Rabbeinu was born in the year 5507 in Baghdad, where his illustrious forbears had been the presidents of the Jewish community, one of the most distinguished families in all of Iraq.
Although Rabbeinu is widely known as Chacham Sasson Ajemi — the latter word an Arabic term for someone hailing from Iran — this was not due to his ancestors having originated from Persia, but was a name attributed to him in memory of a story we shall later relate.
Five years before the birth of Chacham Sasson Mordechai, the dreaded cholera plague broke out in Baghdad, felling in one deadly swoop a large part of the glory that was Jewry in Baghdad. Many Chachamim, Rabbanim and precious souls were taken, leaving a bereft and broken kehillah.
The rav at the time — Chacham Moshe Ben Mordechai zt"l who was the grandfather of Rabbeinu — was chosen to travel to Aram Tzova, charged with finding a great chacham who could serve as Chief Rabbi of Baghdad. With the help of Hashem, he succeeded in finding the great rav Chacham Tzadka Chutchin a"h, who agreed to take up the post in Baghdad.
With his wisdom and greatness, the Chacham helped the shattered survivors of the plague to rebuild the shards of their lives. Chacham Tzadka Chutchin started to teach Torah and set up yeshivos with talmidim so that Torah life flourished once again. In his sefer Tzedaka Umishpat, the Chacham Moshe Chutchin, a grandchild of the Chief Rabbi, writes of his grandfather: "The saintly mekubal, my teacher and grandfather HaRav Chacham Tzadka Chutchin a"h was born in Aram Tzova and became rav in Baghdad, which is Bavel, in 5503 . . . and had he not come, the Torah would have chas veshalom been forgotten in Bavel."
The mekubal Rabbi Yehuda Pethaya a"h relates the only story we have from the youth of Chacham Sasson Mordechai:
There was a great talmid chochom named Reb Simcha, who made the long, arduous journey from Russia to Baghdad for the sole purpose of asking some questions of Yehoshua Cohen Gadol, whose kever is not far from the city. Upon entering the beis medrash, the holy rav requested to be shown the burial place of Adoneinu Yehoshua Cohen Gadol, but no one dared to undertake such an awesome venture.
Rabbi Sasson, at the time still a child, saw the crestfallen face of Reb Simcha who saw his weeks of dangerous travels to have been in vain, and offered to be the one to show him the place. Reb Simcha's joy was immense, and the two of them went together. When they reached their destination, Reb Simcha whispered some words into his ear and Chacham Sasson fell into a deep slumber, not seeing at all what his companion did at the kever. Having finished, the latter woke Chacham Sasson and blessed him: Yehi ratzon, that you should become a great chacham. Subsequently, Rabbeinu became an overflowing fountain of Torah wisdom.
HaRav Efraim Cohen a"h heard the following from the elderly shamash of Chacham Sasson:
Rabbeinu was well-known as a poel yeshuos to whom every sick or bitter person turned for help. The goyim too, heard of his miraculous powers and came to him with their various troubles. Once one of the noble princes of Baghdad was struck with a malady for which the best of doctors could find no cure. Seeing their son lying deathly ill with no hope of recovery, his anxious parents came to Rabbeinu crying hysterically and begging the chacham to bring back their son from the gates of death. Rabbeinu saw in this an opportunity to make a kiddush Hashem and promised to pray on the prince's behalf, on condition that the parents promise never to hurt a Jew. The parents hurriedly accepted the deal and their son was duly healed. As a token of their gratitude, the thankful parents presented Chacham Sasson with an exquisite and expensive vest with the coat of arms of Persia emblazoned on its front.
As the story spread and became widely known, Rabbeinu was given the nickname Chacham Sasson Ajemi — the Persian — in memory of the neis he had wrought.
The Ben Ish Chai, in his sefer Ben Yehoyada Maseches Pesachim (Ch:4, P:24:72) tells us an incredible story that gives us a glimpse into understanding the greatness of the Chacham Sasson.
I saw that the Chidah wrote:
"I learned from the elderly Rabbanim of Yerushalayim, may it be speedily rebuilt, that, as is known, Chizkiyah Hamelech blocked up the flow of water of the river Gichon, before Sancheriv and his army came. Yet until today, every Friday at midday, when we close the gates of Yerushalayim due to the Arabs that pass by on their way to the Temple Mount, anyone who goes near a certain gate close to the tower can hear the sound of rushing water from under the ground.
"One such Friday, Morenu HaRav Chaim Vital z"l was in the holy city of Yerushalayim, and a powerful sheikh by the name of Abu Seifin had come to visit the Temple Mount. This man knew that a Jewish king had stopped the waters of the Gichon and demanded to know if the Jews had someone who could reopen the flow. Hearing of the holy Rabbi Chaim Vital, Abu Seifin came to him with a threatening command. "I hereby decree that by the time I return from the Temple Mount you shall have opened the River Gichon that your king once closed. The people of the city need its waters and I command that you open them — on pain of death!"
Rabbeinu Chaim Vital using a special kefitzas haderech, went to Tzfas to ask his Rebbe the Arizal advice.
"You have made a grave mistake," reprimanded the Arizal. "This sheikh is a gilgul of Sancheriv, hence his name Abu Seifin which denotes in Arabic `Father of swords' just as his predecessor's name. In contrast, you have a spark in your soul of Chizkiyahu Melech Yehuda, and were now supposed to correct his deed of closing the Gichon without permission from the Chachomim. Had you done so this would have been the first stage of the ultimate Redemption."
"I did not want to use the holy Sheimos," was Reb Chaim Vital's reply.
"If you had not used them to come here to Tzfas," countered the Arizal, "I would have remained silent. But now that you are anyway using Sheimos you could have done so to open the Gichon and brought about a tikkun."
"So I will return to Yerushalayim and open it now."
"Now it is already too late. The time for this act to be carried out has passed. You have forfeited your chance," Finished the Arizal.
To the above story the Ben Ish Chai adds the following:
And you should know that the sheikh Abu Seifin was of the believers of the Yishmaelites, and was buried here in Baghdad, at the edge of the Jewish settlement. Over the grave was built a large, domed building with a spacious courtyard. Therein hovered a kelippa in whom all the local Arabs believed, bringing their requests and prayers to this shrine. People who suffered from plagues of high fever went there to be healed and fully believed that they were helped. It came to the stage that even the Jewish women began to have a growing belief in the powers of Abu Seifin's ghost, their certainty increasing with the time.
"However this all came to an end with the mekubal Chacham Sasson Mordechai z"l. The Rav rented a courtyard opposite the shrine and stayed there in hisbodedus, using yichudim and kavanos, until he had banished the kelippa and its power, so that even the Arabs no longer believed in it.
"The place became desolate and neglected, the building fell in, its dome crumbled, and the entire shrine was turned into a rubbish heap."
Concludes the Ben Ish Chai, "And who knows the secret of Hashem, what it was that lay in Rabbeinu Chacham Sasson Mordechai a"h — which great neshamah was he that he was able to banish this evil spirit of Abu Seifin.
Zechuso Yogein Oleinu.