By Rochelle Maruch Miller
Illuminating our generation with his Talmudic brilliance, clarity, and compassion, Maran Harav Ovadia Yosef was referred to as the posek hador, gadol hador, and ma’or Yisrael. The passing of Maran this week sparked an outpouring of appreciation for a Torah giant who combined an unparalleled knowledge of halacha with a deep sense of compassion and care for the common man, becoming one of Israel’s most influential spiritual leaders and one of the greatest Torah luminaries of our generation. Few have the blend of intellectual genius, political acumen, and unusually broad appeal that made Rabbi Yosef not only a revered rabbi but a formidable fixture in Israel’s politics. According to police estimates, more than 700,000 people gathered along the funeral procession route.
“Rabbi Ovadia was a giant in Torah and Jewish law and a teacher for tens of thousands,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “He was imbued with love for Torah and the people. The Jewish people have lost one of the wisest men of this generation.”
Maran’s loss impacted communities well beyond Jerusalem. Brooklyn’s Sephardic community was virtually shut down as its members watched the funeral proceedings–businesses coming to a halt, students sitting attentively–an international community devastated over the loss of its beloved and extraordinary leader, whose passing has left a tremendous void.
“He was the closest that we have to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein,” explained Rabbi Eli Mansour, rav of the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue of Brooklyn (formerly Congregation Bet Yaakob). “This rabbi is irreplaceable. HaRav Ovadia couldn’t bear to see the pain of any Jew and would often learn throughout the night to find the halachic solution to a problem so that he could help them.”
Rabbi Mansour related that even in his early years, Maran demonstrated Talmudic genius and how, despite growing up amid poverty, as a teenager he studied at the Porat Yosef Yeshiva, under its rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Ezra Attiya, receiving semichah when he was only 20.
“One day Rabbi Attiya realized that the brilliant young scholar, who had never missed a shiur, was not present. Sensing something was amiss, the rosh yeshiva left the yeshiva, traveling to the small shop the Yosef family owned. ‘Where is Ovadia? Why isn’t he learning in yeshiva today?’ Rabbi Attiya asked his talmid’s father.”
“‘I needed him to help me out in my shop today,’ the father replied. “I cannot send him to learn when I desperately need his help here to manage.’ Without a moment’s hesitation, the esteemed rosh yeshivah placed himself behind the counter, standing ready and willing to serve in his brilliant student’s stead. ‘I will remain here and help you; do not keep Ovadia here. Allow him to return to the yeshiva so that he can resume learning.’ Realizing the breadth and depth of his son’s capacity for limud Torah, and seeing the extreme to which Rabbi Attiya was willing to go to ensure that the young scholar not be deprived of even one day of Torah learning, young Ovadia’s father acquiesced, and both the distinguished rosh yeshivah and his talmid returned to the yeshiva.”
From his humble beginnings, Maran grew into a leader who transformed and uplifted Sephardic Jewry across the globe, connecting with Jews on every level. Not only Chareidim, but chilonim as well, were touched by this spiritual giant. Indeed, Rabbi Mansour related an incredible story that took place in the final days of Maran’s life. “There is an avreich in Ashdod who lives near a disco. Last Friday night, the music was blasting, the lights were flashing; you could hear the DJ from blocks away for hours on end when suddenly–in the middle of the night–everything was quiet! ‘We have to say a special prayer for the tzaddik,’ the DJ told the crowd solemnly, and for five minutes they prayed with complete kavanah for Rav Ovadia’s recovery. Then, after five minutes, the music resumed, but for those few minutes, they were united and praying fervently for the Gadol HaDor. He connected to everyone according to their level and touched their lives in his extraordinary way.”
“The rabbi’s impact on the Sephardic world at large, and our community in particular, was enormous,” said Rabbi Joey Haber, dean of religious studies at Magen David Yeshivah High School. “The rabbi had a close relationship with many of the rabbis in our community, and practically every rabbi and most laymen have been to him for guidance, halachah, and berachah. In terms of halachah, he was, in a sense, the glue of our community, as every halachah shiur would base around his opinion.”
Rabbi Haber added, “The leaders of Magen David have always shared a tremendously close relationship with the rabbi and have received so much guidance for our school from him over the years. Where we turn from here, I do not know! Having lived on his block for a year in Har Nof, I was amazed at the influence he was able to have on the country while maintaining otherworldly hatmadah.”
For over seven decades, Harav Yosef used his brilliance in Torah and clarity in psak to benefit Klal Yisrael, travelling from city to city to spread Torah. From Cairo to Tel Aviv, as the Rishon Letzion (Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel and leader of Sephardic Jewry), and later as Nasi of the Moetzet Chachmei HaTorah of the Shas party that he established, Harav Ovadia Yosef’s influence is felt well beyond the natural borders of his various positions.
“In general, he was the ultimate say in halachah; he was the authority who rabbis went to concerning matters of halachah,” explained Dr. Victor J, Douek, clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology (Ob/Gyn) at NYU Langone Medical Center and a distinguished member of the Sephardic community. “Rabbi Yosef was basically a self-made rabbi; he earned his position because of his vast knowledge and skills, not by way of being born into a rabbinic family. We consider him to be the posek/halachic authority of our generation. Sephardic rabbis and lay leaders sought his advice and guidance on communal and personal matters.”
Dr. Douek related that in 1947, Rabbi Yosef was invited to Cairo by Rabbi Aharon Choueka, the founder of Yeshiva Ahavah VeAchvah, for the purpose of teaching in his yeshivah. At the request of Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, Maran also served as head of the Cairo Beit Din. “My paternal grandfather, Rabbi Haim Douek, was the final Chief Rabbi of Egypt,” Dr. Douek explained. “He was a member of the beit din and sat together with Rabbi Yosef on the beit din during his stay in Cairo. Everybody was amazed by his knowledge and his ability to energize the entire community.”
“There is nothing I could express in words that can describe Chacham Yosef. He represents the totality of the Sephardic experience,” said Richard Altabe, who grew up in Long Beach’s Sephardic community and whose father served as president of Rabbi Abittan’s shul. “Chacham Ovadia was the major player in Sephardic Jewry. He imbued many Israeli Sephardim with a sense of pride and turned them into a potent political force. Chacham Yosef unified the Sephardic people, regardless of their country of origin, into a united group.”
As headmaster of Yeshivat Shaare Torah Boys High School, Richard observed how news of Maran’s passing impacted his students as they watched the proceedings from school. “My students were riveted because of the depth of what he stood for. I would describe him as being on the level of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Chacham was blessed with the ability to relate to everyone–from the most chareidi individual to the chilonim, he could connect to everyone and impact their lives. I think the Sephardic community cannot imagine a world without Chacham Yosef in it. How can we go on?” v