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October 7, 2013 8:50 am

Influential Sephardi Leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, 93, Dies

avatar by Aryeh Savir / Tazpit News Agency

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Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Photo: Ehud Amiton/ Tazpit News Agency.

Despite the prayers of tens of thousands for his recovery, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Haim Ovadia Yosef, 93, passed away on Monday, with his family and close colleagues, including several leaders of the Shas political party he founded and Israeli President Shimon Peres, at his side.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia Yosef was a noted Talmudic scholar and leading Halakhic (Jewish legal) authority who served as the spiritual leader of the Shas party in the Knesset. His Halakhic responsa are highly regarded within Orthodox circles and are considered binding in many Sephardic communities, where he was regarded as the most important living Halachic authority.

Rabbi Yosef was born in Baghdad, Iraq, on September 23, 1920, the day after Yom Kippur. In 1924, when he was four years old, he immigrated to Jerusalem with his family, then under British rule. As a teenager, he studied at the Porat Yosef Yeshiva, where he distinguished himself as a top student. Yosef’s father ran a small grocery, and the family was relatively poor. He received rabbinic ordination at the early age of 20.

In 1947, Rabbi Yosef was invited to Cairo to teach in a yeshiva and also served as head of the Cairo rabbinical court. Following a conflict with several members of the community, he resigned from his position, two years after having arrived in Cairo. Approximately one year after his resignation, he returned to what had become the State of Israel.

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In Israel, Yosef served on the rabbinical court in Petah Tikva, where he began to become known for his bold religious authority.

In 1952, he published his first book about the laws of Passover titled ‘Chazon Ovadia.’ The book won much praise, receiving the approval of the two Chief Rabbis of Israel at that time, Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel and Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog.

Two years later, Rabbi Yosef founded the ‘Or HaTorah’ Yeshiva for gifted Sephardic Yeshiva students. This yeshiva did not remain open for long, but was the first of many which he established, later with the help of his sons, to facilitate Torah education for Sephardic Jews and establish the leadership of the community for future generations. In 1954 and 1956, he published the first two volumes of his major work ‘Yabia Omer’, which also received much praise. Yosef’s responsa are noted for citing almost every source regarding a specific topic and are often referred to simply as indices of all previous rulings.

Between 1958 and 1965, Yosef served as a magistrate in the Jerusalem district religious court. He was then appointed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Appeals in Jerusalem, and, in 1968, became the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel Aviv, a position he held until 1973.

In 1973, Yosef was elected the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel by a majority of 81 to 68 votes. His candidacy was criticized because he was competing against an incumbent Chief Rabbi and the election was tense and politically controversial. During his years as Chief Rabbi, Yosef dealt with a variety of important social and Halachic issues.

In April 2005, Israeli security services arrested three members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), who had been observing Yosef in public and were held on the suspicion of his intended murder. One of them, Musa Darwish, was convicted on December 15, 2005, of Yossef’s attempted murder and of throwing firebombs at vehicles on the Jerusalem-Ma’aleh Adumim road. He was sentenced to twelve years in prison and three years probation.

Yosef remained an active public figure in political and religious life in his capacity as the spiritual leader of the Shas political party and through his regular sermons.

His health weakened over the past year. In January, Yosef was released from hospital after a minor stroke. On September 24, 2013, he was reportedly put into an induced sleep and was being aided by a breathing respirator. He showed some signs of recovering, but finally succumbed to his illness.

Rabbi Yosef’s absence has left a tremendous impact on his followers. As the official announcement of his death was made, a group of his fervent followers gathered at the hospital, breaking down in tears. One of the other Shas rabbis related to the Israeli press that following the former chief rabbi’s passing, he now feels “orphaned.” Half a million mourners are expected at his funeral tonight in Jerusalem.

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