In the Corridors of Greatness
A Glimpse Inside the Palace
Byline: As told to Debbie Shapiro
When Rabbanit Yehudit Yosef married the youngest son of Harav Ovadiah Yosef, zt”l, she entered into a unique role, privileged to both serve and observe the beloved Gadol Hador of the Sephardic community.
When I was meeting my future husband, Harav Moshe Yosef, shlita, the youngest child of Harav Ovadiah Yosef, zt”l, he told me that if I were to marry him, I must understand that his parents will always come first. I asked him what that meant, and he explained that he would always make sure to help his parents with whatever they might need, and that they were his top priority.
My father-in-law was especially close with my husband. Prior to our marriage the Rav gave my husband a new car, but with one condition: My husband must continue accompanying the Rav to the netz minyan each morning. Starting from the week of sheva brachot, the Rav phoned my husband each morning to make sure he was up in time to go with him to the beit haknesset. After Shacharit, my husband would drive the Rav home and remain there to prepare and serve his breakfast After we were married about two years,the doctor instructed the Rav to take a nightly walk for exercise. At 11:15 every night, my husband would go directly from his chavruta to accompany his father on his nightly walk.
Some 20 years ago, the Rav suddenly developed pneumonia. His lungs were full of water and he was in terrible pain. The doctor insisted that he be hospitalized immediately, but the Rav refused, explaining that he was supposed to meet with an important person in the government the following morning, to talk about funding additional classrooms for the Shas Educational Network. That night, the Rav was in agony, but in the morning, when he met with the government official, there was no sign that he was in pain. The moment the official left, however, his suffering was obvious. When we expressed our amazement, my father-in-law replied that he had been in pain throughout the meeting, but if he had shown any signs of being ill, the official would have felt uncomfortable and left, leaving the children without classrooms. And the children were his first priority.
Soon after the government official left, we brought the Rav to the hospital. After the doctors completed their examination, they informed us that medically, there was nothing they could do for him. The Rabbanit was inconsolable; she could not stop crying. Through her tears, she told me that the Rav must continue to live, as he has so many more sefarim to write, and so much more to do to help Am Yisrael. Then she lifted her hands upward and said, “Hashem, if it is decreed that the Rav must die, then please, take me in his place.”
The Rav survived and continued learning, teaching, and writing. The Rabbanit passed away that same year. She had always been the healthy one; shortly before she died, the doctor told her that she had the heart of an eighteen-year-old! On Erev Shavuos, as we were in the kitchen preparing for the Chag, she thanked me for everything that I done for her over the years, and then asked me to please run a quick errand for her. I returned some fifteen minutes later to find her lying on the floor, still grasping her Tehillim. She was perfectly tzanuah, everything was completely covered. She had had a stroke, and passed away two months later.
IN THE RAV'S HOME
At the conclusion of the shivah for Rabbanit Margolit the children decided that every two weeks, another couple would move in to the Rav's apartment to take of his needs. But the Rav had other plans. He asked my husband, his youngest son, Harav Moshe Yosef shlita to ask me for my permission for our family to move into his house permanently. At the time, I was 24, a young married woman with small children. I felt as though I had won the lottery. What a zechut to have this opportunity to serve the gadol hador!
We had such a warm, wonderful relationship. The Rav was always concerned about our welfare. I never had to worry about my children's chinuch; when one of my boys encountered difficulties in learning to read, the Rav arranged for a private tutor to come to the house and learn with him, without even telling me. When that same child brought home excellent grades, the Rav celebrated it like a chag! When my children brought home report cards, they first ran to show their grandfather, and only later to show my husband and me. My father-in-law would read the report cards carefully, always looking first at the marks in derech eretz, and only later at the academic marks. He often told us that derech eretz kadmah l'Torah; it's impossible to attain Torah without derech eretz.
After each new baby was born to us, the Rav would constantly remind me to rest, and search for ways to help me. Once, when the baby was sleeping in our bedroom, I left my father-in-law eating at the kitchen table and ran downstairs to buy something in the small grocery store almost underneath the apartment. I returned home a few minutes later to an empty kitchen. Through the intercom, I heard the Rav gently cooing to the baby, telling her not to cry.
Whenever there was an infant in the house, the Rav made a point of holding the baby while reciting Birkat Hamazon, explaining that it's a segulah for yirat Shamayim.
Before my twins were born, the Rav told me that I should not worry about how I would take care of them at night. He would take care of one while I would take care of the other.
When one of my children was about two years old, he started waking up at night and walking into the Rav's study. The Rav would allow him stay for a few minutes, and then put him back to bed and continue learning. One night, however, the youngster refused to go back to bed. That night, the Rav went to bed early, together with his grandson. In the morning, we found the two of them sound asleep in Sabba's bed.
The Rav once heard me yelling at my children. He gently told me that divrei chachamim b'nachat nishma'im; people hear words that are spoken quietly. I was so embarrassed; since that day, I try to speak quietly to my children.
My father-in-law was careful to never speak to his children if he was angry. He would wait until he was no longer upset, and only then would he discuss what happened with the child, and give a punishment if necessary.
The Rav was always effusive in expressing his gratitude. Once, after I served him a meal, he told me that although he's so grateful for everything I do for him, he's afraid that someday he'll be so accustomed to it that he'll forget to thank me. But that never happened. He always thanked us for every little thing.
My father-in-law spoke to his talmidim about the importance of gratitude. Around three years ago, on Simchat Torah, the Rav told several Rabbanim, including my husband, that he wants to tell them a story and that the story has an important lesson.
Although I was busy in the kitchen and missed the story, I did hear the lesson. The Rav pointed to the food that was on the table and asked, “Did you ever think about how hard your wife works to prepare all of this delicious food? Please, right after Yom Tov, buy her a piece of jewelry as a token of your gratitude.”
A week later, the Rav asked me if my husband had bought me jewelry.
The world knew the Rav as the Gadol Hador, but for us, he was a warm, loving grandfather, who took a personal interest in each of his grandchildren, and in my husband and me, until the last day of his life. The children were in awe of their sabba. As one of them once explained, Sabba learns, and learns, and then learns some more! Torah was his life, nothing else.
The following story exemplifies the Rav's love of Torah: My grandmother passed away just before the Rav turned 80. The Rav traveled to Ramleh to pay a shivah call to my mother. I decided not to tell him about the memorial service that was to take place a month later, so as not to disturb his Torah learning. But on the day that the service was to take place, someone came in to speak with the Rav, and upon leaving said, “B'ezrat Hashem, I'll see you again at the memorial service tonight.”
After the man left, the Rav came into the kitchen. “Yehudit,” he said, “it's normal for a person to live to be 80 years old, but afterwards, every day of life is a miracle. Now that I am 80, and I know that my remaining time on earth is limited, I need to pack in much more learning than I did before. I still have so much more to learn, and so many more sefarim to write. For that reason, I prefer to remain at home to learn, and to dedicate my learning l'iluy nishmat your savta.”
It was only then that I understood something that had perplexed both me and my husband. After my father-in-law had turned eighty, he suddenly seemed younger; although he had previously been learning day and night, now it seemed as though he had somehow doubled his hours of learning!
A RAV FOR ALL OF KLAL YISRAEL
The Rav was available to answer questions every morning and evening – until age 92! Most of the people who came to him were simple, hardworking Jews. They would pour out their troubles, and he would return home with eyes that were red from crying. He felt all of Am Yisrael's pain. If there was a war, or - more recently - with the decrees against the yeshivot, he cried as he recited Tehillim throughout the night. A few years ago, when an entire family was killed in a horrific accident, our home was plunged into mourning. It was as if he had lost a family member.
Because he took such a close, personal interest in so many different types of Jews, I was not surprised by the huge number of people who came to pay their final respects at his funeral. During the Rav's final illness, thousands of people who were not shomer Shabbat took upon themselves to keep one Shabbat as a zechut for the Rav's recovery. Someone told us of two brothers who reconciled after 20 years of not speaking with each other, as a zechut for the Rav. Another person told us that in the discothèque across the street from his apartment, a few days before the Rav passed away, the music came to a sudden stop and the MC announced that the Rav's situation was extremely serious. He requested that everyone join him in reciting Tehillim. Everyone in the discothèque started to cry as they began reciting Tehillim together, begging Hashem to have mercy on the Gadol Hador. There were many more similar stories.
During the last few months of the Rav's life, he was in constant, excruciating pain. Shabbat was especially difficult. With true mesirut nefesh, he would recite Kiddush, and force himself to eat a kezayit of challah before retiring to his room.
But on Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot, the last Shabbat before his final hospitalization, the terrible pain disappeared. That Shabbat we returned to our previous, happy life. The Rav made Kiddush, sang zemirot, told stories, and spoke divrei Torah at the table. Although we understood that the lack of pain was a sign that the Rav's kidneys were failing, it was still a very wonderful Shabbat. At the conclusion of the seudot, he held my three-year-old twins on his lap and encouraged them to respond to the mezuman, and even gave them his traditional loving slap on the cheek! He was in such a great mood!
Shabbat afternoon, the Rav thanked me for all my years of help. He asked mechilah for making me work so hard, and then blessed me.
On Motzoei Shabbat, the Rav blessed my sixteen-year-old son, Avraham. I explained to Avraham that his sabba was saying goodbye, and we both cried.
We were undecided if the Rav should be hospitalized, and asked the nurse who had been helping us for the last 23 years to come to the house to do a blood test. When she arrived, the Rav thanked her profusely for all her help over the years. Through her tears she responded, “K’vod Harav, I will continue coming here to help you.” She drew some blood for a blood test; the results were not good and she told us that he needed to be hospitalized.
As they wheeled the Rav into the ambulance, he told us that there was nothing more that the doctors could do for him. He was crying; he knew that he would never return home.
Two days later, on Monday, my husband asked the Rav for mechilah. The Rav responded, “You are asking me for mechilah? I am the one who must ask you for mechilah. Throughout the years, you were always there for me. You always did whatever you could to help me.” Then the Rav did something that was very unusual for him: he pulled my husband close to him and kissed his face over and over again.
Within the hour, the Rav's lungs had collapsed and he was given medication to put him into a medically induced coma. A week and a half later, he had sufficiently recovered for the doctors to stop the medication. When the Rav woke up from the coma and saw the medical staff standing around his bed, he somehow found the strength to thank the doctors for everything that they had done for him, and then proceeded to bless them.
But now that he was awake again, he was in agonizing pain. When I came to see him that Motzoei Shabbat, he could not stop crying. Yet, even in his pain, he kept thanking me over and over again. But when he tried to lift up his arms to bless me, he began to cry that the pain was unbearable and begged us to have mercy on him.
Sunday night, the doctors told my husband that they were going to put the Rav into a medically induced coma again, and that this time, he would remain unconscious until his petirah. My husband kissed his father's hand. The Rav was too weak to move. He kissed the air.
Monday, shortly before the petirah, the entire family was called in to recite Kriyat Shema with the Rav. As one, we screamed Shema Yisrael, but then the situation suddenly stabilized! The doctors told us that it could take minutes, hours, or even days. No one wanted to leave, so we all remained and were there for the petirah.
My daughter's wedding was scheduled to take place a few days later. As we watched the Gadol Hador slowly take leave of this world, I gently told my daughter that her wedding will take place during shivah. She said that it would be impossible for her to get married then; she had grown up with her sabba, and was very close to him. How could she rejoice while the entire family was in mourning? Then she said, “Let's ask Sabba what he thinks.” I sadly pointed to the Rav. She took one look at his unconscious figure, attached to multiple machines, and burst into tears. I think that's when she really grasped what was happening. After the petirah, we asked Harav Wosner, shlita, what to do about the wedding. He told us to postpone it until after the shloshim.
Now that the shivah is over, our entire life has changed. Before, everything revolved around the Rav, and the house was bustling with people. Now that the Rav is gone, I'm alone with my family. The first Shabbat that we were alone, my husband tried to make Kiddush, but instead, he broke down crying and our son-in-law had to make it for us. People say that I should appreciate my privacy, something that we never had before. But I can't. I miss the Rav too much.
At the conclusion of the interview, I packed up my equipment and ran downstairs to catch the taxi that I had ordered. When the driver, who was not wearing a kippah and appeared completely irreligious, realized that I was coming from the Rav's house, he started telling me about the Rav's greatness and told me that he went to the Rav with all his questions. "He was my posek. I used to pray in his synagogue every day. I went to him for everything."
That was the Rav's greatness. To the talmid chacham, he was pure, unadulterated Torah. To the simple, unlearned Jew, he was a father. All looked up to him and appreciated him, because he loved and appreciated every single Jew.
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THREE SPECIAL MITZVOT
The Rav often spoke about the importance of women waiting 72 minutes after sunset on Motzoei Shabbat (shittas Rabbeinu Tam) before beginning melachot. Like every other woman, I have lots of work to do after Shabbat, and I like to start as soon as possible. But the Rav told me that I would have a huge zechut if I refrain from performing melachot until 72 minutes after sunset, so that's what I do.
The Rav also held that women should cover their hair with a scarf or hat, rather than with a wig, and that the hair be completely covered. The day after our wedding, my father-in-law was so happy to see that none of my hair was showing, that he hugged my husband and told him how happy he was that I am such a tzanuah!
The Rav was very particular about eating the fourth seudah, on Motzoei Shabbat. Even when he was in excruciating pain, he would force himself to eat a kezayit of challah dipped in hot tea. Following his last Shabbat at home, I prepared a special meat delicacy for the fourth meal. With every mouthful he thanked me, saying "Salamedeiki," which in Arabic means, "May the hands of the one who prepared this be blessed."
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The following letter, written in 5734 (1974), was found among the Rav's sefarim. Although it is in the Rav's handwriting, the signatures are his children’s. In this letter, the children sign that they will listen to their parents, help their mother with the housework - especially with the preparations for Pesach - and behave with derech eretz and kavod to both parents, as is commanded by the Torah.
In the second paragraph, the children obligate themselves to go to sleep no later than midnight, and to wake up by 7:30 in the morning.
SIDEBAR My Window Faces Harav Ovadia Yosef's Grave
My back window is almost directly across from Harav Ovadia Yosef’s, zt"l, grave. At any time of the day or night, I can see dozens - sometimes even hundreds - of people praying there. It's a strange feeling – Jews are standing almost below me, praying with an intensity that I can only envy, while I make the beds, fold the laundry, and continue with my normal routine. Yet despite the seeming regularity of my outward motions, my life really has changed. Every once in a while, I glance out my window, and those petty peeves lose their sharpness; for that moment, I remember there a reason for it all.
Although during the Rav's lifetime I was aware of his greatness as a gadol b'Torah and leader of the Sefardic community, it was only after his passing - when I witnessed the variety of people who mourned him as a father - that I began to comprehend his greatness as an ohev Yisrael.
Most of my neighbors are Sefardic. Some are traditional, some charedi, and a few, not yet shomer mitzvot. Yet when the Rav's situation became critical, the same young men with earrings and punk hairdos who congregate in front of my building were now sitting on our front steps and crying – yes, crying! – over their sifrei Tehillim as they begged Hashem to save their Rav.
For my Sefardic neighbors, Rav Ovadia Yosef, or as he is commonly referred to, Maran, was the ultimate religious authority. He was their father, and with his passing, they were orphaned.
Although I was overwhelmed at the sheer enormity of the levayah - close to one million people! - it was the small, intimate scenes that moved me to tears; the group of seemingly irreligious soldiers reciting Tehillim at the grave, the spontaneous minyanim in my parking lot, where an incongruous mixture of talmidei chachamim and "amcha" – the outwardly non-observant vegetable vendor and taxi driver - join each other in prayer.
I called my sister, who is not religious, and explained, "It's as if the Lincoln Memorial has been moved to my front lawn." Only it's not the Lincoln Memorial, it's the kever of a tzaddik. It will take time until I discover the full impact of living in such proximity to one of today's kivrei tzaddikim.
Debbie Shapiro lives in Jerusalem with her husband, children, and grandchildren. She works in marketing development and teaches at Levavi Seminary.