My Abba, Rav Ovadia

By Adina Bar Shalom

With Toby Klein Greenwald

I first met Rabbanit Adina Bar Shalom, the daughter of Rav Ovadia Yosef, z”l, in the spring of 2007, on a visit to the Haredi College of Jerusalem, founded in 2001, which was housed in a community center in a decrepit part of the Romema neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Today the college takes up several floors in Jerusalem’s upscale Malcha complex. This past year, on Israel’s Independence Day, the Rabbanit was one of fourteen women chosen to light a torch during the traditional lighting of the torches ceremony at Mount Herzl. Each of the women selected contributed to Israeli society in various ways. The Rabbanit said emphatically that she was lighting in honor of her father, in honor of the women of valor who help bring about and support a world of Torah study and in honor of the thousands of Chareidim who have entered the workforce, as it says, “For thou shalt eat the labour of thy hands: happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee” (Tehillim 128:2) (The Jerusalem Bible [Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2000]).

The following evening, she was one of ten individuals, among them Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, to receive the prestigious Israel Prize.

The stories and details about life with Rav Ovadia Yosef, described here, are from a lecture which I have translated, excerpted and summarized. The Rabbanit delivered the lecture “The Legacy of Hakham Ovadia” in Hebrew this past November at Yeshiva University (lecture available at www.yutorah.org).

Toby Klein Greenwald

The author with her father, Rav Ovadia, at an event for the Haredi College of Jerusalem. Rabbanit Bar Shalom opened the college thirteen years ago in response to the need for higher education in the Chareidi community. The college offers separate gender classes and the degrees are awarded by Bar-Ilan and Ben-Gurion universities. Rav Ovadia was a great supporter of the college.  Photo courtesy of Rabbanit Bar Shalom

The author with her father, Rav Ovadia, at an event for the Haredi College of Jerusalem. Rabbanit Bar Shalom opened the college thirteen years ago in response to the need for higher education in the Chareidi community. The college offers separate gender classes and the degrees are awarded by Bar-Ilan and Ben-Gurion universities. Rav Ovadia was a great supporter of the college.
Photo courtesy of Rabbanit Bar Shalom

It is difficult to find the words to describe the extent of the ahavat Yisrael with which my father, Rav Ovadia, was blessed. My father and his brother were born into a poor family in Iraq. He was four years old when his family came to Israel, where six more children were born.

From childhood on, he loved to learn Torah more than anything else; he didn’t play with other children. At age six he knew scores of mishnayot by heart, and at nine he started to learn Gemara.

His Early Life
His phenomenal, photographic memory was apparent at a young age. When he couldn’t afford to buy seforim, he would stand in a bookstore for half a day, look over the sefer and commit it to memory.

At twenty-four, he married [my mother] Margalit Fattal and at the age of twenty-six, in 1947, he was elected deputy chief rabbi of Egypt, sent there by Rabbi Ezra Attiya, rosh yeshivah of Porat Yosef Yeshiva, and Harav Ben-Zion Uziel, the Sephardic chief rabbi of then-British-ruled Palestine. It was a struggle in Egypt to observe the laws of kashrut and the mitzvot. But my father persevered and strengthened the whole community in limud Torah [Torah study].

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef learning in his home (October 18, 1972). Photo: Israel Sun

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef learning in his home
(October 18, 1972). Photo: Israel Sun

My father understood the principle of “chanoch lana’ar al pi darko” [“Teach a child according to his or her own way”]. So to draw the community close, he went on day trips [with his students] and joined them on picnics. I remember when I was four years old, together with Abba’s students we visited the pyramids and boated on the Nile. He would laugh and joke with his students, and in the midst of this, intertwine the study of Torah. He acted like one of his students, not like a rav who came to educate them. Many [of his students] were older than he was, and this was his way of bringing them closer.

Three years later, my father and his family returned to [the newly established State of] Israel. In Egypt, my parents had been comfortable, but they arrived in Israel with four children during the tzena [a time of austerity and rationing], and their financial situation was very difficult. Abba did whatever was necessary in order to earn a livelihood. He gave shiurim in Porat Yosef Yeshiva, taught halachah to ba’alei batim in the evenings and served as a chazzan on Shabbat.

Our home was a home of Torah. In between the shiurim that Abba gave, he learned Torah at home. We children tiptoed, and that’s not metaphoric; we really did. We played quietly; you could hardly hear us. Even if we cried, it was quietly; and when we laughed, it was in total silence.

On Shabbat, my father, like other fathers, would teach us the songs that he loved, both Chassidic songs and songs from Egypt . . . He would also ask us what we were studying in school, which teachers we like, which subjects we enjoy learning. Shabbat was wonderful for us. He would tell stories, and all his stories had a musar haskel, a lesson.

On weekday afternoons, we would spend a half hour with Abba during lunchtime. The radio would be on, and we would listen to Professor Nechama Leibowitz, z”l, explain the Tanach. He would say, “Learn from her, children; see what a wise woman she is. Learn the Tanach well, so that in twenty or thirty years from now, I will be privileged to hear you on the radio explaining the Tanach.” Indeed, today several of my brothers deliver regular shiurim on Israeli radio.

In 1957, my father began serving as a dayan, rabbinical court judge, in Petah Tikva. His heart was filled with compassion for the couples who came to him. After all, who comes to a beit din? People who are in pain and have difficulties. He tried his best to alleviate people’s suffering.

Once, close to Pesach, he convened the beit din for an urgent case. His colleagues arrived and asked, “What is so urgent? We aren’t doctors!” He replied, “We are much more [than doctors]. There is a man who refuses to give his wife a get, and he’s sitting in prison.” The man believed that because he wasn’t a criminal—he didn’t steal or commit murder, he “just” refused to give his wife a get—he would be allowed to go home for the chag. [But once he realized that was not the case,] he called my father and said he couldn’t stay in jail because there was no shmurah matzah, et cetera. He promised to give his wife a get right after Pesach. Abba said, “No, you won’t leave prison until you give her a get.” He finally said, “Bring the dayanim now, and I’ll give her a get.” So Abba called the dayanim together quickly. On the eve of bedikat chametz, Abba came home late, after the get was given. He said that he wanted us, his children, to understand how important it was to him to have this woman receive her get. “Now that she is a free woman,” he said, “I can conduct the Seder.”

In 1958, we moved back to Jerusalem when my father was appointed to serve as a justice in the rabbinical court in Jerusalem. Subsequently, he began serving in the rabbinical high court. In 1968, he became Sephardic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Prior to this, he had written Chazon Ovadia and the first few volumes of Yabia Omer. He received awards for these seforim, including the Rav Kook Prize for Torah Scholarship, the Rabbi Uziel Prize and the Israel Prize for his rabbinic writings and bold halachic decisions.

In 1972, he was elected the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel. After the Yom Kippur War, Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan asked him to examine the possibility of declaring the wives of soldiers who were missing in action and presumed dead as halachic widows. These women would remain agunot otherwise. When Dayan was asked why he went to [Rav Ovadia] and not to another rav, he said, “Because I have absolute faith in him and, just as I trust him, so do all of Am Yisrael; they will accept his halachic decision . . . If [Rav Ovadia] investigates the issue and he [declares them widows,] nobody will disagree with that decision.”

He questioned the soldiers who served with the men missing in action. With each testimony, he cried. He couldn’t eat during those days, didn’t drink, didn’t sleep, could not close his eyes, until he gave a heter to every one of the wives whose husbands were missing. There were nearly 960 widows resulting from the Yom Kippur War. For many, the bodies of their husbands were found and identified. But [in those cases] where the bodies could either not be found or identified, as a result of my father’s pesak and thorough investigation of each and every case, not one woman was left an agunah.

A Teacher of Torah
Abba was known for having the ability to rub shoulders with kings and rulers of countries but also with the common man. He never refused an invitation; whether it was to visit the kibbutzim of Hashomer Hatzair [the secular Communist kibbutz movement] or the king of Spain, he went with the same enthusiasm. He was especially happy to go [teach Torah at] the secular kibbutzim because he said this was their only opportunity to hear divrei Torah. In the beginning [of his rabbinic career], he went everywhere by bus. He never complained that it was difficult for him, and he never felt that he should stay home and learn Torah instead. He thought that learning Torah and teaching others were both important and that he had to do both.

On one of his trips to the States, he visited a school in Los Angeles. A seven-year-old boy from the well-known Syrian Jewish Falas family was so inspired by his visit that when he reached the age of sixteen he went to Jerusalem to study in a yeshivah for two years. Soon after, this young man met my daughter and [became my son-in-law]. He was recently chosen to be the Sephardic chief rabbi of London. At the age of seven, he saw the joy of Torah and it brought him to a place where he yearned to learn Torah. Abba always supported my son-in-law’s pesakim. Abba told him, “Go with strength and save Am Yisrael. You have the ability to speak English; I wish I could.”

After serving as chief rabbi of Israel for ten years, Abba founded the Shas party. He wanted to finish what he started. He wanted to serve Am Yisrael, to take care of the underprivileged, to work for the glorification of Torah. He knew that in order to execute ideas, one needs political power. He wasn’t naïve. He knew that [without Shas,] he would not be able to implement his vision.

We, the family, were unhappy with this decision and asked him to reconsider. We were afraid that [his involvement in politics] would cast a shadow over his greatness in Torah, chas vechalilah, and his prestige would suffer. Abba drew his answer, as usual, from the sources. “Yechezkel the Prophet was called Yechezkel ben Buzi. Why? Because he embarrassed himself for the Torah . . . in order to spread the Torah, he had to dirty himself more than once. [He had to] go into the mud, to ask people to come and listen to divrei Torah. This is the reason why he was privileged to have God reveal Himself to him and call him ‘Ben Adam.’ Prophecy was given to prophets who did not have the designation of ‘Ben Adam.’ But God wanted to uplift Yechezkel due to the fact that he had shamed himself for the Torah.” My father then turned to my mother and said, “Can I stand on the side? Is this what I will say to Hakadosh Baruch Hu? That I cared more for my honor?”

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef speaking to religious students before their induction into the IDF (1973).  Photo: Israel Sun

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef speaking to religious students before their induction into the IDF (1973).
Photo: Israel Sun

Indeed, what we feared came to pass. People got angry or mocked Abba for things he said. His divrei Torah were not always properly understood, and such misunderstandings also took place when he would broadcast shiurim via satellite. We urged him to cancel the broadcasts. We told him that journalists are listening and they don’t understand. He was very distressed after he spoke about the reincarnation of souls connected to the Shoah and survivors misunderstood what he said [and assumed he had referred to them as evil]. He didn’t mean that they were evil, chalilah v’chas, but many survivors were shattered and demonstrated outside of our home. That was the only demonstration during which he went out to the people and said, “I apologize. I was misunderstood; no one on Earth went through what you did.” That was the only time he cried with the demonstrators because they did not understand him. After that incident, we once again urged him to stop the broadcasts. And he said, “No, I’ve learned what is not understood. And I’ll make more mistakes. There is no individual who is immune to making mistakes. How can I otherwise reach 30,000 people?” They heard him in Morocco, in France; they heard him everywhere. So he continued, in spite of the fact that there were things that hurt him and hurt us.

“Bringing the University to Us”
My father introduced me to my husband. I was eighteen years old. I wanted to work, to support my family. Abba said, “Ezer kenegdo, not alone; he will help you and you will help him. You will build a home together. May Hashem make it successful.” So my husband, like my father, worked as a chazzan and gave classes in the evening, and I clothed the daughters of Israel. I had a bridal gown salon.

Later, my husband became a dayan. We have three children and thirteen grandchildren, baruch Hashem. When our youngest daughter got married seventeen years ago, I thought, how can I contribute, to leave my mark, as the daughter of Rav Ovadia?

I realized that higher education was the answer. Two hundred years ago, academic study had caused [many among] Am Yisrael to become secular and this led to much intermarriage; it was known as “hashmadat dat,” the destruction of religion [the Enlightenment]. Therefore, the Chareidim in Israel boycotted university studies. However, academic study helps develop the world, as it is written in the Torah, “Wisdom among the non-Jews should be believed.”

What can we do to provide Chareidim with education, with the knowledge to participate in the twenty-first-century world?

I thought about this issue because I was raised in Abba’s home. People came to him seeking his advice. I knew that hearing about all their difficulties caused him to feel deeply distressed. They didn’t have money to feed their children, to buy them clothes, to support their families. They were working, but the salaries didn’t cover their monthly expenses. I thought: we have to bring academic studies to Am Yisrael, to the Chareidim. Not to send the Chareidim to university, but to bring the university to us.

Abba immediately agreed with me. He asked that things be done in the proper way, in the way of the Torah. I opened the Haredi College of Jerusalem thirteen years ago with twenty-three women. Today, more than 1,000 students—men and women—study in the college. The degrees are awarded by Bar-Ilan and Ben-Gurion universities.

Five years ago, when Abba came to visit the college, he asked me, “Where are the men?” I said, “Abba, I only teach women, because I am afraid that the Ashkenazic rabbanim, who were very opposed to the college in the beginning, will claim that I’m taking the men out of the yeshivot.” He said, “You’re afraid of the Ashkenazic rabbis and not of me? If I’m saying [to bring the men,] then obviously I know that those who will come to the college [will do so because they] need to support their families. They are people who will not become rabbanim.”

Working with the academic world was a challenge, and Bar-Ilan University was concerned about opening new degree programs for Chareidim. I wanted to offer a lot of academic options. I wanted Chareidim to study computer science and guidance counseling—everything students could learn elsewhere. The [coursework is] the same, but I wanted to give Chareidim the opportunity to study among other Chareidim in separate-gender classes.

Pre-election rally in Tel Aviv where Rabbi Ovadia Yosef encouraged voters to vote for Shas (February, 2006).  Photo: Leon Kahane/Israel Sun

Pre-election rally in Tel Aviv where Rabbi Ovadia Yosef encouraged voters to vote for Shas (February, 2006).
Photo: Leon Kahane/Israel Sun

One day, Abba said, “I will go to Bar-Ilan and I’ll talk to the president.” And he did. He met with the university president, after which, the president promised that he would open the door to all of the degree programs in the university.

Abba went to see the university’s Torah library, and was amazed at the Responsa Project. He said, in jest, “Let’s have a contest. One of you ask a question, and I want to see how many answers the computer will give, and how many I’ll give.” A question was asked. He answered way before the computer did.

A Follower of Beit Hillel
Abba was very well respected. Tremendous rabbanim, like Rav [Yosef Shalom] Elyashiv, who did not always approve of his halachic opinions, agreed that he was a genius in Torah, and that his pesak was clear-cut and solid. Many also appreciated his lenient approach. Abba never hesitated to quote posekim who did not rule the way he did.

At one point, he was questioned about his decision regarding the status of the several thousand IDF converts who were converted [outside of the framework of the Chief Rabbinate] in special IDF conversion courts. Abba said, “I checked it out [and decided that] whoever converted, converted. We don’t posel a person after he has converted.”

Abba left an ethical will to my brother, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, the new Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel. He is a genius in Torah, head and shoulders above others. In his ethical will, my father said to him: “Go according to Beit Hillel. And don’t make it burdensome for the tzibbur [public]. If you want to take something more difficult upon yourself, I won’t tell you not to. But don’t be machmir [stringent] with the tzibbur, because it will just distance them. You have to draw the tzibbur close. Take that as a will that I am leaving you. Continue in this way, because I know you are filled with Torah; you know how to make halachic decisions. You have courage, but choose always to go in the way of Beit Hillel and not Beit Shammai.”

We lost a leader who was a giant, a leader whose head reached the stars and whose feet were planted in the ground. I want to conclude with a verse from Tehillim: “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scorners. But his delight is in the Tora of the Lord; and in his Tora he meditates day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season; its leaf also shall not wither; and in whatever he does he shall prosper” (Tehillim 1:1-4) (The Jerusalem Bible [Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2000]).

So was Abba, who planted trees that bring forth fruits in season, the fruits being the talmidei chachamim of our generation. And then there are the books. There is nothing Abba cherished more. He used to bring home a new sefer and hug and kiss it as if it were a human being. Abba left the scores of books he wrote as an inheritance for us and for all of the generations to come.

Toby Klein Greenwald is a journalist, educator and community theater director who lives in Efrat, Israel with her family. Rabbanit Adina Bar Shalom is the eldest daughter of Rav Ovadia Yosef. Special thanks to Shira Leibowitz Schmidt for assisting in the preparation of this article.

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This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2014 .
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