When I woke up this morning and heard the tragic news that our teacher Hacham Ovadia Yosef zt”l has passed and left all of Israel as orphans, I could not think straight or comprehend what was occurring in the world that day. Therefore I dedicate to the Jewish people the following biographical portrait of a righteous and accomplished leader.
Encyclopedic Torah knowledge, fearless conviction, compassion and concern for each and every Jew, tireless energy, clarity of thought and expression—it is this combination of outstanding qualities that has made Hacham Ovadia Yosef zt”l the most influential rabbinic figure of our generation, and one of the most influential rabbinic figures in Jewish history.
The vastness of Hacham Ovadia Yosef’s Torah knowledge is unmatched even by the leading rabbinic authorities of our time, having committed to memory virtually the entire corpus of Torah literature. And whereas many other rabbinic figures earned their positions of stature and influence partly through their ancestry and family background, Hacham Yosef, who does not descend from rabbinic stock, reached his position solely through his personal achievements and piety.
His influence extends well beyond the narrow framework of the scholarly elite. Rabbi Yosef is admired by Jews of all backgrounds, observant and non-observant. He was a staunch and unflinching defender of Torah tradition, as he exhibited during his tenure as Rabbi in Egypt, when he fought relentlessly against Jewish leaders who disregarded halacha. But he also cared deeply for each and every Jew, as demonstrated during the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, when he spent many sleepless nights reviewing military files until not a single agunah remained. Rabbi Yosef was a remarkable blend of scholarly genius and basic human sensitivity, boldness and humility, courage and compassion.
Hacham Ovadia Yosef founded the Shas political party under the “returning the crown to its ancient glory,” with the objective of restoring pride to Sephardic Jewry. Hacham Yosef worked relentlessly to reverse this trend and to inject the Sephardic population with pride and confidence. He ushered in a new era of a return to Sephardic roots, and a renewed commitment to the magnificent, millennia-old spiritual heritage and legacy of Sephardic Jewry. Under his leadership, the Shas party also worked to preserve the Jewish character of the State, to ensure that authentic Torah Judaism would grow and flourish in the Holy Land, rather than decline, Heaven forbid.
But perhaps the most significant quality that has made Hacham Ovadia Yosef such an esteemed and beloved leader is his remarkable ability to relate and connect to the masses. Already during his years in yeshiva, he stood out not only as an exemplary student, but also as a gifted educator. Just as he is unparalleled in his caliber of scholarship, he is similarly unparalleled in his ability to inspire ordinary laymen. For many years, he delivered weekly lectures on Saturday night combining Torah wisdom, stories and humor, appealing to Jews of all different levels. These sermons were recorded via radio, TV, Internet and were broadcasted around the world, in Montreal, New York, Los Angeles, London, France, Djerba, Tunisia and even Tehran.
Hacham Yosef’s vision was a Torah society led by Sephardic halachic authorities, and based upon the rulings of Rabbi Yosef Karo’s Shulhan Aruch. Through his thousands of students and dozens of published works, he has succeeded in promoting back this vision and establishing the authority of the Shulhan Arukh as the arbiter of Torah law. Hacham Ovadia is widely regarded as the most important Sephardic spiritual leader since Maran Hacham Yosef Karo, and we can assert that “from Yosef [Karo] to [Ovadia] Yosef there has arisen none like Yosef.”
Generally, biographies of outstanding rabbinic figures are written only well after they pass on. In Hacham Ovadia Yosef’s case, however, over a dozen (Hebrew) publications, pamphlets, theses, articles, and other written material have already been produced to assess the life and contribution of this exceptional figure. This flurry of publishing activity testifies to the public’s interest and demand for information about the great Sage, and also to the uniquely complex and multidimensional nature of his character. To be sure, not one book can possibly encapsulate Hacham Ovadia Yosef’s life or his impact upon the Jewish people.
Biographical Portrait of Hacham Ovadia Yosef zt”l
Born on 12 Tishre, 5680/September 23,1920 in Baghdad, Iraq, Hacham Yosef moved to Yerushalayim with his family in 1924. His father, Hacham Yaakob, and his mother Georgia (Yaffa), were known for their dedication to Torah and to their eight children, of whom Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was the oldest.
As a young boy, Ovadia Yosef was educated at the Benei Tzion School in Jerusalem’s Bucharian neighborhood, and was recognized as a child prodigy. At the young age of 10, he transferred to Yeshivat Porat Yosef, where he earned a reputation for unmatched diligence, quick comprehension, and a phenomenal memory. He studied under the tutelage of the famed Rosh Yeshiva of Porat Yosef, Hacham Ezra Attiah zt”l.
When he was 17 years old, he composed a short pamphlet consisting of several pages of intricate halachic discussion, the kernel of what would ultimately become Rabbi Yosef’s monumental 10-volume work Yabia Omer. It was inconceivable in the yeshiva world that such a young student could produce a scholarly work, and indeed some tried to discourage him from publishing the treatise, as Rabbi Yosef writes in his introduction: “I am 17 years old, but I am meant to succeed, and I don’t care if you say I’m arrogant. I was told, ‘How dare you write at your age philosophical and legislative writings?’ But I hardened my face, as hard as stone, and I would not divert from my way.”
Hacham Ovadia Yosef received his rabbinical ordination at the age of 19, and at the age of 23, he was appointed as a dayan (religious judge). Around that time, in 1944, he met Margalit Phattal, the daughter of Hacham Avraham Phattal, a distinguished Hacham from Aleppo, Syria, and the two were married after a brief courtship. Throughout her life, Rabbanit Margalit Yosef A”H was known for her wholehearted devotion to her husband and for lending him the support he needed to become a Torah giant.
In 1947, the couple moved to Egypt, where Hacham Yosef served as Deputy Chief Rabbi and head of the Rabbinical court, until eventually assuming the position of Chief Rabbi of Cairo. After three years in Egypt, he returned with his wife and children to Israel and was appointed judge in the Bet Din of Petah Tikva. By this time, Hacham Ovadia Yosef had already authored five scholarly Halachic works, and word of his unsurpassed mastery of Torah, and how he had committed to memory hundreds upon hundreds of volumes, quickly began to spread throughout the Torah world.
In 1960, he was appointed as a judge in Jerusalem’s Bet Din HaGadol, and in 1968, he was named Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. It was then that he and his family achieved a degree of financial stability for the first time, after many years of poverty and hardship. Four years later, in 1972, Hacham Ovadia Yosef won the election for Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel.
During and immediately after his term as Chief Rabbi, Hacham Ovadia Yosef emerged as the primary religious authority for Sephardic Jewry. He served as a powerful symbol of Sephardic heritage, and succeeded in reviving Sephardic identity and pride, inspiring Sephardic laymen and scholars alike to return to their origins and reconnect with their ancient traditions. Hacham Ovadia Yosef’s effectiveness as a leader was due, in part, to his ability to communicate with the laity. Whereas his halachic writings are on the highest caliber of scholarship, and he served as a mentor and teacher to some of the greatest young Torah minds, he was also a popular lecturer among the masses of Sephardic Jewry, inspiring audiences of all levels with his stories, clarity, humor and charisma.
Hacham Ovadia Yosef’s main contribution was perhaps the enhancement and the fundamental reestablishment of Maran Hacham Yosef Caro and his Shulhan Aruch (Codex of Jewish Law) as the final authority for Sephardic Jews in Israel.
Hacham Ovadia Yosef had a profound and incalculable impact upon the Torah world. In addition to the Sephardic revolution which he inspired and led, he composed 58 halakhic works, all of which are standard texts in the field of practical halachic decision-making. He has trained thousands of accomplished halachic scholars, untold numbers of whom serve as rabbis, writers and educators in Israel and around the world. His legacy is also carried through his children. He has had a profound impact upon Sephardic Jewry and all of Torah Jewry that will continue to be felt for centuries to come.
May the merit of Hacham Ovadia Yosef zt”l be a source of inspiration and may we all be worthy to follow his inspiring example of selfless devotion to Torah and to Am Yisrael, amen.
Yehuda Azoulay is the founder of the Sephardic Legacy Series.