Cries of mourning could be heard from the halls outside the hospital room in Jerualem 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."
Early Years and Family
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.
Return to Israel: Prolific Scholar and Torah Leader
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, compiled and 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 halakhic compendium is entitled Halakhah 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 lived in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Har Nof, on Hakablan street. He remained, until his final days, an active public figure in political and religious life in his capacity as the spiritual leader of the Shas political party and publicized his sometimes iconoclastic opinions through his regular Motsaei Shabbat (Saturday night) sermons, beamed by satellite and featured on Radio Kol Hai in Israel.
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) which he headed, 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.
Some of his rulings in that vein are that it is permissible for boys and girls to study together up to the age of 9; that a married woman may expose one or two strands of hair from beneath her head covering; that it is permissible for a widow or divorcée to cover their hair with a a wig (he forbade it otherwise) and that it is permissible for unmarried women to leave their hair loose and untied. He worked to free "agunot" (women whose husbands are missing, preventing their remarriage) after the Yom Kippur War, in the case of missing soldiers.
He was also famously recognized the "Beta Yisrael Ethiopian" community as Jews.
In a well-known halakhic ruling regarding the saying of Hallel (prayer of praise said on holidays) on Israel Independence Day,Yosef writes that although the Jewish people experienced a miracle with the establishment of the State of Israel, the miracle did not include all of the Jewish people and, therefore, Hallel should not be said with a blessing. Nevertheless, he writes that "If the congregation wishes to say Hallel without a blessing after the prayer service, they should not be prevented."
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 regarded the wars fought by the State of Israel as falling within the halakhic classification of wars that are mitzvoth ("milchemet mitzva"), but encouraged young students to remain in the yeshivas rather than enlist.
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.