Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Sephardic Kingmaker of Israeli Politics, Dies at 93

Revered Shas Leader Turned Underclass Into Potent Force

Sephardic Legend Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, right, was revered for raising the profile of Sephardic Jews worldwide.
getty images
Sephardic Legend Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, right, was revered for raising the profile of Sephardic Jews worldwide.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published October 07, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Ovadia Yosef, the rabbi responsible for turning religiously observant Sephardic Jews from a marginalized minority into one of Israel’s most politically powerful groups, has died at age 93.

Yosef was widely revered as a kind of living saint during his lifetime. He inspired adoring love songs extolling his virtues, and his death is expected to further cement his iconic status in the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic community which he led.

But Yosef is being mourned far beyond the ultra-Orthodox sector, thanks to enormous emphasis he placed on religious outreach in a way that Israel had never seen before. In terms of courting the non-Orthodox, he was the closest that Israel had to the late New York-based outreach pioneer, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

There is one other similarity between Yosef and Schneerson. Both left, upon their death, a massive power vacuum in their movements and uncertainty among followers about whether or how it could be filled. For Yosef the movement in question was Shas, the political party he established in 1984, with its network of associated welfare and educational institutions. The often-used description of Yosef as Shas’ spiritual leader is an understatement — the movement is, from top to bottom, an expression of his religious outlook and political ethos. The party’s political leaders consulted Yosef — who never sat in Knesset — on virtually every decision they made.

And so, from his home in Jerusalem’s modest Har Nof neighborhood, where he lived surrounded by thousands of volumes of religious law and lore, he cast an enormous influence over the agenda of every Israeli government for nearly three decades. For much of its existence, his party and its demands held the key to whether governments survived or fell.

Ovadia Yosef was born in Baghdad on September 23, 1920, and immigrated to Jerusalem as a young child. He received a Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, education, most notably at the newly founded Porat Yosef Sephardic yeshiva. Regarded by his teachers as a brilliant student, he was ordained a rabbi at 20.

In 1948 the Sephardic chief rabbi of then-British-ruled Palestine, Ben-Zion Uziel, appointed Yosef deputy chief rabbi of Cairo and head of that city’s rabbinical court, posts he filled for two years. He then returned to Jerusalem, where he studied in a kolel, or full-time Talmud program for adults.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.