Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Rav Ovadya Yosef - Review of a biography - Part 1. Early years.

I finished reading a few weeks ago a book by R.Benny Lau titled Mimaran ad Maran – (from R. Yosef Karo to R. Ovadiah Yosef both titled Maran) an analysis of R.Ovadyah Yosef thinking and his approach to Psak. I picked it up at Beit Morasha in December during my visit to Jerusalem, where I went for an advertised lecture by Prof. Halivni who, to my great disappointment, had to cancel because of an emergency. R.Lau, a nephew of the Ashkenazi ex-Chief Rabbi did his Phd dissertation on ROY and was welcomed into his inner circles with access to many of his unpublished writings.

The first part of the book deals with ROY life story which is fascinating. He was born in Baghdad in 1920 to a silversmith and came to Jerusalem when he was four. He was a prolific writer from tender youth, having written his first comments in the Reishis Chochma which he received at the age of 9 as a present for repeating 5 masechtot mishnayos and 4 prakim gemara by heart. At 12 he wrote his first book, a collection of puzzles and their solution. He also wrote a small booklet of stories where he first coined the name of one of his later famous She’elot Uteshuvot Yabia Omer – Yabia being the acronym Ovadiah Yosef ben Yakov backwards. At 12 he also joined the Yeshiva Porat Yosef where he met Rav Ben Zion Aba Shaul Z’L , another Posek to be. They remained friends for life and were very much involved with each other. He became famous for his diligence and brilliance and got to know many of the Jerusalem greats of the time, Rav Uziel, R.Z.P.Frank, R.Zevin et al.

At an early age he developed his unique way of thinking regarding Halacha. He believed that The Beis Yosef was the Godol of the Middle East, and his authority is binding to this day on all Sefardi communities. He therefore felt that the erosion of BY rulings in Shulchan Aruch over time with the influence of Remah and other Ashkenazi Possekim had to be reversed. He took on at an early age the Ben Ish Chai, which was a daring and controversial move. Ben Ish Chai was Rav Yosef Chaim (1835 – 1909), Rav of Baghdad, and was considered the Posek of his generation, a great Gaon and Mekubal, who had a tendency to adopt the Remah’s stringencies. R.Ezra Attia, the Rosh Yeshiva of Porat Yosef, supported him in his position which eventually became a lifelong campaign.

In 1940, at the age of 20, he was already corresponding with the Sefardi Gedolim of his day, disagreeing and challenging them wherever they strayed from the Shulchan Aruch. He also developed a friendship and dialogue with Harav Eliezer Waldenberg and began a long and fruitful interchange of correspondence with many heated discussions where they differed in their rulings. In 1948 he became Rav of Cairo, Egypt, where he had his first real opportunity for leadership. It was a tough time for the community as it was the early years of Medinat Israel and Egyptian Jewry was in its last years. It is there that he started editing and preparing for publication his SHUT Yabia Omer.

More on a coming post.


  1. What is the source of your fascination with ROY - is it that he took the beis yosef as his authority much as one (ahem) might take the rambam?

    :: puffs cigar::

  2. I picked up the book by chance as i never really paid attention to ROY. I was turned off by his politics and his careless pronouncements. Once I started reading it I got fascinated by his steadfast position. He aalso comes through as an astute leader. I will be posting as time allows more on this.

    Now Rambam is another story. He is really unique. What I find the most fascinating is that in Machshava he leads you more then just making a statement. His lack of clarity in itself is what lets the reader develop his own understanding that fits to the matzav he is at the time. I am convinced it is premeditated.

  3. I looked all over your blog for the follow up. Did you post it somewhere?