As tens of thousands prayed for the recovery of the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Haim Ovadia Yosef, he passed away on Monday, October 7, 2013, at the age of 93, with his family and close colleagues, including several Shas leaders and President Shimon Peres at his side.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia Yosef was the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, a noted Talmudic scholar and leading Halakhic authority.
He served as the spiritual leader of the Shas political party in the Knesset. His Halakhic responsa are highly regarded within Orthodox circles and are considered binding in many Sephardic communities, where he was regarded as the most important living Halachic authority.
Rabbi Yosef was born in Baghdad, Iraq on September 23, 1920, the day after the Yom Kippur. In 1924, when he was four years old, he immigrated to Jerusalem with his family, then under British rule. As a teenager he studied at the Porat Yosef Yeshiva, where distinguished himself as a top student. Yosef’s father ran a small grocery, but the family knew times of poverty. He received rabbinic ordination at the early age of 20.
In 1947, Rabbi Yosef was invited to Cairo to teach in a yeshiva. He also served as head of the Cairo rabbinical court. Following a conflict between him and other members of the community he resigned from his position, two years after having arrived in Cairo. Approximately one year after his resignation, he returned to what had become the State of Israel.
After returning to Israel, Yosef served on the rabbinical court in Petah Tikva, where his bold religious authority was already being revealed.
In 1952 he published his first book, on the laws of Pesach, titled “Chazon Ovadia.” The book won much praise and received the approval of, among others, the two Chief Rabbis of Israel at that time, Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel and Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog.
Two years later, Rabbi Yosef founded the Or HaTorah Yeshiva for gifted Sephardic Yeshiva students. This Yeshiva, which did not remain open for long, was the first of many which he established, later with the help of his sons, in order to facilitate Torah education for Sephardic Jews and establish the leadership of the community for future generations. In 1954 and 1956 he published the first two volumes of his major work “Yabia Omer,” which also received much praise. Rabbi Yosef’s responsa are noted for citing almost every source regarding a specific topic and are often referred to simply as indices of all previous rulings.
Between 1958 and 1965 Rabbi Yosef served as a magistrate in the Jerusalem district religious court. He was then appointed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Appeals in Jerusalem, eventually becoming the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel Aviv in 1968, a position which he held until his election as Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel in 1973.
In 1973 Yosef was elected the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel by a majority of 81 to 68 votes. His candidacy was criticized by some as he was competing against an incumbent Chief Rabbi. The election process was characterized by tension and political controversy. During his years as Chief Rabbi, Yosef dealt with a variety of important social and Halachic issues.
In April 2005, Israeli security services arrested three members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), who had been observing Rabbi Yosef in public and were held on the suspicion of his intended murder. One of them, Musa Darwish, was convicted on December 15, 2005 of Rabbi Yossef’s attempted murder and of throwing firebombs at vehicles on the Jerusalem-Ma’aleh Adumim road. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison and three years probation.
He remained an active public figure in political and religious life in his capacity as the spiritual leader of the Shas political party and through his regular sermons.
His health weakened over the past year. On January 13, 2013 Rabbi Yosef was released from hospital after a minor stroke. On September 24, 2013 he was reportedly put into an induced sleep and was being aided by a breathing respirator. He showed some signs of recovering, but finally succumbed to his illness.
Rabbi Yosef leaves a vast gap in his absence. As the official announcement was made, his fervent group of followers gathered at the hospital, breaking down in tears. One of the Shas rabbis related to Israeli press that following the former chief rabbi’s passing, he now feels “orphaned.”