An ultra-Orthodox teacher with a brood of students; a laborer with paint-spattered boots; a mother with an unsettled infant; an elderly woman cradling a notebook in which she had scrawled a prayer; Shas party loyalists; an IDF captain rhythmically blowing a shofar; and a hollow-cheeked beggar threading through the crush of people, wordlessly rattling the change in his palm — these were but a small slice of the crowd that congregated on the eighth floor of the Hadassah Medical Center on Monday to pray for the health, and then mourn the passing, of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the most important Sephardi rabbi of the last several generations, the unifier of Sephardi Jewry.
The mood, as the elevator doors slid open, vacillated between sudden rushes of energy and wails of grief, depending on the conflicting messages issuing from the hospital room.
“There is a slight, slight improvement in his condition,” MK Aryeh Deri, one of the men closest to Yosef, said shortly before noon.
The crowd broke into song, chanting, “Our father is still alive.”
Moments later Deri came back out and said, “His condition remains stable, thank God, but now is the time to rip open the gates of the heavens.”
The crowd began to wail the penitential prayers and poems from the Day of Atonement.
The area closest to Yosef’s room, as the prayers escalated and the curious pushed closer, was warm with body heat and edgy amid the jostling of people coming and going. Rav Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, a former chief rabbi, took hold of a megaphone and asked the 150 or so well-wishers to go home. “Those who are studying Torah should go back to their yeshiva and study Torah for the rabbi,” he said. “The study of Torah is above all else.”
No one moved. Many had left their places of study and employment in order to be there, often alternating between praying for a miracle and witnessing history, iPhones held aloft.
“We were on our way to work when we heard the news broadcast,” said Eli, a middle-aged contractor from Kiryat Gat, who prayed alongside two of his workers. The three men were en route north to Herzliya but quickly decided to cancel work for the day and dash to Jerusalem. “We’re followers of the Rav,” he explained. “He was the sort of rabbi who adapted himself to us, and who tried to bring us close to him.”
The theme of Ovadia’s relative halachic leniency was repeatedly sounded among the visitors. A Jerusalem municipal worker named Meir said Yosef’s outstanding attribute, and the reason he had come, was that “despite his greatness he was accessible to all of us.”
Meir said that at every juncture in life, whether it was finding a wife or weighing job options, he always tried “to think like him. Because even choosing a job has a spiritual side to it… so I let him guide me.”
Farther down the hall, a young woman named Rachel thumbed through a prayer book as she soothed her infant son. For the past several days, ever since Yosef was brought into the hospital, she had made a habit of coming by the eighth floor and praying quietly. The women’s prayers, silent and restrained, seemed more powerful than the wails coming from the front of the hallway, so I waited until she was done to approach her. Her job, she said, was to drive brides to their weddings — a necessity in the ultra-Orthodox community where only few own cars. All of them stopped at Ovadia’s house for a blessing, she said, so she had gotten to know and love the man. “For me, he’s like a mother and a father,” she said.
Shortly thereafter, Mor Dagan and Fortune Geffen — both religious teens in the midst of national service — took a break from filming the proceedings with their iPhones and began explaining why they had taken time off to come up to the eighth floor. Then the cadence of the call-and-response prayers shifted. A woman began to shake and had to be helped into a chair. A man slumped into the elevator doors and broke into to thick sobs. “The sun of the people of Israel has been extinguished,” an elderly woman cried, her arms stretched out to the side.
Suddenly there was quiet and disbelief. People began to trickle to the TV screen to confirm the rumor. Moments later, Deri emerged, ashen-faced, his shirt ripped, in the traditional sign of mourning, nearly to the navel. He got into the elevator, went downstairs to the cameras, quoted Job in a cracked voice — “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” – and then returned to the eighth floor, where he briefly fell into the arms of Professor Dan Gilon, the cardiologist who treated the rabbi.
Slowly, after many an impassioned plea from the rabbis, the crowd began to disperse, perhaps never to be united in the same way again.