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Tragedy and Trust    

Half a century later, Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s son Rav Yitzchak Yosef navigates the same painful nexus of military and halachic loss

Photos: Flash90

Rav Yitzchak Yosef, who is also the nasi of the Beis Din Hagadol, issued the psak after deliberations with senior IDF and security officials, forensic and health officials, and a team of IDF rabbis. The data included, together with intelligence information and other sources, testimony from released hostages and detailed analysis of footage from surveillance cameras of the October 7th massacre, where experts were able to determine the severity of injury to those being dragged off to Gaza and whether those injuries were survivable.

The psak — given for a few specific cases where irrefutable information was available (including that of Colonel Asaf Hamami Hy”d, commander of the Gaza Division’s Southern Brigade) — allows the families to sit shivah even without a body, as the bodies that have been identified are being held by Hamas in Gaza. But more important, it means granting the status of widowhood to the spouses of the deceased, freeing them from the status of agunah and allowing them to remarry.

For Rav Yitzchak Yosef, it was coming full circle. A generation before, in the fall of 1973, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, longtime av beis din and chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, had just been installed as the Rishon L’Tzion when the Yom Kippur War broke out, leaving 2,600 dead soldiers in its wake. Many were missing, and many others were unidentifiable — and Rav Ovadiah soon realized he was facing close to a thousand potential agunos — women who could not remarry as long as their husbands were not confirmed dead by all accounts.


he noise inside the IDF transport plane was deafening, the soldiers mercilessly shaken back and forth in their “seats” — actually, a netting of ropes attached to the interior walls of the aircraft. One of the passengers stood out from the olive-green crowd, and it was not just because of his clothes. Subjected to the same travel conditions as the soldiers, this middle-aged man with a black and gray beard was Rav Ovadiah Yosef, famed for his tremendous hasmadah and outstanding bekiyus, and the newly appointed Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel. He was busy encouraging the soldiers as he handed them each a small Tehillim inscribed with a personal dedication. Later, he would have to deal intensively with the tragic stories of many of these soldiers.

The Yom Kippur War broke out on October 6th, 1973, with the simultaneous invasions of Israel by Egypt in the south and Syria in the north. Israel had to fight on two fronts at the same time, in both the Golan Heights and Sinai.

In an eerie comparison, exactly 50 years before the beginning of the current war, numerous signs of an imminent attack were ignored by Israeli intelligence, and Israeli forces were almost completely unprepared and suffered heavy casualties, especially in the early days of the war. Many soldiers had been released for Yom Kippur and only a small unit remained in the south to guard the Egyptian border. The soldiers didn’t stand a chance and were overrun.

Who would have imagined that exactly 50 years later, with all the advanced technology and cutting-edge surveillance equipment of the IDF, such a scenario would play out again?

As someone who’d been entrusted with the spiritual welfare of the nation, Rav Ovadiah Yosef traveled from military camp to military camp, from one front to the other, speaking with the soldiers and giving them chizuk. But his travels to the front lines had another function as well: Although at the time he could not have fathomed the huge number of unidentified and missing soldiers he would have to deal with, he already began to gather information during the war — even under fire as he ducked into bunkers and shelters.

The Yom Kippur War ended on October 25th with a ceasefire brokered by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and drafted by the UN Security Council as Resolution 339.

Estimates of Israeli casualties ranged from 2,500 to 2,800, with up to 8,000 wounded and hundreds of soldiers missing or unaccounted for. Some soldiers were buried in makeshift mass graves before they could be identified.

Rabbi Mordechai Piron, chief rabbi of the IDF during the Yom Kippur War, received a call after the war from Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir, tasking him to deal with the numerous agunos to prevent “a disaster within a disaster.”

Rabbi Piron realized that he could never accomplish this task alone. Together with his deputy, Rabbi Gad Navon, they founded the Beis Din L’Inyanei Agunos and appointed Rav Ovadiah to head this beis din that would be responsible for working through the list of close to a thousand married men killed or missing.


or generations, poskim have grappled with cases where married men have disappeared or been killed in circumstances making them difficult or impossible to identify. Over the centuries, poskim have done everything within their power to find a way for an agunah to remarry.

In Rav Ovadia’s magnum opus, Yabia Omer, he records his introspection upon being tasked with such a complicated mission, writing how he felt inadequate for this project that has such far-reaching ramifications (primarily in the area of mamzerus, if the woman is permitted to marry and the husband is indeed alive), but he rallied, following earlier poskim who equated alleviating the suffering of an agunah to saving a life.

For example, he quotes from a teshuvah of the Bach that Whoever saves even one agunah will be credited as if he had built one of the ruins of Yerushalayim(Vol. 1, Siman 64); then there is a teshuvah of the Maharsham (Vol. 1, Siman 84) that one must deal with this issue even on Tishah B’Av, because the pain and agony of an agunah is reminiscent of the Shechinah in galus. He writes how he’s placed his trust in Hashem to illuminate his eyes with the right understanding of Torah in this complex and high-stakes effort.

(At the time, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi and a former military chief rabbi, wanted the agunah files to come to him. “Rav Ovadiah was never even in the army,” he told General Moshe Dayan at the time. Dayan, arch-secularist though he was and never a big fan of the rabbinate, nevertheless told Rabbi Goren, “If you permit an agunah to remarry, your ruling might not be accepted by all sectors, but Rav Ovadiah — who has been sitting in the beis medrash all these years — has a consensus.”)

Rav Ovadiah got to work, convening his beis din twice a week and spending many sleepless nights dedicated to finding a solution until he successfully resolved every agunah case, finding halachic proof to enable wives of missing soldiers — some of them young women in their early 20s — to remarry.

For six months, the dayanim sat for hours in the Yosef family’s apartment at 96 Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, looking at evidence and listening to soldiers’ accounts of the circumstances in which their comrades died. Rav Yitzchak Yosef, the current Rishon L’Tzion, relates that his father suffered greatly and cried for nights on end. He knew many of the soldiers personally, especially reservists whom he’d tested at Yeshivat Kerem BeYavneh, a hesder yeshivah where talmidim also serve in the IDF, and whenever a name he knew came up, he would cry out, I tested this avreich here and here, about this and that,” and tears would stream down his face.

In an interview with the newspaper Davar in 1979, Rav Ovadiah told the reporter, “We sat like this for about six months, four to five hours a day. In some cases there was nothing left of the soldiers, only bones and some ashes. We had to take statements from soldiers who had seen the disaster with their own eyes. Our tears flowed like water and even at night we could not sleep.”

Over 950 cases passed through the hands of the beis din, and Rav Ovadiah, together with his colleagues, eventually succeeded in resolving all of them, freeing the agunos.


any of the beis din’s deliberations revolved around the halachic parameters of minimum proofs required to determine a husband’s death so that his wife may remarry, as outlined in Maseches Yevamos. The three main categories are facial recognition, identifying marks on the body, and other types of exclusive evidence (a “siman muvhak”) regarding possessions, but these broad categories also depend on many variables, such as the level of exclusivity of the evidence, and the time elapsed since death.

“Given the special nature of the Yom Kippur War, which was more difficult and brutal than all previous wars, and especially due to the devastating weapons, it was often impossible to identify soldiers by their faces,” Rav Ovadiah wrote (Yabia Omer Vol. 6, Even Ha’ezer,  Siman 3).

Among the questions Rav Ovadiah dealt with were whether the photograph of a dead body is sufficient for identification, or whether a military ID “dog tag” — an army-issued piece of metal used specifically for identification, is considered a siman muvhak. Rav Ovadiah argued that these pieces of evidence fall within the accepted parameters detailed in the Gemara.

At first, though, Rav Ovadiah was disheartened by the opinion of the Beis Yosef (Even Ha’ezer Siman 7) that even personal items such as purses and rings are not sufficient to determine an unequivocal identification, although they are not usually lent to others.

That night, Rabbi Ovadiah went to bed disappointed and frustrated. As he slept, one of the great poskim of the previous generation (the source of the story does not name the posek, but it appears to be Rav Meir Arik) appeared to him and told him that he allows reliance on dog tags. The next morning, Rav Ovadiah checked the teshuvos of Rav Arik (Imrei Yosher Vol. 2, Siman 145) and it said exactly what he had been told in his dream. Thus, Rav Ovadiah concluded that the Beis Yosef also agreed that dog tags can be used as a means of identification because, unlike wallets and rings, their sole purpose is for identification.

Relying on the idea of siman muvhak, Rav Ovadiah determined that dental impressions and fingerprints are also considered evidence, although the latter only in conjunction with other pieces of evidence.

Based on this psak, to this day the IDF has a database of dental impressions of all soldiers to facilitate identification if they go missing. There have also been cases where ex-soldiers could be identified long after they left the army.

In another case, a soldier was found wearing a wedding band with a wedding date inscribed, and his wife had a matching ring. The beis din pored over various marriage registrars and, finding that she was indeed married on that date, the beis din concluded that the discovered body was her deceased husband and permitted her to remarry.

Rav Ovadiah also grappled with cases of circumstantial evidence, the most well-known of which involved two F-16 fighter planes that were flying together over the Suez Canal. One of the planes was shot down, exploding and plunging into the depths of the sea together with the pilot, the navigator, and a reserve officer — all of whom had wives and children. The pilot of the other plane witnessed the crash and testified before the beis din that no one opened parachutes or other life-saving devices before they all disappeared.

When the file of the three landed on Rav Ovadia’s desk, he knew he needed special siyata d’Shmaya. Because more than two centuries before, the Chasam Sofer’s own beis din erroneously determined a man to be dead (witnesses testified that he’d been shot in the head and saw him fall on top of a pile of bodies before being whisked away by the gentiles). But five years later the man showed up — he apparently had only been lightly wounded (head wounds often look worse than they are) and ran away — far enough to be sure he was safe from the thugs who tried to kill him. When he showed up in town, the Chasam Sofer was so shaken and distraught that he determined there would be no more halachic decisions regarding agunos coming out of the Pressburg beis din.

According to Rav Yitzchak Yosef, in the case of the crashed plane, Rav Ovadiah used the principle of sfek sfeka — a “double doubt” — to free the agunos: Chances were practically nil that they would have survived the missile attack that set the plane aflame, and chances were practically nil that they would have survived plunging into the sea. The surviving pilot testified that the distance between them was very close, and he would have noticed had someone managed to eject from the burning plane before it crashed. In addition, a search by an IDF rescue helicopter also turned up nothing.


ithin a year, Rav Ovadiah managed to find enough evidence to free all the agunos — all but one. According to Rav Yitzchak Yosef, there was one missing soldier on whom he just couldn’t put enough evidence together, and the wife of that MIA, Mrs. Rosenthal, was still an agunah. Months later, when the prisoners of war were released from Egypt and Syria, Rav Ovadiah scoured the lists of captives, but Rosenthal wasn’t on any list. Maybe, Rav Ovadiah said to his assistant, he’ll still come back with the POWs even though he doesn’t appear on any list. The assistant met the batch of captives returning from Egypt, but he wasn’t there. Later, when the captives were released from Syria, the assistant went to meet them as well. He had just about given up when one last captive emerged, bandaged, scarred, and hobbling on crutches. “What’s your name?” asked the assistant. “Rosenthal.”

Years later, Chacham Ovadiah was asked how he had such tremendous siyata d’Shmaya in dealing with the agunos.

“In my youth,” he said, “I learned masechet Yevamot with unbelievable mesirut nefesh — dozens of times through with all the commentators. Hour after hour I sat and learned in great poverty. Even when it rained and the drops dripped on my head, I put my coat over my head and continued to learn. Could it be that I wouldn’t have siyata d’Shmaya in sugiyot that I acquired with mesirut nefesh?”

With these courageous halachic decisions, Rav Ovadiah Yosef not only solved the agunah crisis after the Yom Kippur War, but also laid the foundation for the use of modern means to deal with agunos resulting from terror attacks where bodies can become incinerated and unidentifiable, and fires and explosions such as the Twin Towers.

These weeks, as bodies from the unfathomable massacre are still being identified, even as scientific developments have opened doors for positive identification of even a  small amount of biological remains, the halachic principles have not changed.

“Maran HaRishon L’Tzion [Rav Yitzchak Yosef] acted with sensitivity unique to the circumstances and their numerous implications,” said Yehudah Avidan, director-general of the Religious Affairs Ministry. “This sensitivity on one hand, and his determination to get to the truth on the other, is what led to the ruling, as practiced by his father, Maran Hagaon Rav Ovadiah Yosef.”


Vanished into Thin Air

For Rav Yitzchak Yosef, this most recent painful chapter in freeing agunos wasn’t the first time he needed to enlist the Shin Bet and the Mossad to help solve an agunah case.

During a recent shiur, the Rishon L’Tzion told a remarkable story of how Mossad operatives were needed to confirm the death of a man involved in the Russian mafia.

Rav Yosef said the case involved a chareidi woman in her 30s whose husband, who was Bukharian, had disappeared around ten years previously. The case was brought before former Rishon L’Tzion Rav Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron during his tenure, but his beis din was unable to resolve the case. Rav Yosef, going through old, unsolved files, realized the case was quite complicated, but also knew there was a woman out there who had been “chained” for a decade.

Rav Yosef organized a meeting with the woman, who told him how her husband simply vanished. He was a cash courier who transferred large sums of money from one place to another, receiving a percentage for his efforts. He worked around the world and she hadn’t a clue where he went.

Rav Yosef decided to get in touch with the Mossad, whose international reach is legendary. The head of the Mossad came to meet with him, and he presented the information that he had. A few weeks later, the Rav was instructed to disconnect the computers and remove all the phones in his office: The Mossad had information, and it had to be completely confidential.

According to the Mossad’s findings, the man was apprehended by the Russian mafia, where he was murdered. Rav Yosef, however, needed proof, and told the Mossad chief that he was willing to travel to Russia to meet with the mafia, but was patently refused: “Chas v’shalom, HaRav. You would not return from there.” “Fine,” Rav Yosef answered, “so I will send my own shaliach.”

That meeting between the beis din emissary and the mafia was held in a forest, with the shaliach arriving on a motorcycle and wearing sunglasses. “Here is his smashed phone,” the mafia operative explained. He also gave him the keys to the man’s car and told him where he was buried.

“I phoned the woman immediately and told her she was no longer an agunah,” Rav Yosef told his shiur. “She was heartbroken for her husband, but so, so happy that she was finally free.”


Rachel Ginsberg contributed to this report


Rabbi Dovid Gernetz, a graduate of Gateshead yeshivah, received semichah from Rabbi Yitzchok Berkovits of the Jerusalem Kollel and is currently a maggid shiur at the Rabbinerseminar and the assistant rabbi of Kahal Adass Yisrael, both in Berlin.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 990)

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