In the days when Shas spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was alive, President Shimon Peres made a point of visiting him a few days before Passover and again just before Rosh Hashana, in addition to any other times they might see each other throughout the year.
Last year, when Peres made his pre-Passover call, the rabbi was already quite ill, and instructed his son Yitzhak, who is now the Sephardi chief rabbi, to give Peres the full 40-volume set of Yalkut Yosef, which Yitzhak Yosef (born 1952) had begun writing at the age of 17. Covering all aspects of Jewish life, the collection is based on halachic rulings by Ovadia Yosef and is widely regarded as the Sephardi interpretation of the Shulhan Aruch – the Code of Jewish Law.
Peres was among the last of the non-family members to visit Ovadia Yosef in the hospital before the rabbi died on October 7, aged 93.
On Wednesday, Yitzhak Yosef visited Peres at his residence in the capital and fulfilled his father’s wish.
The chief rabbi, who was accompanied by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites, would ordinarily have left the visit till next week, closer to the holiday, but Peres is leaving for China on Monday, and has a full agenda over the next few days. The two rabbis came to join Peres in reciting Birkat Ha’ilanot, the blessing on trees, which is traditionally recited during the Hebrew month of Nisan. Rabinovich also read psalms and biblical verses in which there are references to trees.
The ceremony took place in a section of the presidential gardens in front of a large citrus tree laden with orange fruit and flanked on one side by a tree planted by Pope Benedict XVI and on the other by the tree planted last year by US President Barack Obama. A hole has already been dug to accommodate the tree that Pope Francis is to plant in May.
Peres took his guests on a tour of the garden to show them the antiquities on display as well as a hybrid tree of figs and olives and the synagogue at the end of the garden.
The president’s senior female staff gathered to receive a blessing from Yosef as he was making his way back to his car, and he blessed all those who were waiting to get married to do so, to build a Jewish home and to produce many children.
Yosef said that it was an honor for him to carry out his father’s wish. The blessing on the trees at the beginning of spring symbolized the period from Passover to Shavuot and the giving of the Torah, he said. In the spring, the trees are in bloom, but when the flowers fall off, the fruit appears. The process takes 50 days, which was the time from the Exodus to the giving of the Torah.
Yosef said that 20 years ago his father and Peres studied Rambam together.
Peres said that he was pleased that Yosef was walking in his father’s footsteps. Noting that Passover celebrates the transition from slavery to freedom, the president said that the Exodus continues because there is still slavery in the world. “We cannot rest until we can say that everyone has crossed the Red Sea” he said.