Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, died on Monday in Jerusalem at the age of 93.
Over the years, Yosef served in wide variety of roles: he was a kingmaker in Israeli politics, president of the Shas party's Council of Torah Sages, Israel's former Sephardi chief rabbi, an Israel Prize laureate and more.
However, among Yosef's titles and accolades, two are especially important to note: he was one of the foremost interpreters of religious law in recent generations, his name appearing on several historic religious rulings, and he was the adored symbol of hundreds of thousands of Jews of Middle Eastern descent in Israel and around the world. He served as a symbol for both the emerging class-based political protest, and also for a Sephardi cultural renaissance focusing on the legacy of Sephardi halakha.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was born in Baghdad in 1920 to Yaakov and Georgia Youssef, and given the name Abdullah. The entire family immigrated to Palestine when Ovadia was four years old, settling down in Jerusalem.
Even from childhood, though he was required to help support the family, Ovadia's genius and predisposition for learning Torah were evident. He wrote his first insights into Jewish law at the age of nine and three years later began studying at Yeshivat Porat Yosef, under the sponsorship of the rosh yeshiva (the dean of the institution).
At the age of 17, Ovadia had already become a controversial figure among the Iraqi Jewish community when he dared to argue during his lessons with the rulings of the greatest religious judge of the Babylonian Jewish community the Ben Ish Hai, and advocated the more lenient rulings of Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch. Advocating the rulings of Rabbi Karo as the supreme religious authority for all Jews of Middle Eastern origin, thereby blurring the religious differences among Jews originating from different Muslim countries, became part Rabbi Ovadia’s life project.
Ovadia was ordained as a rabbi by Palestine's then-Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel in 1940. In 1944 he married his wife, Margalit Fattal, and was already serving as a rabbinical court judge, or dayyan, by middle of the decade. In 1947 Ovadia and his young family were sent to Cairo by Rabbi Uziel to serve as the head of the rabbinical court there, but his stay was cut short due to his disagreements with the local community. Ovadia began serving as a dayyan at the Petah Tikva Rabbinical Court in 1950, but dedicated his energy into writing his halakhic texts, “Hazon Ovadia” and the “Yabia Omer.”
Though he was just a young rabbi, the Ashkenazi sages of the generation gave their support to Ovadia, including Rabbi Isaac Herzog, Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. Auerbach even wrote in a foreword for one of the volumes of “Yabia Omer” that Ovadia was, “one of the Torah giants that have arisen among the Jewish people in recent generations.” At age 45, Ovadia had already been appointed to the Jerusalem's Great Rabbinical Court. Three years later, Ovadia also started serving simultaneously as Tel Aviv's Sephardi chief rabbi. In 1970, Ovadia became an Israel Prize laureate in the category of Torah literature for his principal Halakhic writing, “Yabia Omer,” even though some of its volumes had yet to be published.
Ovadia was elected Israel's Sephardi chief rabbi in 1973 alongside Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren (with whom he clashed most of the time), and his halakhic rulings soon entered history. In one detailed and well-reasoned ruling, Rabbi Ovadia permitted women whose husbands were missing in the Yom Kippur War to remarry without needing to seek a divorce; in another he ruled that Ethiopian group the Beta Israel, also known as the Falash Mura, were Jewish, thus enabling the African community to immigrate to Israel through the Law of Return. In 1983, he was forced to resign from the rabbinate due to the law that limits chief rabbi's terms to 10 years, but continued to serve as a dayyan for the rabbinical court.