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The Crucial Role of Rav Ovadia Hedaya in Sephardic Life

Even most Sephardic Jews have not heard of Rav Ovadia Hedaya. Yet, Chacham Hedaya played and continues to play a crucial role in Sephardic life.

Typical Gadol Stories

At first glance, Rav Hedaya seems to a typical “gadol,” great Torah scholar. The major contours of his biography may be recounted about dozens of other great rabbinic figures.

He was born in Aleppo, Syria (a major center of Torah life, Torah scholarship and rabbinic leadership), to a rabbinic line in 1890 on both his parents’ sides of the family. His mother was from the Labaton family, a major rabbinic family in Aleppo.

His family moved to Jerusalem in 1895 and young Ovadia flourished in the great Torah opportunities offered in early-20-century Yerushalayim. As is typical for Sephardic students, he progressed not only in study of nigleh (non-esoteric portions of the Torah) but in nistar/Kabbalah studies as well.

Young Ovadia was extremely diligent in Torah studies. The story is told that Chacham Shalom, father of Chacham Hedaya, was very fearful for his son’s eyesight, as he himself suffered from loss of vision as he entered old age. He would warn his son not to learn at night at the candlelight so that he would not strain his eyes. Chacham Ovadia did not wish to cause his father anguish, so he would go to sleep when his father would—only to wake up a bit later and study at the candlelight until dawn. The Arab guard would lament: “I’m rarely needed at the Hedaya home, as the candle burns all night!”

He went on to marry the daughter of Chacham Ezra Chrem, Rabbanit Salha (Shulamit). He began in 1923 to serve as a rosh metivta at the great Sephardic Yeshiva Porat Yosef and the Sephardic Kabbalah-based yeshiva known as Yeshivat Bet El, both located in Jerusalem’s Old City. He also served on the Sephardic Bet Din of Yerushalayim.

Rav Hedaya moved to Petach Tikva in 1939 where he served as the rav of the Sephardic community. A number of years later he returned to Yerushalayim and in 1951 was named to the Bet Din HaGadol L’Irurim, the Supreme Bet Din of the Israeli rabbinate.

Rav Hedaya was also a prolific author, composing eight highly acclaimed volumes of teshuvot (responses to halachic inquiries; his are entitled Teshuvot Yaskil Avdi), which are often cited until this very day. He wrote commentaries on Shas and the Rambam as well as works on Kabbalah. He was renowned for his fine character and sensitivity. He died in 1969 and was eulogized by the great Rav Mordechai Eliyahu at his levaya.

Rav Hedaya’s Two Crucial Roles

So far we have recounted a story that could basically have been told (in basic form) about dozens of other great rabbanim. What makes Chacham Hedaya’s life so unique?

The answer lies in the time in which he lived. During the 1930s to the 1960s, Chacham Yitzchak Yosef recounts, Rav Hedaya was regarded as the posek hador, the posek of the highest authority in the Sephardic community. At that time there was a terrible dearth of Sephardic poskim of first rank that were grappling with the issues of the day. Chacham Yitzchak recounts that when his father, Rav Ovadia Yosef, and his learning partner, the great Chacham Ben Zion Abba Shaul, were youngsters, a peak event for them was the publication of a new volume of Yaskil Avdi.

Despite their extreme poverty, they would scrape together the money and purchase the volume and excitedly pore through it. There were so few new Sephardic teshuvot of this caliber being published at that time that Chacham Yosef and Chacham Abba Shaul regarded Rav Hedaya’s teshuvot as rare ultra-precious jewels.

Thus, Rav Hedaya preserved a tradition of Sephardic teshuvot at a time when he had extremely few peers and served to inspire the next generation of Sephardic poskim of first rank. He was almost the only great Sephardic posek of his age to address newly emerging issues such as Hallel on Yom HaAtzma’ut (to be recited at the end of tefillah without a bracha), a Sephardic ba’al toke’a reciting Shechehiyanu on the second day of Rosh HaShana for an Ashkenazic congregation (he forbids) and the recital of a haftarah by a Sephardic Jew for an Ashkenazic community (he permits).

If this were not enough, Rav Hedaya played another crucial role in Jewish life. The fall of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1948 to the Jordanians was a catastrophe for the Jewish people. We were shut off from access to the Kotel for 19 terrible years. However, for the Sephardic Torah community there was an added layer of disaster. The two beacons of Sephardic Torah in Eretz Yisrael, Yeshivat Porat Yosef and the Yeshivat Bet El LeMekubalim, were both destroyed.

While the great Rosh Yeshiva Rav Ezra Attia rebuilt Porat Yosef in the western portion of Jerusalem, Rav Ovadya Hedaya rebuilt the Yeshivat Bet El LeMekubalim in that Israeli controlled section of the city. After the liberation of the Old City in 1967, Chacham Hedaya began the effort to restore the original location of the Yeshivat Bet El, a task that was completed by his son.

To understand the magnitude of this accomplishment let us recall that Yeshivat Bet El was established by the legendary Rav Shalom Sharaby in the mid-18th century in Jerusalem’s Old City. The continuity of this great institution was preserved by Chacham Hedaya. The flourishing Yeshivat Bet El that we see today in the Old City of Jerusalem exists due to the heroic efforts of Rav Hedaya to preserve this yeshiva at a time when it was exceedingly difficult to do so and while he was already burdened with his duties at the beit din, Moetzet HaRabbanut HaRashit L’Yisrael, and his role as posek hador.

Conclusion

We are witness today to a vibrant and growing Sephardic Torah community both in Halacha and Kabbalah. However, during Rav Hedaya’s time, this community was miniscule and in grave danger of being extinguished. Rav Hedaya kept the fire going, enlarged it and paved the way for its renaissance. The Sephardic community owes a great debt to Rav Hedaya that is not yet widely acknowledged. The time has come for the name and teachings of Rav Hedaya to be restored to its rightful place in the Sephardic and broader Jewish community.

Zechuto yagen aleinu, may his neshama serve as a merit to protect and strengthen all of Am Yisrael!


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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