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MEI Remembers

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (1920 – 2013)

Issue No. 10
Friday, 11 October 2013

By: Tehila Kalagy
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

The biggest funeral at the history of Israel takes place at 7 October. More than 800,000 people (about 10 per cent at Israel population) attended at the Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, 93, Torah scholar and spiritual leader’s funeral.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel and subsequently the undisputed spiritual and political leader of the Shas party, will primarily be remembered as the greatest arbitrator of Jewish law for the Sephardic world community in the last 500 years. Universally recognized as the Gadol Hador (the great of the generation) with an exceptional photographic memory and fearless leadership qualities, he was appreciated and revered within Israel and throughout the world.

Rabbi Yosef was born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1920 and at the age of 4 came with his family to the Promised Land of Israel, then under rule of the British mandate. His family settled in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Beit Yisrael, along with other Sephardic Jews, where the sole source of income was from his father’s small store and as a result their economic situation was quite dire.

Already at a young age, he was recognized by his teachers a child prodigy who persuaded his parents to allow him to continue his studies instead of working in the store. At the age of 12 he was enrolled in the prestigious Porat Yosef Yeshiva where after only six years he published his first work on halakha (Jewish law) called Yehevei Daat and at the young age of 20 was ordained as Rabbi. His greatest work, his magnum opus, is the 10 volume Yabia Omer and for this, in 1970 he received Israeli’s highest academic award – the Israel Prize.

The Rabbi forged a custom uniting the diverse and rich traditions of the numerous Sephardic communities, based on the ancient code of law by Rabbi Yosef Karo (15th century). This is without doubt his greatest legacy and succeeded only due to his unsurpassed stature within the Jewish world. In addition to this monumental achievement in the academic sphere, he also succeeded in divesting Oriental Jewry from the stifling hegemony of Ashkenazi European leadership and returned the stature and pride of Sephardic religious learning to the appropriate place it deserved.

In 1982, this ethnic renaissance morphed into political changes with the establishment of the Shas party, whose motto was Return the crown to its former glory. Rabbi Yosef was suddenly catapulted into a political leader, instrumental in forming and splitting government coalitions, single handedly wielding immense national and international political clout.  This he did for over 20 years, alongside his continuing literary and judicial penmanship.

Rabbi Yosef was an intrepid and fearless leader with a clear vision and an outspoken mind. He said what he thought in non-diplomatic ways to prime ministers and individuals alike, often raising eyebrows with his colourful language and style.  

He left behind 11 children, tens of thousands of students and a worldwide community of faithful Jews who mourn his passing.

Dr. Tehila Kalagy is a post-doctoral candidate at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel. Email

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy