Tefillin of famed author Ben Ish Hai to go on auction

Other highlights include silver Torah shields from the 18th century, which are among the finest examples in existence today.

The two pairs of tefillin of the Ben Ish Hai. (photo credit: COURTESY SOTHEBY’S)
The two pairs of tefillin of the Ben Ish Hai.
(photo credit: COURTESY SOTHEBY’S)
Two pairs of tefillin said to have belonged to famed kabbalist and Sephardi sage Yosef Hayyim, author of the Ben Ish Hai, will go on auction in New York City in December.
The tefillin are part of a collection of Judaica that belonged to the Sassoon family, the so-called Rothschilds of the East. The collection has 68 pieces, including ancient manuscripts, objects and books of great historical significance and Jewish meaning from Western Europe to the Far East in the 11th-20th centuries.
The pieces in the sale tell tales of the history of Jewish life and culture, Sotheby’s auction house said, and represent the Sassoon family’s many years of dedication to the patronage and preservation of Jewish scholarship, art and material culture of the highest caliber.

Among the artifacts likely to arouse interest are a siddur and two pairs of tefillin that belonged to Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad, a 19th- and early 20th-century halachic authority who is best known as the author of Ben Ish Hai, a work similar to the Kitzur Shulhan Aruch but rooted in Mizrahi tradition.
The auction includes Yemenite manuscript copies of works by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, commonly known as Maimonides and the acronym Rambam, some of which date back to the 15th century.
According to Sotheby’s, when Rabbi Hayyim passed away, one of the Sassoon family members wrote to his son to extend condolences and asked if he would be willing to give him his late father’s tefillin as a memento.
Originally from Baghdad, and led by patriarch David Sassoon, the family relocated in the 1830s to India and established Bombay as the seat of its vast trade empire. The family opened branches of its company in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Rangoon and played a key role in the industrialization of the Far East. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of the family members moved to England.
Other highlights include silver Torah shields from the 18th century, which are among the finest examples in existence today. These jewel-like works of art, probably made in Lemberg (Lviv) – an important 18th-century Jewish center in modern-day Ukraine – feature extraordinary craftsmanship and have been recently attributed to the Jewish silversmith Elimelekh Tzoref of Stanislav.
Also up for auction is a highly important parcel-gilt silver and enamel Torah shield signed and dated in Hebrew with the name Elimelekh Tzoref of Stanislav, 1782.
 A highly important parcel-gilt silver and enamel Torah shield, signed and dated in Hebrew Elimelekh Tzoref Of Stanislav, 1782. (Photo credit: Courtesy Sotheby’s) A highly important parcel-gilt silver and enamel Torah shield, signed and dated in Hebrew Elimelekh Tzoref Of Stanislav, 1782. (Photo credit: Courtesy Sotheby’s)
The significance of the role of a Jewish goldsmith in the creation of these treasures is of paramount importance in the history of Jewish art, as Jews of Western Europe were, for the most part, barred from joining the guilds. Although the artist’s name appears only on one shield, their matching and highly distinctive decoration has allowed Sotheby’s to attribute them to him.
In addition to important Hebrew books and manuscripts, the collection also features personal objects reflecting the tastes, luxurious lifestyles and international range of this legendary family. They include the silk robe Ezekiel ben Joshua Gubbay (1824-1896) wore upon his marriage to Aziza Sassoon (1839-1897); the ketubah used at the wedding of Reuben David Sassoon and Catherine Ezekiel, members of two of the greatest Baghdadi merchant families in India; and a golden medal presented to Lady Rachel Sassoon Ezra by the governor of Bengal in 1947.