JERUSALEM — Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was the spiritual leader of perhaps millions of Jews worldwide.
He toiled over the study of Torah during his 93 years in this world. He did not waste a second, spending every possible moment studying the holy Torah.
He was the final word on many of the most complex halachic issues during the last 50 years.
Close to one million people attended the funeral, possibly the largest funeral in the last two millennia.
In fact, someone went to pray at the Western Wall right after the funeral and there was only one other person there. He had never seen the Wall so empty.
Rabbi Yosef had a phenomenal memory. Call it a photographic memory or an encyclopedic memory; he knew it all. He had a personal library of thousands of books and he knew exactly where each one was located and knew many of them by heart.
He had a total recall of the most obscure works of Torah scholars worldwide and of those who lived throughout Jewish history.
A rabbi from France told me that he once complained to Rabbi Yosef about his slow progress in Torah study. He told Rabbi Yosef:
“You have it easy, you have a photographic memory and remember everything. I, however, do not have such a great memory and therefore Torah study is much more difficult for me.”
Rabbi Yosef answered him:
“People are mistaken. Everyone thinks that I was born with a great memory, but that is not true. My great memory comes from the fact that I have followed the advice of the Torah, which says, ‘And you shall not stray after your heart and after your eyes . . . so that you may remember’” (Num. 15:39-40).
I once stayed in Rabbi Yosef’s house after the prayer service there and observed something instructive. He could not find a certain book. He asked one of the attendants whether he knew where it was. The attendant told him that he had used it and had forgotten to put it back.
Rabbi Yosef asked him to please be more careful next time, since he (Rabbi Yosef) knows exactly where each book is and when he cannot find one it bothers him to take the extra time looking for it.
EVEN though Rabbi Yosef was on an extremely high scholastic level, he knew how to speak to simple people. He could and would teach Jewish law on a very basic level so that anyone could understand.
He also seemed to be able to pull stories out of a bag. Many of them came from thousands of the rare books which he had studied and mastered.
I remember one such lecture when Rabbi Yosef was talking about being honest in business. He was saying how it doesn’t pay to be dishonest and he told a story to bring out his point.
The story, printed in a book printed approximately 300 years ago, goes as follows.
Reuben and Simeon appeared before a Beth din. Reuben claimed that he asked Simeon, a wealthy wine merchant, to look after a few barrels of wine for him. When Reuben came to ask Simeon for the barrels of wine, Simeon apologized to Reuben and told him that the wine was stolen.
Reuben claimed that Simeon was lying and had kept the wine for himself, but Simeon remained firm.
The judges had a deep suspicion that Simeon was indeed lying, but they had no way to prove it. They announced that they were taking a short break and they entered a side room. While discussing the case, one of the judges came up with a plan.
The judges then entered the court room and one judge started to speak. He told Reuben that he was very sympathetic for his loss, but since there was no proof that Simeon stole the wine, Simeon would not be required to give anything to Reuben.
The judge then turned his attention to Simeon and said:
“Everyone in attendance knows that in our town none of the Jews steal. Therefore we must assume that a gentile broke into your cellar and stole the wine.
“While the gentile was inside he probably touched the other barrels of wine and therefore all of your wine has the status of yayin nesech. Your wine is not permitted to any Jew.”
When Simeon realized the terrible situation he had gotten himself into, he broke down crying. He admitted that the wine was never stolen and in his greediness he had decided to keep it for himself.
He begged Reuben for forgiveness and gave the wine back.
Rabbi Yosef said that from this story we learn that it doesn’t pay to be dishonest.
He also pointed out the special heavenly aid the judge had due to the fact that he was always careful to judge honestly.
Rabbi Yosef, whose every second was “more precious than gold and silver,” found the time to strengthen Jews from all walks of life. I had the merit to be in his private room many times and witness his love for every single Jew. The wealthy, the poor, the VIPs and the common folk were all treated the same.
I remember once commenting to someone after leaving the room that when he gave me a friendly pat on my cheek, he gave me the feeling that I was worth a million dollars.
Due to his total recall of the Code of Jewish Law, Rabbi Yosef was often asked to find a halachic way for an “chained wife” (agunah) to remarry. This issue is very complex and only the greatest scholars involve themselves in this area.
After the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War Rabbi Yosef barely slept. Due to the fact that many Jewish soldiers were MIA he was up many nights working on these complex matters, searching for halachically valid ways to determine that the husband was dead, so that their wives could remarry.
IN a eulogy at the funeral, Rabbi Yosef’s son Rabbi David Yosef told a story that shows the great sensitivity of his father. Fourteen years ago Rabbi Yosef suffered his first heart attack at the age of 79.
He was rushed to the hospital and the doctors declared that he would need a bypass surgery. Rabbi Yosef told the doctors that first he needed to go home for three hours.
The family members didn’t understand, but they were afraid to ask him about the private matter. Finally Aryeh Deri could no longer contain himself and he asked Rabbi Yosef what he needed at home.
He said, “I am in the middle of a writing a responsum which will allow a ‘chained wife’ to remarry.
“Since the surgery does not guarantee that I will wake up alive, I can’t start until I know that I have done everything possible for this woman. I need three hours to complete this responsum.”
MOSHE from the city of Elad recounted the following incident.
Several years ago after his wife gave birth to their second child, she battled a very severe case of postpartum depression.
She refused to eat and she barely drank. She lost all of her strength and had no will to live. She went to several doctors and no one was able to help her. At one point her weight dropped to 88 pounds.
One morning the wife told Moshe that she wanted to go right away to Jerusalem to receive a blessing from Rabbi Yosef. Moshe explained to his wife that it was impossible to get into him without an appointment.
His wife was adamant that they leave right away, so Moshe took the kids and his wife and off they went to Jerusalem.
When they arrived at the door, Moshe pressed the button on the intercom. Rabbi Yosef’s daughter-in-law answered and asked what they wanted. Moshe explained the predicament. The daughter-in-law said she would go speak to her father-in-law. She came back 10 minutes later and said that Rabbi Yosef was willing to see them a bit later.
When the time came they were escorted into the room. As soon as the wife entered Rabbi Yosef’s private room she burst out crying. He asked her gently why she was crying and she said it was because she was facing the Rav.
Rabbi Yosef started blessing her. This continued for two minutes straight.
Then he turned to Moshe and told him to place their child on his lap. Acting as if he were the grandfather, Rabbi Yosef continued to lovingly bless the family for another minute.
As soon as they left the room, the wife turned to her husband and said, “Moshe, I’m hungry let’s go get something to eat.”
A few years later the wife was pregnant and the doctor told her to take several tests. When the results came in, the doctor told the couple that things did not look good, and because of her previous history she must have an abortion. The couple consulted with three top professors. They agreed.
With heavy hearts, the couple once again traveled to Rabbi Yosef for a halachic ruling.
He heard all of the information and told them not to abort the child.
The wife explained that three top professors all said that it is a bad idea. Rabbi Yosef turned to her and said, “I decree that the baby will be healthy and so will you.”
A few months later, a beautiful — and normal — baby girl was born to the couple.
SHIRA related: When she was of marriageable age, a match was suggested to a fine young scholar who had completed the entire Talmud and had wonderful character traits.
They began to date, but on the fourth date the young man revealed that as a child he had suffered from kidney problems. He apologized for not having said anything earlier.
Shira was shocked. That night she cried herself to sleep and the next day she told the story to one of her close friends. Her friend advised Shira to go see Rabbi Yosef.
Shira didn’t think there was any chance that she would get in, but she decided to at least make an effort.
Shira went to his house on Shabbos afternoon and sat down in the waiting area.
A few minutes later, one of the family members passed by and asked her what she needed.
Shira explained her predicament and the family member consulted with Rabbi Yosef. When he heard the story, he responded that it was to painful for him to discuss this on Shabbos and Shira should come back Sunday afternoon.
Shira returned on Sunday and was escorted into Rabbi Yosef’s private study. He asked Shira for all of the medical information and after he saw all of the documents he told her that he needed to see several other documents for him to render a decision.
He told her to come back in a few days with the relevant information.
Shira came back a few days later with all of the documents. Rabbi Yosef looked everything over and told her that she should marry him.
He congratulated her for choosing such a scholar and told her to make sure to come back with her husband-to-be for a blessing.
The next day they returned Rabbi Yosef gave them a beautiful blessing.
Shira got married. After four years, the couple had no children, so they decided to go to Rabbi Yosef for a blessing.
He blessed them and gave them one of his esrogs as a charm.
A year later, nothing had changed and they decided to go back to Rabbi Yosef. He heard the update and started stroking the husband’s cheeks. He asked Shira for her name. When he heard the name, Rabbi Yosef told her to add a name from the Torah and, with the help of G-d, she would be blessed.
When Shira left the room she turned to her husband and told him that she thinks she noticed tears coming out of Rabbi Yosef’s eyes.
Her husband told her that indeed, Rabbi Yosef was crying the entire time, sharing the burden of a total stranger.
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News