The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women

Features thousands of biographic and thematic essays on Jewish women around the world. Learn more

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef

September 24, 1920–October 7, 2013

by Ariel Picard
Last updated June 23, 2021

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef

In Brief

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef was the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel and the leader of the Shas political movement. In his legal rulings, Rabbi Yosef referred to the importance of women’s education but believed that Aa wife is inferior to her husband. Yosef rejected practices that were customary among women, arguing that even though some Sephardic women recited blessings on time-bound prescriptive mitzvot, this custom should be annulled. He did not regard menstruation as a reason for excluding women from sacred activity. Yosef ruled that girls can celebrate a bat mitzvah. He permitted a man whose wife refused to allow him to divorce her to take a second wife.

Biography

Born in Baghdad on September 24,  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 Descendants of the Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal before the explusion of 1492; primarily Jews of N. Africa, Italy, the Middle East and the Balkans.Sephardi/jwa_encyclopedia_glossary] Chief Rabbi of Israel Ben Zion Meir Hai Ouziel. From 1947 to 1950 he served as head of the rabbinical court in Cairo. Upon his return to Israel, Yosef was appointed a [jwa_encyclopedia_glossary:307]dayyan in the rabbinical courts of Petah Tikvah and Jerusalem (1958–1965); in 1969, 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 most important is Halakhic decisions written by rabbinic authories in response to questions posed to them.Responsa: Yabbia Omer (YO), the ten volumes of which contain his responsa on many subjects of Jewish law. Many of his responsa have significant bearing on women’s religious life. R. Yosef died in Jerusalem on October 7, 2013.

Women's Education

Rabbi Yosef referred to the importance of women’s education in many places. For example, in writing about readings of Megillat Esther for women, he opposed the The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.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 believed that there had been progress in his generation, and that since nearly all Israeli women understood and spoke Hebrew, it was necessary to read and recite the appropriate blessings for a women’s reading (YO 1, Orah Hayyim 44).

Regarding women’s prayer, Rabbi Yosef maintained that since women were much more educated than in the past, they might 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).

Yosef’s positive attitude toward women’s education also found 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 she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah scholar (Yahave Da’at 3:72).

Although Rabbi Yosef felt it was important for women to learn Torah, he ruled that since women are exempt from studying Torah, they should not hesitate to eat foods which, according to the Lit. "teaching," "study," or "learning." A compilation of the commentary and discussions of the amora'im on the Mishnah. When not specified, "Talmud" refers to the Babylonian Talmud.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).

Women's Supposed Inferiority to Men

A wife’s supposed inferiority to her husband found 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 believed that a woman’s personal commitment to fulfill positive precepts (A biblical or rabbinic commandment; also, a good deed.mitzvot) that are time bound, such as blowing the Ram's horn blown during the month before and the two days of Rosh Ha-Shanah, and at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. shofar, was 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. 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).

Niddah

Rabbi Yosef objected to women’s customs regarding the laws of Menstruation; the menstruant woman; ritual status of the menstruant woman.niddah (menstrual purity) that do not conform with halakhah. Women, according to Rabbi Yosef, were far too strict regarding these laws and thus are liable to mislead their husbands (YO 4, Yoreh De’ah 13:5).

Yosef did not regard menstruation as a reason for excluding women from sacred activity such as entering a synagogue, prayer, and recitation of blessings. Halakhic authorities have been divided on this issue for generations, and Rabbi Yosef took 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).

Bat Mitzvah

Rabbi Yosef felt 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 opined that “Those who make a festive meal for a bat mitzvah in this generation are acting properly” (YO 6, Orah Hayyim 29). However, he did not endorse a Lit. "daughter of the commandment." A girl who has reached legal-religious maturity and is now obligated to fulfill the commandmentsbat mitzvah ceremony analogous to a boy’s Lit. "son of the commandment." A boy who has reached legal-religious maturity and is now obligated to fulfill the commandmentsbar mitzvah.

Rabbi Yosef also believed 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 did not accept the opinions of other authorities  (such as R. Moses Feinstein) who opposed 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).

Reciting Blessings on Positive Precepts Which Are Time Bound

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 authorities were divided on the question of whether women could recite blessings over their performance of these mitzvot. As a rule, Jews of European origin and their descendants, including most of North and South American Jewry.Ashkenazi scholars permitted them to do so, while Sephardic scholars did not.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef devoted many responsa to this subject. His main position was that even though some Sephardic women recited 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 ruled that one must not allow women to make a blessing on the lulav during the Lit. "booths." A seven-day festival (eight days outside Israel) beginning on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei to commemorate the sukkot in which the Israelites dwelt during their 40-year sojourn in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt; Tabernacles; "Festival of the Harvest."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).

Yosef’s staunch position on this matter stemmed from his desire to restore the past glory of Sephardic Jewry—in other words, in order to form a unique Sephardic identity, which he did via halakhic rulings that emphasized classic Sephardic rulings, mainly those of Rabbi Yosef Caro.

Sabbath and Festivals

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 Lit. "distinction, division." The blessing recited at the close of the Sabbath and Festivals to indicate the distinction between holy and ordinary days.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 (the Torah portion concerning the mitzvah of remembering what the people of the Biblical nation of Amalek did to the Israelites, read on the Shabbat before Purim): 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 A seven-day festival to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt (eight days outside Israel) beginning on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. Also called the "Festival of Mazzot"; the "Festival of Spring"; Pesah.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 Unleavened bread traditionally eaten on Passover.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).

Women are also obligated in the recitation of Hallel with its blessings on Lit. "order." The regimen of rituals, songs and textual readings performed in a specific order on the first two nights (in Israel, on the first night) of Passover.seder night (Yahave Da’at 5:34).

Prayer and Blessings

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).

Women are exempt from pesukei de-zimra (the group of praises that may be recited daily during Jewish morning services, consisting of various blessings, psalms, and sequences of verses). 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).

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 was 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).

The additional service of The Jewish New Year, held on the first and second days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. Referred to alternatively as the "Day of Judgement" and the "Day of Blowing" (of the shofar).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 The Day of Atonement, which falls on the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei and is devoted to prayer and fasting.Yom Kippur (YO 2, Orah Hayyim 6).

: Women are not obligated to recite the Hallel on festivals even though during Lit. "dedication." The 8-day "Festival of Lights" celebrated beginning on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev to commemorate the victory of the Jews over the Seleucid army in 164 B.C.E., the re-purification of the Temple and the miraculous eight days the Temple candelabrum remained lit from one cruse of undefiled oil which would have been enough to keep it burning for only one day.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)

 A woman must recite Birkat ha-Gomel (a prayer of gratitude after recovering from a serious illness or surviving a dangerous journey) in the presence of ten men after she gives birth or upon recovering from an illness (Yahave Da’at 4:16).

 Women are exempt from reading the Torah, since they are exempt from the commandment of studying Torah (Yahave Da’at 4:23).

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).

Polygamy

In Rabbi Yosef’s opinion, Lit. "Eastern." Jew from Arab or Muslim country.Mizrahi Jews are not obligated to observe Rabbeinu Gershom’s ban on polygamy. Therefore, Rabbi Yosef permitted 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).

Women's Body and Clothing

Trousers

Rabbi Yosef ruled that the wearing of trousers by women as not forbidden on the grounds that women are forbidden to wear men’s clothing. Even though he had reservations about women wearing trousers, he believed that mini-skirts were much worse; choosing the lesser of two evils, he instructed a school principal to permit girls, as a temporary measure, to wear trousers (YO 6, Yoreh De’ah 14).

Wigs

Even though it is fairly acceptable for married women of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community to wear wigs and many Sephardic women do as well, Rabbi Yosef vehemently opposed this custom. In his opinion, wearing a wig constituted 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).

Women’s Voice as a Sexual Enticement

Rabbi Yosef ruled that the prohibition on listening to a woman’s voice did not apply to radio or recording devices as long as the man who is listening had 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 as a desire to differentiate between Ashkenazi and Sephardi or Mizrahi custom, thus maintaining the distinctive nature of Mizrahi precept and practice.

Selected Works

Hebrew

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); Vol. 11 (2018).

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).

Bibliography

Zohar, Zvi. “Ovadia’s Vision: Restoring the Ancient Glory.” Brighten the East. Tel Aviv: 2001, pp.  312–352.

Lau, Benjamin. Mimaran ad Maran: Mishnato ha-Hilkhatit shel ha-Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Hebrew), Tel Aviv 2005.

Picard, Ariel. The Philosophy of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in an Age of Transition: Study of Halakhah and Cultural Criticism (Hebrew), Bar Ilan University Press, Ramat Gan 2007.

Have an update or correction? Let us know

Donate

Help us elevate the voices of Jewish women.

donate now

Get JWA in your inbox

How to cite this page

Picard, Ariel. "Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 27, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/yosef-rabbi-ovadiah>.