By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Last week we witnessed a historic event that took place in Israel. It was a very sad event, but pivotal nonetheless for a variety of reasons. On Monday, Oct. 7, somewhere between 800,000 and 1 million people came together in what was probably the largest gathering of Jews in the history of the exile, to mourn at the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, ob’m.
Rabbi Yosef, at the time of his death, was the world’s leading expert in Jewish law. I feel that as a community, we should share together in some words of remembrance for a man whose passing brought together a crowd of such magnitude that included every type of Jew: Sephardi and Ashkenazi, Chassidic and modern Orthodox, right-wing and left-wing, religious and secular, those who followed Yosef’s rulings and those who vehemently disagreed with him. The commonality among this vast group of mourners who gathered at a mere three hours’ notice from death to funeral, nearly a sixth of the entire population of Israel: They had lost a man whose scholarship and love for every Jew was unmatched, and who embodied the entirety of Torah. We lost a father of the Jewish people, and all those assembled — and many of us who could not be there — felt that, in a way, we have all been orphaned.
This 93-year-old rabbi, who was born in Ottoman, Baghdad, was the world’s leading Sephardi rabbinical authority for decades. He held numerous rabbinical positions, including Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel; but those positions, in my opinion, were mere formalities next to what this man was and what he represented. Yosef returned the crown of honor and glory to the Torah, for a generation who had lost much of their connection to their heritage. This is especially applicable to those Jews, perhaps the majority of the country, who came to Israel from Sephardi countries and backgrounds. His regal bearing, greatness in scholarship and the power of his leadership made it honorable and respectable, again, to be an observant Jew dedicated to Torah. And he did this in an environment that had become hostile to a lifestyle of observance, as many people cast derision and shame upon those who adopted it.
One of the most striking elements of his persona was the power of his leadership, in the midst of a generation largely bereft of true leadership. In a time when “leaders” are more concerned with polls and popularity than with truly leading the people, and cower from saying what really needs to be said, R’ Ovadia remained outspoken despite the potential unpopularity of his message.
Other rabbinical leaders often disagreed with him. But none could dismiss his conclusions without addressing the myriad sources and Talmudic logic by which he arrived at them. No serious Torah scholar in our generation would think of forming a conclusion about Jewish law without consulting R’ Ovadia’s encyclopedic works. Although I only heard him speak once in person, I am a student of sorts as I personally own a small library of his writings and often consult them. This is with the knowledge that once I finish reading what R’ Ovadia wrote on a subject, I probably will have explored almost everything recorded on that subject throughout Jewish history.
R’ Ovadia’s brilliant mind and photographic memory embraced the contents of some 30,000 Jewish authoritative works in his personal home library. Legally blind for the past many years, he could still ask someone to bring down the sixth book in the third pile next to the north wall and turn to chapter so-and-so to read what that author wrote on exactly the subject they were studying! I am constantly blown away, when I study his works, just imagining how it was humanly possible to know what he knew. This was coupled with an intense love for and dedication to the Jewish people. His heart was occupied, day and night, with matters of concern to our nation.
The Talmud says, just as the Torah was given in the presence of 600,000 at Sinai, so too when someone is taken from us who knew, taught and represented the entirety of Torah, his passing should be attended by 600,000. For the first time in diaspora history, this has been fulfilled. May R’ Ovadia’s memory be a blessing. May we all increase our Torah study and observance to fill a bit of the void of his loss, and may he continue to pray for us in his place on high.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.