Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef lost his fight for life at midday on Monday, setting off intense mourning across Israel for the beloved and polarizing religious figure.
News of Yosef’s passing, slightly before 1:30 p.m., spread though the crowd of hundreds of his followers who had arrived at the Jerusalem hospital where doctors spent the night and morning addressing what was described as a “total failure of his body’s systems.”
As supporters learned the fate of their spiritual leader, many burst into tears and sobbed in intense grief. One woman fainted with emotion and required assistance from hospital staff.
Shas political leader Aryeh Deri, his shirt ripped and his face streaked with tears, spoke haltingly between sobs to the press shortly after the death.
“The sun has been extinguished,” Deri sobbed. “The whole day I waited to be able to tell you that we are taking him home healthy and well.”
Deri thanked the efforts of the hospital staff and to the people in Israel around the world who prayed for Yosef. After leaving the press he collapsed into the arms of Dr. Dan Gilon, who had treated Yosef, and hugged him.
Shas MK Eli Yishai began to speak to the press but broke into uncontrollable sobbing on live television, and loud wailing could be heard around Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital as news of Yosef’s death spread.
Yosef’s funeral procession will set out from the Porat Yosef Yeshiva in the capital’s Geula neighborhood at 6 p.m. and he will be buried in the Sanhedriya cemetery.
Police said several streets in the area would be closed off, as hundreds of thousands of mourners were expected at the funeral.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was heavily grieved by the news of Yosef’s passing, whom he called “one of the greatest religious legislators of our generation.”
“Rabbi Ovadia was a giant in Torah and halacha, and a guide for multitudes,” he said in a statement. ”I admired his amiable personality and his direct approach. In my meetings with him I was always made wiser and learned something. The people of Israel have lost one of the wisest people of the generation. I send my condolences to his family, to his students, and his followers.”
Hundreds of yeshiva students and other followers gathered outside Yosef’s home in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nof after he died.
Doctors said Monday morning that Yosef, 93, was in critical condition and in immediate danger of death as he entered general systemic failure.
“His condition has deteriorated extremely,” Gilon, the attending physician, told reporters Monday. “His situation is most critical.”
Rabbis and supporters who flooded the hospital as Yosef’s health deteriorated tried to keep up hope for the spiritual leader, with the mood in the hallway outside Yosef’s room shifting suddenly from one of intense prayer to choked grief and sobbed prayers.
Earlier a number of rabbis emerging from Yosef’s hospital room said that despite the dire situation, Yosef was still breathing and somewhat stable and supporters should continue to pray for his health.
More than one quoted the Talmudic phrase, “Even when a sword is resting on one’s neck, he should not despair of mercy.”
Yosef’s family was called to his bedside at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital earlier in the morning. A tearful Deri called on supporters to pray for his health.
“I don’t want to describe what could, God forbid, happen,” he told Kol Barama radio. “How will the world run without the sun? How will the world run without the moon? What will be of us? Who will lead us? Who will take his place?”
Some 100 followers crowded the 8th floor hallway outside his hospital room, chanting prayers and crying for a miracle. Family members and hospital officials made several pleas for well-wishers to not crowd the area, as it caused a health danger.
President Shimon Peres visited Yosef’s bedside shortly after 11 a.m., cutting short a meeting with the Czech prime minister. Peres reportedly held Yosef’s hand and said goodbye before saying a prayer outside the room.
Sabina Simantov, a volunteer at the hospital, said Yosef’s condition was on everybody’s mind at the hospital.
“I had five minutes so I came up here to pray,” she said.
Yosef, a former chief rabbi who acted as the spiritual leader for Israel’s large community of Sephardi Jews and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, is perhaps the country’s best-known religious personality.
His health vacillations over the last several weeks merited extensive media attention, and on Monday morning, Israeli news outlets ran wall-to-wall coverage tracking every change in his condition.
The rabbi was taken off a respirator late last week after making a slight recovery, but was put back on the breathing machine late Sunday as he took a turn for the worse.
His hospitalization last month, after complications from kidney treatment, set off prayer rallies and health watches across the country among his supporters from Israel’s Sephardi community and others.
On top of steering Shas, Yosef also heads the Badatz Beit Yosef kashrut certification organization — a business reportedly worth tens of millions of shekels.
A number of his sons and relatives serve as municipal rabbis, controlling kosher certification, and one son, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, was recently elected chief Sephardi rabbi.
Since founding the Shas party, Yosef has dictated its candidate lists for each election.