Weekly Chasidic Story #687 (s5771-21 / 19 Shevat 5771)

Down Went the Clown

“My decision is according to the wisdom of the Ben Ish Hai,” The Bagdad Muslim judge proclaimed

Connection: Weekly Reading – Court executions


One Saturday n1ght in the year 5656 (1896), a wealthy businessman in Bagdad decided to celebrate his great success. To enliven the party, he invited Nissim the comedian, who used humor to mock others publicly. Standing on the table and sipping from a cupful of strong drink, Nissim made all sorts of bold gestures while he drew from his repertoire of cruel jokes and witty insults, filling the hall with noisy laughter.

During his performance he was offered a piece of fish, and ate from it while continuing to amuse the crowd. Suddenly, a large bone got stuck in his throat. Not knowing how to assist him, the spectators helplessly watched as Nissim turned blue and then fell to the floor, lifeless. Horrified, the wealthy host screamed in panic, for he feared he would be blamed for the comedian’s death!

One of the onlookers suggested they place Nissim upstairs, in front of Saadia the Doctor’s door, and so a group of volunteers from among the many guests carried the dead comedian to the second floor, knocked on the doctor’s door and hurried away.

Saadia, hearing the knock, came to the door, but because it was dark, did not notice the man lying on the floor and tripped over Nissim’s feet, causing them both to roll down the steps, one over the other. Recovering from the fall, he looked at the other fellow and gasped; by tripping over this man and making him fall, he had killed him! Not wanting to be punished for murder, he stood the body against a nearby wall and left.

Ezra the tailor, still busy working at this late hour, suddenly noticed someone looking into his window and was overcome with fear; perhaps a thief was trying to break in? He ordered him to leave immediately, but when there was no response, he took a hot iron and threw it, hitting the dead Nissim in the face and knocking him down. Seeing the body collapse, he was mortified, thinking that he had killed a man! Not wanting to be caught, he dragged the body into the street and stood him up against a tree.

Soon after, a drunkard passed by and thought this man was laughing at him, so he took his bottle of whiskey and hit Nissim on the head, causing the dead body to fall to the ground. At that moment, a police officer was walking by, and seeing what the drunkard had done, arrested him. The news spread around town that in two days the drunkard would be hung for having killed Nissim the comedian. Feeling guilty, the rich businessman, the doctor and tailor, each on their own, went separately to the police to admit that in truth, it was they who had killed Nissim.

The judge was unsure how to pass judgment. Never had he encountered such a strange situation, that four people should admit to killing one man! He decided to seek the advice of the nearby great Jewish sage, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Bagdad, the Ben Ish Hai.

The day of the court case arrived and many gathered to see how this episode would be resolved. The judge proclaimed his verdict: “All four men are free from punishment! My decision is according to the wisdom of the great Rabbi.” The judge went on to explain what he had learned. “Nissim the comedian caused his own death through his public mockery, and therefore he received punishment corresponding to all four forms of execution that Jews could have been sentenced to during the time of their Holy Temple.”

Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from a passage in Lma’an Yishme’u 47 <>, which cites of the many books about the Ben Ish Hai, Ahavat Hayyim.

Connection: Weekly Reading – Court executions

Biographical note:
Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Bagdad, the Ben Ish Hai (27 Av 1834 – 13 Elul 1909), is one of the most important Sephardic Jewish sages in the last two centuries. At the age of 25, he succeeded to his father’s rabbinical position and continued in it for 50 years. In 1869 he visited the Holy Land and was offered the position of Rishon LeZion (Sephardic Chief Rabbi), but he did not accept. A great scholar and Kabbalist and highly regarded as a pure and holy man, is rulings are adhered to still today by many Sephardim world-wide. He published many important books on Jewish law, Midrash, Kabbalah and Ethics.


Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.