Dispute over Bamba blessing underscores rabbinical power struggle

Ovadia Yosef's sons both claim his support of halachic ruling.

bamba 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
bamba 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
What blessing should a pious Jew make on the popular snack Bamba and its many surrogates? This arcane dispute, relevant to a religious minority of Jews, has been thrust to the forefront of a power struggle between two sons of Sephardi Jewry's most influential halachic authority - Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual mentor of Shas. Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and Rabbi David Yosef, the two sons, are vying to become the next chief sephardi rabbi of Jerusalem. By taking the Jerusalem Chief Rabbinate post, each son could potentially position himself to inherit the mantle of rabbinic leadership for Sephardi Jewry from the 89-year-old father, who has a history of heart disease. David Yosef is close to former Shas chairman Aryeh Deri, who is expected to make a political comeback after serving a 22-month prison sentence, probation and a decade-long ban from politics starting in July 1999 for taking a bribe of about $150,000. David Yosef was forced out of Shas's inner power circle after Deri was forced to step down. Meanwhile, Yitzhak Yosef has received the open support of his father and others in Shas in his campaign to become Jerusalem's next Sephardi chief rabbi. Camps supporting each of the sons have enlisted an unlikely and seemingly mundane food commodity to advance their respective aims. In a surprise opinion, Yitzhak Yosef, who heads the Hazon Ovadia Yeshiva and authored the Yalkut Yosef - a compilation of halachic opinions that quote heavily from his father's rulings - argued that the proper blessing for Bamba, which is made out of ground corn, is borei pri ha'adama (Blessed are You, the Creator of the fruits of the earth). Yitzhak Yosef argued that since the corn was grown especially for the production of the Bamba, this was the proper blessing even if the corn were no longer recognizable. In contrast, David Yosef, head of the Yechaveh Da'at Yeshiva and rabbi of Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood, ruled in a more mainstream opinion that the proper blessing was shehakol (Blessed are You Who brings everything into being by His word). In a telephone conversation with The Jerusalem Post, David Yosef said he rejected his brother's reasoning. "I spoke with exporters from Trieste [the Italian port from which a large amount of corn flour used for Bamba production is brought to Israel]," he said. "They told me that a lot of the corn grown in Italy is used for other purposes besides Bamba, such as polenta. And even when corn is grown specifically for one purpose, we still say a shehakol. In Mexico, for instance, the national food is corn tortillas. My father told all the Jews to say shehakol." Each son claims that the elder Yosef supports his opinion on Bamba. Supporters of each have leaked letters to the press signed by Yosef to the effect that one son - either David or Yitzhak - is his legitimate spiritual heir. The sons' position on the Bamba blessing has become a foil for determining which of the two is continuing the halachic traditions of the father. If either of the sons can prove that their father agrees with him on Bamba, then by extension, it would show that the venerable rabbi supports them in general regarding additional halachic rulings. Meanwhile, a source close to Ovadia Yosef revealed the octogenarian rabbi's real opinion. "Do you want to know what Maran [a name of respect for Yosef] holds?" asked the source, who insisted on remaining anonymous for fear he would be accused of political favoritism. "He believes the blessing is shehakol. But if someone said ha'adama, he does not have to bless again. After all, Bamba is made out of corn meal."