“We live in an upside-down world.”
This is how Hacham David Yosef, shelit”a, described his feelings in response to the untimely passing of his esteemed brother and renowned Torah sage, Hacham Yaakov Hai Yosef, zt”l, at the age of 66. Hacham Yaakov, the oldest son of Hagaon Hacham Ovadia Yosef, shlita, who served as Rosh Yeshiva of Hazon Yaakov and rabbi of Jerusalem’s Givat Moshe neighborhood, returned his soul to its maker just several hours before the onset of Shabbat on 2 Iyar (April 12), following a courageous 18-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Throngs of students, admirers and Jews of all backgrounds assembled just before Shabbat to accompany the revered hacham to his final resting place and offer condolences to the family.
The Flatbush community was given the opportunity to hear firsthand about this towering sage when circumstances forced his brother, Hacham David, to observe a day of shiva in Brooklyn en route to Jerusalem. Hacham David was in Mexico on Friday morning when he received word of his brother’s steadily deteriorating health. He decided to travel to New York for Shabbat, and then continue to Israel after Shabbat. Shortly after his arrival in New York, he received a second phone call, informing him of Hacham Yaakov’s passing. The hacham observed shiva that day in the home of Mr. Daniel Bergman, where throngs of community members and prominent community rabbis flocked to greet the hacham and express their condolences. During those hours, Hacham David spoke at length about his revered brother and his accomplishments as a Torah sage, gifted leader and educator, and devoted servant of the Jewish people.
Hacham Yaakov was born on Motza’e Simhat Torah (October 18), 1946, in Jerusalem, when his father served as a dayan (rabbinical judge) in the city. He is the second child, and oldest son, of Hacham Ovadia. A year later the family moved to Egypt, where they would spend the next three years until their return to Israel. Hacham Yaakov studied in the famed Yeshivat Porat Yosef in Jerusalem, where he established a close personal relationship with the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Tzadka zt”l. He later spent time learning in Yeshivat Kol Torah under the tutelage of Rabbi Shelomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l. Hacham David related that his father held Rav Shelomo Zalman in very high esteem and wanted his son to have exposure to this preeminent Torah sage. After his marriage to his wife, Nitzhiya, he studied in Kollel Kol Yaakov and Mossad Harav Kook in Jerusalem.
A Fountain of Torah
Hacham Yaakov began his career as a Torah educator at the young age of 22. “When my father accepted the position of Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv in 1969,” Hacham David related, “he needed someone to replace him as a maggid shiur at the Borochov Synagogue in the Bukharian section of Jerusalem. My father was not successful in finding the right person until he decided to give the position to my brother Yaakov.” The young teacher exceeded expectations, and his lectures gained rapid and widespread popularity. “Yaakov’s shiurim were so well received by the baale batim [laymen] that the weekly shiur became a daily shiur. He spoke a very clear Hebrew and gave over every class slowly, purposefully, and meticulously. No one could compete with my brother as a maggid shiur.”
Hacham Yaakov was a tireless disseminator of Torah, who spent virtually the entirety of every day delivering classes. “Every talmid hacham has a special area in which he is known,” Hacham David reflected. “My brother was very gifted and capable in many areas. However, the area in which he excelled was that of giving shiurim. He would pray netz [at sunrise] at the Kotel and afterwards start on his schedule of shiurim, delivering at least seven in one day until about 10pm. Then he would stay up until the early hours of the morning learning on his own.”
His success as a teacher lay in his rare ability to convey scholarly information in a manner that can be easily understood and digested by virtually anybody, to bridge the enormous gap between his towering level of scholarship and the modest stature of his audience. “The special ability my brother had was in being able to bring down and explain the deepest thoughts in Torah and Halachah so that the same shiur was both understood and enjoyable for the Torah scholar and the one who was not learned. Usually, the more knowledgeable a person is, the more difficult it is for him to explain things in simple terms so that anyone can understand. The opposite was true of my brother. He was extremely knowledgeable with an extremely unusual ability to explain the most difficult material.” One of the keys to the hacham’s pedagogical prowess, as his brother described, was his careful and intensive preparation for his shiurim. He prepared extensively, organizing the material in a logical, orderly fashion, and writing notes for himself. During the lecture, though, he taught without looking at his notes, ensuring to direct his full attention to his audience.
Hacham Yaakov’s unparalleled expertise as a lecturer was confirmed anew each year, Hacham David notes. “Every year on the anniversary of my mother’s passing, I arrange a day of learning and a meal. I have many rabbis giving shiurim, and I always ask, besides my father, who delivered the best shiur. Hacham Yaakov receives 100 percent of the vote.”
“The Oxygen That He Breathed”
As an example of his brother’s tireless commitment to teaching, Hacham David described how his brother would spend Yom Haasmaut, Israeli Independence Day, which is celebrated in Israel as a vacation day. In order to ensure that the free time was used constructively, Hacham Yaakov spent the entire day delivering shiurim in Ashdod and in other places, packing into his schedule as many classes as could be fit into a single day. Hacham David said this is how the hacham spent Yom Haatsmaut each year for the last 20 years.
Even more remarkable was Hacham Yaakov’s courageous and unflinching struggle to maintain his teaching schedule during his months of painful and debilitating illness. “When Hacham Yaakov was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer,” Hacham David recalled, “the doctor gave a prognosis. She said most likely he will have just three months to live. My brother asked to go home, and closed himself in his room for a few hours. Then he told his son to take him back to the hospital. Hacham Yaakov said to the doctor that he doesn’t believe in human prognoses, and that he wants the doctor to give him every treatment possible for this disease, no matter how painful and uncomfortable it might be. With that done, my brother continued to put his energies into what he loved to do best, and did better than anyone else, and that was the job of delivering classes. Hacham Yaakov continued to pray netz and continued to deliver 7-9 shiurim a day until the last week of his life, when he was just too weak.”
During Hol Ha’mo’ed Pesah, just two weeks before Hacham Yaakov’s passing, Hacham David went to his house to visit him, and his wife informed him that Hacham Yaakov was delivering a shiur. Hacham David went to hear the shiur, and when Hacham Yaakov saw him, he asked him to come to the front to continue the lecture, as he was feeling too weak. Until that point, however, he mustered every last ounce of strength and energy to continue his holy mission of disseminating Torah wisdom.
“Even though he was weak,” Hacham David said, “my brother told us that giving shiurim gave him strength. It was the oxygen that he breathed.”
After his diagnosis, the name “Hai” (“life”) was added to his name, and thousands of Jews around the world were praying for Yaakov Hai ben Margalit. On Motza’e Shabbat, 20 Adar (March 2), Hacham Ovadia announced during his weekly shiur that his son’s health has deteriorated, and issued an impassioned plea to pray on his behalf. “To my great distress, my son, Rabbi Yaakov, who spent his entire life in Torah, striving to learn and teach, has recently taken ill. My dear son, Rabbi Yaakov Hai, is in very serious condition.” A large prayer service was held at the Kotel that Monday, with thousands of people in attendance, including both Chief Rabbis of the State of Israel and numerous other prominent figures.
Hacham David described his brother’s life as one which was characterized by spiritual engagement, and limited material and physical indulgence. He drew satisfaction and found fulfillment not from the material benefits of this world, but rather from the beauty of Torah study and the joy of teaching. He recited his prayers slowly, patiently, and with intense concentration. Rather than rush through prayers to resume his mundane activities, he relished every moment he had to speak with his Creator. His Torah study, Hacham David described, was “legendary.” Hacham David also noted the special relationship Hacham Yaakov enjoyed with the Yosef family’s neighbor, the great sage Hacham Ben Sion Abba Shaul zt”l, with whom he would frequently speak in
It was this focus on spirituality that empowered the hacham to confront his illness with courage and conviction, knowing that his pain and suffering was leading him to a world which he had no reason to fear. “About a year ago,” Hacham David recalled, “my brother told me that he was thankful to Bore Olam for giving him notice that he was going to be changing apartments.” He perceived his likely departure from this world as a transition from one “apartment” – from the materialism and vanity of this world – to the next “apartment,” the pure, pristine spirituality of the next world. And he valiantly continued preparing himself for that move until the final moments.
Hacham Yaakov moved into his new “apartment” on Friday, 2 Iyar. Although the funeral was held just a short while before the onset of Shabbat, tens of thousands of Jews from across the spectrum of Israel’s observant population came to pay their respects and escort the deceased to his final resting place at Har Hamenuhot cemetery. Eulogies were delivered by the current and former Sephardic Chief Rabbis, Harav Shlomo Amar and Harav Eliyahu Bashi-Doron, as well as by Harav Yaakov Ades and Hacham Ben Tzion Mutzafi. Hacham Yaakov’s son, Hacham Ovadia, a Rosh Kollel in Bet Shemesh, noted how his father never took vacations and was constantly involved in the study and dissemination of Torah. The deceased’s father, Hagaon Hacham Ovadia Yosef, cited the famous verse in Tehillim, “Mah ahavti Toratecha kol hayom hi sihati – “How I love Your Torah; it is what I speak of all day,” and applied it to his beloved son. “All his days he was busy with Torah, he was disseminating Torah, from one place to another.”
He has now moved on to disseminate Torah in his new “apartment,” leaving us behind to mourn his passing and continue his legacy of spiritual devotion.
Observers say that Hacham Ovadia Yosef is extremely distraught over the passing of his son. However, despite his personal pain, he has continued to voice his distress over the threats to the Torah world, and speaks about how his soul finds no peace because of the proposed recruitment of Israeli yeshivah to the IDF. When Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visitedHacham Ovadia Yosef’s home in the Har Nof neighborhood seeking to comfort him over the passing of his son, Hacham Ovadia Yosef told the Prime Minister, “Although I am now a mourner, a father who has buried his son, especially such a Torah giant and teacher like my son was, and the pain is terrible, I am terribly distraught over the drafting of yeshivah students.”