By Yehuda Shlezinger and Israel Hayom/JNS.org
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel and the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Shas party, died Monday, Oct. 7 in Jerusalem of complications from multiple organ failure. Yosef suffered a mild stroke in January, and his health had been steadily deteriorating since. He was 93 years old.
One of its foremost Talmudic scholars and halachic authorities, Yosef penned dozens of books and was awarded the 1955 Rabbi Kook Prize for Religious Literature, as well as the 1970 Israel Prize for Religious Literature.
Born in 1920 in Baghdad, Iraq, his family immigrated to Jerusalem in 1924, and he was ordained in 1940. His wife, Margalit, passed away in 1994.
In 1947 he was invited to teach at a Cairo yeshiva. While in Egypt, he served as head of the Cairo rabbinical court and also as the deputy chief rabbi of Egypt.
Yosef returned to Israel in 1949 and served on the Petach Tikvah Rabbinical Court. In 1952 he published his first book, Chazon Ovadia (Ovadia’s Vision), on the laws of Passover, which was critically acclaimed in religious and academic circles alike. In 1954 and 1956, he published the first two volumes of “Yabia Omer,” a question-and-answer-style series of books, which would eventually grow to include 10 volumes. The series is considered his most prominent literary work.
Between 1958 and 1965, Yosef served as a religious judge on the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court. He was then appointed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Appeals in Jerusalem, eventually becoming the chief Sephardi rabbi of Tel Aviv in 1968, a position that he held until his election as chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel in 1973.
Yosef served as the spiritual leader of the Shas party since its inception in 1982. In 1984, when Shas was elected to the Knesset for the first time, Yosef formed the Council of Torah Sages, the body that holds that top rabbinic authority in Shas. Under his leadership, Shas became a pivotal player in Israeli politics, and has cast the deciding vote in numerous political battles.
Yosef was responsible for several breakthrough halachic rulings, including: allowing more than 1,000 women – the wives of Israeli soldiers who were killed in Israel’s wars and declared military fatalities whose resting places were unknown – to remarry; declaring a collective recognition of the Jewishness of Ethiopian Jews; and, in more recent years, ordering the Shas party to vote in favor of a law recognizing brain death as death for legal purposes.
The rabbi was also no stranger to controversy, often garnering media attention for comments on nonreligious matters on the public agenda. He often targeted individuals whom he deemed perilous to Judaism or those who criticized Shas. For example, he once noted that the public should “hold a feast” in the event of Meretz leader Shulamit Aloni’s death.
Yosef also lashed out at the Israeli legal system, and urged the religious public to refrain from using the services of the courts in civil matters, since they were headed by judges he called “wicked and reckless.”
He is survived by 10 children.