It is difficult to compress the immense life and achievements of our master and teacher Hakham Ovadia Yosef zt’l into a few sentences. During his life he accomplished more than most people do in 10 lifetimes. He touched so many people that it is not surprising a reported 800,000 people filled the streets of Yerushalayim for his levaya. The Rav was our national treasure.
His photographic memory was legendary. For those who were able to see him use it in person, it was a staggering experience. One genuinely felt that there was no source that could be brought to him that he hadn’t already seen and considered. He once told me in personal discussion, “When people asked me questions, it’s as if all the books were open in front of me.” The amazing memory he was blessed with was a gift from Hashem. Yet, it was what the Rav used it for that made him the giant he was. The Rav spent the years of his life filling his memory with every word of Torah he could study.
From the age of seven, he was already avidly reading. His son, the Rishon LeSiyon, Hakham Yishak Yosef shlita, once told me that his favorite book, when he was that age, was Torah Temima (a set of Humashim that cites every Gemara relevant to a particular pasuk). He was also already memorizing entire sedarim of Mishna by heart. From that time on, he never stopped filling his mind with Torah.
However, even the amount the Rav learned, although astonishing, was not his greatest achievement. As stated in Pirkei Avot, there is a limit to how much we can celebrate the amount of Torah one has learned: If you have learned much Torah, do not hold it as a good (accomplishment) for yourself, as it is the purpose of your creation (Avot, 2:8). The amount of the Rav’s Torah was indeed astounding, but what far exceeded that was what he did with the Torah he learned.
With his deep and vast knowledge of Torah, he made the Torah lovable and livable for Jews of every color, from the ultra-Orthodox to the irreligious, Sepharadi and Ashkenazi alike. He established rulings of vast importance such as that the deaf and dumb can be halakhically recognized as part of a minyan if they studied in schools specially designed for them (historically, halakha had deemed them as being not of sound mind). He ruled that Ethiopian Jews were fully Jewish. He permitted close to 900 agunot (women whose husbands went missing in action after the Yom Kippur War) to marry. But it wasn’t only the monumental rulings that impacted us, it was his everyday rulings that brought clarity and structure to every area of Jewish law and made it accessible to the layman in an unprecedented way. He wrote prolifically. In his lifetime he wrote over 50 books, 35 of which were written after he had reached the age of 80! His teachings became known and accepted far and wide throughout the Jewish world.
Perhaps the most unique and celebrated attribute of the great Rav z”l was that he could at once, deal with the highest levels of halakha and speak on the most basic levels to any person. He spoke to prince and pauper with the same ease, care and heart.
As a grandson in-law, I merited being able to see the Rav at home. He was considerate and sensitive to everyone around him. He had deep joy in seeing his family and specifically his grandchildren. Even though he never wasted a moment and was always learning, he nonetheless sat at the Shabbat table for hours singing pizmonim and reminiscing about his visits to different parts of the world and his experiences in the early years.
He always had berakhot for people rolling off his tongue that you knew were heartfelt and genuine. He had a wonderful sense of humor and would effortlessly make plays on pesukim that would apply to any given occasion. For example, on the night I became officially engaged to my wife Margalit, we had a small dinner in the Rav’s house to celebrate. Moshe Habusha and Rabbi Shimon Alouf came and sang beautiful pizmonim the entire evening. At one point the Rav, enjoying the singing and happiness that Moshe and Hakham Shimon were bringing to the occasion he quoted this pasuk from Tehillim “Anochi Esmah BaHaShem!” (I will rejoice in G-d!) “Esmah,” he said, (spelled Alef, Shin, Mem Het—also the initials of Shimon Alouf and Moshe Habusha) is Alouf Shimon, Moshe Habusha!” It made the Torah exciting and personal. Sitting in his presence made you a better person.
The loss of the Rav zt”l is enormous. He was the greatest in his generation. May his name live forever and his legacy shine a constant light for Kelal Yisrael.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck has been the rabbi of Congregation Shaare Shalom since 1999. He studied at Yeshiva Hazon Ovadia in Jerusalem. He received his semikha from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef zt”l, under the auspices of the Sephardic Rabbinical College. He presently serves as the Rosh Yeshiva at Barkai Yeshiva, and is Senior Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation in London, England.