Hacham Ovadia Yosef – The Most Accomplished Rav of Recent Generations - Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Last week we discussed Hacham Ovadia Yosef’s Memory & Knowledge and his extraordinary talent as a Poseik. This week we will continue to examine exceptional aspects of his life.

Facet #3 – Extraordinary Dayan

The area of Halachah where Hacham Ovadia found his most extraordinary greatness is in the area of Dayanut, in dealing with extremely sensitive matters of personal status. At age 25, Rav Yosef was appointed a Dayan in 1945 by the great Sephardic chief rabbi Rav Ben Zion Uzziel, his first rabbinic position. Hacham Ovadia excelled in adjudicating the most delicate areas of Agunah (women unable to remarry due to uncertainty as to whether their husbands remain alive) and Mamzeirut (ineligibility to marry due to conception from illicit circumstances).

Rav Yosef exhibited utmost care, concern and compassion and issued thousands of creative and often courageous approaches to permit potential Agunot and Mamzeirim to remarry. Rav Eli Mansour, a leading Sephardic Rav from Brooklyn, New York, reports that of the nine thousand Agunot that Rav Yosef ruled they are free to remarry, not one of their husbands ever reappeared, thus corroborating the proper judgment exercised by Hacham Ovadia.

Rav Yonah Reiss of the Beth Din of America reports that about ten years ago he was struggling to discover a Halachic basis in which to rule that a certain individual is not a Mamzeir. After exhaustive research Rav Reiss was about to give up. The night after he lost hope he had a recurring dream in which the words Rav Ovadia Yosef repeated in his mind throughout his sleep. He resolved to submit the Mamzeirut question to Rav Yosef and sure enough within a few weeks he received a lengthy reply in which Rav Ovadia articulated a creative argument concluding that the individual is not a Mamzeir.

Hacham Ovadia’s greatest hour as a Dayan occurred in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur when nearly one thousand wives of married soldiers required Halachic verification that their husbands had perished in the war, in order for them to remarry. Rav Yosef for months focused only on these situations and found Halachic permission for each one of these women to remarry. Rav Yosef presents the Halachic basis at great length in Teshuvot Yabia Omer 6: Even HaEzer 3.

In an example of extraordinary heroism, Hacham Ovadia about ten years ago delayed emergency heart surgery that the doctor ordered he undergo immediately after experiencing a heart attack in order to devote a few hours to complete the Teshuvah he was writing to permit an Agunah to remarry. Rav Yosef feared that if he died on the operating table the woman would not find a Rav who would permit her to remarry.

The decision of Hacham Ovadia that had the most impact was the ruling he issued as Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel that Ethiopian Jews are Jewish, following the rulings of the Radbaz and his student the Maharikash. More than 80,000 Ethiopian Jews were rescued by the State of Israel as a direct result of Hacham Ovadia’s ruling. In Teshuvot Yabia Omer (8:11), Rav Yosef vigorously and persuasively articulates his assertion that the rulings of the Radbaz and Maharikash affirming the Jewish identity of Ethiopian Jews outweigh and supersede anthropologists’ arguments that the Ethiopian Jews are not Jewish. Rav Yosef cogently and forcefully defends his ruling against the dissenting opinions of Halachic giants such as Rav Yitzchak Herzog, Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Eliezer Waldenberg.

In his eulogy for Hacham Ovadia, Rav Shlomo Aviner relates the following poignant anecdote:

One day in our yeshiva, a student told me that he had gotten engaged. “Mazel Tov! I am happy to hear!" I said. "There is one problem, however," he added. "She is Ethiopian and I am a Kohein" (some authorities say that Ethiopians must go through a "Giyur LeChumrah – a conversion for stricture" since some are question their Judaism. A Kohein may not marry a convert). "Why did you get yourself involved in a complication like that?" I asked. "I didn't think about it," he replied. "I appreciate her and I love her. I didn't notice her color." I sent him to a few different great Rabbis, whose opinions I knew, but they feared putting their rulings in writing. I then turned to Maran HaRav Ovadia Yosef. The next day I received a letter permitting him to marry. “Take it,” I said to him, “it is a piece of paper worth a billion dollars.”

Facet #4 – Connecting with the Masses of Am Yisrael

Every truly great Gadol BeYisrael is not only successful in his discourse with Torah scholar, but is distinguished for his ability to relate to the wide masses of the Jewish People. For example, both the Ben Ish Hai and the Hafetz Haim commanded the awe and respect of their peers as well as the broader Jewish community who flocked to hear the lectures of these two great rabbis. In the United States, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik attracted the greatest scholars as well as thousands of ordinary Jews to their speeches.

The rousing Haskamot (rabbinic endorsements) of the first two volumes of Teshuvot Yabia Omer from the greatest Posekim alive in Yerushalayim in 1954 and 1955, Rav Zvi Pesach Frank, Rav Yitzchak Herzog, Rav Dov Ber Weidenfeld (author of Teshuvot Doveiv Meisharim), Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv testify as one hundred witnesses to the great respect to which Rav Yosef was held by the greatest of his older and contemporary rabbinic colleagues. The fact that nearly a million Jews attended Hacham Ovadia’s funeral stands in awesome testimony of the ability of Hacham Ovadia to connect with the masses of Jews. His radio broadcasts and his Motza’ei Shabbat Shiurim which were televised via closed circuit television worldwide attracted tens of thousands of devotees. I recall as a Yeshiva student in Israel very much enjoying listening to Hacham Ovadia’s radio broadcasts on Friday afternoon. I, together with tens of thousands of listeners, was enthralled with his clear presentation and captivating charismatic manner.

Hacham Ovadia was able to move vast audiences to reach closer to Hashem and His Holy Torah. Tens of thousands of people would throng to hear Hacham Ovadia deliver words of inspiration before Selihot recited a few days before Kippur at the Kotel HaMa’aravi. Rav Yosef was able to deeply move audiences of thousands at motivational assemblies devoted to bring Jews back to their Torah roots. Hacham Ovadia knew how to connect with his audiences and brought warmth and a sense of humor that drew his audiences close to him and more important to allegiance to Torah. Hacham Ovadia took every opportunity that time and health permitted to speak throughout Israel and often throughout the world to bring his special words of inspiration and spiritual uplift to as many Jews as possible.

Hacham Ovadia was also extraordinarily successful in reaching the masses of Jews through his writings. In the 1980’s Hacham Ovadia created a new genre of Halachic writing with his Teshuvot Yehaveh Da’at. These were simplified Teshuvot from which many people, ranging from extraordinary scholar to the average laymen, could prosper. Rav Yosef writes in an engaging, elegant and concise manner. The amount of substance Hacham Ovadia covers in a relatively short space is extraordinary. A prime example is Teshuvot Yehaveh Daat 1:75 where in only a few pages Rav Yosef succeeds in discussing and summarizing the great volume of Halachic literature that addresses the question of whether to first recite Havdalah or light Hanukah candles on the Motza’ei Shabbat of Hanukah.

With the help of his son Hacham Yitzhak, the Yalkut Yosef was written. These lengthy volumes codify Halachah for routine Jewish life and are summarized in two volumes of a Yalkut Yosef version of the Kitzur Shulhan Aruch. Hacham Ovadia’s Kitzur Shulhan Aruch has become a standard work in Sephardic synagogues and homes. This work renders Halachic practice in contemporary life accessible to all. Anyone with even just a basic knowledge of Hebrew can easily access these two volumes for quick guidance for most Halachic issues that a Jew will confront during his lifetime.

Finally, Rav Yosef, with help from his sons, has produced and advised Sephardic Siddurim such as Yehaveh Da’at and Ohr VaDerech that provide clear and concise Halachic guidance for every Sephardic Jew. Thus, in his countless public lectures and dozens of Sefarim was able to connect with hundreds of thousands of Jews.

Facet #5 – HaHazarat Atarah LeYoshenah: Restoring the Prestige of Sephardic Jewry

The twentieth century was a time of great upheaval for most of Sephardic Jewry. Sepharadim who had been living continuously in Arab countries for many centuries found themselves uprooted by entirely unjustified Arab violence in the wake of the United Nations decision in 1947 to partition Eretz Yisrael into Jewish and Arab States. Upon arrival in Israel and elsewhere Sephardic Jews unfortunately found that their age old and venerated Halachic practices and customs were often not accorded proper respect.

Rav Ovadia Yosef led a movement LeHahzir Atarah LeYoshenah, to restore the crown of the majestic Sephardic tradition to its original and rightful prestige. Three examples of Rav Ovadia’s Teshuvot Yabia Omer illustrate what is involved in this monumental project. In Yabia Omer 6: Orah Haim 10, Hacham Ovadia responds (in 1970) to a question regarding the Nusah of prayer at the Yeshiva High School in Afula. More than ninety percent of the students were Sephardic but yet the Tefillah at the school was conducted utilizing Nusah Sefarad (the Nusah commonly used by Ashkenazic Chassidic Jews which is primarily the Ashkenazic text with some Sephardic practices incorporated). The argument was made that this Nusah prepares the students for service in Tzahal and learning in Yeshivot Bnei Akiva where the Tefilah is (in those years) conducted using a similar Nusah designed to accommodate the mix of Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews in these venues.

Hacham Ovadia forcefully responds that since the overwhelming majority of the students in the Afula Yeshiva High School hailed from Sephardic families, proper Sephardic Siddurim should be used and Sephardic customs observed. He writes that it is the responsibility of administrators and teachers LeHahzir Atarah LeYoshenah to teach Sephardic students to take pride in their Sephardic heritage and observe Sephardic practices and customs.

Teshuvot Yabia Omer 10: Even HaEzer 34:6 records a heartrending story of a woman scheduled to remarry whose first Get was not recognized by the Beit Din of Petah Tikvah in 1957. The Get was conducted in Baghdad, Iraq before the woman made Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. A Dayan who is not Sephardic sat with Hacham Ovadia (the Av Beit Din of Petah Tikvah, the venerable Rav Reuven Katz, was sick and unable to attend that Beit Din that day) and argued that the Get was invalid due to improper transliteration of the husband’s name Victor. Hacham Ovadia argued vociferously for the Kashrut of the Get since it was transliterated properly according to Sephardic tradition. The Beit Din was deadlocked and the non-Sephardic Dayan ordered the woman to postpone her marriage. The woman cried in desperation, since her wedding was scheduled for that very day! Hacham Ovadia vigorously defended the validity of the Get and even resigned from the Beit Din in protest of his colleague’s intransigence.

When Rav Katz recovered and returned to the Beit Din, he sustained Hacham Ovadia’s ruling and arranged for the marriage to take place as soon as possible. He also apologized to both the woman and Hacham Ovadia and then convinced him to return to the Beit Din. Hacham Ovadia concludes, “This incident is carved in my heart all these years since then until now (the tenth volume of Yabia Omer was published in 2004) and a wise individual should listen and derive a lesson.”

 It is remarkable that even at a relatively young age (he was 37 in 1957) Hacham Ovadia was willing to defend Sephardic practice in the face of opposition of older colleagues. Another example of such courage at an early age is recorded in Teshuvot Yabia Omer 6: Even HaEzer 11, in which Rav Yosef requested a replacement Get be sent by the venerable Rav Eliezer Silver of Cincinnati, Ohio. Rav Silver was a great and forceful personality, but Rav Ovadia stood his ground in asking for Rav Silver to write a new Get in conformity with the accepted customs of Eretz Yisrael (a Get should be written in accordance with the customs of the locale in which it is delivered, Beit Shmuel 129:2). On a personal note, when I met Hacham Ovadia to receive his authorization to administer Gittin in 1993, he strongly urged me to administer Gittin for divorcing Sepharadim in accordance with Sephardic practice and to master the rules of transliterating Arabic and other names in accordance with Sephardic standards as set forth in Halachic works such as the Sheim Hadash.

A final example may be found in Teshuvot Yabia Omer 6 Even HaEzer 14. In 1950, the Sephardic and Ashkenazic Chief Rabbis, Rav Ben Zion Uzziel and Rav Yitzhak Herzog made a number of Takanot (enactments) to unify the Jewish People, such the acceptance of Heirem DeRabbeinu Gershon forbidding polygamy. Included in the Takanot was an agreement that all Jews would eschew Yibbum in all circumstances and opt for Halitzah instead when relevant God forbid.

Hacham Ovadia notes, however, the Sephardic Jews have accepted the rulings of Rambam and the Shulhan Aruch that Yibbum is preferred and to be encouraged. In 1951, at the age of 31, Rav Yosef courageously upheld Sephardic tradition and ruled that the Takanah of the Chief Rabbis is invalid. Rav Yosef did not make this ruling in a vacuum – he issued it acting as a Dayan on the Beit Din of Petah Tikvah in an actual case. The Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Rav Shalom Messas (Teshuvot Shemesh UMagein), supported Rav Yosef’s bold ruling and followed it in practice in actual Beit Din situations.

Next week we will conclude our tribute to Hacham Ovadia. 

Hacham Ovadia Yosef – The Most Accomplished Rav of Recent Generations - Part Three by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Hacham Ovadia Yosef – The Most Accomplished Rav of Recent Generations - Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter