YOSEF, OVADIAH (1920– ), Israeli rabbi. Yosef was born in Baghdad, but when he was four years old he was taken to Jerusalem. At the age of 20, he was ordained rabbi by Ben-Zion Meir *Ouziel. In 1945 he was appointed a dayyan in the bet din of the Sephardim in Jerusalem. In 1947 he was elected head of the bet din of Cairo and deputy chief rabbi of Egypt. During the period of his rabbinate in Egypt he displayed great courage and national pride; he refused to issue proclamations against the State of Israel, forbade contributions for military equipment for the Egyptian army, and also insisted on his right to preach in Hebrew. In 1950, he returned to the young state of Israel and was appointed a member of the rabbinical court of Petaḥ Tikvah and of Jerusalem (1958–65). In 1965 he was appointed a member of the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Appeals in Jerusalem, and in 1968, Sephardi chief rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. On October 16, 1972, Rabbi Yosef was elected Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel (rishon le-Zion), a position he held until 1983.
In 1984, with the encouragement of Lithuanian leader R. Eleazar Menahem *Shach, who had in effect become his mentor, Yosef founded Shas as an ultra-Orthodox political party aiming to redress the wrong of Eastern underrepresentation in Israeli public life. Shas became a major force in Israeli politics, with a peak of 17 seats after the 1999 Knesset elections and its own school system, El ha-Ma'ayan. With the rise of Shas and as its spiritual leader, Yosef became one of the most prominent and influential figures in the country, given to scathing and often crude pronouncements about the secular world, and in particular Israel's Supreme Court. However, Yosef was also a pragmatist, and though he had fallen under the sway of R. Shach and made his followers part of the closed Lithuanian yeshivah world where secular studies and secular employment were anathema, his own background in the more open society of Eastern Jews, where assimilation was not feared and vocational training was the norm, had made him relatively liberal in his outlook. Thus, in 1979, Yosef consented to serve as president of a rabbinical seminary attached to Bar-Ilan University which would be combined with a B.A. program in the Humanities and Jewish Studies – a kind of Israeli Yeshiva University. However, the outcry in the haredi world of R. Shach and a campaign of pressure and threats caused R. Yosef to back down and repudiate the project. The break with R. Shach came when R. Yosef supported the peace process and permitted Shas to join the Rabin government in 1992. Shas subsequently joined the Netanyahu government in 1996 and then the Barak government in 1999 after reaching its high-water mark of 17 Knesset seats. Since that time, Shas has slipped at the polls and more often than not found itself bypassed in government coalitions, which together with the general recession has had an effect on the funds channeled into its pet projects and led to the near bankruptcy of its school system. Politically it has moved to the right, opposing the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
A prolific writer of halakhic works, Yosef published his first work, Yabbi'a Omer, at the age of 18 on themes in tractate Horayot, and he used the same title for many subsequent collections of responsa (which appeared in Jerusalem in 1954, 1956, 1960, 1964, and 1969). A second set of responsa was published under the title Yeḥavei Da'at, and his rulings were codified in Yalkut Yosef. In 1970 he was awarded the Israel Prize for Torah literature. He also wrote Ḥazon Ovadyah (1952), on the Passover *Haggadah, in two sections: one halakhic and the other homiletical. The second part was published in an enlarged second edition (1967). Yosef's works are distinguished by their erudition. He is at home both with the Sephardi and Ashkenazi authorities to whom he gives equal weight. His rulings are clear and direct. In general he inclined to leniency in his rulings. Yosef also headed the yeshivah Torah ve-Hora'ah – the Tel Aviv branch of the yeshivah Porat Yosef – as well as the institute for dayyanim established by him in Tel Aviv. Among his best-known rulings were those collectively recognizing the *Beta Israel as Jews and affirming the permissibility of giving up land in Ereẓ Israel in exchange for peace.
N. Chen and A. Pfeffer, Maran Ovadyah Yosef: Ha-Biografiyah (2004); B. Lau, Mi-Maran ad Maran – ha-Rav Ovadyah Yosef (2005); J. Lupu, A Shift in Haredi Society: Vocational Training and Academic Studies (2004).
[Itzhak Alfassi /
Fred Skolnik (2nd ed.)]