Over 800,000 people crowded Jerusalem’s streets and alleys outside the Sanhedria cemetery Monday night to pay their last respects to Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, an outsized and outspoken leader of Sephardi Jewry who died earlier in the day at age 93.
“We’ve been left orphans,” Aryeh Deri, the political leader of the Shas political party steered by Yosef, wailed at a funeral ceremony. “We have no father. We have no leader.”
Yosef died in a Jerusalem hospital at 1:20 p.m. Monday, sparking outpourings of grief from across the rainbow of Israeli society, though his passing was most deeply felt in the large, and largely traditional, Sephardi community.
Yosef was remembered as a leader of the Shas party, a political kingmaker but also a genius of Torah who brought thousands closer to Jewish halachah through lenient rulings.
“His greatness wasn’t measured but rather it was felt as a spiritual wind in every corner, lighting up the darkness in unexpected places. When I met him I sensed he was a great man with an unbelievable memory and the wisdom to share his knowledge with others. His contribution was his love for Israel and he solved problems no-one else could solve using his wisdom and spirituality,” President Shimon Peres said in a eulogy after Yosef’s death.
The ceremony drew nearly 850,000 people, officials said, making it the largest funeral in Israel’s history. Much of the capital was brought to a standstill and 300 attendees required medical attention, including 17 who were evacuated to hospitals and one woman who gave birth.
The crowds packed the northwest Jerusalem route between the Porat Yosef geshiva in the Geula neighborhood to the cemetery in nearby Sanhedria. A normally short drive, the journey took three hours as the van carrying Yosef’s body struggled to traverse the swelling crowd.
“The world of yesterday will not exist tomorrow. There was no one like him, and there will not be in the future,” lamented Yosef’s son, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.
“Father, father,” another son, Rabbi David Yosef, cried out, “you raised us in the Torah, we were fortunate to be your sons. Every time we had a hard question, you brought us in to the world of halacha…Father, who will we ask now? Father, with whom will we speak?”
Yehonatan Yahav came to the funeral with his teacher and ninth grade classmates on a bus chartered by his national religious yeshiva high school, Sha’alavim, near Modi’in.
“Rav Ovadia Yosef wasn’t only Shas’s rabbi, he was everyone’s rabbi,” Yahav told The Times of Israel. He said he knew he wouldn’t be able to get close to the actual burial, “but it was important for me to come, and not only for me but for the whole yeshiva. A big part of the people of Israel was lost just now.”
Gavriel, a middle-aged bearded man from Ashdod, caught a ride to the funeral with a bus leaving from a neighboring yeshiva. He’d walked several miles from before the entrance to Jerusalem when the highway leading into the capital was shut to incoming traffic.
“I was walking for about an hour. All the buses are still back there. Even Rabbi Shimon Ba’adani of Shas’s Council of Sages is still stuck there,” he said.
Gavriel said he was very attached to Yosef, and remembered sending him questions on Jewish law when Yosef served as Israel’s chief rabbi, between 1973 and 1983.
“He was the leader of our generation. A minister of Torah. I was shocked and saddened when he died. We pray to God to bring messiah … to produce a new shepherd to replace the rabbi.”
Yosef was often called the outstanding rabbinical authority of the century for the community of Sephardi — or Mizrahi — Jews, those of Middle Eastern ancestry.
Born in Baghdad in 1920, Yosef was 4 years old when his family moved to Jerusalem. His exceptional abilities and rebellious nature emerged early.
His insistence that Sephardic tradition is as valid as the Ashkenazi — or European — version of Judaism spawned a religious and cultural awakening. Sephardic Jews make up roughly half of Israel’s Jewish population but the community was long impoverished and faced discrimination by Ashkenazi Jews who traditionally dominated government and religious institutions.
Yosef came to national prominence when he served as Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi from 1972 to 1983. While he was revered by his followers, his critics charged that he exacerbated tensions between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Israelis.
His ornate outfit, with a gold-trimmed black cape and upswept hat, combined with his ever-present dark glasses and habitually slurred speech, made him an easy target for caricaturists. He would greet visitors, whether they were simple followers or prime ministers, with a playful slap to the face.
Yosef parlayed his religious authority into political power, founding Shas in the early 1980s.
It gathered just four seats in the 120-seat parliament in its first election, in 1984. But at its peak, Shas won 17 seats in 1999, making it the third-largest party. Even after being hit by scandals, it remained a midsize party that delivered a string of prime ministers their parliamentary majority. Shas currently has 11 seats and sits in the opposition.
For three decades, Yosef held the final word over the party’s decisions, with its leaders seeking his guidance over matters large and small.
The author of dozens of books about Jewish law and practice, Yosef was a master of communicating with the masses. His weekly sermon packed his neighborhood synagogue. Overflow audiences listened outside on loudspeakers to his often earthy remarks. In recent years the sermons were broadcast by satellite on television.
Yosef’s influence reached beyond the party, and he was known for fierce statements that offended widely disparate segments of society, including Holocaust survivors, gays, Palestinians and secular Jews.
Earlier this year, Yosef took a swipe at the strict prohibitions often issued by hardline rabbis. “That’s not the way of the Torah,” he told Channel 10 TV. “The way of the Torah is to search and find ways to solutions, to make it easier for the people of Israel and not make it harder for them.”
Batia Siebzehner, an expert on Shas at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said Yosef’s crossover appeal would make it difficult to replace him. She said Shas supporters were divided between ultra-Orthodox followers and working-class Sephardic Jews attracted to his message of ethnic empowerment.
“Shas is a social movement, a political party and a new interpretation of religion,” she said. “Nobody has the capacity to act as a glue between the different groups.”