An estimated half a million mourners converged on the Porat Yosef yeshiva in Jerusalem to accompany Ovadia Yosef’s body on its last journey (video: JPost)
Many Israelis of Sephardi/ Mizrahi background are in mourning today at the news of the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, aged 93. Sephardi synagogues around the world are organising memorial services ‘to mark the passing of a great tzadik, halahist and talmid haham, widely acknowledged as the greatest of our generation.’ Yosef will be remembered for his lenient rulings, as well as his sharp tongue, writes David Shamah in The Times of Israel.
Ovadia Yosef, an outspoken rabbi who combined
religious and political leadership into a role as one of the most
powerful religious figures in Israel’s history, died Monday. He was 93.
Yosef, who was vocal and active even as he ailed in recent years, was hospitalized repeatedly as his condition worsened.
The Baghdad-born rabbi will be remembered for
building the support of traditional Jews from Arab countries, long
marginalized in the Israeli political system, into a powerful political
machine in the form of the Shas party, a key power-broker in the
Yosef’s sons is currently the country’s chief Sephardi rabbi, a role
Yosef himself held in the past. But the elderly scholar has no clear
successor, and some experts expect his death to throw Shas, whose appeal
has always been largely based on the rabbi’s authority, into turmoil
that could jeopardize its future.
large circles of followers and students, Yosef will be remembered by
many for his sharp tongue, which became less restrained as he aged. He
once famously referred to Yossi Sarid, a leftist MK, as “the devil,”
recommended 40 lashes for smokers, and pilloried non-Orthodox streams of
Once a political moderate, in 2010 he called Palestinian
leader Mahmoud Abbas “evil” and suggested a plague should strike
Palestinians. That comment earned him a condemnation from the US State
But in the world of Jewish law and practice,
Yosef will be remembered most for his role at the forefront of
adjudicating almost every issue over a period of nearly six decades. His
stance was often relatively liberal.
It was Yosef, for example, who ensured that
the widows of hundreds of IDF troops killed and missing in action in the
Yom Kippur War would be able to remarry, even if their husbands’ bodies
were not recovered. While some rabbinical leaders believed that there
was no choice but to declare those women agunot, or women who
are “chained” to a marriage because a husband’s whereabouts cannot be
determined, Yosef provided the legal rationale for allowing them to
Yosef was unique among ultra-Orthodox
religious leaders in his handling of the quandary of “shemita” — a
Biblical precept according to which farmers are forbidden to work their
land every seventh year. Observing the practice is impossible for modern
farmers and would cripple the agricultural economy. Yosef supported an
arrangement whereby Jewish farmers can sell
the land to non-Jews, usually Muslims, putting the land officially
under non-Jewish ownership and allowing work to continue. Of the range
of current legal opinions on how to integrate the tradition into a
modern economy, Yosef’s interpretation stands out as the most liberal.
The complicated discussions in which Yosef
engaged in order to push through these and other groundbreaking
decisions appear in the hundreds of books and articles that he authored,
many of them based on lectures he gave in synagogues and yeshivas
around the world. In 1970, Yosef was awarded the Israel Prize in
Rabbinical Literature for his seminal work of legal decisions, “Yabia
A prodigy born into poverty
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was born in 1920 in Baghdad, Iraq, and emigrated with his family to Jerusalem in 1924.
Despite the family’s poverty — and the long
hours young Ovadia spent helping his father, who supported the family as
a peddler — Yosef was recognized as a child prodigy by Jerusalem’s
elite Sephardi rabbis. He wrote his first published Torah commentary at
age 9, and at 12 began studying at the prestigious Porat Yosef Yeshiva,
where he learned Torah and Talmud with study partners far older than he
and became close to the head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Ezra Attias.
In 1937, Attias assigned Yosef to give Torah
lectures to members of a Persian synagogue in Jerusalem. In a pattern
that would become a hallmark of his career in Jewish law, members of the
congregation rejected Yosef’s teachings because he presented a legal
point of view that differed from that of the famed Iraqi sage Rabbi
Yosef Haim, known as the “Ben Ish Hai.” Haim, who died in 1909, was
considered the premier legal authority in much of the Sephardi world at
But Yosef contended that the sage’s rulings were more
stringent than necessary.
It was an argument that Yosef would make
throughout his career. Yosef contended that for Sephardi Jews the
decisions that mattered were those of the 16th-century legal work known
as the Shulhan Arukh, and in his halachic decisions the rabbi would
review decisions on related issues in the past to determine how the
Shulkhan Arukh would have ruled on the question at hand. The final
decision was often more moderate than the ones promulgated by the
students of the Ben Ish Hai.
In the 1940s, Yosef penned a series of books
in which he specified his dispute with the Ben Ish Hai’s point of view
on each point of Jewish law. But Yosef postponed publishing the series
for more than 40 years, until 1998, at least in part because of his
fears over the controversy they would engender. Indeed, several of the
top Sephardi rabbis in Israel criticized Yosef for his position.
At age 20, Yosef was appointed a dayan, a
judge in a religious court, and went on to head the Sephardi Rabbinical
Court of Jerusalem. By 1945 Yosef was known throughout the Jewish world
and received daily requests for advice and guidance.
At around the same time, he became close with
members of the Irgun, the armed group headed by Menachem Begin. Several
of Yosef’s brothers joined the group, and some Irgun members have said
Yosef himself participated in its activities, including helping Begin
and others escape the clutches of British police by dressing them as
rabbis. Yosef also became acquainted with other Zionist leaders,
including Shimon Peres, with whom he had a long friendship.
In 1947 Yosef moved to Egypt and headed the
Jewish community’s religious court. He remained there for three years,
during which time he found himself at odds with lay leaders of the
Jewish community, whom Yosef felt were lax in their observance. He
returned to Israel in 1950.
In the early 1960s, he established a yeshiva
in Jerusalem specifically to train Sephardi youth for for the rabbinate.
In several of his writings, Yosef bemoans the fact that Sephardi
students were forced to attend Ashkenazi yeshivas, where he felt they
were considered second-class students and were trained to make legal
decisions in a manner not consistent with Sephardi tradition.
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
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.