April 14, 2024
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April 14, 2024
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Hacham Ovadia Yosef zt”l The Most Accomplished Rav of Recent Generations (Part III)

This week we complete our honoring the memory of Hacham Ovadia Yosef on the occasion of his first Azkarah. We conclude by presenting three more facets of his greatness.

Facet #6: Unifying Sephardic Practice

Yet another major contribution would have been sufficient for us to consider Hacham Ovadia as the most accomplished Rav of the past half century. Sephardic Jews hail from a wide variety of countries and maintain a dizzying array of customs. Yemenite Jews (properly described as Eidot HaMizrah), for example, maintain practices that differ significantly from Sephardic Jews.

Moreover, there are three major sub groups Baladi, Shami and Dor Daim. The first generation of immigrants to Israel and elsewhere was able to maintain their specific Minhagim since immigrants tend to cluster and reside among those who emigrated from the same region. However, in subsequent generations people no longer live in such groups. Thus, it is not uncommon to find in one community Sepharadim who hail from a wide variety of countries. For example, at Congregation Shaarei Orah in Teaneck (the Kehillah I have the privilege of serving as its Rav) includes Sephardic families who come from 13 countries (Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen).

In such communities, which Sephardic customs should be followed? How can a compromise be forged between the myriad of Sephardic customs? Hacham Ovadia came to the rescue with a halachic approach presenting, in Yalkut Yosef and in siddurim published under his auspices, unified customs suitable for all Sephardic Jews that accentuate Minhag Yerushalayim and the rulings of Rav Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch. Rav Yosef often writes that Rav Yosef is the Mara D’atra, the Halachic authority for Eretz Yisrael and ultimately for all Sephardic Jewry. Hundreds of Kehillot in Israel and outside of Israel, such as Congregation Shaarei Orah in Teaneck, rally around Yalkut Yosef and Rav Yosef endorsed siddurim to create a coherent and unified Sephardic custom suitable and appropriate for all Sephardic and Eidot HaMizrah Jews.

Facet #7: Educating Jewish Children: Rav Yosef’s Political Activities

What is undoubtedly the most controversial aspect of Hacham’s Ovadia’s accomplishments are his political activities. Many Rabbanim would argue that Rabbanim should stay far removed from politics since almost by definition politics is divisive and controversial. It is important, though, to understand why Hacham Ovadia in the last 30 years of his life was a leading Rav, Poseik and Dayan and reigned as one of the major political leaders in Israel.

Rav Shlomo Aviner in his eulogy for Hacham Ovadia presented a poignant quote from Rav Ovadia which succinctly explains his choice to enter politics in 1984 after completing his ten-year tenure as Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. He cited Hacham Ovadia saying that he cannot sleep at night worrying about how 10,000 more Jewish children will be reading Keriat Sh’ma. Hacham Ovadia was a great man who had great ambitions and plans for the Jewish people, especially Sephardic Jewry. Hacham Ovadia understood that the only manner in which he would be able to make a profound and lasting impact on the education of Jewish children in Israel is by becoming a powerful part of the Israeli government. Rav Yosef understood that the Israeli government has more influence over Jewish children than any other organizations combined. He realized that if he became an influential part of the Israeli government his impact could be extraordinary.

Hacham Ovadia also recognized that he lived in a time of extraordinary spiritual crisis and opportunity. The transition into the modern era was a difficult one for many Jews in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities. Tragically, many were lost to Torah observance and ultimately lost their Jewish identity entirely in the course of a few generations. However, in most cases, those Sephardic Jews who stopped observing Torah completely nonetheless remained “traditional.” They would, for example, honor the holidays, light candles and recite Kiddush every Friday night and observe Kashrut at least at home. Moreover, they would retain belief in the fundamentals of Torah belief and respect for Rabbis and Torah.

It is relatively easy to shepherd traditional and believing Sepharadim to Torah belief due to this residual observance and belief. Hacham Ovadia knew very well, though, that traditional Judaism has a “limited shelf life.” Such residual practices and beliefs are difficult to transmit to succeeding generations and the allegiance to Torah becomes diluted as the generations pass. Thus, Hacham Ovadia knew he had a limited window of opportunity to reach out to the masses of traditional Sephardic Jews and Lehahzir Atarah L’yoshenah, restore their full observance and allegiance to a Torah way of life. If he did not act when he did tens of thousands of families would most likely lose any semblance of Jewish observance for eternity.

Hacham Ovadia’s political success permitted him to lead to the building of the El HaMa’ayan Sephardic school system. The school day was made extra longer to provide parents, especially poor parents, coverage for their children while they were at work. El HaMaayan schools would also provide quality meals to the children during longer school hours, making the schools even more attractive to traditional Sephardic Jews, especially to those who are poor.

We must emphasize that this teaching of Kriat Sh’ma and providing food to tens of thousands of Jewish children, could have been accomplished only by the Israeli government and only by those who have major clout in the Israeli government. Hacham Ovadia’s involvement in politics facilitated teaching Torah and feeding tens of thousands of poor Jews. For this alone Hacham Ovadia deserves to be regarded as a man of extraordinary accomplishments.

It is important to remember that politics anywhere is a very rough and tumble sort of enterprise and in Israel it is even more so (as anyone who has watched the Knesset in action has observed). Thus, the words of an Israeli politician will often be expressed sharply and will not be well-received by many. Accordingly, even if we do not agree with everything Hacham Ovadia uttered in his role as the leader of a political party, we must understand that Rav Yosef did so in the pursuit to insure that as many Jewish children as possible be adequately fed and taught to read the Shema.

I am certain that however we evaluate his political activity, Hacham Ovadia’s intentions were directed purely and entirely to Hashem. I am certain of this because of two facts. My Talmid Rav Ezra Frazer reports that when the Orthodox Union decided to open Israeli branches of its NCSY youth outreach program, its leaders met with Hacham Ovadia. Hacham Ovadia, the leaders report, was convinced of the sincerity and Torah fidelity of its leaders and said “I have 17 members of Knesset at your service to help further your programs.” We see that Hacham Ovadia saw his political involvement as focused on furthering Torah observance even by organizations whose style and character differed significantly from Shas schools and programs.

Moreover, in his writings Hacham Ovadia refers to Religious Zionist Posekim such as Rav Kook and Rav Herzog as HaRav HaGaon. Hacham Ovadia regularly visited Yeshivot Hesder and Yeshivot Bnei Akiva to deliver shiurim. He visited Yeshiva University a number of times and showed deep respect for my teachers Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and Rav Hershel Schachter. Rav Ovadia Yosef endorsed in writing the Rabbinical Council of America’s prenuptial agreement and endorsed in writing a permission to remarry issued by the Beth Din of America to an agunah from the World Trade Center terrorist attack (Teshuvot Yabia Omer 10: Even HaEzer 18). Hacham Ovadia consented to have this Teshuvah translated into English and included in a publication of the Beth Din of America. On a personal note, Hacham Ovadia’s 1993 endorsement of my credentials as a Mesader Gittin (Jewish Divorce Administrator) is a signature, to paraphrase Rav Aviner, worth a billion dollars to both me and the people I have serviced.

Similarly, Rav Yosef (see, for example, Teshuvot Yabia Omer 10: Even Haezer 14) refers to Rav Eliashiv as Yedideinu, our friend, even though the styles of these two eminent Torah scholars differed significantly.

I am convinced that Rav Yosef’s political involvement was intended purely to advance the cause of Torah in a manner that is unparalleled in scope and reach. Thus, I firmly believe that when judged objectively we can say had Hacham Ovadia only served as the political leader of Shas he would considered a great man.

Facet #8: Students

Fortunately, Hacham Ovadia did not leave us without great leaders to follow in his path. Among his most outstanding Talmidim are his son Hacham Yitzhak (the current Sephardic chief rabbi of the State of Israel), his son Hacham David, Rav Pinhas Zabihi, Rav Shmuel Pinhasi and Rav Shlomo Amar. Although no one can completely fill Hacham Ovadia’s shoes, he trained enough great scholars and leaders who will guide us to follow in Hacham Ovadia’s path.


The breadth of Hacham Ovadia’s wide ranging Torah accomplishments are unparalleled and unequaled by any other great rabbi of the past fifty years. While many of the Gedolim share some of Hacham Ovadia’s accomplishments and may exceed him in certain specific areas, no one can compare to his multi-faceted and wide ranging areas of outstanding accomplishments. The giant of Torah has fallen, but we are left an unparalleled legacy of greatness which will inspire our and future generations to devote ourselves to excellence in Torah study, activity and living. We thank Hashem for having sent Hacham Ovadia at the perfect time–a time of extraordinary spiritual challenge and crisis–and for giving him the extraordinary talents that facilitated his rescue of the spiritual life of hundreds of thousands of Jews worldwide.

By Rabbi Haim Jachter

Rav of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck

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