Ovadia Yosef

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Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, 2007

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Hebrew: עובדיה יוסף) (born in 1920 in Basra, Iraq) is a Haredi rabbi, Talmudic scholar, a recognized authority in Halakha ("Jewish law"). He is the former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel and the current spiritual leader of the Shas political party in the Knesset (Israel's parliament). He is highly revered in the religious world, especially in the Sephardi and Mizrahi communities for his erudition and Torah scholarship.

Rabbi Yosef believes that voting in parliamentary elections and participating in Israeli politics is the key to improving the status of Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews in the State of Israel. Prior to the 2006 elections, Rabbi Yosef told his followers that he sees voting "as a commandment", despite religious encouragement to vote being illegal in Israel. [1]


Rabbi Yosef was born in Basra, Iraq, but moved to Jerusalem with his family in 1924, when he was four years old. He studied in Porat Yosef Yeshiva under Rabbi Ezra Attia. He received semicha ("rabbinical ordination") at the age of 20. In 1942 he was invited to Egypt by Rabbi Aharon Choueka, to serve as a Rabbi in Yeshiva A'hava Ve'Ahva, and as head of the Cairo bet din. After spending there three years he returned to Israel and served on the rabbinical court in Petah Tikva and later on the court of Jerusalem. He was then appointed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Appeals in Jerusalem, eventually becoming the chief sephardic rabbi of Tel Aviv in 1968, which he held until his election as Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel in 1973.

Rabbi Yosef's authoritative status is based upon his being an Illui ("prodigy") with an encyclopedic memory, and an authoritative arbiter of Halakha (posek halakhot). He is generally considered one of the most important religious authorities for Sephardi Jews and Mizrahi Jews. He lives in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Har Nof.

Some of his more famous rulings are:

  • It is legitimate and allowed to give territory from the Land of Israel in order to achieve true peace. When the Oslo accords were followed by an intifada, this was later retracted. [2]
  • A collective recognition of the Jewishness of the Beta Israel, after there was a suspicion that their conversion to Judaism was not in compliance with to Halakha ("Jewish law").
  • Allowing the wives of Israel Defense Force soldiers who have been missing in action for a long time to marry again, a verdict which is known as "the releasure of agunot" (התרת עגונות).
  • Women should not wear wigs (sheitel) as a form of head covering (according to Jewish Law married women should cover their hair in public for reasons of modesty).

In April 2005, Israeli security services arrested three members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), who had been observing Rabbi Yosef in public and were held on the suspicion of intended murder[3]. One, Musa Darwish, was convicted on December 15, 2005 of Yosef's attempted murder and of throwing firebombs at vehicles on the Jerusalem-Ma'aleh Adumim road. He was sentenced to twelve years in prison and three years probation. [4]


Government influence

In 1990 Rabbi Yosef used his position as Shas spiritual leader to pressure Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir into agreeing to hold negotiations with Arab states for a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Shamir, a member of the Likud Party, refused to make any commitments.

According to one biography of the rabbi, Ben Porat Yosef, the relationship between the two had never been comfortable because of Shamir's unstudious personality. As a way of gaining a character analysis of politicians, Rabbi Yosef had invited both Shamir and Shimon Peres to learn Talmud with him. While Peres proved an engaging and fluid learner, Shamir was stoic toward the material, a trait that led Rabbi Yosef to instead use one of Shamir's cabinet members, Housing and Construction Minister David Levy, as his key partner in dealing with the Likud. Levy had a relatively warm relationship with the rabbi due to his moderate approach to Israel's security and foreign affairs policies, his charismatic personality, and his connection with Sephardi traditions (Levy, a Moroccan, was the highest ranking Sephardi politician in the 1980s).

In 1990, Rav Yosef pulled Shas out of the coalition with the Likud and attempted to form a partnership with Peres's left-centre Labour Party. The bold move, engineered but opposed by Shas chairman Aryeh Deri, backfired when the highly respected Ashkenazi rosh yeshiva ("dean" of the Ponevezh yeshiva in Bnei Brak) Rabbi Elazar Shach (and subsequent founder of the Degel HaTorah party) fiercely commanded Rabbi Yosef to return Shas to the coalition with the Likud. During this time Yosef was severely criticised by other major members of the Haredi religious community in Israel, particular the Ashkenazim who generally sided with the Likud and the right in opposition to the perceived secularist tendencies of Labour and the left.

The failure of the scheme, today called the "Stinking Affair", or maneuver [5], was responsible for Peres's downfall as leader of Labour, and his 1991 defeat in internal elections to former Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Since the 1980s Yosef has approved the participation by Shas in most Israeli governments, except for the last two governments of Ariel Sharon since January 2003. In the last Knesset, Shas was one of the few parties to have been in the opposition for the duration of that Knesset's term, along with leftist Meretz and the Arab factions Ra'am (United Arab List), Hadash, and Balad. This was largely because of the rise of Shinui to the powerful third party position, a position that was previously held by Shas. Shinui demanded to create a government without Shas.

In the 2007 Israeli Presidential election, Rav Yosef endorsed his long-time friend Shimon Peres, who ultimately won the election due in part to the support of Shas's 12 MKs.[6]

Cultural influence

In a 2004 article by Maariv[7], Rabbi Yosef was mentioned as one of the most influential rabbis in Israel, second only to Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv. He was described as:

The spiritual leader of Shas. The man most identified with the honorific title "Maran". He has considerable political strength, mainly because he controls the Knesset members of Shas.

However, the key influence of Rabbi Yosef is in the arena of Judaism, specifically in Halakha:

In addition, he has great influence in teaching and endowing of his Halakhic way. Prayers according to Yosef's verdicts are the most common in Sephardic synagogues, and his Halakhic books gained circulation beyond compare. Almost no one disputes the fact he is a Torah phenomenon, one of a kind. Despite this, he is "field rabbi" and goes down to the common people with countless sermons. ...

Position on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Despite his controversial public comments, Rabbi Yosef has long been a distinguished rabbinical authority advocating peace negotiations, and has done so since the late 1980s. His main justification is the Halakhic ruling of Pikuach Nefesh ("saving lives"), in which all the Jewish commandments (excluding adultery, idolatry, and murder) are put on hold if a life is put in danger. Yosef, using an argument first articulated by the late American rabbinical leader Joseph Soloveitchik, claims that the Arab-Israeli conflict endangers Jewish lives, thereby meeting the above criteria and overruling the priority of commandments pertaining to settling the land of Israel. [8] Therefore, Israel is permitted, even obligated if saving lives is a definitive outcome, to both make serious efforts to reach a peace settlement as well as make arrangements to properly protect its citizens. [9], [10] Rabbi Yosef first applied the pikuach nefesh argument to Israel's conflicts with its neighbors in 1979, when he ruled that it granted Israel authority to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt (though many suspected the ruling was also motivated by Rabbi Yosef's desire to oppose his Ashkenazi colleague, Rabbi Shlomo Goren). [11]

Using this predecence, Rabbi Yosef supported the Oslo Accords in the 1990s and instructed Shas to join Yitzhak Rabin's government coalition, and later Ehud Barak's, as well. However, as Oslo stalled and relations between Israelis and Palestinians began to deteriorate, and particularly following the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, Yosef reversed himself and the party pulled "rightward", supporting the Likud.

In 2005, Rabbi Yosef repeatedly condemned the Gaza Disengagement. He argued that he was opposed to any unilateral action that occurred outside the framework of a peace agreement. Rabbi Yosef again cited the principle of pikuach nefesh, saying that empowering the Palestinians without a commitment to end terror would result in threatening Jewish lives, particularly in areas near Gaza in range of Qassam rocket attacks. [12] In contrast to some of his rabbinical colleagues, such as Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, Yosef refused to entertain the idea of holding a referendum on the disengagement, and instructed his MKs to vote against the plan when it came up in the Knesset.

Yosef still maintains that pikuach nefesh applies to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and supports negotiations with the Palestinians, but no longer appears totally convinced that diplomacy with the present leadership can necessarily end the violence. Some media analysts have suggested that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be able to convince the rabbi to sign on to further unilateral actions by the government if concerted efforts toward negotiation fail. [13]


Among secular Israelis, Yosef is mainly famous for being the leader of the political party called Shas and for his fierce and sharp rhetoric, often combined with curses and ill-wishes to hated political leaders. Some argue that Yosef's quotes are "hate speech".


Reactions to Rabbi Yosef's "political" quotes have ranged from laughter to fury among more secular Israelis, both in the political sphere and among common citizens. Shas spokespeople and Rabbi Yosef's followers argue that his quotes are taken out of context and that they include technical religious terms which the average person is not familiar with, and therefore, misunderstood. For instance, in April 2001, Rabbi Yosef was widely criticized for what was interpreted as a call for the unconditional annihilation of Arabs, saying, "It is forbidden to be merciful to them. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable", and "The Lord shall return the Arabs' deeds on their own heads, waste their seed and exterminate them, devastate them and vanish them from this world." However his second comment was in fact a slightly modified quote from Obadiah 1:18, referring to the descendants of Esau. A Shas spokesman defended Rabbi Yosef, saying the speech had been in reference to "Arab murderers and terrorists", not all Arabs, and that the Rabbi had been saying that the state of Israel should pursue its enemies mercilessly, as God had commanded the ancient Israelites to fight against their own adversaries. [14]

In March 2000, shortly before Purim, Rabbi Yosef attacked then-Education Minister and Meretz Party chairman Yossi Sarid. Yosef referred to Sarid as "the 'Dark Side'", a term synonymous in Jewish parlance with the demonic realm of existence. Yosef continued, saying, "He is Satan, may his name and memory be erased. How long do we have to suffer this wicked man? God will extirpate him, the way he will extirpate Amalek. Cursed is Haman, cursed is Yossi Sarid. He will be uprooted from the seed of Israel. Just as revenge was wrought on Haman, so it will be wrought on him." [15] Rabbi Yosef was promptly criticized by many in Israel particularly by non-Orthodox groups such as the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal arm of the Reform movement in Israel, and Hofesh, a secular non-profit organization that fights religious coercion, both of whom called for Rabbi Yosef to be tried for incitement. Rabbi Yosef was also criticized by several MKs and government Ministers. Some of Yosef's critics argued that the comparison to Haman (whose name Jews are commanded to "blot out" on Purim) constituted a thinly-veiled threat on Sarid's life, and compared the incident with the fiery rhetoric and protests that eventually culminated in Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. [16], [17] Rabbi Yosef's assistants and supporters dismissed these interpretations of his speech as politically opportunistic exaggerations, and attempted to counter this move by alleging that Sarid's predecessor in Meretz, Shulamit Aloni, had also committed "wild incitement" when, in response to the Sarid incident, she had referred to the rabbi as "a sort of Roman Emperor Caligula." Though Rabbi Yosef was investigated by the police, neither he nor MK Aloni were ever charged by the Israeli Attorney General. [18]

In a July 2001 speech Rabbi Yosef called for Arabs to go to hell: "In the old city of Jerusalem they [Arabs] are swarming like ants. They should go to hell - and the Messiah will speed them on their way." [19]

In November, 2003, during a lecture about different customs of kashrut in Israel, Rabbi Yosef accused Ashkenazi Jews of being the source of all evil: "all troubles from the Ashkenazim...You the Jewish Ashkenazim, you have been in the West, in hell. Why did you come here? What you say or do is of little importance." [20] Despite being reported by various media sources, eyewitnesses at the lecture later denied that the Rabbi had made such comments. Others have claimed that the statement was taken out of context.

In response to the alleged quotation, one Religious Zionist commentator said, "I won’t accept excuses from spokespersons and spin doctors for Rabbi Ovadia. If his comments are being consistently taken out of context, then perhaps it’s time he stopped commenting in public." [21]

In March 2005, Rabbi Yosef made comments that were widely interpreted as praying for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's death: "Let God strike him down... he is torturing the people of Israel... The Holy One wants us all to return to the Torah, and then he will strike him with one blow and he will die. He will sleep and never wake up." [22] Aides responded to the public outcry by explaining that Rabbi Yosef had been criticizing Sharon's plan for the Disengagement from Gaza, not Sharon himself.

In March 2006, before the 2006 Israeli elections, Rabbi Yosef allegedly claimed that anybody who votes for his Shas party would go to the Garden of Eden (heaven), while those who oppose Shas would go to hell. [23] At the time, polls predicted the fallout of Yosef's comment would lead to a drop in Shas' vote, though this was not borne out. The rabbi's representatives denied the latter quote.


Some of Rabbi Yosef's theodicy-related pronouncements have also been controversial. In 2000 he described the Holocaust as God's retribution against the reincarnated soul of Jewish sinners: "the 6 million Holocaust victims were reincarnations of the souls of sinners, people who transgressed and did all sorts of things that should not be done. They had been reincarnated in order to atone." Coming from a renowned Sephardic rabbi, this was especially hurtful to Ashkenazi Jews, since it was they, not the Sephardic Jews who were affected by the Holocaust. In response to a storm of criticism, Shas chairman Eli Yishai commented that criticism of the rabbi was unjustified: "Rabbi Ovadia weeps for every Jew who is killed ... but nobody, not even a saint, has not sinned. Everyone dies in a state of sin." [24]

Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 he blamed the tragedy on US support for the Gaza disengagement and on a general lack of Torah study in the area.

"There was a tsunami and there are terrible natural disasters, because there isn’t enough Torah study...black people reside there [New Orleans]. Blacks will study the Torah? [God said] let’s bring a tsunami and drown them... Bush was behind the [expulsion of] Gush Katif, he encouraged Sharon to expel Gush Katif... we had 15,000 people expelled here [in Israel], and there [in America] 150,000 [were expelled]. It was God’s retribution... God does not short-change anyone." [25], [26]

Part of the controversy surrounding Rabbi Yosef's comments was his use of the Hebrew word "Kushim" to refer to the black people of New Orleans. In modern Hebrew, "Kushim" is considered a racial epithet. [27] One explanation offered for Yosef's comments was that since non-Jews (including black Americans) are not required to study the Torah, Rabbi Yosef was suggesting that the Jews of New Orleans were responsible for studying more to make up for the large non-Jewish presence in the area.

Other commentors placed Yosef's statement in context with classical Torah views. Yosef's remarks were in accordance with two often quoted Talmudic edicts: That whenever one sees a misfortune, they should see it as a message that they should repent of their sins, and that if a person does not know how he has sinned, he should blame it on a lack of Torah study. (Berachot 5a)Template:Fact


Among Rabbi Yosef's earliest works was a detailed commentary on the Ben Ish Hai. He was asked to finish the commentary Kaf Ha'Chaim by Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer after the author's death. Two sets of Rabbi Yosef's responsa have been published, Yabia Omer and Yechavei Da'ath (both titles are references to Psalm 19). His responsa are noted for citing almost every source regarding a specific topic and are often referred to simply as indexes of rulings. Rabbi Yosef has printed a commentary of the Mishnah tractate Pirkei Avoth ("Ethics of the Fathers") under the title Anaf Etz Avot and "Maor Israel" a commentary on various parts of the Talmud. His son, Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, has published a widely read codification of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's rulings called Yalkut Yosef. Another son, Rabbi David Yosef, has printed various prayer books and liturgy according to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's rulings. He also wrote the Torat HaMoadim, rules about the Jewish holidays, and Halacha Berura[28], another codification of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's rulings.

Secondary Works


  1. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef: Voting is a commandment by Ynet March 28 2006
  2. Settlement Timeline, Foundation for Middle East Peace
  3. PFLP members held in plot to assassinate Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Haaretz 18 April 2005 (English)
  4. East J'lem man gets 12 years in jail for plotting to kill Shas spiritual leader by Haaretz December 15 2005
  5. Rabbi Schach - a man of wars and battles by Haaretz, 2001
  6. Yishai tells Peres: Rabbi Ovadia has decided to support you for president Haaretz, 4 June 2007
  7. Israel's most influential Rabbis by Maariv 12 August 2004 (Hebrew)
  8. Interpretations of Jewish Tradition on Democracy, Land and Peace by Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints October 2 2000
  9. Rav Ovadia Yosef. "Ceding Territory of the Land of Israel in Order to Save Lives", Tehumim Vol. 10, 1989
  10. Rav Ovadia Yosef. "Ceding Territory of the Land of Israel in Order to Save Lives", Crossroads: Halacha and the Modern World Vol. 3, 1990
  11. Shas: The Haredi-Dovish Image in a Changing Reality by Israel Studies Vol. 5, issue 2 2000
  12. Engaging Disengagement- Knesset Faction Positions on the Disengagement by the Jewish Agency
  13. Planning for Jerusalem in a Changing Political World by Foundation for Middle East Peace April 5 2006
  14. Rabbi calls for annihilation of Arabs by BBC April 10 2001
  15. Israel must deal with rabbi's incitement by Canadian Jewish News April 6 2000
  16. Shas Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Issues Call for Destruction of Education Minister Sarid by Israel Religious Action Center March 19 2000
  17. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Denies Intending Violence by Israel Religious Action Center March 21 2000
  18. A Rabbi's Fatwa by the The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles March 24 2000
  19. Arabs Should 'Go to Hell,' Top Israeli Rabbi Says by Newsmax July 27 2001
  20. Shas Rabbi Yosef: 'All the troubles' come from Ashkenazi Jews Haaretz 26 November 2003
  21. The Ashkenazi/Sephardi Jihad Connection by Arutz Sheva December 4, 2003
  22. Rabbi says God will punish Sharon by BBC 9 March 2005
  23. Rabbi Ovadia: Kadima voters going to hell by Ynet March 24 2006
  24. CNN
  25. Rabbi: Hurricane punishment for pullout by Ynetnews 7 September 2005 (English)
  26. Nature’s Wrath, Or God’s by the The Jewish Week September 16 2005
  27. Shas rabbi: Hurricane is Bush's punishment for pullout support by Haaretz September 7 2005
  28. Not to be confused with the Talmud edition of that name inaugurated by Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.

External links


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