Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Sephardi chief rabbi and Shas spiritual leader, dies at 93

By Yehuda Shlezinger and Israel Hayom/JNS.org

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel and the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Shas party, died Monday at the Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem of complications from multiple organ failure. He was 93 years old.

Click photo to download. Caption: Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef shakes hands with Israeli President Shimon Peres at a Sept. 16 ceremony at the Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai Synagogue in Jerusalem during which his son, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, officially became the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Yosef suffered a mild stroke in January, and his health had been steadily deteriorating since. He was hospitalized just over two weeks ago with a host of medical problems, including kidney and heart failure and sepsis.

More than 800,000 people filled the streets of Jerusalem for Yosef’s funeral on Monday. He was renowned in the Jewish world as one of its foremost Talmudic scholars and halachic authorities. He penned dozens of books and was awarded the 1955 Rabbi Kook Prize for Religious Literature, as well as the 1970 Israel Prize for Religious Literature.

“A great man is gone. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, blessed be his memory, whose passing is mourned by the people of Israel as a whole, was the minister of Torah of our time. Rabbi Ovadia was a giant of our generation, a scholar of immense knowledge in the halacha, an authoritarian and daring decisor and the spiritual leader of tens of thousands of people,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

“He was a great man,” said Israeli President Shimon Peres. “Greatness is not measured, it is felt, like the wind that sweeps across the farthest of corners, bringing light to unexpected places. Even when he did not spare the rod, he always loved his children. He was the defender of all men and the prosecutor of all wrongs. He was never idle, always studying the Torah and seeking ways to adapt it to new realities.”

Born Sept. 23, 1920, in Baghdad, Iraq, his family immigrated to Jerusalem in 1924, and as a teenager he studied at the Porat Yosef Yeshiva. He was ordained as a rabbi in 1940, at the age of 20. Yosef and his wife, Margalit, were married in 1944. She passed away in 1994, at the age of 67.

In 1947, Rabbi Aharon Choueka, the founder of Yeshivat Ahavah Veachvah in Cairo, invited Yosef to teach in his yeshiva. While in Egypt, and at the request of Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, he served as head of the Cairo rabbinical court and also as the deputy chief rabbi of Egypt.

Yosef returned to Israel in 1949 and served on the Petach Tikvah Rabbinical Court. In 1952 he published his first book, “Chazon Ovadia” (“Ovadia’s Vision”), on the laws of Passover, which was critically acclaimed in religious and academic circles alike. In 1954 and 1956 he published the first two volumes of “Yabia Omer,” a question-and-answer-style series of books, which would eventually grow to include 10 volumes. The series is considered his most prominent literary work.

Between 1958 and 1965, Yosef served as a religious judge on the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court. He was then appointed

to the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Appeals in Jerusalem, eventually becoming the chief Sephardi rabbi of Tel Aviv in 1968, a position that he held until his election as chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel in 1973.

In April 2005, Israeli security services uncovered a plot by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terror group to assassinate Yosef. Three men were arrested over the plot and one, Musa Darwish, was convicted of the attempted murder of the rabbi. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison and three years' probation.

Yosef served as the spiritual leader of the Shas party since its inception in 1982. In 1984, when Shas was elected to the Knesset for the first time, Yosef formed the Council of Torah Sages, the body that holds that top rabbinic authority in Shas. Under his leadership, Shas became a pivotal player in Israeli politics, and has cast the deciding vote in numerous political battles.

Yosef was responsible for several breakthrough halachic rulings, including allowing more than 1,000 women—the wives of Israeli soldiers who were killed in Israel’s wars and declared military fatalities whose resting places were unknown—to remarry, in a decree known as "the release of agunot"; declaring a collective recognition of the Jewishness of Ethiopian Jews, and in more recent years, ordering the Shas party to vote in favor of a law recognizing brain death as death for legal purposes.

The rabbi was also no stranger to controversy, often garnering media attention for comments on nonreligious matters on the public agenda. He often targeted individuals whom he deemed perilous to Judaism or those who criticized Shas.

He once noted that the public should “hold a feast” in the event of Meretz leader Shulamit Aloni’s death and called her fellow party member Yossi Sarid “the devil” and an “Amalek” (the biblical archenemy of the Israelites). He wished for the “ruination of the home” of Attorney-General Michael Ben-Yair, who in 1993 pushed to indict Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri effectively forcing him out of politics, and said the same of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Yosef also lashed out at the Israeli legal system, and urged the religious public to refrain from using the services of the courts in civil matters, since they were headed by judges he called “wicked and reckless.”

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is survived by 10 children.

This story first appeared in Israel Hayom, whose English language content is distributed exclusively by JNS.org.

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Posted on October 7, 2013 and filed under Israel, News.