Rav Ovadia Yosef has famously called upon all Jews to abandon their unique practices imported to Israel from their exile communities—in favor of adopting the practices of Rav Yosef Karo. Chacham Ovadia claims that Rav Karo is the mara d’atra, halachic authority, of the Land of Israel. Thus, Rav Karo’s rulings trump practices observed while living in exile communities.
Rav Ovadia addressed this assertion to all Sephardic communities, particularly to Moroccan and Yemenite communities whose practices vary considerably from those promulgated by Rav Ovadia and his sons. Not surprisingly, Rav Ovadia’s approach to this issue has not been accepted and many Sephardic communities maintain their distinctive practices.
Darke Abotenou, the recently published compendium and analysis of the customs of the Jews of Morocco, presents a most cogent rebuttal of Chacham Ovadia’s approach. The authors note that Moroccan Jews do adhere to the rulings of Rav Yosef Karo, apart from certain exceptional circumstances. Darke Abotenou notes that even Rav Ovadia does not always adhere to the rulings of Rav Yosef Karo. In fact, there are five areas of Halacha where Moroccan Jews adhere to Rav Karo when Chacham Ovadia does not!
These cases include brit milah, regarding which Moroccan Jews follow Rav Karo’s ruling to recite the bracha between the initial cut and peri’ah (the second portion of milah), whereas Rav Ovadia rules that the bracha is recited before the cut begins. Rav Ovadia rules that Hoshanot should not be recited on the Shabbat of Sukkot, whereas Moroccan Jews follow Rav Karo and do recite Hoshanot.
Moroccan Jews do not don tefillin during the morning of Tisha B’Av, unlike Chacham Ovadia who encourages doing so. When more than one kohen is present, Rav Ovadia rules that the chazan should prompt the kohanim even with the word “yevarechecha,” unlike Moroccan Jews who follow Rav Karo’s ruling to refrain. Finally, Moroccan Jews follow Rav Karo’s ruling to recite Aneinu even during the Arvit of fast days, unlike Chacham Ovadia who rules that it is recited only at Shacharit and Mincha.
Accordingly, the venerable Moroccan sage Ribi Shalom Messas, who loved Rav Ovadia deeply and profoundly revered him, respectfully but pointedly rejects Rav Ovadia’s insistence that Moroccan Jews abandon their unique practices.
Rav Messas argues that just as Rav Ovadia follows his traditions as to when it is appropriate to deviate from Rav Karo’s rulings, so too Moroccan Jews are entitled to adhere to their traditions as to when they do not adhere to Rav Karo’s rulings. In addition, Rav Yosef Karo himself wrote (Teshuvot Avkat Rachel number 212) that any community that comes to Israel and establishes its own beit knesset is obligated to maintain its prior customs.
Moreover, there is ample precedent for Ribi Shalom Messas’s rejection of Chacham Ovadia’s approach. Darke Abotenou records:
“Ribi Refael El’azar HaLevy ibn Tobu, author of Pekudat Elazar, came from Morocco to Jerusalem in the early 19th century and established a beit knesset that followed Moroccan customs. He writes (Pekudat Elazar 51:9) that a certain Ribi Moshe Nehemias suggested that they change the custom to that of Jerusalem, but in the end Ribi Refael El’azar HaLevy ibn Tobu ruled to continue the ancient Moroccan custom since Jerusalem is a city of many established communities and customs. When the Yemenites came to Israel [in the early 20th century), the same discussion took place involving Ribi Avraham Haim Nadoff. He writes that they kept their customs even though many advised them to change them.”
Ribi Shalom’s rebuttal of Rav Ovadia’s ruling is most convincing. In fact, Rav Mordechai Eliyahu and Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv support Ribi Shalom’s ruling. In practice, Moroccan Jews in Israel maintain their distinctive practices.
Congregation Shaarei Orah is blessed with a membership that derives from an extraordinary wide range of Sephardic countries. We, in turn, unite as a community following minhag Yerushalayim and Chacham Ovadia’s rulings. At that same time, we respect and celebrate the practices of each distinctive Sephardic sub-group including Syrian, Turkish, Yemenite and Moroccan practices. As a rabbi, I issue communal rulings in accordance with Rav Ovadia but make every effort to issue rulings for individual members considering his or her specific Sephardic sub-group and origin. The responsibility to issue such a wide variety of rulings is daunting but exhilarating. Minhag Yisrael Torah hee, and each of these Torot join to form the beautiful symphony that creates the distinctive beauty of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck.
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.