Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Yehuda Azoulay’s Maran: The Life and Scholarship of Hacham Ovadia Yosef

Yehuda Azoulay’s Maran: The Life and Scholarship of Hacham Ovadia Yosef has just appeared. The Seforim Blog is happy to present this excerpt.

Chapter 17: Back to Jerusalem

In 1958, Hacham Ovadia was invited to serve as a judge on the Jerusalem bet din, beside Rabbi Waldenberg and Rabbi Qafih.[1] His gratitude for being able to move back to Jerusalem is displayed in his third volume of Yabia Omer, published in 1960, and his joy and satisfaction at serving on this prestigious bet din with first-class scholars is evident in a number of places where he mentioned this job.
Rabbi Waldenberg,[2] author of the Tzitz Eliezer responsa, was the head of the bet din and he became Hacham Ovadia’s study partner at this time. Despite their disagreements on many issues of practical halachah,[3] the two enjoyed each other’s company very much. Rabbi Waldenberg was very pleased with the addition of Hacham Ovadia to the bet din; he referred to Yabia Omer in the warmest of terms.[4] Hacham Ovadia as well mentioned Rabbi Waldenberg endearingly throughout his works. He learned much in this forum regarding working on a bet din.[5]
In Petah Tikvah, though Rabbi Katz accorded him great respect and placed him in charge of writing the Sephardic divorces, Hacham Ovadia was frustrated that the court did not see the significance of following Rabbi Yosef Karo for the Sephardic population. Finding himself – the one Sephardic judge – always the minority in the court of three, he could not always convince the two Ashkenazic judges of the importance of his approach.[6] In Jerusalem, he usually served beside the Yemenite Rabbi Qafih, finally creating a majority of Sephardic-Eastern scholars in the courtroom. Rabbi Waldenberg understood early on that, so long as the litigants were Sephardic, the pair could not be swayed by his Ashkenazic leanings and traditions.
In 1964, the issue of ethnic name spellings came up again. This time, however, Hacham Ovadia did not have to resign in protest.
Rabbi Yehezkel Abramsky[7] had been the Av Bet Din of London until his retirement in 1951, when he moved to Bayit Vegan. His bet din in London, who followed his instructions and was still in touch with him for guidance, wrote a divorce with Ashkenazic spelling of the husband’s name “George” for a Sephardic couple; the wife lived in Jerusalem and Hacham Ovadia was on the bet din that reviewed it. The couple themselves preferred the Ashkenazic spelling, but Hacham Ovadia refused to deliver the bill of divorce to the woman, and wrote to the London bet din asking for it to be rewritten. The bet din, however, had followed Rabbi Abramsky’s guidelines in writing the names, so they called Rabbi Abramsky with the story.
Rabbi Abramsky called Rabbi Waldenberg for a meeting and the two agreed that they thought the Ashkenazic spelling correct, but Rabbi Waldenberg was familiar with the tenacity of the two Sephardim on his bet din, and since they were the majority, he explained to Rabbi Abramsky that there was no way they could get the divorce approved without changing the spelling. Eventually, Rabbi Abramsky recognized that he had no recourse but to ask the London bet din to rewrite it.
Maran concluded, “Rabbi Abramsky is indeed a brilliant man, but when it comes to Torah we do not let the honor of any man color our rulings. Our Torah is a Torah of truth.”[8]
Hacham Ovadia’s confidence in and loyalty to his own approach in halachic matters shows up throughout his work on this bet din. Just as he felt it a holy mission to teach halachah without giving precedence to the Ben Ish Hai or the Arizal, he would not change his mind for the honor of teachers, mentors, or peers once he was convinced of his position. In 1962, for example, his bet din had ruled that a husband should not have to pay child support for his stepdaughter in a certain case. The appeals court, which had the final say, overturned the ruling, and sent back the file requesting that their court determine the amount of child support. Hacham Ovadia refused to deal with the procedure, because he continued to maintain that the man should not have to pay. The other members of the court backed him up. He refused to listen to the appeals court against his better judgment, even though it consisted of Rabbi Yaakov Ades – his former teacher, Rabbi Elyashiv – the Torah giant whom Hacham Ovadia held in high esteem, and Rabbi Zolty – a friend and colleague whom he respected as well.[9]
Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim was the Sephardic chief rabbi at that time, following Rabbi Benzion Meir Hai Uziel’s passing in 1953. Sometime during those first few years, Hacham Nissim made it clear to Hacham Ovadia that “I know you will take over for me.” In 1960, as Rabbi Nissim was completing a five-year term, the Sephardic Community Council, headed by the committee’s heads, Elyashar and Sitton, nominated Hacham Ovadia as a candidate for the position.[10] Rabbi Tzvi Pesah Frank pushed him unremittingly to submit his candidacy. At the end of 1962, the rabbis of the Sephardic Council declared Hacham Ovadia the chief rabbi, but in the end, even after postponing the elections twice, Hacham Ovadia did not submit his candidacy, but lingered a few years longer in the world of writing and teaching, his labor of love.

Kol Sinai Magazine[11]

While Hacham Ovadia’s status was steadily rising among the Sephardic sector of Jerusalem through the few hundred who attended his lectures, his true greatness was only known by those who could read Yabia Omer, which was written for a somewhat more scholarly audience.
In 1962, the Sephardic Community Council asked Hacham Ovadia to write a column in its monthly magazine, Kol Sinai. The magazine published biographies and articles that related to Sephardic Jewry. Hacham Ovadia undertook the task, and stood by it monthly for seven years. This magazine, read by many in and out of Israel, is what positioned Hacham Ovadia as the authority and number one address for any Jew, in any area of halachah.
The writing style he adopted in Kol Sinai is nothing like that of Yabia Omer. His magazine articles were very focused and, though he brought support for all his rulings and noted all his sources, he did not go into detail. He generally followed Rabbi Yosef Karo, and noted this whenever the prevalent custom followed the Ben Ish Hai or others. There is no smattering of ethics or stories; these are encyclopedia-like entries by topic: laws of Shabbat, holidays, prayers, etc. He wrote them in language that the layman could understand and relegated any technical discussion or sources to footnotes.
The Hazon Ovadia series on the laws of the festivals, published forty years later, was based on these magazine articles.[12]

Friday Night Classes

Hacham Ovadia delivered a very popular class on Friday nights in Yeshivat Porat Yosef. His brother Naim was the manager of a synagogue, and one week in 1965, he asked his famous elder brother to come speak there. Although Naim knew it probably wasn’t feasible, as Hacham Ovadia had a commitment to Porat Yosef at that time, he nonetheless made his request, and was quite surprised when Hacham Ovadia agreed. That Friday night, he first gave the class in Naim’s synagogue and led the evening prayers there, and afterward left for Porat Yosef to deliver his regular lecture, somewhat later than usual.

While they waited for Hacham Ovadia, Rabbi Binyamin Jorgi informed the students that Hacham Ovadia would arrive late and he gave a mini class in the meantime. Hacham Ovadia arrived about half an hour later and delivered the class as usual.

Toward the end of the lecture, the third floor of the yeshivah suddenly collapsed. Chunks of concrete, iron beams, and planks of wood fell to the street on all sides of the building. The ground floor, however, was unaffected, and everyone within the building remained safe. Had Hacham Ovadia began the class at the usual time, hundreds of students would have been milling around the building at the time of the collapse, and there could have been fatal injuries.
Exiting the building by way of a shattered window and mattresses laid over the debris, the students accompanied Maran all the way home with song and dance. The building was closed off until it was safely renovated.
When Hacham Ovadia spoke to his brother on Sunday, he asked him, “You've been managing the synagogue for four years and you never asked me to speak. What made you do so this week, when you knew I wouldn’t be able to come without rearranging my regular class?”
When Naim had no material answer, Hacham Ovadia continued pensively, “And I wonder what made me agree. G-d performs miracles through those who have merit and both of us were fortunate to protect the participants at the Friday night class. This was a truly joyous event.”
Naim suggested that they share the story with a reporter, but Hacham Ovadia insisted there was no need.[13]

Rabbinical High Court
The Rabbinical High Court is the appellate court for Israel’s municipal rabbinical courts. One of the chief rabbis serves as its Av Bet Din. The bet din was established during the years of the British Mandate.
When Hacham Ovadia began his term there, the bet din met in Hechal Shelomo on King George Street. In 1967, it moved to the Old City. Today it shares the Frumin House on King George with the Jerusalem bet din and is headed by Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.
The Rabbinical High Court appointed new judges in 1965. Hacham Ovadia was already a favored candidate, and he joined at age forty-four. Hacham Salman Hugi-Aboudi,[14] Rabbi Eliezer Goldschmidt,[15] and Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli[16] were appointed on the same occasion.
Already on the bet din were Rabbi Elyashiv,[17] fifty-five at the time, and Rabbi Zolty,[18] who was the same age as Hacham Ovadia.[19]
Hacham Ovadia found a close friend in Rabbi Elyashiv, and said he was like a brother to him.[20] He enjoyed tackling the country’s most complex halachic issues together with Rabbi Elyashiv for he valued the latter’s extraordinary proficiency and clarity of understanding. This friendship between the two leading poskim of the generation continued after Hacham Ovadia became the chief rabbi and Rabbi Elyashiv resigned from his position.
He remained on this bet din, becoming its Av Bet Din with his election to chief rabbi in 1973. As with all his bet din jobs, many of those rulings were printed in Yabia Omer.[21] In 1984, he led the bet din, joined by Rabbi Waldenberg, Rabbi Yitzhak Kolitz,[22] and Rabbi Qafih who was promoted in 1970.[23]
The Sephardic Torah Student[24]
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Porat Yosef was the only major Sephardic yeshivah in Israel. Many Sephardic students went to the Ponevezh yeshivah in Bnei Brak, and when Porat Yosef’s building was destroyed by the Arab Legion during the War of Independence, prominent Jerusalem Sephardic families turned to Ashkenazic yeshivot, especially Kol Torah, run by Rabbi Shelomo Zalman Auerbach. In this way, many hundreds of Sephardic and Yemenite youth internalized the ideas and mentality, and adopted the unique language and dress of their teachers and peers in Lithuanian-style yeshivot.
Students of a yeshivah are in most cases expected to follow the practices of the school; thus Sephardic boys learned to pray with an Ashkenazic accent, at least for those paragraphs recited aloud, wear the garb of a Lithuanian Torah student, and generally conduct themselves according to the norms accepted within those halls. This was a very difficult as well as formative experience for many of these boys.
Hacham Ovadia dealt with the halachic issues that cropped up from this situation,[25] always with the goal of fortifying a distinct Sephardic identity, without alienating the boys from their yeshivot.
Sephardic students of the Ashkenazic Hevron yeshivah asked[26] whether it would be acceptable for them to shave until the first of Av, in accordance with Sephardic custom, or if they were obliged to follow the prevalent custom in the yeshivah and stop shaving from the beginning of the Three Weeks.
Hacham Ovadia answered that since Jews worldwide are aware that Sephardim follow the Shulhan Aruch, and since every group of Jews knows that varying customs are all holy, there is no concern that one will violate the prohibition of splitting the community[27] – a prohibition which does not apply in situations where each group is following its own custom. Everyone must follow his family customs, even within the same synagogue. Nevertheless, he recommended that the boys refrain from shaving, out of respect for and sensitivity to their environment.
Another question[28] deals with the Sephardic custom of wearing tzitzit tucked in, among their Ashkenazic friends who wear them out. According to Kabbalah, tzitzit are tucked inside the pants, to conform with the mandate to “walk modestly with your G-d.”[29] Hacham Ovadia encouraged Sephardic boys to follow this practice and Rabbi Ezra Attiya maintained that “a Sephardic boy who wears his tzitzit out may be guilty of disparaging previous generations.”[30]
Ultimately, however, Hacham Ovadia concluded that the obstacles to developing as a Sephardic yeshivah student in the genuine sense within the Lithuanian yeshivot were insurmountable, as the Ashkenazic yeshivot were fundamentally different from Sephardic ones as far as their underlying visions and goals. This will be discussed more fully in the coming chapters.
Hacham Ovadia, then, wished to reverse the trend of Sephardic boys studying in Ashkenazic yeshivot. He hoped that attracting them back to their own yeshivot would help preserve a unique Sephardic religious identity. Sociologically, he wished to present an alternate image of the ideal Torah lifestyle. Yet perhaps more importantly was the alternative he offered in actual study. He sought to reestablish a distinct Sephardic learning style, which in certain respects is markedly different from that of the Lithuanian Torah world.
Despite the religious intensity of Porat Yosef, the larger Sephardic community in Israel was losing its independent character of cultural codes and halachic customs. The 1940s in Jerusalem saw the Sephardic community join the underground resistance movements, which meant integrating into the Ashkenazic hegemony and cultural assimilation (often characterized by adopting an irreligious lifestyle).[31] Hand in hand with the experience of cultural assimilation, Jerusalem’s Sephardic Jews suffered from a shortage of Torah leadership of any stature. Outside Porat Yosef and its rabbis, few scholars carried the banner of Sephardic tradition, either in Torah study or halachah. Those years witnessed prolific Ashkenazic halachic literature, while Sephardic Jews published next to nothing. Seventy-five percent of rabbinical judges were Ashkenazic. The number of Sephardim who took the test for the judicial rabbinate was negligible and these usually hailed from Lithuanian-style yeshivot and had adopted an Ashkenazic tradition of study and halachic ruling.[32] Meanwhile, most litigants of these bate din were Sephardic.[33]
Sephardic Torah Judaism was in crisis.
Hacham Ovadia jumped in headlong to change all that. In 1965, he approached the heads of the Sephardic committee and established the Study Hall for Rabbis and Rabbinical Judges which would train young men to lead communities and serve as judges carrying the tradition of Sephardic Judaism. The committee provided him with a building that they owned in Talbieh, as well as scholarships. It opened in 1966 with fifteen students. The course provided three years of study, culminating in a test on sections Even Ha’ezer and Hoshen Mishpat, toward the judicial examinations administered by the rabbinate. After the Six Day War, the school moved to the Old City, to synagogue Tiferet Yerushalayim. Hacham Ovadia stood at its head and gave halachah classes three times a week. He tested the young men weekly and supervised their well-being.[34]
There was a yeshivah high school on the premises as well, run at the time by Rabbi Yehuda Amital. Hacham Ovadia maintained a loose connection with the high school, delivering lectures to the students periodically. Upon the graduation of the first class of the yeshivah, Hacham Ovadia pronounced this project “the crown of the Sephardic Committee in Jerusalem, which took the responsibility upon themselves of establishing a generation of rabbis and judges who shall restore the crown to its former glory.”[35]
Hacham Ovadia worked to shape the Sephardic yeshivah world into a vehicle that would continue restoring the crown to its former glory. Later joined by his sons, he established a few elite Sephardic educational institutions that adopted his learning style and halachic methodology. In 1973, when he was elected chief rabbi, he promptly set up a bet midrash for judges called “Hazon Ovadia,” and financed stipends for the married students. The kollel’s alumni serve as judges and rabbis both in Israel and abroad. In 1986, Hacham Ovadia established another kollel, Yehaveh Da’at, with his son, Rabbi David, at its helm. It is considered the premier Sephardic kollel the world over. Hacham Ovadia delivered regular lectures there and kept in close touch with its students. In 1993, Hacham Ovadia opened a yeshivah for higher learning, headed by his son, Rabbi Yitzhak, where hundreds of students were trained in his father’s methods. In 1996, the kollel Ma’or Yisrael opened. At its head stands Rabbi Moshe, Hacham Ovadia’s youngest son. Through these institutions, Maran molded the next generation of Sephardic Torah scholars.
Rabbi Zevin, quoted in the preface to Yabia Omer volume I, cheered the “redeemer” of Sephardic Jewry who will raise it from its humbled state. The editor of Kol Sinai[36] said the same: “This hero has given form to the period of history in which he lived – the period that restored the crown of Torah and glory to Sephardic Jewry – and is the artisan who molded a new spiritual period that shall be known, in the religious annals of our nation, as the period of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.”
The day Rabbi Attiya disengaged the young man from his father’s shop and brought him back to the yeshivah, Hacham Ovadia was adopted by another world. His spiritual father was the rosh yeshivah, his closest relatives were the boys beside him on the bench, and the library, his playground. It was from the yeshivah that he embarked, protected by his spiritual father, to give his first classes. It was the rosh yeshivah who sat beside him on his first job on the rabbinical court, his intervention which brought him to Cairo, and to him Hacham Ovadia returned at the end of his mission there. His repeated attempts, almost unknown to the public, to establish a body of higher learning for Eastern spiritual leadership, point to the horizon on which his eyes were set: a generation of rabbis and judges proudly bearing the tradition of Sephardic Jews in the holy land of Israel.

[1] Pronounced Kapah; 1917-2000; born in Sana’a, Yemen, he immigrated to Israel in 1943, and worked as a judge on the Jerusalem bet din and then the Rabbinical High Court. He was the rabbi of the Yemenite community and is best known for his translations and commentaries of the Rambam’s works and the translations of other Sephardic literature of that time period.
[2] 1915-2006; Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg was known as “the Tzitz Eliezer” after his encyclopedic halachic treatise which was one of the great achievements of halachic scholarship of the twentieth century. He was a leading rabbi and Av Bet Din of Jerusalem, and then a judge on the Rabbinical High Court, and was the rabbi of the Sha’are Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. He won the Israel Prize for rabbinical studies in 1976. He also wrote Hilchot Medinah, three volumes dealing with halachot regarding the State of Israel.
[3] See, for example, the discussion in chapter 7 regarding whether women should make a blessing when performing time-bound mitzvot such as lulav.
[4] Yabia Omer vol. IV, O.H. 31
[5] Yabia Omer vol. III, introduction; Hazon Ovadia – Eulogies, p. 474
[6] Ovadia Yosef, Biography
[7] 1886-1976; born in present-day Belarus, Rabbi Abramsky studied at premier Lithuanian yeshivot, particularly Brisk, and became a practicing rabbi by the age of seventeen. Following the Russian Revolution, he was at the forefront of opposition to the Communist government's attempts to repress the Jewish religion and culture. As a result, the Russian government refused Abramsky permission to leave and take up the rabbinate of Petah Tikvah in Palestine in both 1926 and 1928. In 1928, he started a Hebrew magazine, but the Soviet authorities closed it after the first two issues. In 1929, he was arrested and sentenced to five years of hard labor in Siberia. Upon his release in 1931, he moved to London where he was the Av Bet Din until he retired and made aliyah. In Israel, he served as rosh yeshivah of Slabodka. He received the Israel Prize in 1956 for his twenty-four volume Hazon Yehezkel on the Tosefta.
[8] Yabia Omer vol. X, E.H. 34; also retold in Ma’adane Hamelech (Transcriptions of Maran’s Lectures) vol. II, pp. 370-371.
[9] Yabia Omer vol. IX, E.H. 27
[10] Although until then chief rabbis usually served until their passing, the rabbinical establishment was calling for shortening the term and holding elections.
[11] MiMaran ad Maran, pp. 86-87
[12] See introduction to Hazon Ovadia – High Holidays, Sukkot, Hanukah, Tu BeShevat, Purim, and Holidays, where he wrote that the material in those volumes are based on his articles in Kol Sinai forty years earlier.
[13] Sha'ah Tovah interview with Naim
[14] He served until his retirement in 1970.
[15] 1909-1992; born in Lithuania, he aided his teacher Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Sher in founding the Slabodka yeshivah.
[16] 1909-1995; he was born in Belarus, studied under Rabbi Yehezkel Abramsky in Lithuania, and when he moved to Israel became a prominent religious Zionist rabbi and posek.
[17] He served on this court from 1956 until his resignation in 1973.
[18] Also elected in 1956
[19] Hazon Ovadia – Eulogies, p. 476
[20] Mishpacha, July 2012
[21] For example, a ruling written in 1980, when he was joined by Rabbi Zolty and Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, is recorded in Yabia Omer vol. VII, H.M. 4.
[22] Yabia Omer vol. VII, E.H. 23; Rabbi Yitzhak Kolitz, 1922-2003, was a Lithuanian Av Bet Din of Tel Aviv, then joined the high court in the late seventies, and became rabbi of Jerusalem in 1983.
[23] Yabia Omer vol. X, E.H. 31
[24] Largely translated and adapted from MiMaran ad Maran, pp. 91-92 and 199-200
[25] E.g., see reply to students in Lakewood, in chapter 44.
[26] Yehaveh Da’at vol. IV, p. 190; see also Hazon Ovadia – Fast Days, p. 159.
[27] See Yevamot 13b based on Devarim 14:1 for the prohibition against forming separate groups among Israel (“lo titgodedu”).
[28] Yabia Omer vol. IX, O.H. 108:18 states that while tzitzit should be worn under the clothing, individuals in Ashkenazic yeshivot, or those new to Judaism, can wear them out.
[29] Yehave Da’at vol. II, p. 5
[30] Ohr LeZion vol. II, p. 27, note 2 by Rabbi Benzion Abba-Shaul
[31] See N. Horowitz, pp. 30-60.
[32] See report by A. Doron, Kol Sinai, 1965, p. 401.
[33] This is the case in many vicinities, as secular Ashkenazim bring their cases to the secular courts system, while the Ashkenazic haredi community is more likely use the rabbinical courts of the Edah Haharedit. Sephardic litigants across the religious spectrum more often bring their complaints to the State-regulated bet din system.
[34] Details found in Bama’aracha, Tishre 1968, p. 1.
[35] MiMaran ad Maran, pp. 91-92
[36] Shevat 1971, page 340

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