3 Marcheshvan, 5774- 3 Marcheshvan, 5781
Today is the anniversary of the passing of the glory of our generation, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l. This year also marks a special milestone in that it is one-hundred years since his birth. Let us therefore discuss some select anecdotes of his life, from his youth up to his passing.
The Midrash Shocher Tov (Tehillim 18) states that King David excelled in three primary areas: Might, humility, and Torah.
Maran zt”l, who, relative to our generation, was like the King David of our times, shone especially in these areas as well.
Regarding his Torah erudition, it is difficult to find any comparison in our generation. From the tender age of six and because of the holiness of his soul, he was constantly drawn to tireless Torah study, day and night, relentlessly in the Shoshanim Le’David and Shemesh Tzedakah synagogues of Jerusalem.
In his youth, Maran zt”l did not follow the lead of most people. Every night, he and his good friend Hagaon Harav Baruch Ben-Haim zt”l (spiritual leader of the Syrian community in Brooklyn, New York) would go to the Be’er Sheva synagogue in the Bet Yisrael neighborhood of Jerusalem and study Torah together for hours on end, almost until dawn. Sometimes, they would learn until it was time to pray Shacharit at sunrise. As a result, Maran zt”l would show up to Yeshiva exhausted and sometimes fall asleep in class. One of the rabbis in the Yeshiva would constantly scold him and even beat him mercilessly sometimes; he would painfully crush his small arms in his hands. Maran zt”l cried bitterly but was afraid to reveal his secret.
When he came home, his mother noticed that he was quite upset. When inquiring what was bothering him, he just shrugged his shoulders and avoided speaking. Eventually though, his mother picked up his sleeve and saw terrifying black-and-blue marks all over his arms. She asked him, “Who beat you like this?” But Maran refused to divulge who had done it. When his father, Rabbi Yaakov zt”l, came home, his mother ran to him and said, “Look, someone beat our son mercilessly!” His father would not relent until Maran zt”l explained. “Sometimes, I am so tired that I fall asleep in class and the rabbi beats me.” His father became enraged, grabbed him by the hand, and made his way to Yeshivat Porat Yosef. The entire way, Maran zt”l begged his father to turn around and go home lest he be punished even more, but to no avail. They entered the Yeshiva office and Rabbi Yaakov demanded that this rabbi cease and desist from beating his child, however, the rabbi replied that young Ovadia Yosef would not be treated any differently than any of the other students and if he dozed off, he would be beaten. Rabbi Yaakov took his son and left.
The great Mekubal, Hagaon Rabbeinu Efraim Ha’Kohen zt”l got wind of what was going on and he went back to the Yeshiva along with Maran zt”l and his father where he confronted the Yeshiva faculty: “This boy is my responsibility. Do not touch him or do anything to him, for that matter. If he wishes, he may sleep and if he wishes, he may learn. Leave him alone; I am responsible for him!” Because of Rav Efraim’s stature in the Yeshiva, the beating rabbi backed down and Maran zt”l returned to the Yeshiva.
Even from his youth, almost no one could compare to Maran’s dedication and diligence in Torah until he became one of the greatest Torah geniuses of our time. Maran’s recall of all of the scriptures and its commentaries, the Talmud, Sifra, Sifri, the Zohar, and so many other books was so unbelievable, it was almost superhuman. He delved deeply into the works of the commentaries of the Rishonim on the Talmud and their other works, responsa of the Geonim, Rambam, Rashba, and the other earlier authorities. He was also fluent in almost all of the works of the Acharonim, especially the Tur, Shulchan Aruch, and their commentaries. His erudition continued to manifest itself in the works of the later Acharonim up to and including the authors of our generation. Hashem endowed Maran with the keen intellect necessary to sift through this massive wealth of information he possessed and select which things were meant to be codified as Halacha for generations. Maran zt”l retained all the qualities necessary for a true Torah scholar, similar to the days of old.
Indeed, we have heard reliable sources quoting that in one of the lectures of Hagaon Harav Moshe Shapira zt”l, Maran zt”l’s name came up in conversation. One of the students took advantage of the opportunity and asked the venerated age his general opinion of Maran zt”l. Rav Shapira replied, “Listen well. If there is anyone in our generation we must respect, it is Harav Ovadia Yosef because there is no on like him.” Hagaon Harav Simcha Zissel Broide zt”l, late Rosh Yeshiva of Chevron, said, “Harav Ovadia Yosef knows the entire Torah up to its final period.” There are many more such statements from the greatest luminaries of our generation.
This is what we can say in short about Maran zt”l’s greatness in Torah. The Torah world would quake as a result of Maran’s halachic rulings. Many of the greatest Torah geniuses of the previous generation would tremble before Maran and wait for his opinion before issuing a final ruling. Even when he was younger, Maran Rabbeinu Ezra Attieh, Hagaon Harav Tzvi Pesach Frank, and the Gaon of Tchebin considered Maran zt”l one of the luminaries of the generation.
Regarding his humility, Maran zt”l stood out in this area as well. In spite of the fact that Hashem had endowed him with leadership and authority, Maran acted as humbly as Hillel and would degrade himself and travel from place to place teaching Torah, from his youth until his old age. Even in places where there were only a few people, Maran would spare no effort to travel to these places and spread the light of Torah and influence these people to raise their children on the path of Torah.
There was once a pious Jew who established a new Bet Midrash in his neighborhood and invited Maran zt”l (who was then serving as Chief Rabbi) to deliver the opening class in this Bet Midrash. Maran zt”l arrived but surprisingly, only six people attended the grand opening! Maran said nothing and delivered a discourse as though one-hundred people were present. The host was terribly ashamed and when Maran zt”l concluded, he was barely even able to offer his apologies to Maran. On his end, Maran zt”l deflected all his apologies and it was clear that he was not perturbed at all.
About one year later, many more people began to attend the classes this man was organizing in his Bet Midrash. They then wished to invite Maran again to deliver another class and rectify what had happened the last time. This man came to Maran zt”l again and said, “I would like to invite the honorable rabbi to deliver a Torah class at the synagogue where I serve as Gabbai.” Maran asked, “When is it scheduled for?” The man replied and Maran immediately noted it in his planner. The man asked Maran if he remembered him. Maran replied in the affirmative and said that he remembered delivering a Torah class in his synagogue approximately one year ago. This individual wished to apologize again and promise that this time there would be a much larger crowd, but he had already left Maran’s office. Nevertheless, Maran arrived at the appointed time without knowing that a larger audience would be present because he was willing to sacrifice his precious time to teach Torah even to a few individuals. Anyone who was in Jerusalem between the years 5740-5750 (1980-1990) certainly remembers that Maran’s name always appeared on bulletin boards as the keynote speaker for all types of events, Azkarot, all-day Torah learning events, and many others, because he would go anywhere and everywhere in order to disseminate Torah to the masses. It was in this way that Maran zt”l merited establishing an entire generation loyal to Torah and steadfast in belief in Hashem, something which has possibly not happened since the days of Rav Saadia Gaon.
Although Maran zt”l was unbelievably humble, he also knew how to be very stern when the need arose. He would sometimes firmly awaken the Jewish nation and warn them to stay away from sin. There were other times when he spoke out harshly against some notably wicked people. He also merited impressing the importance of the Torah of Maran Ha’Bet Yosef upon the masses and “restored the crown to its old glory” by reestablishing the preeminence of the halachic rulings of Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch.
Let us recount an interesting story. When Maran zt”l served as Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, he was extremely admired by then Tel Aviv mayor, Yehoshua Rabinowitz. Once, the mayor told Maran, “I would like to apportion you a plot of land in Tel Aviv so that you may establish a Yeshiva.” Maran zt”l replied, “I do not have a Yeshiva so I do not need this plot.” The mayor told him, “Honored rabbi, if you are offered a plot of land in Tel Aviv, heed my advice and take it. You can give it to whomever you wish.” Maran zt”l agreed and he summoned Hagaon Harav Eliyahu Shrem zt”l who stood at the helm of Yeshivat Torah Ve’Hora’ah in Tel Aviv at the time. Maran told him, “The mayor is giving me a plot of land to build a Yeshiva on. Perhaps you can build a Yeshiva on this land?” Rav Shrem replied, “How will I be able to build a building?” Maran zt”l told him, “I am giving you prime real estate and you ask for a building as well? In any event, let us figure out what to do.”
A few days later, Maran’s office got a message that the great philanthropist, Mr. Nissim Gaon of Geneva, Switzerland, wished to meet with Maran. Maran zt”l told them to schedule the meeting in his home and to invite Mr. Gaon to dinner in his home. The date was set and Rabbanit Margalit, of blessed memory, prepared a delicious meal full of culinary delights. Rav Eliyahu Shrem was also invited to this meeting. Dinner went well, as planned, and the atmosphere was pleasant as Maran spoke words of Torah and wisdom.
At the end of the meal, Mr. Gaon turned to Maran and said, “Honorable rabbi, ask of me whatever you wish and I will try my best to fulfill it.” Maran replied, “Rav Eliyahu Shrem is here with us and he has a Yeshiva. He needs a large sum of money to build a new building.” Mr. Gaon said, “That is an exorbitant sum of money for me and I cannot bear the burden myself.” Maran fell silent. A moment later, an idea entered Mr. Gaon’s mind. “Honorable rabbi, I just had an idea. I am marrying my daughter off to the son of the president of Sao Paolo’s Jewish community. If you attend the wedding in Brazil, I may be able to convince several generous philanthropists there to donate respectable sums of money for Rav Shrem’s Yeshiva.” Maran zt”l replied, “I cannot travel to Brazil. This will cause me an immense interruption in my Torah study.” After some coercing, Maran finally agreed to travel to Brazil.
Maran zt”l traveled to Brazil accompanied by his son, the great Rishon Le’Zion, Hagaon Harav Yitzchak Yosef Shlit”a. When Maran arrived at the wedding hall, he realized that the women there were dressed extremely immodestly, to his chagrin. Maran sat in his place and refuse to officiate the wedding under such circumstances. The president of Brazil at the time, Artur da Costa e Silva, was present at this wedding as well. The President realized that there was something happening in the hall that was holding up the ceremony. He came to one of the respected members of the Jewish community and asked, “What is going on?” The latter responded, “The Chief Rabbi who came to officiate the ceremony is holding up the wedding!” The President approached Maran zt”l and asked why he was delaying the ceremony. Maran replied, “Our G-d hates promiscuity and immodesty! I cannot recite blessings to our G-d when the women here are dressed this way!”
When the President heard this, he said to those around him, “The honorable rabbi is correct!” He immediately sent a staffer of his to a nearby store to purchase a roll of fabric and when he brought it back to the hall, all the women covered themselves in this fabric. Only then did Maran zt”l acquiesce to begin the wedding ceremony.
Needless to say, there must have been tremendous pressure on Maran zt”l when he held up the wedding as all the honored guests expected him to do their bidding. Nevertheless, Maran zt”l feared no man and stood guard over the laws of our holy Torah valiantly and only agreed to recite a blessing in a place where the presence of Hashem could rest.
We are so fortunate to have been his students and students of his students and to benefit from the light of his Torah. May his merit protect us and all the dear members of “Halacha Yomit.” May he stand for us in prayer in the merit that we delve in his teachings. May Hashem fulfill all our hearts’ desires for the good and may we all see Nachat from our children amid much health, happiness, prosperity, and all good things, Amen!