Our world changed last Monday afternoon when Maran, Haham Ovadia Yosef passed from this world into the world of truth. Within hours of his passing hundreds of thousands of people converged on Jerusalem for his funeral and burial. Estimates ranged from 750,000 people at the levaya at Porat Yosef Yeshiva in the Geula neighborhood to a million who had passed through the cemetery in the Sanhedria neighborhood by midnight. Imagine that more than 10% of Israel’s population came to pay respects. The crowd, observers said, consisted of a cross-section of Israelis, from hareidi to Religious Zionist to secular. The evening showed a tremendous outpouring of love towards the Rishon LeZion.
A prayer at the Disco
On the Shabbat prior while we were all praying for a refuah and hoping and I must say believing that Haham Ovadia would recover; Rabbi Eli Mansour told a story that had been texted to him by a religious student in Israel. This young man rented an apartment in Ashdod. He thought he was in a nice quiet neighborhood. But at 10PM, the floors started to vibrate and the walls started to shake. Music was coming from everywhere. It turns out that there was a disco across the street and the pounding continued for most of the night. The young scholar needed to find a new place, but that would take time.
Friday night at 10PM, it started up again. Blaring music coming through the walls and vibrating floors would mean another night without sleep. This was no way to spend Shabbat. But then suddenly the music stopped. The disc jockey told the people that they were pausing for a moment to say a prayer for Haham Ovadia and he asked that all answer Amen. This was Friday night with a club filled with what we might define as chilonim, irreligious Jews, and they were stopping to pray for the Rabbi. He really was able to cross all paths. He was loved by everyone.
What Made Him So Beloved ? He loved everyone as a father!
I received the following story from Rabbi Saul Kassin. He told of Elishai, a teacher in Eretz Yisrael, who works with immigrant youth.
Recently Elishai was travelling on a bus and met an older man. The older man wore clothing that clearly identified him as a religious Jewish Rabbi, including a long coat and black hat. This Rabbi began to engage with Elishai in Torah learning during the bus ride.
As the bus approached their destination, the older Rabbi turned to Elishai and asked him about his work. Elishai told him about his young students, and noted that many of them feel far from Torah and the Jewish religion.
The Rabbi was silent. After a few minutes, he began to tell Elishai a story:
“Next month, I’m going to take early retirement from the Beit Din where I have worked as a judge for the past 25 years. But you should know that I didn’t always look like this. These clothes, the beard, the religion, it’s not something I learned from at home.
My parents were older Holocaust survivors, and they didn’t have the emotional ability to give me the attention that I needed. I spent my time in the streets, and before my Bar Mitzvah I was already practically a criminal.
By age 15, my antics had earned me the inglorious title of “the criminal” among my local community.
My friends and I often spent the Holy Shabbat playing soccer near a local synagogue, and the ball would often fly into the synagogue courtyard. One week, I kicked the ball very hard. It flew out of the field and toward the synagogue just as the Rabbi came out.
The ball went so far and hard, that it hit the Rabbi’s black hat and knocked it to the ground. My friends and I fell down laughing.
The Rabbi came over. I then said mockingly, ‘Shabbat Shalom, would his honor like to make Kiddush, or to join the game?’ The Rabbi was not upset, he looked at me and asked, ‘Where are your parents?’ I answered, still mocking, ‘My parents are dead.’
The Rabbi said, ‘Come with me.’ It amused me, so I decided to play along and go with him. We reached his house. He went in and I followed. He made Kiddush and gave me some to drink, and asked, ‘Are you hungry?’
’Starving,’ I said.
The Rabbi gestured to his Rebbetzin, and they set the table and gave me food. I ate like someone who hadn’t eaten in a week. The Rabbi ate just a little, and mostly looked at me and talked. I later realized that I had eaten his share, too.
When I finished eating, he asked, ‘Are you tired?’
‘Exhausted,’ I said.
The Rabbi offered me a bed. I went to sleep, and slept there the whole day. When I woke up it was Saturday night. The Rabbi asked me, ‘What would you like to do?’ I told him I wanted to go to the cinema and see a movie.
‘How much does the cinema cost?’ he asked. I told him one and a half shekels. He gave me the money and sent me on my way, and before I went he told me, ‘Come again tomorrow.’
I came again tomorrow. I ate, slept, and got money for the cinema. Then another day, and more days to follow. Over time I discovered that there were 12 kids like me, from off the street, who came to this Rabbi’s house. I couldn’t be ungrateful, and I also indeed began to really love him.
With time, he started to teach me about the Mitzvot. He bought me a pair of Tefillin. He would sit and teach me Torah. All thanks to him, I eventually went to Yeshiva, and ended up learning to be a Rabbi, and ultimately, a judge on a Beit Din. He married me off, came to my children’s weddings, and was Sandek at my grandsons’ Brit Milah’s.
So don’t despair of your students,” the older Rabbi told Elishai.
“You see me as I am today, a judge in a Beit Din, but once I was just like them. Just Love them. Love them like they were your own Children, just as my Rabbi did with me.”
As the two began to descend from the bus, Elishai asked the Rabbi, “What was the Rabbi’s name?” The man responded, “What do you mean, was? He still is. He’s very old, 92, but Baruch Hashem he is still alive.”
“And what is his name?” Elishai asked again.
“Rabbi Ovadia Yosef,” his fellow passenger answered.
His concern for others was unparalleled.
Rabbi Joey Haber told how his brother in law, Rabbi Shelby witnessed the Rabbi stop everything to speak with a widow. He overheard their conversation. The Rabbi asked her about her day, and they discussed the Machaneh Yehuda market and which stall had the least expensive tomatoes and which had the best bread. The rabbi who couldn’t spare a moment, set aside whatever time he needed to help and care for others. This woman would come week after week. And one Sunday they saw the Rabbi crying over what she had been through. Haham Ovadia was a man of empathy.
The Rabbi’s sons recalled that at age 79, Rav Ovadia had his first heart attack and the doctors said that he needed immediate bypass surgery. He asked to defer the surgery for three hours so he could return home first. His family begged him to first do the surgery, but Rav Ovadia insisted.
He said that he was in the midst of writing an answer to a question for an agunah (a woman whose husband is missing and who does not have a Jewish bill of divorce and is thus not free to remarry). Since he did not know how and when he would come out of the surgery, he said that he worried that if he did not first halachically free the agunah to marry, who would do so, who would care about her predicament?
He returned home to complete the written explanation of the Jewish legal reasons why this woman was free to marry. Only then did he return to the hospital for his surgery.
Depth of Knowledge
More than anything Haham Ovadia was known for his brilliance, his incredible memory and his organized thought process. Rabbi Yosef Mizrahi remarked that he was doing a radio show where the Rabbi would answer questions from callers. A journalist called into the station with a question on going to Egypt to interview President Sadat. Rabbi Mizrahi later realized that Haham Ovadia’s twenty five minute answer included well over 100 sources.
My friend Rabbi Michael Wagner heard an Ashkenaz Rabbi in Monsey this Shabbat state that any Rabbi who did not have a set of Yabia Omer to refer to shouldn’t consider himself a rabbi. When one contemplates just this one work, among the dozens of the rabbi’s projects and realizes that each answer includes on average 50, 100 or more sources and some show 500 sources.
I heard of an Intricate question that was brought to Rav Elyashiv z’sl regarding a case in Nidah. After examining the case in detail the rabbi agreed to matir or permit the case, but only provided that three rabbis would agree to Matir.
So they approached Rabbi Shemuel Vozner of Bnai Berak, who said that with all due respect to Rav Elyashiv, he could not permit the case.
They then came to Haham Ovadia. He asked what the other rabbis said. When he heard that Rav Vozner refused to permit it, he suggested that they return to Rav Vozner and refer him to a certain page in the Sefer – the book titled Shevet HaLevi. This was a book authored by Rav Vozner himself and based on his response there, he would matir this situation.
Rav Vozner responded, “it is amazing that Rav Ovadia knows my sefer better than me.”
Many people say that Rav Ovadia had a photographic memory. There was a point in time that I believed in such a term, but today, based on science and experience, I doubt that such a thing exists.
In our Synagogue I am honored to share responsibilities with a number of wonderful rabbis and scholars. Our resident scholar is Rabbi Aharon Siegel of Yeshiva University. When I first met Rav Aharon, I was giving a class and he sourced as I spoke every statement I made. Any idea one draws upon, any story, law or idea, Rabbi Siegel can reference to the page or pages that idea can be found in the Talmud. I was sure that Rav Aharon was blessed with a photographic memory. We were all amazed. How else could he do it?
But once I got to know Rav Aharon and saw his diligence and dedication towards learning, I realized that whatever photograph he saw in his mind was only there because he engraved the image into his mid by learning it again and again and again. Everything he learns, he reviews and repeats until it becomes a part of him. He is a living walking source of Torah. But with all Rav Aharon’s greatness, he would be the first to state that compared to Haham Ovadia he is but a drop in the great scholars ocean.
I was told that Rav Ovadia had 15,000 books in his library and knew everyone. But I am sure it was not because of some parlor trick, but the fact that he trained and focused his mind and reviewed and reviewed and reviewed.
Rabbi Mansour told of a student who came to the Rabbi with a question on a Tosafot – a medieval commentary on the Talmud from the tractate Baba Kama. This happens to be one of the longest comments of the Tosafists and discusses the Red Heifer. It is very difficult and in terms of applicable or practical Halacha has little relevance to our daily lives. Yet while the student opened his Gemara to read, Rav Ovadia knew the page by heart. After explaining it, Rav Ovadia told the student that he had gone over this piece more than 200 times.
Growing up, I had friends who knew the stats of every player on the Yankees, others who could tell you the football betting line and every stat and score by Sunday night, others who bragged that they knew every word to every Beatles song. Our minds are truly amazing, but I guess it depends what we focus on.
My son Jonah’s Rosh Yeshiva at Netiv Aryeh, Rav Binah recounted that when he was tested by Rav Ovadia for Semicha, he was asked to read through a commentary of the Bet Yosef. After reading through the text, Haham Ovadia told him to go back to the third word on the fourth line which he pronounced incorrectly. The holy books were literally written over in his mind.
The Rabbi spent 18 hours a day studying. Any free moment was spent with a sefer, reviewing, learning and reviewing again. Nothing comes easy, but with effort anything is possible. What a lesson to all of us!
Greatness Earned and Not Inherited
Our teacher and Rabbi, Haham Baruch Ben Hayim, was for his entire life one of the closest friends of Haham Ovadia. They studied together as children and as rabbis under the tutelage of Haham Ezra Attia at Porat Yosef. Haham Baruch recalled that one day, Haham Ezra noticed that 14 year old Ovadia had been absent from school for a few days. He asked where he was and was told that Ovadia’s father insisted that he put away the books and come to work to help with the family grocery store. Haham Ezra went to the family home that evening and confirmed the story. The shopkeeper explained that his son had a very sharp mind and was blessed with an excellent memory and would be of great help in the shop. The father couldn’t afford an employee. Now young Ovadia could open each day. Haham Ezra left without an argument.
The next morning when the father arrived at the shop he discovered that behind the counter was not his son, but instead the rosh yeshiva Haham Ezra was ready to help customers wearing an apron. “Better I should come to work in the store than the boy,” cajoled the Rosh Yeshiva. “My bittul Torah matters less than his.” The father was convinced and agreed to send his son back to Porat Yosef. There Haham Ezra became and would remain a surrogate father to Haham Ovadia.
When Haham Ovadia’s brothers filled his boots with mud to prevent him from going to Yeshiva, he patiently dug out the mud and went to learn.
When Haham Ovadia’s own son passed away recently and while the Rabbi was an onan forbidden from any of the misvot, his son’s discovered him learning. Father they pleaded. The Rabbi responded, I know, I just find it too difficult to stay away from my books.
Not of this Age
The Baba Sali once stated that the Neshama or soul of Haham Ovadia was not from the present but from the Geonim, the sages of a millennium ago. Rav Sharabi who studied Sod – the secrets of the Torah – with Haham Ovadia stated that he bore the soul of none other than Saadia Gaon himself.
Rabbi Benshushan told of a letter he saw written by Rav Kiduri where he noted that when it came to establishing law one should know that, “Kevar Hichrizo BaShamayim, Shehalacha kemoto bechol makom – that it was already decided in Heaven that the Halacha is decided in his (Haham Ovadia’s) favor in all cases.
The Plight of the Agunot
One of the battles that Rabbi Ovadia took on was the plight of the agunot. This was especially true for women who would lost their husbands at war. Following the Yom Kippur war as Rishom LeZion, Haham Ovadia was responsible for “freeing” the over 900 agunot of missing and presumed dead soldiers following the Yom Kippur War. Over the years he wrote up papers allowing more than 2500 women to remarry.
On Sunday I was discussing this and explained that had the rabbi made an error, the ramifications would have been terrible. It would mean that any children, grandchildren and descendants of the second marriage would be classified as mamzerim. Rabbi Lefkowitz who was sitting with us recounted stories and said that we should know that when a great rabbi issues a pesak Halacha, Hashem will see to it that the pesak will not be in error.
Rabbi BenShushan told the story of one woman, a known anti-religious liberal leftist, who wanted to do everything in her power to discredit the rabbi and discredit the rabbinate. Decisions such as these she felt, should be made by secular courts and not the rabbis.
Rehearsing her story and forging documents she came before the rabbi with tears in her eyes to plead her case. She was an excellent actress. In the end though, the Rabbi told her he had to think about it. He asked her to come back in a week. A week later, she returns. She is driven there by her husband. She hoped to receive the document and take the story with him directly to the news to prove her accusations.
Again she pleaded her case with tears swearing up and down that her husband had died in war. She had all the documents and her tears didn’t stop. Finally Haham Ovadia agreed to write the document asserting that her husband was at that time no longer alive and permitting her to remarry.
Victorious and with documents in hand, she ran down the stairs towards her husband in the car. She knocked on the window thinking he had fallen asleep while waiting. Still he didn’t respond. Her husband in fact he had a heart attack while sitting in the car a few moments before. The ambulances were called, the medics were called, but it was too late he died. The story circulated throughout the country.
The law was decided already in Heaven as Rav Ovadia had decided it. The rabbi had stated the husband was dead and as such he was. I’m sure though that the Rabbi still felt horrible.
Touched each of us
There were close to a million people at the funeral and millions more were watching from around the country and around the world. Thinking about it, I realized that it is likely that every one of those people was touched in some personal way by the rabbi.
I too was personally touched by the rabbi. I recall first meeting him when I was about 11 years old. He came to the Yeshiva and a few of us were brought out by Cantor Meir Levy who had just come to Ahi Ezer from Israel and the Israeli Army. We were there to sing for the Rabbi. Then I was brought up to be “tested”. I guess with my Great Uncle David Bibi and Isadore Dayan and my dad there with Rabbi Wolf, I was selected, if for nothing else than my name alone. I was asked to read and explain something and I did get that great smile and the tap across the cheek. I recalled him coming to visit over the years in Deal and Brooklyn and always asking for a Beracha.
The only time I spoke with the Rabbi was right after I was married. Chantelle and I went to Israel and there we were sort of adopted by Bert and Adele Chabot, A’H. Mr. Chabot took me to pray by Haham Ovadia in his small Synagogue located by the Great Synagogue. There he took me up and introduced me and told him who my family was. The Rabbi spoke with me for a few minutes. The gist was that although my father’s family had the crown of malchut and my mother’s family the crown of Kehunah, the most important crown was the crown of Torah and that I would need to earn. He concluded his blessing with a double tap across the cheek. For some reason, I can feel that tap now. I saw the Rabbi many times after that, but never again spoke with him. Chantelle asked me why not and when I told her that for some reason I became tongue tied with my Hebrew she was surprised. As I aged, I had a greater appreciation of how great he truly was and yes, I got nervous in front of such greatness.
Rabbi Daniel Bouskila tells how in 1975, when Rav Ovadia first came to Los Angeles,” I was 11 years old. Our entire school went to the airport to greet him with songs, and the few Sephardim amongst us approached him to kiss his hand, as is our custom. After speaking at our school, Rav Ovadia was scheduled to speak all over Los Angeles. A schedule of his appearances was distributed, and my father promised to take me to hear him every night. I was excited, because I thought his robe and turban were from another world, and he looked so cool in his dark sunglasses. (His eyes were very sensitive to light.) I was also amazed at how he stood in front of audiences without a single book or note cards, and quoted pages of Talmud by heart.
“My father took me to hear him for three consecutive nights. One night, my father had to work late, and he asked my mother to take me. Of all nights to ask my mother, this was the one night where Rav Ovadia was speaking in a yeshiva, where no women would be in attendance. My mother took me, and upon arrival, she was, indeed, the only woman there. We stood outside contemplating what to do, when Rav Ovadia suddenly arrived. As he walked by us, he greeted my mother, and when I kissed his hand, he gave me a loving caress on my cheek. I guess by now he recognized me from the previous nights! He walked into the Beit Midrash, and my mother and I stayed outside. Apparently he noticed that we did not come inside, for, less than a minute later, he walked back outside and signaled to us to come in. As we walked in – a woman in pants with her 11-year-old son – to a room filled with men, Rav Ovadia respectfully asked the men in the first row to make room for me and my mother. He then got onto the stage to speak, and started by looking at my mother and saying, “Blessed are the parents who raise their children in the path of Torah.”
What does the future hold?
We have barely touched on the life and greatness of Haham Ovadia. These stories though give us a glimpse into the man our generation was privileged to be blessed with. He was a once in a lifetime. Rav Ovadia was a brilliant genius with a heart of gold who worked tirelessly for his people. We have not touched upon his unifying the Sephardic World and his successful efforts to embolden us with pride. We have not touch upon his creation of Shas. We have not touched upon his bringing Maran Yosef Karo and the Shulchan Aruch into modern times. In the coming days, weeks and months, we will hear many more stories. And perhaps in time we will really begin to understand what we lost.
This man was the pillar of Torah, kindness, and prayer. He was the leader of the generation in so many ways: In his humility, in his holiness, in his discourses, in his halachic rulings, and in his understanding. Maran was dedicated to the collective needs of the entire nation with every fiber of his being.
The world changed last Monday. With Hama Ovadia gone, we have two choices. Without him we can lose what he did and splinter and fight, or we can rally together and continue his efforts with his merit shining upon us from above.
When Rabbi Abittan passed away eight years ago, our little Synagogue in Long Beach had a choice; we could have fizzled out of existence or built upon his memory. By repeating his teachings, Rabbi Abittan lives on forever. If we few, can do this with Rabbi Abittan’s memory, we can expect nothing less from Kelal Yisrael with the memory of Maran, Haham Ovadia Yosef. It is a fact that His teachings will be repeated somewhere in the world for every minute of every day of the rest of our lives. But let’s not forget his dreams, to unify all of Israel, to be kind and understanding, to look for ways to say yes, rather than a quick no, to dedicate ourselves to learn more and to open our hearts and our homes to our neighbors who have not been as fortunate as us both materially and more important spiritually. Let us make sure his dream lives on as well.
May his zechut protect and defend us. Tehi Nafsho Serurah Be’Sror HaChayim.