Rabbi Shalom Cohen, spiritual leader of the Shas party, dies at 91

Ultra-Orthodox party chairman Aryeh Deri mourns loss of faction’s council head, calling Cohen ‘our father, our teacher and our leader’

Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Shalom Cohen attends a campaign event at a synagogue in Jerusalem on September 14, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)
Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Shalom Cohen attends a campaign event at a synagogue in Jerusalem on September 14, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Rabbi Shalom Cohen, the influential spiritual leader of the Shas political party, died in Jerusalem on Monday at the age of 91.

Cohen served as the head of the Council of Torah Sages for Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party that represents Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews.

Cohen was also the head of Jerusalem’s Porat Yosef Yeshiva religious school. He leaves behind five sons and three daughters.

Shas party chairman Aryeh Deri announced Cohen’s death in a statement, calling the rabbi “our father, our teacher and our leader.”

Deri likened Cohen’s death to “a ship losing its captain.” Ultra-Orthodox parties have councils of rabbis who guide the factions’ big-picture policy decisions.

Deri did not announce a cause of death. Cohen was in and out of the hospital over the past year, and had been hospitalized in recent weeks for a leg infection. His condition deteriorated in recent days, drawing prayers from ultra-Orthodox leaders, and from Prime Minister Yair Lapid, a political opponent.

“In the name of the Israeli government and all Israel, I send condolences to [Cohen’s family], students and all those who honor his memory. Our strength is in the unity of the nation of Israel,” Lapid said Monday morning.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads a bloc of right-wing religious parties that Shas is part of, eulogized Cohen as “one of the Torah giants of our generation.”

“He had tremendous expertise in the world of Torah, alongside spiritual and social leadership that impacted masses of Jews and Israelis,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “The nation of Israel has lost an arbiter of halacha [Jewish religious law], a guide for many and a prayer leader of the first rank.”

Other politicians from parties across the political spectrum also issued statements eulogizing Cohen.

“We met many times and I am sorry that this year I will not be able to maintain the tradition of visiting him in his sukkah,” President Isaac Herzog said, referring to a temporary dwelling built by Jews for the Sukkot holiday.

“In every meeting with him I saw his love and deep connection to Jerusalem and how he always put the people and individual before him,” Herzog added.

His funeral procession will set out from Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood at 2 p.m. on Monday. Police were preparing for a massive event with tens of thousands of participants.

Cohen will be buried in Jerusalem’s Sanhedria cemetery next to his wife and near the resting place of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former Shas spiritual leader who died in 2013.

Cohen replaced Yosef as the head of Shas’s Council of Torah Sages in April 2014, around six months after Yosef’s death.

Cohen was vocal about politics, often criticizing political leaders opposed to his party’s agenda, and was a staunch opponent of military conscription for ultra-Orthodox men.

Cohen and his Shas party, along with other Haredi lawmakers, vilified the Bennett-Lapid government, and its former religious affairs minister Matan Kahana, who tried to make significant reforms to religious rules.

Cohen hailed the coalition’s downfall earlier this year, saying, “A government that harmed and tried to destroy Judaism and the sanctity of Israel and harmed the weak has been driven from the world.”

Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Shalom Cohen speaks during a campaign event of the Shas party in Holon on September 11, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Cohen was born in Jerusalem in 1931 to a rabbi father who led a yeshiva in the holy city.

As a youth, Cohen student at Porat Yosef Yeshiva, and later became a teacher there before becoming its leader.

He was an early public supporter of the Shas party when it debuted in Jerusalem’s municipal politics in the early 1980s. Cohen joined the party’s Council of Sages in 1984.

Cohen is expected to be replaced on the council by Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Ovadia Yosef’s son, Channel 12 reported. Yosef, Israel’s controversial Sephardi chief rabbi, will finish his 10-year term in that role next year, opening the way for his move to Shas.

Long considered a kingmaker in Israeli politics, Shas won 10 Knesset seats or more from 1996 until the 2015 elections, before losing some support after Yosef’s death, and was usually a part of the governing coalition. The party has long been an ally of Netanyahu and his Likud faction and followed him into the opposition last year.

In the last election, Shas won nine seats, making it the second largest party in the opposition after Likud. Shas is projected to win around eight seats in the November election.

Cohen sought to keep Shas apart from other ultra-Orthodox parties, nixing a potential merger with United Torah Judaism in 2019.

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