Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef
Born in Baghdad in 1920, Ovadiah Yosef immigrated to Israel at the age of four, studied in yeshivas in Jerusalem’s Old City and in 1940 was ordained as a rabbi by the Rishon le-Zion, Ben Zion Meir Hai Ouziel. From 1947 to 1950 he served as head of the rabbinical court in Cairo. Upon his return to Israel he was appointed a dayyan in the rabbinical courts of Petah Tikvah and Jerusalem (1958–1965); in 1969, as a member of the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Appeals in Jerusalem, and chief rabbi of Tel Aviv in 1968. On October 16, 1972 he was appointed Rishon le-Zion, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel and served until 1983. Beginning in 1984 Rabbi Yosef led the Shas political movement. Of his numerous works the major one is Responsa: Yabbia Omer (YO), the ten volumes of which contain his responsa on many subjects of Jewish law.
Rabbi Yosef refers to the importance of women’s education in many places. For example, in writing about readings of Megillat Esther for women, he opposes the halakhic position that states that since women do not understand the Megillah and do not follow the reading, one should not recite a blessing when reading the Megillah for them. Rabbi Yosef believes that there has been progress in this generation and that since nearly all Israeli women understand and speak Hebrew, one must read and recite the appropriate blessings for a women’s reading (YO 1, Orah Hayyim 44). Regarding women’s prayer, Rabbi Yosef maintains that since women are much more educated now, they may be required to recite the Eighteen Benedictions as they appear in the prayer book and not make do with brief prayers or other blessings, as was customary in previous generations (YO 1, Orah Hayyim 17). His positive attitude toward women’s education also finds expression in his ruling that a female student must stand for her female teacher as an expression of respect for one who is bringing her to eternal life. Likewise, a female student may not address her teacher by her first name, but rather by the title “My teacher.” When the teacher boards a bus, the girl must give up her seat for her. She must do the same for a learned or elderly woman, just as she does for an elderly man or male Torah scholar (Yahave Da’at 3:72).
Although Rabbi Yosef feels it is important for women to learn Torah, he rules that since women are exempt from studying Torah, they should not hesitate to eat foods which, according to the Talmud, adversely affect memory since they do not need as much memory as men, who are obligated to study Torah (YO 2, Yoreh De’ah 8).
A wife’s inferiority to her husband finds expression in Rabbi Yosef’s ruling that a woman is subordinate to her husband’s customs rather than to those of her father’s home, basing himself on the Biblical verse (Jeremiah 31:21) “A woman courts a man” (YO 5, Orah Hayyim 37). Rabbi Yosef also believes that a woman’s personal commitment to fulfill positive precepts (mitzvot) which are time bound, such as blowing the shofar, is not regarded as a formal vow, since women (according to David ben Joseph Abudraham’s commentary) are exempt from performing such mitzvot because they are subordinate to their husbands regarding all household needs. Therefore, because the husband can object and not allow his wife to perform these mitzvot, they do not have the status of a vow even if she performs them regularly (YO 2, Orah Hayyim 30).
In many places, Rabbi Yosef rejects practices that are customary among women. He criticizes women’s recitation of blessings on positive precepts which are time bound on grounds cited below. Rabbi Yosef also objects to women’s customs regarding the laws of niddah (menstrual purity) that do not conform with halakhah. Women, according to Rabbi Yosef, are far too strict regarding these laws and thus are liable to mislead their husbands (YO 4, Yoreh De’ah 13:5).
Rabbi Yosef does not regard menstruation as a reason for excluding women from sacred activity such as entering a synagogue, prayer and recitation of blessings. Halakhic decisors have been divided on this issue for generations and Rabbi Yosef takes the lenient position, ruling that menstruating women may enter the synagogue (YO 3, Even Ha-Ezer 10) and that they are obligated to pray and recite blessings and may study Torah during menstruation (Yahave Da’at 3:8).
Rabbi Yosef feels that a girl’s coming of age should be celebrated just like a boy’s, with a festive meal. Even if this was not the custom in the past, Rabbi Yosef opines that “Those who make a festive meal for a bat mitzvah in this generation are acting properly” (YO 6, Orah Hayyim 29). Rabbi Yosef also believes that during this celebration the father should recite the blessing “Blessed is He who has absolved me of halakhic responsibility for this girl,” as is customary for a bar mitzvah. Rabbi Yosef does not accept the opinions of other decisors (such as R. Moses Feinstein) who oppose holding a festive meal for a bat mitzvah, because “Those who oppose celebrations upon girls’ coming of age help transgressors to accuse the scholars of Israel of depriving the daughters of Israel and discriminating between boys and girls” (Yahave Da’at 2: 29).
According to the Talmud, women are exempt from performing time-bound prescriptive mitzvot, though many women at various times and in various places did perform some of them. Halakhic decisors were divided on the question of whether women could recite blessings over their performance of these mitzvot. As a rule, Ashkenazic scholars permitted them to do so, while Sephardic scholars did not.
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef has devoted many responsa to this subject. His main position is that even though there are Sephardic women who recite these blessings, this custom should be annulled because “one should not rely upon these women regarding customs since ‘Women possess no wisdom except at the spindle’ (BT Yoma 66b). It is possible that they might have seen Ashkenazi women who came to Israel who make those blessings, and they did so too, unwittingly” (YO 1, Orah Hayyim 40:13). Rabbi Yosef rules that one must not allow women to make a blessing on the lulav during the Sukkot festival, citing the verse: “Do not place an obstacle before a blind person” (Leviticus 19:14), lest women recite the blessing over it by mistake and thus recite a blessing in vain (YO 1, Orah Hayyim 42:10). His staunch position on this matter stems from his desire to restore the past glory of Sephardic Jewry—in other words, in order to form a unique Sephardic identity, which Rabbi Yosef does via halakhic rulings that emphasize classic Sephardic rulings, mainly those of Rabbi Yosef Caro.
Rabbi Yosef ruled that women are obligated to eat three meals on the Sabbath and also the fourth meal after the close of the Sabbath (Yahave Da’at 4:25). Women are also obligated to perform the havdalah ceremony at the close of the Sabbath, but it is better that they fulfill their obligation by hearing it from a man (Yahave Da’at 4:27).
Regarding Parshat Zakhor: Women are obligated to come to the synagogue to hear this section read from their places in the women’s section, since the Torah has not set a specific time for it, and so it is not a time-dependent mitzvah. If they cannot come to the synagogue because they are caring for small children, they should read Parshat Zakhor in their homes from a printed Hebrew bible (YO 8, Orah Hayyim 54).
Women are exempt from the fast of the first-born on Passover Eve. If they are able to participate in a festive meal without too much trouble, it is right and proper for them to do so (Yahave Da’at 8:34).
As for Passover: Just as women are obligated in the four cups of wine and in eating mazzah, so are they obligated in telling the story of the exodus from Egypt and may even fulfill the mitzvah on men’s behalf in this matter (Yahave Da’at 2:65). They are also obligated in the recitation of Hallel with its blessings on seder night (Yahave Da’at 5:34).
The number of prayers: Women are obligated to pray once a day; the morning prayer, including the morning blessings, is preferable. It is permitted and even desirable that women be stringent with themselves and pray three times a day (YO 1, Orah Hayyim 17; Yahave Da’at 3:7).
Pesukei de-Zimra: Women are exempt from pesukei de-zimra. If they wish to say them out of piety, they may not recite the blessings “Barukh she-amar” and “Yishtabah,” since by doing so they might be reciting a blessing in vain. But one must not object if Ashkenazic women recite the blessings, since they have rulings on which to rely (Yahave Da’at 3:3).
Blessings of the Shema: Women should not recite the blessings attendant on the Shema. Since they are exempt from reciting this prayer, they are not permitted to recite the blessings over it (YO 2, Orah Hayyim 1). Ovadiah Yosef’s practical ruling is that women should recite the blessings without including the Divine Name (YO 3, Orah Hayyim 6).
Musaf—The additional Sabbath service: Since it is not certain whether women may recite the additional Sabbath service, it is preferable that they not recite it themselves, but hear it from the prayer leader in the synagogue (YO 2, Orah Hayyim 6).
Festival prayers: The additional service of Rosh ha-Shanah differs from that of the Sabbath and festivals, since it contains a request for mercy; thus women are obligated to recite it. The same applies to Neilah, the closing prayer of Yom Kippur (YO 2, Orah Hayyim 6).
Hallel: Women are not obligated to recite the Hallel on festivals even though during Hanukkah they are obligated to kindle the lights. Therefore, even though they may recite the chapters of Hallel, they may not recite the attendant blessing (Yahave Da’at 1:78)
Birkat Ha-Gomel: A woman must recite Birkat ha-Gomel in the presence of ten men after she gives birth or upon recovering from an illness (Yahave Da’at 4:16).
Reading the Torah: Women are exempt from reading the Torah, since they are exempt from the commandment of studying Torah (Yahave Da’at 4:23).
Grace after meals: Women must recite the grace after meals, but it is not certain whether their obligation comes from the Torah, as with men, or only from the rulings of the later sages. Therefore, a woman who is not sure whether or not she recited the grace after meals should not repeat it; in any case it is best that she recite it in her heart. By the same token, a man does not fulfill his obligation via a woman’s recitation of grace after meals; but after the fact, a man may do so via a woman who recited grace after meals with the intention of fulfilling his obligation, and he need not repeat the blessing (Yahave Da’at 6:10).
In Rabbi Yosef’s opinion, Oriental Jews are not obligated to observe Rabbeinu Gershom’s ban on polygamy. Therefore, Rabbi Yosef permits a man whose wife refuses to allow him to divorce her to take a second wife (YO 5, Even Ha-Ezer 1:8; Even Ha-Ezer 2).
Rabbi Yosef rules that the wearing of trousers by women is not forbidden on the grounds that women are forbidden to wear men’s clothing. Even though he has reservations about women wearing trousers, he believes that the fashion of mini-skirts is much worse; choosing the lesser of two evils, he instructs a school principal to permit girls, as a temporary measure, to wear trousers (YO 6, Yoreh De’ah 14).
Even though it is fairly acceptable for married women of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community to wear wigs and many Sephardic women also do so, Rabbi Yosef vehemently opposes this custom. In his opinion, wearing a wig constitutes an imitation of modern fashion and western influence. Modern wigs that look like women’s real hair do not serve the purpose of hair covering, which was instituted to prevent sexual arousal (YO 5, Even Ha-Ezer 5).
Rabbi Yosef rules that the prohibition on listening to a woman’s voice does not apply to radio or recording devices as long as the man who is listening has no personal acquaintance with the woman (Yabia Omer 1, Orah Hayyim 6).
As is clear from all the above, the underlying motive of much of Ovadiah Yosef’s halakhic ruling is a desire to differentiate between Ashkenazi and Sephardi custom, thus maintaining the distinctive nature of Mizrachi precept and practice.
Yabbia Omer, Vol. 1 (1954); Vol. 2 (1957); Vol. 3 (1960); Vol. 4 (1964); Vol. 5 (1969); Vol. 6 (1973); Vol. 7 (1983); Vol. 8 (1995); Vol. 9 (2002); Vol. 10 (2004).
Yahave Da’at, Vol. 1 (1977); Vol. 2 (1978); Vol. 3 (1980); Vol. 4 (1981); Vol. 5 (1983); Vol. 6 (1984).
Livyat Hen on the Laws of the Sabbath, 1986; Taharat Ha-Bayit on Niddah, Vol. 1 (1988); Vol. 2 (1990); Ma’or Yisrael on Talmud, Vol. 1 (1986); Vol. 2 (1997); Halikhot Olam: Comments and Insights on the Book Ben Ish Hai, Vols. 1–8 (1998–2002).
Lau, Benjamin. “To Return the Crown to its Former Splendor.” Ph.D. diss., Bar Ilan University, 2002; Picard, Ariel. “Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef’s Halakhic Responsa to Contemporary Realities.” Ph.D. diss., Bar Ilan University, 2004; Zohar, Zvi. “Ovadia’s Vision: Restoring the Ancient Glory.” Brighten the East. Tel Aviv: 2001, 312–352.