Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, 93, Passes Away

Ovadya Yosef (1) 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.

Ovadya Yosef (4)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.

Ovadya Yosef (3)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.

Ovadya Yosef (2)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.”

Always Thinking of Others

Rabbi Hirsch Diskind will be remembered as personable, warm, compassionate and straightforward. (Provided)

Rabbi Hirsch Diskind will be remembered as personable, warm, compassionate and straightforward. (Provided)

Often when people refer to someone as a “legend,” it is assumed that the person is larger-than-life, unapproachable or perhaps even arrogant.

Rabbi Hirsch Diskind was none of these.

Rabbi Diskind, the dean emeritus at Bais Yaakov School for Girls and a cornerstone figure in Jewish Baltimore, was personable, warm, compassionate and straightforward. And it was these qualities, along with countless others, that made his mission to positively
impact generations of students a resounding triumph. Rabbi Diskind passed away last Saturday. He was 91.

His mission of a commitment to academics, coupled with a connection to Jewish life, was in large part accepted and absorbed because of the keen way in which it was disseminated. It’s a message that, to this day, still reverberates in the hallways at Bais Yaakov and will for years to come.

“The most striking quality of Rabbi Diskind was his sweetness, his softness, his ability to relate in a respectful, caring way with everyone,” said Dr. Yoel Jakobovits, Bais Yaakov’s education board chairman. “He had the ability, on the one hand, to stand for the school’s mission and to stand for the school’s tradition in a sincere and authentic way, and at the same time he was able to present that through his remarkably sweet disposition.”

Said Rabbi Moshe Heinemann during his eulogy of Rabbi Diskind, “His smile is etched in my memory. His radiant disposition is something which was to behold.”

Son Rabbi Paysach Diskind said his father loved being an observant Jew — not just in terms of ritual practice, but also in his attitude.

“He had an attitude of caring,” said the young Rabbi Diskind. “He was truly a ben Torah.”

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Rabbi Diskind set foot in Bais Yaakov for the first time in 1952, when the school had just 135 students. Today, the school boasts more than 1,300 students, making it one of the largest Jewish day schools for girls in the world.

However, as proud as Rabbi Diskind was of the school itself and everything it offers, he took an equal amount of pride in the products — “his girls” — that progressed through it. Girls, who number in the thousands and who now are mothers and grandmothers, who have soaked up his teachings and the teachings of other Bais Yaakov faculty and applied what they’ve learned to their everyday lives. It’s difficult to even quantify the extent to which Rabbi Diskind’s inspiration reached others.

“I can’t imagine the number of families and students — and indirectly the number of husbands and children — who have been influenced by him. It’s tremendous,” Dr. Jakobovits said. “He did so not by being professorial or a theoretician, but by just showing with a smile what it meant to have a Shabbos table and to have your family around it and be educated by its messages from week to week.”

As easygoing and pleasant as Rabbi Diskind was, he still maintained a firm presence when need be, and did so without having to raise his voice. And his ability to recognize and
appreciate all-comers — regardless of religious observance, economic background or education level — was crucial in helping to make him the ideal person to lead a school.

Rabbi Moshe Hopfer commended Rabbi Diskind’s capacity to deal with a wide range of parents and likened his task to an art form.

“It is an art to be able to run a school. … The only way to run a school is with respect,” Rabbi Hopfer said during his eulogy. “[Rabbi Diskind] was firm when he needed to be and understanding when he needed to be.”

Rabbi Diskind made aliyah in 1987, and although he was no longer physically in the school, his wisdom never left it. Often, Dr. Jakobovits said, when teachers, department heads and principals met, they would call Rabbi Diskind for advice on what to do during different situations that arose in the school. The rabbi would get on the phone and spend as much time was necessary to delineate missions and directives that the school’s “founding fathers” would wish to transmit.

“He gave us — those who now have some responsibly for that — a sense of continuity. We will miss that very sorely,” Dr. Jakobovits said.

Giving so much of himself was a constant theme throughout Rabbi Diskind’s life. He was selfless to the core and he sincerely made others feel like they mattered, like they were important. He was always thinking of others.

“His personality made other people feel that they counted, and therefore he was as interested in them as they were in him,” Dr. Jakobovits said.

Rabbi Paysach Diskind said that even at the end of his life, when his father was in pain, he dealt with it as privately as possible.

Recalled Rabbi Diskind: “He said, ‘never pray for pain. But if you have it … don’t reject it. It’s worth getting the pain in this world, than carrying it over to the next.’” Rabbi Diskind is the beloved husband of Rivka Diskind (nee Kamenetsky); loving father of Minna Bodenheimer, Zipporah Freedman, Ettale Stern, Paysach Diskind and Ester Anemer; adored grandfather and great-grandfather of many. Contributions in his memory may be sent to Bais Yaakov School for Girls, 6300 Smith Ave., Baltimore, MD 21209.

Rabbi Diskind is the beloved husband of Rivka Diskind (nee Kamenetsky); loving father of Minna Bodenheimer, Zipporah Freedman, Ettale Stern, Paysach Diskind and Ester Anemer; adored grandfather and great-grandfather of many. Contributions in his memory may be sent to Bais Yaakov School for Girls, 6300 Smith Ave., Baltimore, MD 21209.

David Snyder is a JT staff reporter — dsnyder@jewishtimes.com