Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Rishon Le’Zion, former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel and one of the greatest Torah giants of the generation, and arguably one of the most influential political personalities in Israel today, passed away earlier today at the age of 93.
Cries of mourning could be heard from the halls outside the hospital room in Jerusalem where Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, 93, returned his soul to his Maker on Monday, 3 Heshvan, October 7, 2013 at 1:30 p.m
Maran (our rabbi and mentor), as he was called reverently by his followers, was the Sephardic Chief Rabbi (Rishon Letzion) of Israel from 1973-1983, a world recognized Talmudic scholar with a photographic memory, foremost halakhic authority and master orator. He served as the spiritual leader of the Shas political party since founding the party in 1982.
He was referred to as the Posek HaDor (“Torah Arbiter of the present Generation”), Gadol HaDor (“greatest one of the generation”) and Ma’or Yisrael (“The Light of Israel”).
Rabbi Yosef’s halakhic responsa are highly regarded within Orthodox circles and are considered binding in Mizrahi communities (those hailing from the Middle East, northern Africa and the Mediterranean), among whom he was regarded as “the most important living halakhic authority.”
Rabbi Haim Ovadia Yosef was born September 23, 1920, the day after Yom Kippur, in Baghdad, Iraq.
At the age of four, during the period of the British Mandate in the land of Israel, he immigrated to Jerusalem with his family. As a teenager he studied at the Porat Yosef Yeshiva, under its head, Rabbi Ezra Attiya, receiving rabbinic ordination at the age of 20.
At age 24 he married Margalit, the daughter of Rabbi Avraham Fatal, a leading Torah scholar. Margalit, known for deeds of kindness and charity, passed away in 1994. The family’s 11 children are Talmudic scholars who serve as yeshiva heads and municipal rabbis, and son Rav Yitzchak Yosef was recently elected Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel. Rav Ovadia’s daughter Adina Bar Shalom established an academic college for hareidi women. A son, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, head of Hazon Yaakov Yeshiva, and a noted scholar, passed away in 2013.
In 1947, Rabbi Yosef was invited to Cairo by Rabbi Aharon Choueka, the founder of yeshiva ‘Ahavah VeAchvah’, to teach in this yeshiva. He also served, at the request of then Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, as head of the Cairo beit din (rabbinical court). He left that position after several years and returned to what was now the State of Israel.
After returning to Israel, Rabbi Yosef studied at midrash “Bnei Zion”, headed by renowned sage and Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem for decades, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, also serving on the rabbinical court in Petah Tikva.
At the young age of 30, he wrote a halakhic ruling permitting a childless widow to marry her brother in law (yibbum) instead of having the halitza ceremony abrogating it. This took halakhic courage, as it contradicted a religious ruling made by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel a year earlier.
In 1951–1952, he published a much-acclaimed work on the laws of Pesach and the Haggada titled ‘Chazon Ovadia,’ continuing throughout his life to publish tens of widely read works found in thousands of Jewish homes and yeshivas, among them the 10 volume set of Responsa,Yabia Omer and the 6 volume set of Responsa given on the radio, Yichave Daat.
Masa Yosef is a volume of the rabbi’s sermons and the 30 volume Yalkut Yosef, edited by his son, brings many of his father’s decisions.
Another series of books under the title of Chazon Ovadia (not to be mistaken with the original books which were responsa on Passover), contain written laws concerning Shabbat, holidays and other topics.
Rav Yosef’s commentary on the Mishnah tractate Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”) is titled, Anaf Etz Avot; a commentary on various parts of the Talmud is called Maor Yisrael. His son, Rabbi David printed various siddurim and liturgy according to his father’s rulings, and another halachic compendium is entitled Halachah Berurah.
In 1954, Rav Yosef founded ‘Or HaTorah’ Yeshiva for gifted Sephardic Yeshiva students, the first of many yeshivas that he established, in order to perpetuate the Sephardic method of studying Talmud (as opposed to Ashkenazi pilpul, the search for subtle distinctions based on textual analysis, which he criticized) and establish the Torah leadership of that community for future generations.
Between 1958 and 1965, Rav Yosef served as a rabbinical judge (dayan) in the Jerusalem district Beit Din. He was then appointed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Appeals in Jerusalem, eventually becoming the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel Aviv in 1968, a position which he held until his election as Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel (Rishon Letzion) in 1973 along with the late Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren.
Rabbi Yosef’s vast outreach program, “Lehachzir Atara Leyoshna” (literally, restore the crown to its former glory) affected all sectors of the Sephardic communities world over and brought tens, if not hundreds, of thousands back to being observant Jews. The Shas party’s school system in Israel, founded with his blessing and direction, provided transportation and hot meals, attracting young families in development towns and needy areas, who were greeted with affection and whose children learned to love Torah and tradition. He showed much love for the Jewish people, showering those who came to him with blessings.
Rabbi Ovadia also attempted to unify Ashkenazic and Sephardic minhagim (religious customs) in the Land of Israel, by making them subject to the rulings of Rabbi Yosef Karo who wrote the seminal Shulkhan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) in the 16th century, printed in Tsfat. Ashkenazic rulings, however, are based on the interpretations of the Shulkhan Aruch by Rabbi Moses Isserles (the Rama), so that the idea did not take root.
The Shas Party
Rav Ovadia’s ultimate aim, of which the founding of the Shas party was a major step, was to restore the pride of Sephardic Jews in Israel, who upon aliyah, found themselves on a lower socio-economic and professional scale than Ashkenazic Jews. Shas reached its record strength in the 1999 elections, when it received 17 Knesset seats.
In 2010, Rabbi Yosef and the Shas Moetzet Chachmei HaTorah (Council of Torah Sages) approved membership in the World Zionist Organisation, making Shas the first officially Zionist Hareidi party in Israel.
In the 2007 Israeli Presidential election, Rabbi Yosef endorsed his long-time friend Shimon Peres, who ultimately won the election due in part to the support of Shas’s 12 MKs.
Rabbi Yosef advocated peace negotiations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the late 1980s, using the halakhic principle of Pikuach Nefesh, in which all the Jewish commandments (excluding adultery, idolatry, and murder) are put on hold to save lives.
In 1979, he ruled that this argument granted Israel authority to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. However, Shas abstained on Oslo I and voted against the Oslo II agreement.
The rabbi had ruled, in opposition to religious Zionist rabbis, that it is halakhically permissible to give territory from the Land of Israel in order to achieve a genuine peace. When the Oslo Accords were followed by a terror onslaught, this opinion was retracted.
In 2005, Rabbi Yosef repeatedly condemned the Gaza Disengagement. He argued against unilateral action outside the framework of a peace agreement, citing the principle of Pikuach Nefesh in saying that empowering the Palestinians without a commitment to end terror would result in threatening Jewish lives.
Rabbi Yosef, always independent in his decisions, allowed the “heter mechira”, that permits “selling” the land to a non-Jew so that agricultural work can continue during the seventh “shmitta”year in which the Torah commands that land lie fallow. This is the view held by religious Zionist and first Chief Rabbi Avraham HaCohen Kook, but strongly opposed by the Ashkenazic hareidi rabbinate.
He was known for applying, when halakhic verity could be shown, the Talmudic dictum that “the power of leniency is greater”, which he saw as one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Sephardic approach to religious observance in contrast to the Ashkenazic approach.
He was also famously recognized the “Beta Yisrael Ethiopian” community as Jews.
In a newspaper interview in which Shas was accused of being anti-Zionist, Yosef responded:
“What is anti-Zionist? It is a lie, it is a term which they have concocted themselves. I served for ten years as a Chief Rabbi – a key public position in the State of Israel. In what way are we not Zionists? We pray for Zion, for Jerusalem and its inhabitants, for Israel and the Rabbis and their students. What is Zionist? By our understanding, a Zionist is a person who loves Zion and practices the commandment of settling the land. Whenever I am overseas I encourage Aliyah. In what way are they more Zionist than us?”
In April 2005, Israeli security services arrested three members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), who had been observing Rabbi Yosef in public and were held on the suspicion of intended murder. One, Musa Darwish, was convicted on December 15, 2005 of Rabbi Yosef’s attempted murder and of throwing firebombs at vehicles on the Jerusalem-Ma’aleh Adumim road. He was sentenced to twelve years in prison and three years’ probation.
Rabbi Yosef received the Israel Prize for Rabbinic Writings in 1970 and the Rav Kook Prize for Torah Scholarship in 1956.
The rabbi was hospitalized recently and a major deterioration in his condition occurred over the last few days, although a short remission led to quickly dashed hopes for recovery. Thousands prayed for him during the last few hours of the sainted Rabbi’s life.
May his memory be for a blessing.
The mention above that Rav Ovadia approved membership in the World Zionist Organization mirrors another Zionist undertaking of the Rav. My father-in-law, past president (or was it Chairman?) of the British Mizrachi Organization (the foreign equivalent of the Mafdal-National Religious Party, today known as Bayit Yehudi or “Jewish Home”) hosted Rav Ovadia in their home after the Yom Kippur War where he gave a talk to the local Jewish community. Afterwards the Rav was named Honorary Life President of the Mizrachi Organization, a position he only relinquished when he established Shas.
One of the Rav’s most interesting characteristic was his ability to unite all branches of Israel’s political sphere. Everyone respected him even if they didn’t necessarily abide by his halachic rulings. As Arutz Sheva reports, politicians from the Prime Minister to Mahmuod Abbas mourned Rav Ovadia:
… Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that “Rabbi Yosef was a giant in Torah and Jewish law, and a guide for tens of thousands. He labored to enhance the religious traditions of the Jewish people. His religious decisions reflected the reality of life in the renewed state of Israel.
“He was filled with love of Torah and love of the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said. “I greatly appreciated his warm personality and his honest path. I always learned something when I met with him. The Jewish people has lost one of the sages of the generation.”
Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett said that “the religious public and the Jewish people are wrapped in suffering. Rabbi Yosef paved new paths in sensitivity and in relating to his fellow Jews, and to their relationship with G-d. He was one of the spiritual giants of the last generation, a model of sensitivity in matters of Jewish law, who merited to give over his teachings to the masses of the Jewish people for some 70 years.”
Education Minister Shai Peron said that “Rabbi Yosef was a unique sage, in both his rendering of decisions of Jewish law and his leadership. He left behind an indelible mark on the state of Israel. His decisions and teachings will continue to guide the Jewish people for generations to come.”
Opposition leader Shelly Yechimovich added that “Rabbi Yosef’s loss is a great one for his followers. At a time like this different people learn different lessons from the life of such a man. The lesson I choose to learn is his solid support – to the dismay of many – for peace, placing the value of human life above all.” In 1994, Shas, based on Rabbi Yosef’s decision, abstained from the government vote on approving the Oslo Accords, after Rabbi Yosef ruled that, if the country’s political and military leaders deemed it preferable to give up land in order to save Jewish lives, that was what the country should do.
Also expressing sorrow over Rabbi Yosef’s passing was Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas, who said that “I met with members of the Rabbi’s family in Ramallah. I would like to express my condolences and the condolences of the Palestinian people on the occasion of his passing.” Abbas made the comments during a meeting in Ramallah with leftist MKs, led by Labor MK Hilik Bar.
There is much more coverage in the Israeli and Jewish media, and even in the international press. Here are a few links to Israeli media coverage:
The Times of Israel has a series of articles on Rav Ovadia Yosef z”l:
Rav Ovadia’s life – he was a lenient religious legal authority:
Yosef became the country’s chief Sephardi rabbi in 1972, and was involved in several groundbreaking legal decisions. During his tenure, large numbers of Soviet Jews arrived in Israel, many of them married to non-Jews or without clear proof of their Jewish heritage. Yosef was able to ensure that many of them were accepted as Jews, or were able to convert under the auspices of the rabbinate. In perhaps his most dramatic decision from the period, Yosef ruled that the Beta Israel Jews of Ethiopia were indeed Jews. As such, they qualified for assistance under the Law of the Return, and as a result, the entire community was airlifted to Israel over the following three decades.
In cases involving converts, divorce and mamzerut — the status of a child born of a forbidden union, and who cannot marry someone who does not share that status – Yosef’s position was to seek out lenient solutions wherever possible in order to protect children. On numerous occasions, for example, Yosef was asked to rule on cases in which the children of a second marriage, whose parents’ first marriage had been conducted by non-Orthodox rabbis in the US and dissolved by a civil divorce, were seeking to be married by Orthodox rabbis, in Israel or abroad.
Under Jewish law, a child whose mother was not properly divorced from her first husband, and who was born of a union with a second man, is considered a mamzer, and not permitted to marry. Yosef’s solution was to declare the non-Orthodox marriage null and void under Jewish law, meaning that the first marriage and subsequent divorce were rendered inconsequential and the children of the second marriage were therefore not born of an illicit union and their status was unblemished.
As befits such a great man, Rav Ovadia Yosef’s funeral was the largest in Israeli history with the numbers attending reaching, according to some reports, 800,000 people – which means 10% of the entire population of Israel were in attendance.
Some 800,000 people – 10% of Israel’s population – were attending the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Monday night in Jerusalem. Rabbi Yosef, 93, passed away earlier in the day. The crowd, observers said, consisted of a cross-section of Israelis, from hareidi to Religious Zionist to secular. Police raised their estimate of the numbers of funeral attendees as the funeral slowly made its way from the Porat Yosef Yeshiva in the Geula neighborhood, where eulogies were held, to the cemetery in the Sanhedria neighborhood, where Rabbi Yosef will be interred.
Radio Kol Berama, a radio station associated with Shas, said that there were no fewer than a million people at the funeral. Police said late Monday that it was the largest funeral in Israel’s history.
Dozens of speakers, representing the Sephardic, Ashkenanzic, and Hassidic Torah communities eulogized the Rabbi Yosef. Among the first to speak was Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, one of Rabbi Yosef’s sons and current Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel. In a heart-wrenching voice, Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef spoke of his father, saying that “from the days of the Bet Yosef,” Rabbi Yosef Karo, the 16th century author of the Code of Jewish Law, “there has been no equal to Rabbi Ovadia, and there will be no equal to him. The heavens of yesterday are not the heavens of today,” such is the loss. Rabbi Yosef, he added, was “one of the greatest influencers of Jewish history.”
In his will, said Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, his father had commanded that the Sephardic community remain united, and not fight over his legacy or his successor.
Rabbi David Yosef, the Rabbi of the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem and a son of Rabbi Ovadia, said that his father was “the Moses of our generation, who taught us Jewish law. Father – to whom shall we now turn when we have questions in Jewish law? We have been left orphaned.”
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv and former Chief Ashkenzi Rabbi, said that Rabbi Yosef “was the rabbi of all of Israel, loved by his fellow man and by G-d. How many people merit this kind of funeral, to this kind of love from his students,” he said, referring to the huge numbers of people attending the funeral. “They know who a great sage is, who is a giant in Torah, who is a true leader,” he added.
Former Chief Sephardic Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron said that Rabbi Yosef “was like a brother to all of us, to all of the Jewish people.”
By 9 PM, there were some 800,000 people at the funeral, police said. Road 1, the main road into Jerusalem, has been closed to private cars, with only buses allowed into the city, and many people simply abandoned their vehicles at the side of the road, proceeding on foot to join the funeral procession.
Images of the funeral showed that an ambulance that was carrying Rabbi Yosef’s body was unable to move more than a few centimeters a minute, as attendees at the funeral sought to touch the vehicle, for a last opportunity at personal contact with Rabbi Yosef. Border Guards and police were attempting to push the crowd away from the vehicle. Organizers of the funeral called for order and for the crowd to step away from the vehicle, but in vain.
Rabbi Yosef will be buried at the Sanhedria cemetery, next to grave of his wife Margalit who passed away several years ago. After the eulogies, Rabbi Yosef’s sons proceeded to his home in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem to begin the weeklong shiva period. The general custom of Sephardim in Jerusalem is for the sons of the deceased not to attend the internment.
There are more pictures and articles (in Hebrew) at a new facebook page in Rav Ovadia’s memory.
I may not have agreed with all of Rav Ovadia Yosef’s politics and I certainly was not capable of understanding his Halachic (Jewish Law) rulings, but I fully admit and accept that he was recognized as a giant in Torah learning and was a very canny and successful politician who succeeded in his aim of promoting the welfare of his community. We are sorely lacking such leaders today.
May Rav Ovadia Yosef z”l’s memory be for a blessing.
יהי זכרו ברוך