HaRishon leZion Rav Ovadia Yosef was born on the 12th of Tishrei, 5681 (1920) in Baghdad, Iraq, the first son to his father, R' Yaakov, and his mother, Georgia. He was named after R' Abdallah Somech and R' Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, the Ben Ish Chai.
His parents' house was steeped with love for Torah and its scholars. His parents lived in dire poverty. His father was a renowned chazzan and composer of piyutim (liturgical poetic prayers) and his mother was a devoted homemaker who invested all her energies in raising her eight children to Torah.
When he was four, the family emigrated to Eretz Yisroel, settling in the Beis Yisroel section of Yerushalayim. The father supported his family from a small grocery which barely sustained the family at a subsistence level. Here, too, the father served as a chazzan and continued composing his piyutim according to the ancient tradition of his community.
Young Ovadia studied in the Bnei Zion Talmud Torah in the Bucharim section, and even in his childhood he stood out in his brilliance and love for Torah. His rebbeim were astounded by the little boy's diligence; he was enamored with Torah and studied it with a loving heart, actually utilizing every moment for study. He wrote his first scholastic piece at the age of nine in the margins of his copy of Reishis Chochmah.
In the introduction to that essay, he wrote: "Being nine years old, I recited before my eminent masters and teachers, the mighty fortresses and towers, R' Shlomo Abu and R' Amram Blau, the mishnayos of Masechtos Shabbos, Pesachim, Avos, Succa, Makkos and the gemara Bava Metzia, Perek Shnayim Ochazin beTallis and Perek Eilu Metzi'os, Hamafkid and Hazahav verbatim, receiving this sefer [Reishis Chochmah] as a reward and for me to study. And I have made these comments and notations according to my insights and understanding."
When he was ten, his father had to travel to Iraq and he took along his prodigy. In Baghdad, they entered the famous Midrash Beit Zilka shul where the noted scholars of the city sat in Torah study.
The boy caused a big stir, since he already knew gemara, while the local custom was for boys to first cover the entire Tanach and only begin gemara upon its completion. The Av Beis Din and Rosh Yeshiva, R' Salman Chugi Aboudi, asked the boy to review what he knew and he began reciting Eilu Metzi'os and Hamafkid by heart, to everyone's astonishment.
These great scholars assured R' Yaakov that his son was destined to be a great Torah luminary unto his people. At a much later date, R' Salman made aliya, and the many scholars of Eretz Yisroel who had heard of his greatness, gathered to accord him a royal welcome. R' Ovadia attended as well. The scholars enjoyed a vibrant give-and-take in Torah and R' Ovadia introduced himself as the young boy who had visited Baghdad years before. R' Salman nodded enthusiastically and said, "I knew it! I predicted it and now I see that I was right."
When R' Ovadia learned that because of a massive wave of immigration at that time, R' Salman had been unable to find lodgings, he gathered R' Salman into his own home for as long as he needed, until he found an apartment to rent. This invitation lasted for eight months, during which the Rav and his family were welcomed into the Ovadia home. R' Ovadia was overjoyed at the opportunity of having a resident Torah giant in his home with whom he could carry on Torah discourse.
In 5693, when he was merely thirteen, he began learning in Yeshivat Porat Yosef, entering with an already golden reputation as a budding giant in Torah knowledge, a person of excellent character traits and one with prodigious prowess in the written and oral Torah. The yeshiva attracted the elite of Sephardi scholars, and here, too, Ovadia stood out among the others and all sought his company so as to gain from his wisdom and knowledge and to try to emulate his diligence and refined character. Most of the students in Porat Yosef came from impoverished homes but applied themselves to their utmost to grow in Torah. In passing, it should be mentioned that R' Ovadia was later the only one who did not shave.
In his first year in the yeshiva, he presented his masters with his first Torah treatise: Machberet Ha'atakat Chiddushei Torah, together with two of his friends. He continued to apply himself with amazing conscientiousness of body and soul in study and transcribing his insights. He could always be found in the beit medrash, hunched over a gemara or halachic work, delving deeply in them.
The Rosh Yeshiva, R' Ezra Attiya, greatly esteemed by all of his contemporary gedolei Yisroel, including the Chazon Ish, expressed his amazement after a single meeting by stating that "he has a clear-cut scholarly approach resembling that of the Rishonim." It was from this master that he acquired his method of study in both depth and straightforward clarity, which began from an analysis of the reasoning of the Rishonim and Acharonim until arriving at the final conclusion of the subject according to the halachic tradition of Sephardic sages down through the ages. R' Ezra Attiya favored this conscientious student greatly and was like a father and spiritual mentor to him.
After he turned bar mitzvah, his father told Ovadia that he needed him desperately in the grocery shop, since he could not manage to earn enough alone. Poverty was rampant by other families as well. R' Ovadia often told about how the students would bring a slice of bread and a slice of vegetable for the day's sustenance. He was given a small coin to cover the transportation fee from Beis Yisroel to the Old City with Hamekasher (which cost half a grush each way) but Ovadia traveled the distance by foot and set aside the coin for safekeeping. Later, this sum sufficed to buy his meager furniture after he got married.
When R' Ezra Attiya learned of the father's intention to pull Ovadia out of yeshiva, he hurried off to him to plead very tearfully for his student's spiritual life. He praised the son saying that it would be a tragedy for the Jewish people if he left the beis medrash and insisted that he would become the godol hador of the coming generation. "I am prepared to remain and help out in your shop instead of Ovadia," he declared to the father. "It would be an everlasting loss to the Jewish people if he does not remain in yeshiva." The father needed to hear no more and told Ovadia to stay on in yeshiva.
In 5697, when Ovadia was seventeen, R' Ezra assigned him to deliver a daily Halacha shiur in the Ben Ish Chai text to a group of laymen in the Persian shul in Beis Yisroel.
In 5700, already almost twenty, R' Ovadia was ordained with semicha from his master, the Chief Rabbi R' Ben Zion Meir Chai Uziel.
Four years later, R' Ovadia decided that it was time to get married. He took the daughter of R' Avraham Halevi Fataal from Chalab, Syria. Margalit had grown up in a home of pure Torah and a deep love for it. She consecrated her life and energies to enabling her husband to continue studying and teaching Torah without interference or distractions.
Many of the gedolim and tzaddikim of Yerushalayim, among them his master, R' Attiya; R' Yaakov Ades; and head of the Kabbalists, R' Efraim Hakohen, participated in the engagement which took place on Chanukah.
Between the years 5706 and 5708 (1948), he served as a dayan in the Beis Din of the Sephardic community of Yerushalayim alongside his Rosh Yeshiva. During this period, he also answered questions referred to him by various rabbinical bodies and Sephardi dayanim throughout Eretz Yisroel and the Diaspora.
In 5708, when he was only 28, he was asked by R' Meir Chai Uziel to travel to Cairo to serve as the Av Beis Din there and also officiate as a central rabbinical figure of influence in order to keep the flame of traditional Jewry burning bright and to draw back the wayward to teshuva and mitzvah-observance.
When he arrived there, his reputation had already preceded him as a noted scholar, masmid and expert in all the areas of Torah, perfectly versed in all of Shas and poskim, Rishonim, Acharonim, and blessed with a phenomenal memory. Not in vain did they call him the proverbial "lime pit which doesn't lose a drop."
Despite the shaky political situation, he agreed to take up the challenge and traveled down to Egypt together with his family for the benefit of the Jews living there. When he arrived, he found them in a very weak spiritual state. Not only were the masses very skimpy in their Judaism, but even the so-called rabbinical leadership left much to be desired, a situation which pained him very deeply.
He immediately launched into intensive Torah dissemination, giving shiurim in the shuls and the batei medrash geared to bring the people closer, to fire their hearts with Torah and cause them to upgrade their mitzvah observance, placing a strong emphasis on the chinuch of their children. Aside from establishing ongoing shiurim in Halacha and Aggada, he gave four-hour-long talks every evening to large crowds.
He was appointed rosh yeshiva of Ahava veAchva, where most of the shiurim he delivered were given here as well as in the Midrash Rashbi. And indeed, huge numbers flocked to hear him and be uplifted. R' Ovadia responded in kind, and lavished reviving dewdrops of intense love for the people. He also represented the community before those close to King Farouk.
He was under the constant surveillance of Egyptian security and when the government decided that he was promoting Zionist activity, they scrutinized him all the more. They had agents sitting under his window in the late hours of the night, while he was busy poring over his sifrei kodesh, hour upon hour, reveling in Torah study which was the joy of his life.
At this time, a member of the beis din was banished from the country who had also come from Eretz Yisroel. After this, the authorities used to summon R' Ovadia for numerous sessions of interrogation, and stage searches in his home for Zionist propaganda material. During one of the searches in his home for weapons and provocative literature, R' Ovadia proudly showed the police his study and all of the holy seforim which lined its walls from floor to ceiling and said to them, "One who has tools like these in his home has no need for real arms." They left abashed and shamefaced.
At one point, he was summoned to explain why he delivered his shiurim in Hebrew. He replied that the Torah is written in the holy tongue, was transmitted by G-d to the Jewish people in this language, and must be studied in it. He was forced to sign a public announcement that he was against immigration to Eretz Yisroel, but he refused to do so. His refusal brought him under suspicion of espionage and under heavier pressure from the security forces. All this did not affect his vigorous activities on behalf of Torah either in delivering his shiurim or writing his chidushim, which continued full force.
Fearlessly Standing Watch
One of the most serious problems he encountered upon arrival was the state of Kashrus in the community and on this front as well, he stood very firm in enacting the necessary improvements and changes.
The biggest difficulty was a clash with the local shochet, an arrogant and violent person who took his job very lightly. R' Ovadia was told that he even allowed goyim to do the shechita and that he drove on Shabbos and Yom Tov. But being such a dangerous character, people were afraid to stand up and testify against him. Finally, however, one employee from the slaughterhouse was willing to report that the `shochet' had issued a hetter shechita to a non-Jew and stamped the meat from his slaughtering as `kosher'.
Since he was the only witness who agreed to testify, R' Ovadia decided to summon the shochet and ask him to resign willingly. The man agreed but then became a butcher and was found selling camel meat as kosher meat. Upon being summoned to appear before the beis din, he aimed a gun at Rabbenu who said, "Go frighten someone else with your gun." Rabbeinu adamantly refused to compromise on the requirements of kashrus.
Soon after, the former shochet hired two Arabs to throw acid into the Rav's face as he emerged from shul after mincha. They erred in their identification and caused serious burns to two innocent people who had to be hospitalized. At this point, the police agreed to provide protection to Rav Ovadia and were able to lay their hands upon the shochet, indicting him for selling treif meat as kosher and he was convicted and imprisoned on charges of fraud for half a year.
Rav Ovadia remained in Egypt for three years before returning to Eretz Yisroel with his family. During this period, he left a significant stamp upon the community, witnessed by the large numbers of young Jews who were drawn to the beis medrash, to Torah study and a life of mitzvah observance. Many of them later become the religious leaders of Sephardi communities, chazzanim and paytanim.
These years left their mark on the Rav as well, rendering his sight impaired, a condition from which he suffered for the remainder of his life and which deteriorated with age, forcing him to wear sunglasses.
Serving as Rav and Dayan and Author
Upon returning to Eretz Yisroel, he went to study in the Bnei Zion Beis Medrash kollel, headed by the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, R' Zvi Pesach Frank, where he parried with the elite of Jerusalem scholars, including R' Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, R' Yaakov Yosef Fisher, R' Shmuel Rozovsky, R' Sholom Schwadron, R' B. Zolty and others. He soon was widely acclaimed for his vast knowledge in every facet of the Torah and his overall greatness.
Within a short period, he was appointed by Rav Reuven Katz, author of Degel Reuven, to serve as a dayan in the regional beis din in Petach Tikva.
Throughout this period, he continued working on his writings which encompassed all the areas of Torah, and in 5712, published his work on the laws of Pesach, Chazon Ovadia, which aroused great interest and gained the approbation of HaRav Ezra Attiya.
The first two volumes of Yabia Omer appeared in 5714 and 5716, to the delight of many who reveled in the depths, scope and rare expertise of this great man, reflected throughout every page.
Between 5718 and 5725, he served as a dayan in the regional Jerusalem beis din. In 5725 he was appointed to serve as member of the central Beis Din Rabbani. He enjoyed many years there alongside R' Yosef Shalom Eliashiv.
In 5729, he was chosen Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa and dayan of the Supreme Beis Din. Many delegations appealed to him to serve as chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, as the single candidate who could singly represent all of the different shades of the religious spectrum of communities. He deliberated time and again, but he saw his holy task as writing his works, many of which awaited publication.
He realized that serving as chief rabbi of Tel Aviv would prove demanding and would delay the publication of his novella, and would even require him to stop delivering his shiurim in Yerushalayim, which drew tremendous crowds. In a dilemma, he went to seek the advice of his master, Rav Ezra Attiya, who told him to accept the post of chief rabbi of Tel Aviv.
Upon donning this rabbinical mantle, he was able to raise the status of the rabbinate and of the halachic ruling for the Sephardi community, drawing close those who were distant, while those who were already close — even closer, steering them all to a life of Torah and a Torah education for their children in high grade Torah institutions.
During the four years of his tenure as chief rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, he encouraged the appointment of Sephardic rabbis in all significant religious posts in order to raise the banner of this important community of Oriental Jewry. After four years, he was summoned back to Jerusalem to serve as its Sephardic chief rabbi, being appointed to the post by a large majority.
He fought valiantly on many important fronts to preserve the sanctity of Jewish values and causes, such as the battle against the dangerous infiltration of Reform Jewry; the fight for the sanctity of Shabbos and against its desecration, and the fight against forbidden communication devices in recent times. Rav Eliashiv insisted on having him sign many public statements, since he wielded tremendous clout and would draw widespread public support for the various holy causes.
He established the Shas political party in 5744 and headed it ever since its inception, establishing its platform and guiding its followers like a loyal shepherd, steering his flock along the chosen path. This movement succeeded in drawing tens of thousands of Jews from all over the country to their heavenly Father, thanks to his deep sense of responsibility that Torah not be forgotten. In all of his talks, he urged his audiences to dispose of their televisions and send their children to Torah schools.
A Torah education for all Jewish children was a main motif, repeated in all of his public addresses. Rav Ovadia directed his thrust to those who lived in remote areas, urging them to send them to Chinuch Atzmai schools, until he helped establish an independent Sephardic network, El Hama'ayan. He thus succeeded in perpetuating Torah in many homes for the second generation as well, with children who would otherwise have been lost to Torah. The new homes were established on the firm foundations of Torah-true tradition which would continue for the coming generations as well. He merited seeing legions upon legions of bnei Torah upholding Sephardic values in the glorious spirit of the illustrious Sephardic tradition of the ages. He truly "restored the crown to its former status."
He won the hearts of Jewry from all over the world who regarded him as their leader and spiritual mentor. Many of these were hard-working Jews who, thanks to him, began devoting set times to Torah study. He encouraged the establishment of more and more chadorim in every community throughout the world, as well as more batei knesses and mikvo'os even in the most remote areas, and dwelled on the importance of outreach to those who were yet distant in spirit.
Throughout the years, he did not desist from intensive Torah dissemination and writing his Torah works with the view of increasing Torah and spreading it further and further. His weekly shiurim were broadcast by satellite to the whole world and listened to by tens of thousands. He strengthened his listeners and caused significant waves of impact while warming their hearts by his teachings.
Even in advanced age, he persevered in his study as before, to the great amazement of all, as with waning strength and while beset with physical pain and infirmity, he applied himself to Torah day and night, actually deriving his vitality from his very study and toil in Torah.
Some time ago, R' Ovadia began suffering acute pain, requiring surgery on his back, from which he never really recovered. He was hospitalized many times, returning home to continue suffering, but in spite of everything, and even while being hospitalized and connected to all kinds of tubing, he utilized every possible moment for study, to the vast astonishment of all those around him. His immense love for Torah propelled him on and on.
The sad news of a serious deterioration of his condition at Succos time spread rapidly throughout the entire world; he was placed in the intensive care ward of Hadassah Hospital and the name Chaim was added. Public prayer rallies were held in shuls, batei medrash and schools throughout the world, as people anxiously hoped for improvement.
About a week ago, the public joyfully hailed the report of an improvement, against all medical odds and predictions. R' Ovadia regained consciousness and was able to breathe on his own. Prayers did not let up at all, however, as people continued to beseech for heavenly mercy that he enjoy a complete recovery. Several days ago, however, there was a drastic decline again and he had to be heavily sedated and put on a respirator.
On Monday morning, the hospital announced a collapse of all vital bodily systems, and tearful prayers were again intensified throughout the world. Masses congregated outside of his hospital room, with people wailing and weeping profusely, hoping to rend the heavens with their pleas to change the impending verdict. A massive prayer session was organized at the Kosel and in all centers of study and prayer.
To everyone's deepest chagrin, the `angels were victorious over the earthlings' and the tzaddik was claimed for the heavenly realms, leaving behind a gaping vacuum. His adherents and disciples throughout the world lamented his passing and many of them rent their garments in passionate weeping, having difficulty in accepting the fact of the passing of this great figure.