May 24, 2024
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Hacham Ovadia Yosef zt”l – The Most Accomplished Rav of Recent Generations

The post-World War II generations have been blessed with many great and impactful Torah scholars such as my teacher Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Rav Moshe Feinstein, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, to name but a few. The impact these great rabbanim had may be measured by the attendance at their funerals which ranged from 100,000 to 300,000 people. However, the attendance of an estimated one million people at the recent funeral of Hacham Ovadia Yosef indicates that Hacham Ovadia had more impact on the Jewish People than any of his peers, including those in the lofty Gadol HaDor category.

The reaction to the death of Hacham Ovadia may be compared to the weeping of all the Jewish People in response to the death of Aharon (Bemidbar 20:29 with Rashi). Indeed, the fact that at Israeli soccer games held soon after Hacham Ovadia’s death a moment of silence of was observed demonstrates the profound impact Rav Yosef had even upon those far from the world of the beit midrash and yeshiva.

We attempt to accomplish an awesome task on the occasion of his first Azkarah: to properly assess the greatness of Hacham Ovadia and set forth the reasons why I believe Rav Yosef to be the most accomplished Rav of recent generations. We use the style of the Dayyeinu song we recite at our Sedarim to provide a proper perspective of Hacham Ovadia’s multi-faceted extraordinary talents and contributions. This Hespeid was originally delivered at Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck, where I have the privilege to serve as Rav of the Kehillah.

It is said that Rav Yosef could complete the sentence of every line in every Sefer in his voluminous home library. A glance at every page of the dozens of Sefarim he composed are replete with references to the full range of Torah sources from the well-known to the most obscure. Indeed, more than 500 sources appear in his 23-page long Teshuva addressing the use of hot water from a Dud Shemesh (solar water heater) on Shabbat (Teshuvot Yabia Omer 4:34). Each Teshuva written by Hacham Ovadia constitutes a virtual encyclopedia on every topic he addresses.

The following two stories depict his incomparable memory. It is well known that the Vatican library contains rare manuscripts of the writings of various Rishonim that the curators would not permit Jewish scholars to copy. For example, the Rashba’s commentary on Masechet Eruvin was available at the Vatican which scholars were permitted to read but forbidden to photocopy. The solution was to send Rav Yosef who after reading the Rashba on Eruvin committed the entire commentary to memory. Upon his return to Israel, Hacham Ovadia wrote the Rashba’s word for word from memory, which is how we have access to the Rashba to Masechet Eruvin today.

My friend Joel Steinmetz of Woodmere, New York told me of a skeptical attendee of one of Rav Yosef’s Shiurim who noted each of the 64 sources Rav Yosef cited to support a ruling he issued during the Shiur. He found it difficult to believe that each of these sources existed. The skeptic proceeded to engage in exhaustive research to investigate the accuracy of each of the sources cited. He found 63 of the sources were accurate but thought he had caught Rav Ovadia in an error regarding the 64th source. He approached Rav Yosef and told him that he searched throughout Israel for the 64th source and concluded it did not exist. Rav Yosef explained that he saw the source in a sefer he found in a shtiebel located in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, New York.

Hacham Ovadia’s Teshuvot are not mere encyclopedic lists of opinions. He did not make halachic opinions simply by adding up the number of authorities who supported a particular approach and rule in accordance with the majority. Hacham Ovadia addresses each and every issue exercising skilled and sound halachic and practical judgment that in most cases is just as helpful to Ashkenazic Poskim as it is to Sephardic Poskim (Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata extensively quotes from Hacham Ovadia; Rav Hershel Schachter once commented, “Every Teshuvah of Rav Ovadia is beautiful”; Rav Mordechai Willig regularly cites Rav Ovadia in his rulings). Rav Yosef unabashedly very often supported the lenient approach to many issues, citing the Gemara’s phrase Koha D’Heteirah Adif–the power of the lenient approach in halacha is greater, since one must thoroughly master a topic before issuing a lenient ruling.

The most outstanding example of Rav Yosef adopting a lenient approach is his Sefer Taharat HaBayit, a very comprehensive presentation of Hilchot Niddah. There are three premier sefarim addressing Hilchot Niddah addressing the special issues and concerns that have arisen due to advances in technology–the Badei HaShulhan (written by Rav Feivel Cohen of Flatbush), the Shiurei Sheivet HaLevi (written by Rav Shmuel Wosner of Bnei Brak, Israel) and Rav Yosef’s Taharat HaBayit. The first two sefarim are quite strict and appropriate for the halahic elite for whom the strict approach is appropriate. Taharat HaBayit, on the other hand, is quite lenient regarding many issues. Rav Yosef felt he needed to compose a work that was appropriate for the entire Jewish people. The lives of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews are enriched and improved by Rav Yosef’s reasonable approach. Had Rav Yosef not published this work, a serious void in the Jewish community would exist.

We should clarify that Rav Yosef did not always promote the lenient approach. In fact, there were certain strict rulings that Hacham Ovadia vigorously encouraged, such as wearing not only Rashi but also Tefillin whose Parshiyot are arranged according to Rabbeinu Tam’s approach (Yalkut Yosef, Kitzur Shulhan Aruch 31:3; I heard a recording of a Shiur in which Rav Yosef tell his audience that their attendance at his Shiur constitutes prima facie evidence that they are on a significantly high spiritual level that they should wear Rabbeinu Tam’s Tefillin). He also strongly encouraged (see, for example, Yalkut Yosef Kitzur Shulhan Aruch 624:5) waiting to end Shabbat until it is over according to Rabbeinu Tam’s strict opinion (72 minutes after sunset) and insisted (Teshuvot Yehave Da’at 3:56) that Sepharadim eat only meat defined as glatt by the highest standards (Beit Yosef Glatt). It is well known that Hacham Ovadia forbids women from wearing sheitels (see, for example, Teshuvot Yabia Omer 6:13), despite the preference of many Jewish families (we should note that many great Sephardic Poskim such as Rav Shalom Messas in his Teshuvot Shemesh UMagein disagree). Nonetheless, on balance Hacham Ovada preferred presenting the lenient approach as a viable option so that halachic observance would be practical and accessible for all Jews, not only the halachic elite.

The area of halacha where Hacham Ovadia found his most extraordinary greatness is in the area of Dayanut, in dealing with extremely sensitive matters of personal status. At the age 25 Rav Yosef was appointed a Dayan, his first rabbinic position, in 1945 by the great Sephardic chief rabbi Rav Ben Zion Uzziel. 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 reports that of the 9,000 agunot that Rav Yosef ruled they are free to remarry, not one of their husbands ever reappeared, thus corroborating his decisions.

Hacham Ovadia’s greatest hour as a Dayan occurred in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War when nearly 1,000 wives required halachic verification that their husbands had perished in the war in order for them to remarry. Rav Yosef for months focused only on this issue and found halachic permission for each one of these women to remarry. (Rav Yosef’s presents the halachic basis at great length in Teshuvot Yabia Omer 6: Even HaEzer 3.)

In an example of extraordinary heroism, Hacham Ovadia delayed emergency heart surgery that the doctor ordered he undergo 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 ruling 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 invalidate anthropologists’ arguments that the Ethiopian Jews are not truly Jewish. Rav Yosef then cogently and forcefully defended 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 Cohain” (some authorities say that Ethiopians must go through a “Giyur Le-Chumrah–a conversion for stricture” since some question their Judaism. A Cohain 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.”

Our next column will iyH continue our Hespeid in honor of the first Azhakarah of Hacham Ovadia.

By Rabbi Haim (Howard) Jachter

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