear, since I would very much like to have them with me as a memento, and please inform me that you have sent them; if you cannot, do not trouble yourself.” The latter responded a month later, on December 13, 1909, expressing his satisfaction that the Sassoons were well and noting: “You said that you were interested in being sent the Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam tefillin of the departed, the crown of my head […] We have fulfilled your request via mail to the office of Messrs. Sassoon, may God keep and save them, and we have informed them that they should transfer them to you.”

No other examples of tefillin belonging to R. Joseph Hayyim of Baghdad are known to exist. While tefillin are anyway regarded as amuletic, the special holiness attaching to pairs once owned by the pious R. Joseph Hayyim would surely serve as a source of even greater protection and blessing for one who merited to acquire them.


Abraham Ben-Jacob, Perakim be-toledot yehudei bavel: korot anaf ehad mi-mishpahat sassoon ha-bagdadit, vol. 2 (Jerusalem: Olam ha-Sefer ha-Torani, 1989), 419-457.

Yaakov Moshe Hillel, Ben ish hai: toledotav, korot yamav u-morashto le-dorot shel rabbeinu ha-gadol … yosef hayyim (Jerusalem: Shalom LaAm Center, 2011), 103, 121-122, 331.

David Solomon Sassoon, Ohel Dawid: Descriptive Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan Manuscripts in the Sassoon Library, London, vol. 1 ([Oxford]: Oxford University Press; London: Humphrey Milford, 1932), 558 (no. 2).

David Solomon Sassoon, Divrei david, in Ben-Yaacob, Perakim be-toledot yehudei bavel, 651.

David Solomon and Nathan Solomon Sassoon (eds.), Nahalat avot: asufat genazim mi-beit mishpahat sassoon (Jerusalem: Ahavat Shalom, Yad Samuel Franco, 2007), 362-370.

Moshe Sh. Shabbat, Yeshivot bagdad: mehkar makkif al hivvui ha-yeshivot be-bagdad ba-me’ot ha-aharonot (5300-5711) hithavvutan ve-hashpa‘atan le-dorot, vol. 3 (Jerusalem: Moshe Sh. Shabbat, 2019), 100-101.