The Chacham

It is exceedingly rare that the death of a 93 year-old should inspire widespread grief and mourning, and even rarer when a nonagenarian is able to remain active, vibrant, razor-sharp and influential until his final breath. But certainly the uncommonness of those two phenomena pales before the stark reality that a funeral of someone that attracts more than 800,000 participants – the largest by far in Israel’s history, and involving almost one out of every seven Jews in the land of Israel – is a singular event marking the passing of a singular personality – HaRav HaChacham Ovadia Yosef zt”l.

He wore many different hats – and most famously the turban and robes of the Rishon L’Tzion, the Sefaradic Chief Rabbi of Israel – as a scholar, leader, political figure, father figure, and role model. Foremost, his loss will be most acutely felt in the world of Torah. In a world where the title of Gaon is tossed about like a used baseball, Chacham Ovadia was that extraordinary individual before whom the entire gamut of Torah was an open book from which he could recite verbatim. That is a marvel that one reads about in connection with rabbis of prior generations; but reading about history and experiencing it in real life are two different things. To anyone who values Torah scholarship, the ability to internalize G-d’s word, both written and oral, from Sinai until modern times, and to comprehend, memorize, categorize and apply it to modern life, is simply remarkable.

For sure, every generation is blessed with great Torah scholars; that is a divine guarantee. Recent generations have been blessed with outstanding Torah scholars, in Israel and in the United States, and far be it from me to rate them on a scale of greatness. But Chacham Ovadia was unique in one respect:

he revived in the Torah world the halachic decisions of the great Sefaradic decisors of the last few centuries, many of whom were essentially lost to the Ashkenazic Torah world. The responsa of most Ashkenazic Torah giants of recent times referred almost exclusively to Ashkenazic decisors, not a sign of prejudice as much as the simple lack of exposure in pre-modern times to the works of the poskim of the Edot Hamizrach. Chacham Ovadia’s major halachic writings – the voluminous major halachic writings – the voluminous Yabia Omer and the more readable Yechaveh Da’at – are veritable encyclopedias that cite (what seems to be) every known opinion on the subject, from both Ashkenazic and Sefaradic authorities.

By way of illustration: a well known rabbi whom I met a few nights ago was carrying with him one responsum of Chacham Ovadia to study on his travels. Just that one – numbering six or seven pages in total – could take hours to study. If all the sources quoted were studied in the original, the review could take days. And the Chacham wrote thousands upon thousands of them, with all the sources in front of his mind’s eye, and was able to analyze, draw his conclusions, and set his answers on paper in comprehensible form to give appropriate guidance to both the questioner and to all students of Torah. That is exceptional genius that is not encountered very often.

That revival of the role of Sefaradic decisors was the tip of the spear in the general revitalization of Sefaradic life, culture, pride and Torah observance that Chacham Ovadia promoted. It is undeniable that the European Jewish elites who were largely responsible for the establishment of the State of Israel did not always look with respect upon the Sefaradim native to the land of Israel or those who came as refugees from Arab lands (like the four year-old Ovadia Yosef, who was born in Baghdad). Discrimination was rampant, educational and employment opportunities were limited, and the culture was perceived as primitive and backward – too Arab and not at all European.

Chacham Ovadia led that revolution as well – l’hachzir atara l’yoshna (to restore the crown to its former glory) restoring pride and dignity to all and Torah observance to many, providing social support to those who needed it, and founding a special educational system to cater to Sefaradim (utilizing the Sefaradic method of Torah study which differs from that of Ashkenazim). It was during his tenure as Chief Rabbi that the late PM Menahem Begin began the process of integrating Sefaradim into the mainstream of Israeli life, riding their support to electoral victory in 1977. That, unwittingly but predictably, gave rise to the formation of ethnic sefaradi political parties which have been a mixed blessing for them and for Israel – first the Tami party of Aharon Abuchatzeira, and then Chacham Ovadia’s radical founding of the Shas party, which broke with the Haredi political establishment – to the mortification and disapproval of Rav Shach and others – and began to attract widespread Sefaradic support.

Certainly, the party was founded on ethnic grievances, and even in the most recent election, ran on a platform of eternal grievance against the establishment notwithstanding that it has been part of that same establishment for almost 30 years. Because of the ethnic label, it is the only Haredi party that draws many secular votes; but parties founded on grievances tend to stultify over time, and such has happened to Shas. Its support has dwindled in recent years as its erstwhile supporters have entered the mainstream, and its political leaders have feuded. It is headed into some rocky territory without its spiritual leader.  Nonetheless, its electoral strength – it has always had almost double the number of Knesset mandates of the Ashkenazi Haredi parties – has afforded it substantial control over the religious establishment for almost two decades, with not always positive results.

The clichés that unknowing journalists used to summarize his life have focused on two areas – his leniencies in Jewish law and his leftish politics. Both are misnomers. Chacham Ovadia was certainly a posek who weighed all opinions and perceived halacha as the means by which we serve Hashem, not punish ourselves. As he himself said, one unversed in Jewish law can easily prohibit anything; it doesn’t take much knowledge to say “no” (see Rashi, Masechet Beitza 2b). But he didn’t just arbitrarily say “everything is permissible” to make people happy. He could be strict also. (ModOs take note:  in some circles, it also doesn’t take much knowledge to say “yes,” if halachic process and methodology are construed as trifles.) And he had the courage to stand behind controversial decisions, even those which defied the consensus of rabbinic opinion.

Most infamously, Chacham Ovadia issued an opinion in the 1990s in support of surrendering parts of the land of Israel for the sake of peace, and the Oslo debacle could not have occurred without the support of Shas, either implicitly or explicitly. From this vantage point, his political instincts were not always keen. But two points must be underscored that are widely overlooked: his decision was in favor of real peace, not the piecemeal destruction of Israel. (And few authorities would argue that maintaining every inch in the land of Israel in the face of national suicide is a plausible halachic approach; if it were, then even a tactical retreat in the heat of battle would be prohibited.)

The second point is even more telling: he publicly retracted his decision in 2003, writing that “the Oslo Accords are null and void” and that the peace of Oslo –the death and maiming of thousands of Jews – is not what he meant by “peace.” But the left has largely ignored the retraction. Two truths must be recognized: if another surrender agreement is tabled, Chacham Ovadia’s psak will be trotted out again, whether warranted or not (one can always argue that the coming peace will be the glorious peace anticipated by the psak, whether true or not – always the weakest link in the decision itself); and his support of Oslo was utilized disingenuously by Oslo-ites. They would have paid no attention to him had he opposed it like more than 90% of the Rabbis in Israel, to whom they paid no attention. (His late son, Rav Yaakov Yosef, notably disagreed with his father on this issue.)

He was fearless and colorful, which occasionally prompted him to speak somewhat caustically, all points catalogued enthusiastically by the “Gotcha Gang” of today’s faux moralists. Personally, I give a lot of verbal slack to people over 80 years old; they can speak freely! And despite these blips, his love of Israel was enormous, and his anguish over those Jews who are unfaithful to Torah was immense.

The 800,000 people at his funeral were about 800,000 more people than any of us mortals will attract to ours. It was a testament to the honor due to the Torah and its Sages, and to this exalted individual, who was blessed by G-d “who apportioned of His knowledge to those who revere Him.”

May his memory be a blessing and inspiration for all Jews.


9 responses to “The Chacham

  1. I agree with every word, but I still can’t get over the fact that he did, when all is said and done, make several outrageous remarks that have caused great damage to us. If you look at comments to reports in the non-Jewish news media last week, you will see that people have not forgotten his comments about Palestineans being “snakes,” the goyim being the Jews’ ‘donkeys’ to serve them, etc. Those of us on the inside realize that these were said for dramatic effect, but it’s a grave failure of חכמים הזהרו בדבריכם and makes it difficult for me to harbor the admiration and reverence toward Rav Ovadia that I sincerely want to feel for a talmid chacham of his stature.

    • Well, “snakes” might be pejorative, but certainly an accurate description of the terrorist, who slithers into civil society undetected and then strikes with his poison and kills. Remember, too, that Rav Ovadia himself was subject to a thwarted assassination attempt by Arab terrorists.


    • True that. People of a certain stature have to be careful.

  2. Major Sephardic Torah books that have never been translated include:

    Chesed LeAvraham (written by the grandfather of the Chida in Morrocco)
    Chida (more than 70 books written by the grandson of the Chesed LeAvraham)
    Kaf HaChaim (a classic mussar book written in Turkey)
    Kaf HaChaim (a commentary on Shulchan Aruch by a Rabbi from Bagdad)
    Shevet Mussar (a classic mussar book written in Turkey)
    Reishit Chochmah (Rabbi Eliyahu di Vidas lived 1518-1592 CE, in Safed and Hebron)
    Plus other Torah books written by the authors mentioned above.
    Plus many others not mentioned here at all.

    Without English translations, these books are invisible to many Jews.

    I see Jews whose ancestors came from Persia/Iran and Syria studying the Mishnah Berurah of the Chafetz Chaim. Most of these Jews will never study any of the Sephardic commentaries on Shluchan Aruch, and most of them are not even aware that Sephardic commentaries on Shluchan Aruch exist.

    Partial List of Sephardic Commentators on Shulchan Aruch:

    Rabbi Chizkiyah ben David DiSilva wrote the Pri Chadash commentary on Shulchan Aruch. He was born in 1659 in Livorno, Italy. He moved to Jerusalem in 1679.
    In 1691 he was in Amsterdam and began printing Pri Chadash. He died in 1698.

    Rabbi Shabetai ben Abraham Ventura was the Rabbi of Spalato (the Italian name for the city of Split in Croatia). He published the Nahar Shalom commentary on Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim) in Amsterdam in year 1774 CE.

    Chida was Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai, born in 1724 CE and died 1806 CE. He learned from the Ohr HaChaim, the great Talmud and Kabalah expert from Morocco. He descended from an illustrious family that lived in Spain until the Expulsion [July 1492 CE] and then moved to the Moroccan city of Fez, and eventually to Chevron. Chida wrote two commentaries on all four sections of Shulchan Aruch:
    Birchei Yosef (or Birkei Yosef) and Machazik Berachot.

    His grandson, Rabbi Moshe Azulai, wrote Zichron Moshe, a commentary on all four sections of Shulchan Aruch, which is published together with the writings of the Chida.

    Kaf HaChaim is a commentary on most of Orach Chaim and on a few parts of Yoreh Deah.
    It was written by Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer, who was born in Baghdad in 1870, made aliyah to Jerusalem in 1904, published Kaf HaChaim in 1905, and died in 1939.

  3. Sir – from what you have written, it seems this venerable rabbi is a blessing and inspiration for all of us, not only Jews. May he rest in peace.

  4. Sir, from your writings, it seems the rabbi is a fine example, a blessing and an inspiration for ALL of us. May he rest in peace.

  5. An excellent and poignant summation of Rav Ovadia’s greatness.

    In addition to his battle against virtual Ashkenazic hegemony over the Israeli rabbinate in the early years, I would also add a less emphasized but equally important (in my opinion) contribution that R’ Ovadia zt”l left us, particularly in the Sefaradi world:

    By the 20th century, the domain of Sefaradi pesak was increasingly becoming relegated to only those who possessed a heavy kabbalistic bent, (think of the two most prominent sefaradi decisors and mekubalim of the early 20th cent., the Ben Ish Hai and R’ Yaakov Sofer – Kaf Hachayim). Only those mekubalim who were “in the know”, so to speak, were equipped to render the correct pesak halacha. (Try arguing against a mekubal who says the halacha is a certain way because it is based on some “sod”, or because that is the way Rav Haim Vital records the Ariz”l as practicing). Rav Ovadia “leveled the playing field” and revolutionized (or more precisely, reintroduced) the idea to the Sefaradi world that when it comes to pesak halacha, no one has an inside track to Heaven (Lo Bashamayim Hee); and that, for good reason and in the interest of uniformity of pesak, the great Sefaradi rabbis of the past 400 years have accepted the decisions (both stringincies and leniencies) of Maran in the Shulhan Aruch.

    Indeed, Rav Ovadia has left us many worthy Torah scholars who are molded in his style of pesak. But my only fear is that, over time, now that we have lost this giant, this tree upon which to lean and take refuge, the Sefaradi rabbinic world will slowly slip back into the the bad habit of stifling the open, intellectual discourse in halacha by ennobling the immutable authority of the mekubalim.

  6. Thank you for this beautiful tribute. The Jewish people have sustained an immense loss with the passing of Maran Harav Z”L. Your post is a powerful reminder of that fact.