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Former chief rabbi Bakshi-Doron laid to rest in front of handful of mourners

Just 20 family members and senior rabbis allowed at funeral in Jerusalem after COVID-19 death; ‘There was nobody as honest as you,’ eulogizes Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau

The funeral of Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, who died from complications of COVID-19, at the Har Hamenuhot cemetery in Jerusalem, April 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
The funeral of Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, who died from complications of COVID-19, at the Har Hamenuhot cemetery in Jerusalem, April 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, the former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel who died Sunday due to complications from the coronavirus, was laid to rest Monday with only a handful of people on hand, rather than the massive funeral generally reserved for rabbis of his standing.

Bakshi-Doron, 79, who served as chief rabbi from 1993 to 2003, succumbed at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center five days after being hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms. He was tested shortly upon his arrival and found to be a carrier.

While funerals of other senior Jewish spiritual leaders are typically attended by thousands or tens of thousands of mourners, social distancing rules in light of the pandemic meant that only 20 people were allowed at Bakshi-Doron’s farewell rite in Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuhot cemetery.

The participants were his children and senior rabbis, who kept a two-meter distance from one another. The funeral was broadcast live and the general public was invited to tune in.

Former Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, May, 2010. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Former Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, May, 2010. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Former Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who served alongside Bakshi-Doron, mourned him during the funeral.

“The great genius has been taken from us,” he said. “I am sad for you, my brother. It was an honor serving alongside you. Together we went through ten tough years that included the [1995] murder of [prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin and the verbal violence that followed, we stood together like a brick wall. There was nobody as honest as you.”

Current Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef mourned Bakshi-Doron via phone call. Tearing up during his eulogy, he said, “The world of Torah and halacha has lost one of its pillars.”

He said the rabbi had made a practice of going from place to place to “revolutionize” Torah learning and share his wisdom with yeshiva students all over the country.

“The Chief Rabbinate of Israel owes Rabbi Bakshi-Doron its renewed contribution over the past decades,” he said. “My condolences to his family and to the people of Israel mourning his passing.”

Born in 1941 in Jerusalem, Bakshi-Doron was chief rabbi first in Bat Yam and then Haifa, before rising in 1993 to become the Rishon Lezion, a title given to the chief Sephardic rabbi.

During his time as chief rabbi, he devoted efforts to interfaith dialogue, and together with Rabbi Lau met with pope John Paul II during the 2000 papal visit to Israel.

Pope John Paul II (C) meets Israeli chief rabbis Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau (L) and Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron (R). March 23, 2000 (Flash90)

However, his reputation was tarnished when he was indicted in 2012 over his involvement in a scam, known as “the rabbis’ case,” which included the issuing of false rabbinic credentials to over 1,000 police and security services employees. The extra honorific entitled them to wage bonuses of NIS 2,000-4,000 ($530-$1060) a month.

As a result the government paid out hundreds of millions of additional shekels to the civil servants.

In 2017, he was convicted of fraud and breach of trust and sentenced to probation, as well as a fine.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mourned his passing late Sunday, calling him “an important link in the Torah chain of scholars of Spain. His exceptional proficiency in Jewish sources merged with his noble dimensions. He was graced with a pleasant demeanor and greeted every person with warmth.”

Netanyahu hailed his role as a spiritual guide to communities in Israel and around the world. “His essence was intelligence, tolerance and love for the people and the country.”

Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron attends a party for kids who received their first Torah book in Jerusalem, on January 28, 2018. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)

President Reuven Rivlin said Monday morning that he was “deeply saddened” to hear the news, calling Bakshi-Doron a “giant Torah scholar with a deep sense of responsibility for the entire people of Israel.”

Rivlin said he fondly remembered discussions he had as a Knesset member with Bakshi-Doron while he was chief rabbi, and noted his “sincere care for every person and his efforts to help women who have been refused divorces.”

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas party hailed him as a “giant of a scholar, a guide to many of the people of Israel and his passing is great misfortune.”

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett eulogized the former chief rabbi in a statement, calling Bakshi-Doron “a man of kindness and giving, who strove to bring together the people of Israel.”

Bakshi-Doron’s wife Esther died in 2005. They had 10 children.

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