Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, preeminent authority on Jewish law and political mentor to many in Israel’s Sephardic Jewish community, passed away on Monday, Oct. 7. He was 93.
The rabbi was hospitalized early Monday at the Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem and suffered a general collapse of his bodily systems hours before passing away at 1:20 p.m.
After the announcement of his death, anguished cries were heard in synagogues and yeshivahs throughout Israel and abroad; men, women and children were seen weeping on the streets; and roads were clogged throughout the country as an estimated half-million mourners made their way to the funeral procession in Jerusalem.
A widely published author on Jewish law, Rabbi Yosef was considered by scholars of all backgrounds to be a rabbinical authority with a rare grasp of nearly every area of Torah scholarship.
‘Immersed in the Torah’
Born in Baghdad, Iraq, on Sept. 1, 1920, he immigrated with his family to British Mandate Palestine in 1924, settling with his parents in Jerusalem. He went on to study at the Porat Yosef Yeshivah under the tutelage of Rabbi Ezra Attiya. There, he was widely admired by both peers and faculty for his devotion to learning and his legendary retention of texts.
In 1940, the 20-year-old Yosef received rabbinical ordination. After a stint as head of the Cairo Rabbinical Court, he returned to Israel in the late 1940s.
He served on the Jerusalem rabbinical court and taught Torah in a number of yeshivahs. “I remember walking past his Jerusalem apartment in the wee hours of the morning,” recalls Rabbi Mordechai Ashkenazi, chief rabbi of Kfar Chabad, Israel, “and he would be standing and learning, immersed in the Torah.”
The two would meet again in 1972, when Ashkenazi published an index of sources cited in the Shulchan Aruch HaRav, the code of Jewish law of the Alter Rebbe, the first Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe.
“I brought my book to [Yosef], who was already chief rabbi of Tel Aviv at that time, and we sat for many hours talking about Torah topics and other matters,” says Ashkenazi. “He had a head like a computer. Whatever went in never went out. He was familiar with the Alter Rebbe’s Shulchan Aruch backwards and forwards—as he was familiar with all parts of the Torah.”
That year, Rabbi Yosef reciprocated and paid a visit to the rabbi in Kfar Chabad, delivering a class on the laws of Passover.
Shortly thereafter, Rabbi Yosef was elected Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi, a post he held until 1983. As founder of the Shas political party—representing immigrants from Arab and North African nations who comprise almost half of Israel's Jewish population—he based its platform on a return to religious tradition and as a counter to a political establishment that had been dominated by Jews of European ancestry.
He was known for his encyclopedic knowledge of a wide swath of halachic texts, ranging from the well-known to the most obscure. In his halachic rulings, he would often list dozens of previous rulings and then decide in accordance with what he perceived to be the majority opinion.
Much of Rabbi Yosef’s copious work fills two multi-volume collections.
His first, Yabia Omer, printed in stages since 1954, tackles a wide range of issues, from the use of solar-heated water on Shabbat to the halachic ramifications of Operation Entebbe, the daring hostage-rescue mission carried out by Israel Defense Force commandos in Uganda on July 4, 1976. Many of the responses fill dozens of pages with hundreds of citations.
Yechave Daat—his second work, six volumes in all—is comprised of shorter responses to practical questions posed on his radio program, Pinat Hahalacha (“the Halachah Corner”), which he hosted during his tenure as chief rabbi.
He had the distinction of being one of the select few contemporary scholars to be cited in the Likkutei Sichot of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory (vol. 33, Shlach III).
Rabbi Yosef’s spiritual authority enabled him to become a leading figure in Israeli political life and to marshal a renaissance of Sephardic pride and a return to tradition that, along with his Torah works, will continue long after his passing.
Rabbi Yosef was predeceased by his wife, Margalit, and a son, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef. He is survived by six daughters; and five sons, including Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, who was elected last month as Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel.