Rav Ovadia and the Widows of the Yom Kippur War
BY RABBI BEN BARUCH
The challenge of hatarat agunot, or ‘freeing’ married women with missing husbands, is emotionally charged. For generations, poskim have grappled with many cases where married men have disappeared or been killed in circumstances making them difficult or impossible to identify. The halachic tension is obvious; on the one hand poskim want to do everything within their power to allow women to remarry. In a teshuva discussing the issue of identifying a dead person’s face through tviat ayin (halachic facial recognition), Rabbeinu Tam says that anyone who acts stringently against his ruling is a sinner (Sefer HaYashar 92). On the other hand, the stakes are high. If we permit a woman to remarry and the husband is in fact still alive, the resulting issues of mamzerut can be equally tragic.
This complex backdrop sets the stage for Rav Ovadia Yosef’s momentous undertaking following the Yom Kippur War. He was approached by Rav Mordechai Peiron and Rav Gad Navon, the Chief Rabbi and Assistant Chief Rabbi of the IDF, to head the Beit Din responsible for working through the list of nearly one thousand men killed in Israel’s bloodiest war since its independence. Rav Ovadia’s magnum opus, Yabia Omer, records his poignant introspection upon being tasked with the mission (Even HaEzer 3:1). He professed feeling inadequate for such a monumental task, but following earlier poskim who equate alleviating the suffering of agunot to saving a life, he felt compelled to do what he could.
Rav Peiron later described Rav Ovadia’s modus operandi: “With these cases [where identifying the soldier proved difficult], I saw Rav Ovadia’s true courage. His brain worked like a computer, and everything he did came from an approach of ‘I need to find a solution, I need to help these agunot, it’s not an option to leave anyone in this tragic state.’ He always found a way, according to halacha. We all felt the weight of responsibility. Rav Ovadia would always ask me: ‘Perhaps this soldier is still around somewhere? Maybe he’s still alive?’ He was cautious, but he never had an ‘I can’t do it’ attitude. No Rav ever challenged any of our decisions regarding agunot… At the end of a year of difficult work and extended effort we identified all the hundreds of dead bodies, and declared all of the missing soldiers as no longer alive” (cited in Haggai Huberman, Rav, Aluf).
During a hesped for his father at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef recounted how his father burst into tears upon realizing that some of the agunot he was trying to free were the wives of avreichim in KBY’s kollel. Remembering the young men whom he had recently tested during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva, just before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, he cried: “He quoted the Pri Megadim, Shach and Taz with such clarity! Now I need to release his wife?!” (Srugim, Aug. 11, 2012, כָּךְ הִתִּיר אַבָּא אֶת הָעֲגוּנוֹת שֶׁל מִלְחֶמֶת יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים).
Although a thorough examination of the halachic issues is beyond the scope of this article, many of the questions revolved around sugyot at the end of Tractate Yevamot discussing the minimum proofs required to determine a husband’s death so that his wife may remarry. The three main categories discussed are facial recognition, identifying marks on the body, and other types of evidence based on personal belongings. Whether a court can rely on these proofs to establish death depends on a multitude of variables, such as the uniqueness of the evidence and the time elapsed since the death. Among the questions Rav Ovadia dealt with are whether photographs of a dead person are sufficient for identification (Yabia Omer, ibid. 3:17–20), or whether the ubiquitous metal ‘diskit’ (ID tag) issued to a soldier is considered a siman muvhak (unique piece of evidence) of the identity of a dead body (ibid. 3:2). Rav Ovadia generally ruled leniently in these cases, arguing that they fall within the acceptable types of evidence enumerated in the Gemara. Rav Ovadia also grappled with cases of circumstantial evidence, such as that of a fighter pilot whose plane exploded and crashed into the sea. Based on the testimony of an accompanying pilot who witnessed the crash and claimed no one could have survived, alongside the fact that a helicopter was sent to search for survivors and found no one, Rav Ovadia permitted the pilot’s widow to remarry (ibid. 4:1).
Although we pray that this area of halacha will never again have to be put into practice, the painful story of the Yom Kippur War widows stands as a testament to both Rav Ovadia’s halachic prowess and his unparalleled compassion.
Rabbi Ben Baruch serves as the Jewish Chaplain of Cambridge University. He learned and taught at Yeshivat Hakotel, and is a graduate of Mizrachi’s Shalhevet and Musmachim programs.