Portrait of a Prodigy

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PORTRAIT OF A PRODIGY

By: Yehuda Azoulay



It was Friday night, long after erev Shabbat prayers were over, when a loud banging noise coming from the ezrat nashim (ladies section) of the kinees (synagogue) startled the neighboring families. They quickly ran to summon the gabbai (caretaker), and when he opened the door, he found a young yeshiva student, standing inside the synagogue. The youthful scholarwas so immersed in his learning that he did not notice when the kinees was locked up and everyone went home. Some six decades later, this dedicated student is known to us as Maran Hagaon Hacham Ovadia Yosef, shelita.

The learning habits of Hacham Ovadia, during his youth are nothing short of awe-inspiring. The stories here were originally compiled by Hacham Yizhak Yosef, the rabbi’s son, based on accounts he collected from and about his father. They are now part of a book entitled, Igeret Leben Torah, which seeks to offer guidance to young students on how to achieve greatness in Torah.

Single-minded Focus on Torah

The Rambam, in Moreh Nevuchim[1], writes that the secret to success in learning Torah is to be completely focused and immersed only in Torah. Hacham Ovadia once related how in his youth, and even for several years after he got married, he never once read a newspaper or listened to the news on the radio. These were especially turbulent times, when catastrophes such as the Holocaust were befalling the Jewish people, and yet he never even glanced at a newspaper. The only things that interested him were the words of the Gemara, the Rishonim (Early Scholars) and Aharonim (Later Scholars)[i]. He also mentioned that in all his years learning in eress Yisrael, he never even saw Israel’s largest metropolis, Tel-Aviv, until after he was married. All his energy was concentrated exclusively on his learning.

A childhood friend described how, while the two were attending Talmud Torah Bnei Zion, young Hacham Ovadia would go outside during recess and pull aside a classmate – a different boy each day – and ask if he would review the lessons with him. He would say, “Isn’t it a pity to waste time with pointless games when you could use the time to study more?” His friends, who were the same age, never made fun of his habits. They treated him with utmost respect because they knew that he sincerely meant what he said.

A Seat Among Giants

At the age of eighteen, Hacham Ovadia would go every Shabbat to the se’uda shelishit (third meal) of Rabbi Svi Pesach Frank z.s.l. (1873-1961), the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, who would invite some of his close friends and a number of talmide hachamim (Torah students). Each week, when Hacham Ovadia arrived, Rabbi Frank stood up in honor of Hacham Ovadia and offered him the seat right beside his. Then Hacham Ovadia would proceed to tell the rabbi all the halachic discourses he had read on Friday and Shabbat night, and they would discuss them. Someone once mentioned to Rabbi Frank that it was not befitting his stature to accord such honor to a young, Sephardic boy. Rabbi Frank answered, “This young man will answer all the halachic questions for the next generation.”

It was the custom of Hacham Ovadia to spend Friday and Shabbat learning works of teshuvot, the scholarly halachic responsa of the Rishonim and Aharonim. He began this practice already in his youth. Hacham Ben-Sion Abba Shaul z.s.l. (1924 – 1998) once recalled how in his younger years he would learn together with Hacham Ovadia every Friday. He would hurry home a half-hour before sheki’a (sunset)to prepare for Shabbat, but Hacham Ovadia would remain immersed in learning. Hacham Ben-Sion also recalled how every night he would walk with Hacham Ovadia from Yeshivat Porat Yosef in the Old City of Jerusalem to Yeshivat Hevron in the city’s Geula neighborhood. Along the way, they would review from memory the pages of Gemarathey were learning. He said that he would remember the discussion in the Gemara along with the comments of Tosafot and the Rosh, but Hacham Ovadia would even remember the exact names of all the Tannaim (Sages of the Mishna), Amoraim (Sages of the Gemara), and Baalei Tosafot (Sages of the additional commentaries). After reviewing all the pages of the Gemara with the Tosafot, they would delve into the intricacies of the Rishonim and Aharonim such as the Maharsha, the Meiri, Maharam Shif, Maharitz Hiyot, and the Penei Yehoshua.

A Teenage Prodigy

Hacham Ovadia returned home very late from yeshiva one night, and his family had already locked the door for the night. Not wanting to wake anyone, he sat down on the steps and continued learning by the light of the moon until morning. When his father left the house to pray at sunrise, he found young Ovadia sitting there on the steps, bent over his sefer. Hacham Ovadia told him that when he came home and saw the door was locked, he decided to continue learning by moonlight, rather than sit there wasting time.

Hacham Ovadia’s brother, Hacham Naim, recounted that on one rainy morning, Hacham Ovadia couldn’t find his shoes as he was preparing to leave early in the morning. Not wanting to wake up any of his brothers by rummaging through the room, he put on several layers of socks in place of shoes, and went outside in the rain to go to yeshiva.

When Hacham Ovadia was thirteen years old, Jerusalem was shelled by enemy artillery, and the entire city was blacked out. Even these conditions could not deter a young Hacham Ovadia from immersing himself in his beloved Torah. With a candle in hand, he went to a bet midrash in the Bet Yisrael neighborhood and started learning. A number of students from a nearby yeshiva were walking in the street and saw a candle burning in the window of the synagogue.  They assumed that looters had raided the kinees. The students quickly summoned the leading rabbi of the neighborhood, a brilliant Torah scholar named Rabbi Shimon of Teplik z.s.l. The rabbi entered the synagogue and saw a young man poring over his book. He gently tapped Hacham Ovadia’s shoulder, so as not to startle him, and told him that it was not the time to be learning in the synagogue in light of the dangerous conditions. Rabbi Shimon took his hand and led him home. Meanwhile, Hacham Ovadia’s father and brothers were running through the streets searching for him. When Hacham Ovadia appeared with Rabbi Shimon, his father raised his hand to strike the boy for putting himself in danger. But Rabbi Shimon, who had seen Hacham Ovadia’s great thirst for Torah firsthand, interceded and said, “Do not hit the child, for he is destined to be a leader of Kelal Yisrael!”

This is the secret to success in learning Torah: the constant desire to know more, being absorbed only in learning, and not simply making a set time for studying. When we read the halachic responses that Hacham Ovadia wrote during his youth, we can only marvel at the vast number of opinions he already knew then from the Rishonim, the Ge’onim and even the later Aharonim. These essays also reflect his exceptional clarity and keen understanding, which he developed already at a young age. He elucidates every topic in a clear, straightforward fashion, meticulously organized to ensure that the reader could easily understand the material.

When Hacham Ovadia would visit the Rishon LeSion Hacham Ben-Sion Uziel z.s.l. (1880-1953), he would bring with him questions and answers from the Tosafot and Rishonim. Rabbi Uziel would say to him, “Don’t be satisfied knowing only the Rishonim –  learn more of the Acharonim!” And when he would visit the home of Rabbi Shlomo YosefZevin z.s.l. (1888-1978) and discuss with him the debates of the Rishonim and Acharonim, Rabbi Zevin would encourage him to put all his effort into mastering Tosafot and the other Rishonim. Hacham Yizhak Yosef recalled that when his father mentioned this to him, he ended by saying, “Baruch Hashem I managed to accomplish both!”

The Final Arbiter

Rabbi Moshe Rosenthal, author of Kerem Sion, related that when Hacham Ovadia returned to Israel from Egypt, he could not study in Porat Yosef, where he had learned in his earlier years, as the yeshiva did not accept older married men at that time. So Rabbi Rosenthal advised him to join the kollel of Rabbi Svi Pesach Frank. During the years that Hacham Ovadia spent in that kollel, he learned with several leaders of the generation including Rabbi Shmuel Rozovsky (1913-1979)z.s.l., the son-in-law of Rabbi Svi Pesach Frank, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rabbi Shalom Schwadron, Rabbi Shimon Zelaznik, Rabbi Bezalel Zolty and Rabbi Chaikel Miletsky.

When these scholars arrived at the kollel, they would often argue over a certain matter, and if they could not reach a definitive conclusion, they would say, “Let us wait for Hacham Ovadia and ask his opinion on the matter.” When Hacham Ovadia would arrive, he would hear the question and immediately give the answer, citing opinions from a vast array of sefarim (holy books). Besides just presenting the different views, the hacham would explain the background information underlying each side of the debate. Each day, the scholars would anxiously await Hacham Ovadia’s arrival so that he could settle their disputes.

When the workTaharat HaBayit (Hacham Ovadia’s work on the laws of family purity) was going to print, it was discovered that one page of the manuscript was missing and could not be found anywhere. Hacham Ovadia asked to be left alone in a room of the printing shop and in remarkably short order he rewrote the entire page from memory, including all the notations.

Unquenchable Thirst for Knowledge

During the days of Hol HaMoed, between the years 5720-5729 / 1960-1969, Hacham Ovadia would eat breakfast very quickly and then escape to the Tzofiof Bet Midrash in the Bucharian neighborhood, where he would learn until three or four in the afternoon. He did this to avoid the distraction of people who would visit the house during the holiday and take time away from his learning. His desire to learn Torah was so fierce that he literally ran away from distractions. When the family came and begged him to eat at noon, he persistently declined. He would eat quickly before praying Minha (afternoon prayers) and Arvit (evening prayers), and then deliver his public shiur (lecture).

Every Friday night in the winter, after delivering his sermon at Yeshivat Porat Yosef, the hacham would return home and sit down to learn. Because the houses were not properly heated in those days, he sat wrapped in his coat over his head, learning this way late into the night.

The Tchebin Yeshiva was located right near Hacham Ovadia’s house. Late one night, the students were learning the halachot of bishul (cooking) on Shabbat, and were uncertain about the practical halacha regarding a certain issue. Initially, they were sure that it was too late to ask Hacham Ovadia for the halacha, but when they checked through the window, they were astonished to see him deeply engrossed in his learning.

An Ashkenazic Rabbi who lectured in a yeshiva in Bnei Brak told his students that he had been Hacham Ovadia’s neighbor in Tel-Aviv. One Friday night, the electricity went out at 1am in Hacham Ovadia’s home. The neighbor saw him go out onto his balcony and continue learning by the light of the street lamps. The neighbor observed him study this way for a long time. When the man woke up at first light to pray shaharit, he saw Hacham Ovadia still sitting in the same position, bent over his sefarim. He was able to immerse himself in learning and concentrate for many hours at a time, even under difficult circumstances.

Earning Divine Assistance

On another occasion, Hacham Ovadia awoke one morning and immediately after washing his hands and reciting the birkat ha’Torah, rushed to look something up in the responsa of the Rivash (Rabbi Yizhak bar Sheshet, 1326-1408). The children wondered why their father needed so urgently to look something up first thing in the morning. After their repeated requests for an explanation, Hacham Ovadia told them that the night before, while learning the Rivash, he had difficulty understanding a certain passage. There seemed to be a contradiction in the author’s words, but after thinking about the issue for a while, he came up with an explanation. He went to sleep, and during the night, the Rivash appeared to him in a dream with a long white beard, and said, “I am Rabbi Yizhak bar Sheshet. Let your mind be at peace for you have indeed understood my intention which I have hinted to in another place.” Immediately upon arising in the morning, Hacham Ovadia hurried to look at the footnote that the Rivash mentioned in the dream as the place where he hints to the correct explanation. Indeed, there in that footnote, the Rivash clearly resolves the matter in question.

The Yom Kippur War of 1973, which took the lives of over 2,500 Israeli soldiers, resulted in more than 960 agunot(women whose husbands were missing but not confirmed dead). Hacham Ovadia sat at the head of a Bet Din that convened to decide on these cases. He worked tirelessly to find a halachic resolution that would allow them to remarry. The question that arose was whether the dog tag on a fallen soldier could be relied on for identification according to halacha. After deliberating for a long time, Hacham Ovadia decided that a dog tag has a similar status as a personalized money bag, and therefore it is questionable if it can be used as proof to identify the soldier. He was pained by his inability to find a solution for these women. He went to sleep that night with the bitter taste of defeat, knowing that all the hours he spent trying to find a solution were for naught, for according to the Shulhan Aruch, these women could not remarry.

As he slept, a certain prominent, deceased Torah sage appeared to him in a dream. He said that in the sefer he authored, he wrote that a dog tag could be considered proof of identity, since its purpose is solely to identify the wearer. When Hacham Ovadia woke up, he was overjoyed at having found a solution for the agunot even according to the Shulhan Aruch. This point is clarified in his workTeshuvot Yabia Omer 6:3. Several months later, Hacham Ovadia spoke at an assembly of the Ichud HaRabbanim, and while speaking about the criteria he had established for allowing the agunot to remarry, he related this incident. Undoubtedly, the hacham’s selfless devotion to the needs of the Jewish people rendered him worthy of this Divine guidance.

Serving the Community vs. Personal Growth

Whenever one of his students got married, Hacham Ovadia would urge him to learn the laws pertaining to the separation of milk and meat. Then, he would instruct him to study the entire Even Haezer section of the Tur with the Bet Yosef and the other commentaries. After the student completed this material, Hacham Ovadia urged him to study the Hoshen Mishpat section of the Tur and Shulhan Aruch, which discusses the laws of business and other financial matters, together with the Bet Yosef and the other commentaries. He would instruct the groom to learn the material slowly, and to look up all the sources mentioned in the Bet Yosef and study them in depth – the same way Hacham Ovadia himself studied.

He would also encourage and urge his students to become rabbanim and dayanim. Sometimes people would ask him, “Isn’t it more important to aspire to be a maggid shiur (lecturer in a yeshiva) or Rosh Yeshiva, positions which allow a person more time for personal growth in Torah?” Hacham Ovadia would respond that we have an obligation to use all our abilities to serve the spiritual needs of the public, and not to think only of our own spiritual growth. He explained that this is why the mishna in Pirkei Avot admonishes, “Make for yourself a rabbi.” The rabbi should be “for yourself,” he must use his position to help and advance the people he serves, and not as a means of advancing only himself.

When a person dedicates himself to the community, and uses fair judgment, he receives heavenly assistance and enjoys success in his own Torah learning. The Talmud teaches in Masechet Berachot that the early hasidim (righteous men) would arrive at the bet kenesset one hour before the prayer service in order to prepare themselves spiritually to pray. They would also remain for one hour after prayers. One would think that this practice would adversely affect their learning, as they had fewer hours to study than other scholars. However, the Gemara says, these hasidim were in fact blessed with the ability to quickly absorb and understand the material, and to quickly derive the practical halacha based on what they studied.  The merit of their special devotion to tefila ensured that their learning would not suffer as a result of the extra time they invested in praying, and that to the contrary, it would be enhanced.  Similarly, Hacham Ovadia insisted that devoting time to serving the community would only enhance, rather than diminish from, the level of one’s Torah scholarship.

When Hacham Ovadia worked as a teacher in Cairo, he wrote extensively despite his intensive involvement in communal matters. In addition to running his yeshiva Ahava Ve’ahva and delivering a daily shiur, he served as a judge on the Bet Din and performed marriages, divorces and halissot (ceremony by which a widow and her husband's brother could avoid the duty to marry after the husband's death), among other responsibilities. And yet, after a full day of work, Hacham Ovadia would return at night to his beloved holy books and write scholarly halachic essays until the late hours.

Hacham Ovadia kept a similarly grueling schedule during the time he served as Chief Rabbi of Tel-Aviv, in the years 5728-5733/ 1968- 1973, and later when he was Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel. For many years, he traveled every evening from city to city to speak and fulfill his leadership duties. He was rarely home in the evenings during that time. There was almost no city or town or village that was not graced by a visit from the rabbi during those years. And yet, after his shiurim and presentations, he would return to his books and delve deeply into his learning. Even during this period when he traveled extensively to disseminate Torah, he managed to complete many volumes of important halachic works.

Whenever Hacham Ovadia would speak to his students, he would always encourage them to do one thing: absorb themselves in their learning and desire to know more and more. He would tell the young married men who delivered shiurim to laymen not to return home afterwards and go to bed, but to instead set aside extra time for learning, even though they were very busy preparing and delivering their shiurim. Hacham Ovadia impressed upon them their sacred obligation to immerse themselves in learning, to channel all their energy toward Torah. Only if they invest all their time and energy in learning, without any other interests, would they be successful Torah scholars.

The Rabbi’s Rabbi

Hacham Ovadia once recounted his appointment to the Sephardic Bet Din in Jerusalem shortly after his wedding, despite his young age. He sat on the Bet Din along with the well known Rosh Yeshiva and scholar Hacham Ezra Attia, Hacham Yehuda Shako and others. Only a small number of cases came before the court, and thus they would often finish their work early. Hacham Ovadia utilized the free time to sit with the Rosh Yeshiva and clarify many topics in halacha, and to review drafts of Hacham Ovadia’s soon to be famous work Halikhot Olam on the Ben Ish Hai. If Hacham Ezra strongly disagreed with any halachic ruling in his sefer, Hacham Ovadia erased it as soon as he arrived home.

During that time, he fulfilled the exhortation of our sages, “Serving the Torah is greater than learning it.” He would frequently go to the Rosh Yeshiva’s home to consult with him on matters of halacha. The Rosh Yeshiva harbored great affection for Hacham Ovadia, and would rush out to joyously great thehachamwhenever he came to his home. He also escorted Hacham Ovadia to the street when he left, even in his older years.

 

Hacham Ezra Attia strongly encouraged Hacham Ovadia to accept a position in the rabbinate. He believed that his vast Torah knowledge was needed in the religious courts to ensure the Sephardic halacha was carried out properly and accurately.

When Hacham Ovadia won the election as Chief Rabbi of Tel-Aviv, a delegation of his students, led by Hacham Yosef Dweck, went to complain to the Rosh Yeshiva that Hacham Ovadia was leaving their community. The Rosh Yeshiva replied, “This Rabbinic post is not Hacham Ovadia’s last stop. He will eventually return to Jerusalem and assume a much more important position. That position, too, will serve the same and only purpose as the one he has just received: to fulfill the will of Hakadosh Baruch Hu to publicize the halachic decisions and conclusions of Hacham Ovadia. These positions are the means that enable him to achieve that goal, that the masses will recognize his name and accept his rulings in halacha.”

Today, Hacham Ovadia, may Hashem protect him with a long and pleasant life, continues to teach, lead and inspire. Remarkably, each week he continues to deliver many classes, including his famous mossaei Shabbat lectures which are broadcast via satellite, incorporating practical halacha, musar (tradition) and occasionally even politics and contemporary issues. The most current edition of these lectures is screened for public viewing at Congregation Bnai Yosef, 1616 Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, on Tuesday nights at 8:30pm and again on Saturday nights at 9:30pm.

Yehuda Azoulay is the author of A Legacy of Leaders, a groundbreaking English series containing biographies and stories of Sephardic hachamim. More information and articles can be obtained on his website at www.SephardicLegacy.com



[1]3:51.



[i]Rishonim (Hebrew: the first ones) and Aharonim (Hebrew: last ones), were the leading Rabbis and authorities of Jewish law during the past millennium. The Rishonim period was approximately from the 11th to 15th centuries and the Aharonim period spans roughly the 16th century to the present.