Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who died on Monday at the age of 93, was one of the most
respected arbiters of Jewish law of this generation and the spiritual leader of
the Shas movement since its inception in the 1980s.
His scholarship and
deep knowledge of Jewish law gave him unparalleled control over the Shas
political party for almost two decades, which changed the landscape of Israeli
politics and gave Shas and its Sephardi voters, both haredi and and
nonreligious, unprecedented influence over the course of events in the
Yosef was a controversial figure, also known for his frequent outbursts regarding public figures, political concerns and current affairs,
while Shas’s political tactics often generated animosity among the secular
public and contributed towards increasing societal division on religious
Born in Baghdad in 1920, Yosef emigrated with his family to
Israel in 1924. A student at Jerusalem’s Porat Yosef yeshiva, he was identified
early on as having special abilities and talents.
He was ordained as a
rabbi at the age of 20.
Before reaching 30, Yosef was already serving on
the rabbinical court of Cairo, where he resided from 1947 to 1950. Upon his
return to Israel he became a rabbinical judge – first on the regional court in
Petah Tikva and then in Jerusalem.
He became Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Tel
Aviv in 1968, was awarded the Israel Prize for rabbinic literature in 1970, and
in 1972 was elected to the position of Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, also
known as the Rishon Lezion – a position he held until 1983.
One of the
principle pathways Yosef adopted in his approach to Jewish law was leniency,
which he believed was preferable to stringency.
He noted in particular
that in the modern generation, ruling stringently could have the effect of
discouraging any compliance with Jewish law, and that lenient rulings were
In one of his most well-known rulings, Yosef
liberated almost 1,000 women from the halachic status of an aguna, or a “chained
woman,” by allowing partial testimony and evidence to determine a soldier’s
Jewish law requires a husband to give a bill of divorce before a
woman can remarry, and the disappearance of a soldier from the battlefield
causes severe problems in this regard.
Similarly, Yosef ruled in favor of
a leniency which permits the consumption of agricultural produce from Israel
during the Sabbatical year by symbolically selling land to non- Jews. This
leniency, which is heavily opposed by Ashkenazi haredi rabbis, circumvents
restrictions on working the land during the Sabbatical (Shmita) year, which is
often considered crucial to the economic viability of farming in the
Following his retirement as chief rabbi, Yosef’s influence and
power grew immeasurably upon his becoming spiritual head of the Shas
Founded in 1982 ahead of municipal elections scheduled for 1983
by haredi Sephardi politicians in Jerusalem, including current MK Nissim Ze’ev,
Yosef was made head of a four-man Council of Torah Sages for Shas to provide
halachic and spiritual leadership to the new party.
Shas took four
Knesset seats in the national elections in 1984 and was on its way to gaining
power and relevance, both politically and culturally.
as an explicitly religious political faction, increasingly looked towards Yosef
for guidance in all its political activities.
In 1990, the spiritual
leader of the Ashkenazi, non-hassidic haredi world, Rabbi Elazar Shach, who had
hitherto been a political patron of Shas, abandoned the party due to political
differences. Yosef became the undisputed spiritual guide and ultimate political
arbiter for Shas.
In 1992, in contrast to many leading Ashkenazi haredi
rabbis, Yosef wielded his new, unchallenged authority by giving the green light
to Shas political leaders to enter into the Labor-led government of then-prime
minister Yitzhak Rabin.
With Rabin seeking to create a formula to reach a
peace agreement with the Palestinians, Yosef’s opinion on such a process became
He had previously ruled that the principle in Jewish law of
pikuah nefesh – saving a life, which overrides almost all other laws – permitted
the return of the Sinai Peninsula, captured during the Six-Day War of 1967, to
Similarly, Yosef ruled that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
endangered human life and that if lives could be saved by reaching an agreement,
then such a process was permitted under Jewish law.
instructed Shas MKs not to vote against the Oslo Accord in 1993. The political
party eventually abstained in the vote, but the fact that Yosef had refused to
consider bringing down the government, which needed the six Shas seats to
maintain a workable majority, was critical in allowing the Accord to be
negotiated and passed in the Knesset.
On other issues as well, Yosef, as
the ultimate arbiter of party policy, became an indispensable political fulcrum
through which the fate of governments and political leaders was
Since Shas’s inception, the party has been out of government on
just three occasions, including the sevenmonth term of Shimon Peres between
November 1995 and June 2006.
Under Yosef’s authority, the party
frequently held the balance of power within the governments it had joined, and
the weight of its political strength was made apparent by its propensity to
create severe political crises in order to secure the implementation of certain
policies it had deemed necessary and the failure of others toward which it was
In 2009, for example, Shas refused to join a coalition led by
newly installed Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, resulting in fresh elections. The
party then joined with Likud to form a government of the Right.
the realm of politics, Shas had deep societal influence. Led by Yosef, it
restored a sense of pride among the Sephardi population in Israel, which made
him a superstar in the eyes of that community.
The slogan of “restoring
the crown to its glory” became the motto of Shas; it expressed determination to
restore pride in Sephardi heritage and identity by raising the population from
its low socioeconomic status and addressing inequalities. Yosef’s unquestioned
expertise in Jewish law, along with his obvious charisma, energized this
Along with the dynamic and ambitious figure of MK Arye Deri, who
quickly rose to the head of the Shas political machine, Yosef and his party were
able to secure not just religious supporters, but also tens of thousands of
traditional and non-observant Sephardim who took pride in their history. Shas
led a renaissance in Sephardi culture and religious observance and revived the
community’s tradition of scholarship in Jewish law and Torah
Undoubtedly, Yosef also generated considerable controversy in his
lifetime and much opposition from segments of the public. Many of his opponents
viewed Shas as a mechanism for taking control of religious life in the country,
for imposing its agenda on Israeli society and for creating fiefdoms within the
state bureaucracy through which it could assert its influence while providing
opportunities for financial gain to those in its inner circle.
appointments abounded when Shas held political office, and through its political
and religious patronage the party installed rabbis and judges in powerful
positions who, under the influence of Yosef, deeply influenced Israeli
The recent elections for chief rabbi, and the fealty of the
delegates of the Election Committee to their patron Yosef, are just one
Shas and Yosef’s modus operandi aroused such ire that new
political parties sprung up in opposition.
In 2003, Tommy Lapid’s Shinui
party ran on a platform explicitly opposing the potent mix of religion and
politics perfected by Shas and he won 15 seats.
Shinui refused to join a
coalition with either Shas or the Ashkenazi haredi United Torah Judaism
During its participation in the government of Ariel Sharon from
2003 to 2006, Shinui disbanded the Ministry of Religious Services, a major Shas
fief and source of political patronage, although it was subsequently revived
under Ehud Olmert’s premiership in 2008.
Yosef was inclined to make
public pronouncements on sensitive issues that frequently generated widespread
denunciations, albeit sometimes due to a lack of understanding as to the context
and background of his comments.
In 2000, Yosef said that victims of the
Holocaust were the reincarnations of Jewish souls who had sinned in previous
Although widely criticized for seemingly attributing blame to
Holocaust victims for the Nazi genocide, Yosef’s comments were in keeping with
mystical Jewish teachings regarding the destiny and purpose of Jewish souls. He
later insisted that all Holocaust martyrs were holy and pure saints and that he
had been trying to provide a theological explanation for their
In 2005, Yosef attributed the catastrophic damage and loss of
life caused by Hurricane Katrina in the United States to “godlessness” in New
Orleans and the pressure brought to bear by the US for an Israeli withdrawal
from the Gaza Strip.
In more recent years, Yosef’s denunciations of
political figures and parties in Israel – including, less than a year ago, the
national religious Bayit Yehudi party and its chairman, Economy and Trade
Minister Naftali Bennett – continued to create consternation even in the weeks
before his final hospitalization.
Without doubt, Yosef’s presence on the
national stage as a person of supreme halachic authority has had a profound
influence on Israeli society for decades.
His passing truly marks the end
of an era, with the future of Shas and religious politics in general shrouded in
What is certain is that Shas itself will be increasingly
divided without its iconic rabbi and the unquestioned leadership and authority
he wielded, which will not be replicated by anyone claiming to be his
Yosef is survived by 10 children and dozens of grandchildren.