Rabbi Ovadia Yosef z"l

By: Samantha Hulkower

Mid-day Monday October 7, Israel witnessed a truely breathtaking display of unity - over 800,000 Jews from across the country came to pay their respects to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. In a country with about 6 million Jews, that represents over 13% of the entire population. Who was this man, that inspired so many?

Rav Ovadia is recognizable to most with his trademark turban, gold-embossed robes, and sunglasses. Over the last 20 years he was known more for being the spiritual leader of the Shas political party and the often controversial things he was quoted for saying in his Saturday night drashot (sermons) than for his decades as a rabbi and halachic authority. He was born in 1920 and his family moved to Jerusalem from Iraq when he was 5. There is a well known story told about him when he was just in grade school. The family was very poor, and one day Rav Ovadia stopped coming to school. When the Rosh Yeshiva (head of the school). Came to find out why, Rav Ovadia's father told him because he needed his son to work. The next day when the father went to open the store, he found the venerable Rosh Yeshiva waiting with an apron to work the store. He said that even as the Rosh Yeshiva, his time was better spend at a grocery store in order to let the young Ovadia spend time learning. That goes to show his genius at a young age.

By 20 he had been given smicha (ordained as a Rabbi), and was invited by the Jewish community in Egypt to lead their Beit Din (Jewish court) - and invitation not so common for someone his age. After the creation of the State of Israel he moved back with his young family and became well-known as a halachic authority. People would come from all over the world to ask him esoteric questions about Jewish law no one else could answer. His memory was outstanding. By his own admission he had a photographic memory, and damaged his eyes from trying to 'take pictures' of every page of the books he read to be able to reference later (hence the need for sunglasses all the time at a later age).

He eventually became beloved by the Israeli public in a way few public leaders had. It began shortly after his tenure as Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel began in 1973. The Yom Kippur war soon after broke out, and thousands of Jewish men were killed, many of them with their bodies never recovered. According to Jewish law, a woman is not allowed to remarry if her husband dies in battle unless his body is recovered. Rav Ovadia figured out a way to free almost 1,000 women from being agunot, the unfortunate status of one a woman whose husband is missing but can't remarry. Other decisions he made that impacted Israeli society included paving the way to allow the Ethiopian Jews to migrate to Israel and convert, and the acceptance of military conversions. 

Part of what made him so popular with Israelis is that he made decisions that affected people on such a personal level. He was very vocal that he thought it was better to be lenient in Jewish law and therefore allow the maximum number of Jews to follow halacha (Jewish law), than to force people to follow chumrahs (being stringent in observance). Another famous ruling of his is that Jews who don't observe all the laws of Shabbat for reasons other than being spiteful don't have the same halachic status of a Jew who purposely does work on Shabbat. It's not hard to find Sephardi Jews in Israel who don't dress like other observant Jews, but who still make Kiddush on Friday night and spend Shabbat with their family and believe very strongly in G-d. They were some of Rav Ovadia's biggest fans because they knew that even though he wanted more from them, he didn't judge them and loved them like any other Jew. And they loved him - which is why the crowd was so large and diverse Monday night. We all have the power to love each other without precondition. Let us learn this from the great Rabbi, so that we can always have such unity among Jews, without needing to lose such an inspiring figure to get us there.

Samantha Hulkower is an Olah Chadasha, living in Jerusalem. She enjoys trying to speak Hebrew, finding the humor in every situation (especially dating), and is looking forward to the day she can successfully argue b'Ivrit. You can also view her blog Curls of Wisdom on life in Israel. 

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