On Monday, October 7, the world lost great scholar, spiritual leader and teacher Rabbi Ovadia Yosef zt”l. Rabbi Yosef was Chief Rabbi of Israel and he was one of the foremost interpreters of religious law in recent generations. He inspired a renaissance for Sephardic religious life in Israel as the spiritual leader of the Shas party. Rabbi Yosef was 93 years old. Just hours before his passing, President Shimon Peres visited him in the hospital.
Shortly after the announcement of his passing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “the Jewish people have lost one of the wisest men of this generation. Rabbi Ovadia was a giant in Torah and Jewish law and a teacher for tens of thousands. He worked hard to enhance Jewish heritage, and at the same time his rulings took into consideration the times and the realities of renewed life in the State of Israel. He was imbued with a love of Torah and his people. I very much appreciated his warm personality and his direct manner.”
“Woe unto me that I have come to witness this day,” a weeping MK Aryeh Deri, the Shas Chairman, said outside of the hospital just minutes after the announcement of Rabbi Yosef’s passing. “Our father, the one who was our leader, has passed. The light of the sun has been extinguished.”
Rabbi Yosef was born in Baghdad, in 1920, a first-born son who was named after his grandfather, Rabbi Abdullah Yosef, later changed to Ovadia. When he was 4 years old, his family emigrated to Israel and he was sent to the Bnei-Zion religious school, in the Bucharian neighborhood in Jerusalem. At the age of 10, after proving to be the most brilliant student in school, he transferred to Yeshiva Porat Yosef and shortly thereafter he was acknowledged as a genius there as well, mainly because of his tremendous persistence, his quick comprehension and his phenomenal memory. He received rabbinic ordination at the age of 20 and at 24 he married Margalit Fattal, the daughter of a respected rabbi of Syrian Jewish descent, with whom he had 11 children.
In 1952, he published his first book about the laws of Passover titled Chazon Ovadia. The book won much praise, receiving the approval of the two Chief Rabbis of Israel at that time, Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel and Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog.
Two years later, Rabbi Yosef founded the Or HaTorah Yeshiva for gifted Sephardic yeshiva students. It did not remain open for long, but was the first of many which he established, later with the help of his sons, to facilitate Torah education for Sephardic Jews and establish the leadership of the community for future generations. In 1954 and 1956 he published the first two volumes of his major work Yabia Omer, which also received much praise. Yosef’s responsa are noted for citing almost every source regarding a specific topic and are often referred to simply as indices of all previous rulings.
Between 1958 and 1965 he served as a magistrate in the Jerusalem district religious court. He was then appointed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Appeals in Jerusalem, and, in 1968, became the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel Aviv, a position he held until 1973, when he was elected the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel. During his years as chief rabbi, he dealt with a variety of important social and halachic issues.
He was the spirtiual leader of the Shas party. Under Rabbi Yosef, Shas (a Hebrew acronym for Sephardic Torah Guardians) became a major player in governing coalitions. Shas first ran candidates for Parliament in 1984, winning four seats in the 120 seat Knesset and joining a national unity coalition led in rotation by Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir. By the late 1990s, Shas controlled 17 seats in Parliament and had become the third largest party. It has participated in most of the country’s governing coalitions for almost three decades. The purpose of Shas, Rabbi Yosef said, is to do for politics what his yeshiva did for rabbinical students—to restore the glory of Sephardic Jewry. Just as the yeshiva championed Sephardi rights in the yeshiva world, Shas was to champion the traditions of Sephardi Jews in Israeli society, to ensure state financing for its independent religious school system and to aid needy families among its constituency.
As a leading Sephardic Torah scholar and arbiter of halakha, Rabbi Yosef was often described by his followers as the greatest of the generation and the outstanding Sephardic rabbinical authority of the century. His most outstanding quality was his courage to proudly renew the Sephardic system of legislation. Time and again he disagreed, openly and proudly, with the official position of the rabbanut, while sticking to his religious Sephardic position. Thus, for example, when he was the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, he cancelled the religious council’s decision not to permit marriage in the Ben Hametzarim (three weeks) days—as the Ashkenazim do—and instructed all the marriage registrars in his jurisdiction to allow marriage of Sephardic Jews for the whole month of Tamuz.
Rabbi Yosef rose at a time when Sephardic society was at a low point, filled the void and called thousands of scholars to return to their origins—which are not only legitimate and different, but also authentic and honest.
Compared to the depth of his writings, which were based on sophisticated scholastic language, Rabbi Yosef spoke to his public in simple language. This ability probably stemmed from the dualism of the offices he held throughout the years. On the one hand a rabbi, head of a yeshiva, noted legislator, teacher of geniuses and author of important books and on the other hand a popular leader, guiding the masses and including the less educated ranks, whom he attracted with legends and stories told in simple language.
There is no doubt about the fact that as a scholar and a leader he was an exceptional man. Rabbi Yosef’s live lectures were so popular that for over 40 years, more than 1,000 people attended them every week. Thousands more listened to his lectures, transmitted through closed-circuit TV screens and via satellites to 150 other locations in Israel and abroad. It is estimated that 50,000 viewers tuned in weekly.
“His encyclopedic knowledge of the entirety of Torah, his responsa and the literature he left behind will be studied forever as part of the Oral tradition of the Jewish people. He played a pivotal role in supporting, defending and promoting traditional Sephardic culture,” said a statement by the National Council of Young Israel.
Rabbi Ovadia is survived by his 10 remaining children. His son, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef is the current Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel. He had 60 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren.