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A Crown Restored

Yisroel Besser

Among the masses, he may be seen as a cultural symbol of Sephardic pride, or as a spiritual leader of the Shas political party. But those who value Torah learning above all look to Rav Ovadiah Yosef as a premier halachic arbiter, and an indefatigable sage who has labored for decades to restore the rightful crown of Sephardic Jewry. His son Rav David shares a wealth of riveting memories, and in a personal visit, acquaints us with the larger-than-life Torah leader he knows as Abba.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

It’s much more than a beit knesset, the impressive building in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood; Yechave Da’at is more like a headquarters, a spiritual nerve center for worldwide Sephardic Jewry. Inside this building, the “light of the East,” Chacham Ovadiah Yosef, taught and prayed for decades, issuing his rulings and advice.


Today, Rav Ovadiah prays at a private minyan in his home, and the synagogue and kollelim of Yechave Da’at are led by his beloved son, Chacham David Yosef. It is he who welcomes me into a stately office, walls of books rising all around.

An elegant man, dressed in the style of the Lithuanian yeshivah world, with a wide-brimmed hat and frock-coat, Chacham David takes me by surprise with his greeting, spoken in impeccable English. Then, on learning that I come from Montreal, he astounds me once again. This scion of great Halabi and Baghdadi families inquires about the Tosher Rebbe, sharing chassidishe maiasehs about the tzaddik, the type of stories that go with Melave Malka, gefilte fish, and candles burning.

Rav David Yosef is an interesting man.

And in a fascinating conversation, he welcomes me into his world, into the sublimity of being his father’s son, but also the pressure, the responsibility and frustration of seeing his sainted father, whose very life is Torah, quoted again and again on political issues, taken out of context by an incendiary media in ways that bring him no honor at all.

It’s a roller-coaster, the life of Rav David. He alternates between being protected by his father — his glory, his brilliance, his holiness — and being protective of his revered father — worrying about the politicians, pundits, and a public that is waiting to manipulate his words.

I begin our conversation asking Rav David to take me on the journey, to tell me how the little boy from Baghdad rose to become the halachic arbiter to hundreds of thousands of Sephardic Jews.

Rav David pours me a cold drink and takes me back to a humble house on the shores of the Tigris River, in Baghdad’s Jewish quarter. This was the home of his grandfather, Chacham Yaakov Ovadiah. Chacham Yaakov was a scholar and paytan, and he named his firstborn son for the two great lights of Iraqi Jewry, Rav Ovadiah (Abdullah) Somech and his disciple, Rav Yosef Chaim, the Ben Ish Chai. In 1924, when Ovadiah Yosef Ovadiah (his name was shortened later on) was three years old, the family immigrated to Eretz Yisrael, settling in Jerusalem’s Beis Yisrael neighborhood.

Young Ovadiah distinguished himself in Talmud Torah Bnei Tzion, and enrolled in the great yeshivah, Porat Yosef, before his bar mitzvah. Rav David laughingly tells me of a “din torah” that his classmates had with their maggid shiur, claiming that he spent the entire shiur addressing his star pupil, Ovadiah. In response, the rosh yeshivah, Rav Ezra Attiah, took Ovadiah as his private chavrusah, becoming his “rebbi muvhak.”

I ask Rav David about the veracity of another famous tale involving the rosh yeshivah, and he confirms it. One day, during the hunger years of the late 1930s, Ovadiah’s place in Porat Yosef was empty. His devoted rebbi inquired after him, and was shocked to learn that Chacham Yaakov had put his son to work in his grocery store. Concern for the boy’s future led Rav Ezra to the small store, and there sat Ovadiah, his Gemara open on the dusty counter.

Chacham Yaakov explained to his distinguished visitor that he had no choice; the needs of his growing family required him to seek other sources of livelihood and he required his son to mind the store while he worked elsewhere.

Rav Ezra lifted the hem of his rabbinic robe and walked behind the long counter. “I will be clerk from now on. Ovadiah belongs in yeshivah.”

Chacham Yaakov kissed the rosh yeshivah’s hand, begging forgiveness, and together, rebbi and talmid returned to Porat Yosef.

Ovadiah continued his steady climb towards greatness. In time, Rav Avraham Fatal, a leading Syrian mekubal and chavrusah of Rav Shalom Sharabi, approached Rav Ezra Attiah, asking him to recommend an outstanding young man for his daughter, Margalit.

On Erev Pesach, 1944, the young couple wed. Rav Attiah appointed the young chassan a member of his own beis din.

They had nothing, not even cutlery or dishes with which to eat.

Some fifty years later, at a celebration marking their fiftieth wedding anniversary, Chacham Ovadiah looked at his wife. It was just a few months before her passing, and she was connected to an oxygen tank.

With visible emotion, he recalled the 200 lira that she had painstakingly saved in order to purchase a closet for the children’s clothing. When she’d seen his distress, however, at not being able to afford to publish his first sefer, she gave him the money, all her savings — money he hadn’t known about. Quoting the words of the Tanna, Rabi Akiva, he said, “Sheli v’shelachem shelah hi” — it’s all hers.

She smiled through the tubes.

During the hunger and privation of the war years in the late 1940s, Rav Ovadiah was forced to accept a position as av beis din of Cairo. Egypt was a spiritual desert at the time. There were no Torah scholars there and there was no communication with Palestine, so the young rav was forced to decide for himself, without the benefit of discussion with colleagues. That experience developed his confidence to rule decisively.

After the establishment of the State of Israel, the atmosphere in his host country became decidedly hostile. The Egyptian secret police were convinced that the rabbi from Israel, who spoke in Hebrew, was an agent of the Zionist enemy. In addition, the rav’s firm stance on matters of kashrus did nothing to endear him to the more traditional elements in the community. He fired an unreliable shochet and his life was threatened. After three years in Cairo, faced by antagonism from within and without, it was clear to Rav Ovadiah that he had to return home.


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