Rabbi Chain Ovadia Yosef, unarguably the greatest Sephardi Torah sage and one of the most influential political leaders of the past 40 years, died in Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital Monday after several months of deteriorating health.
Hundreds of thousands of people are expected at his funeral, which will begin at 6 p.m. (11 a.m. EDT) at the Porat Yosef Yeshiva and he will be buried in the cemetery at Sanhedria in Jerusalem. Several main streets will be closed.
Political and religious leaders from the entire spectrum in Israel immediately offered condolences and expressions of sorrow. Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau, who was in the rabbi’s room shortly before he died, tore one of his clothes, the custom among Jews after a close relative dies. Knesset Member Aryeh Deri, who was Rav Ovadia’s closest political aide for years, was barely able to be understood on public radio because of his weeping.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated, “Rabbi Ovadia was a giant in Torah and Jewish law and a teacher for tens of thousands. He worked greatly to enhance Jewish heritage and at the same time, his rulings took into consideration the times and the realities of renewed life in the State of Israel.
“He was imbued with love of the Torah and the people. I very much appreciated his convivial personality and his directness. In my meetings with him, I always learned very much. The Jewish People have lost one of the wisest men of this generation.”
Rav Ovadia, as he was known to millions, has been in and out of the hospital several times this year.
He had not left the hospital since September 21, and was placed under sedation several times. His condition improved somewhat Saturday night and Sunday morning, but doctors said Monday morning he was “facing a total system collapse,” and he was pronounced dead at 1:25 p.m. (6:25 a.m. EDT).
The name “Chaim” was added last week, according to the Jewish custom to change the name of a critically sick person as a sign of a change of ways to repentance of the patient and of those praying for his recovery.
Rav Ovadia was by all accounts a giant in the world of Torah. He was widely applauded and criticized for controversial views, both in the world of Jewish law and in politics.
He leaves behind a treasury of Jewish thought and rulings on law. From the political standpoint, his cherished Shas Sephardi religious party will be sorely tested to continue its influence and political weight without Rav Ovadia’s guiding hand.
He was born in Iraq in 1920 and moved to Jerusalem at the age of four. By the age of nine already was writing comments on centuries-old Jewish thought, and his brilliancy was so outstanding that his yeshiva rabbi sought out Rav Ovadia when he stopped coming to learn at the Porat Yosef Yeshiva. The senior rabbi discovered that Rav Ovadia was working at a small grocery store to help his impoverished father. The following morning, the senior rabbi, Ezra Attiya, took Rav Ovadia’s place in the store so the brilliant student could continue to learn Torah.
Rav Ovadia was ordained as a rabbi at the age of 20, Before Israel became a recognized modern state, he moved to Cairo to teach in a yeshiva, and he returned to Israel in 1949. The following year, at the age of 20, he already was delivering rulings on Jewish law that contradicted those of senior rabbis, including the Chief Rabbi of Israel.
Rav Ovadia became Chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel in 1973, competing against an incumbent. His son Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef was elected to the same post several weeks ago.
He was known for his lenient rulings and his criticism of the elitist Ashkenazi religious structure, some of whose leaders wore jealously on their shoulders for years. His leniency is credited for keeping tens of thousands of younger Sephardi Jews in Israel from leaving tradition completely, even if they were not considered “orthodox,” especially by Ashkenazi rabbis who often took the most stringent views.
His personality and rulings made his followers feel they were good Jews even if they were not totally observant, instead of cutting them off from the community.
Rav Ovadia was immensely popular among the Sephardi community, both rich and poor. He fought for improving their social conditions, which generally was on the lower end of the scale during the 1950s and 1960s, when the “establishment” closed its doors to many Sephardi Jaws in the world of academia and politics.
His political power was immense, and he often was in the position of making or breaking government coalitions. His nod of approval to join the Rabin-Peres government was critical , especially when he supported the Oslo Accords.
Below is a video of rare visit of Rav Ovadia to the Belz Yeshiva last year.
About the Author: Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu is a graduate in journalism and economics from The George Washington University. He has worked as a cub reporter in rural Virginia and as senior copy editor for major Canadian metropolitan dailies. Tzvi wrote for Arutz Sheva for several years before joining the Jewish Press.
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