500,000 Throng Streets of Jerusalem at Funeral for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef

Mournful Send-Off for Sephardic Sage Is Biggest Ever

River of Grief: Half a million people filled the streets of Jerusalem for the funeral of Sephardic sage Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of the biggest gatherings in memory in the holy city.
getty images
River of Grief: Half a million people filled the streets of Jerusalem for the funeral of Sephardic sage Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of the biggest gatherings in memory in the holy city.

By Reuters

Published October 07, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

More than half a million mourners turned out on Monday for the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, an Iraqi-born sage who transformed an Israeli underclass of Sephardic Jews of Middle East heritage into a powerful political force.

Jerusalem’s police chief said the funeral for Yosef, who died earlier on Monday aged 93, was the biggest ever held in the holy city. Streets became a sea of black coats and hats as weeping ultra-Orthodox faithful in traditional garb honoured a cleric they deemed their supreme spiritual leader.

The rush to pay homage to Yosef was so swift that traffic choked the main highway to Jerusalem and mourners abandoned their vehicles to continue on to the small cemetery by foot.

Dubbed ‘Israel’s Ayatollah’ by critics who condemned many of his pronouncements as racist - he likened Palestinians to snakes and said God put gentiles on earth only to serve Jews - Yosef was revered by many Sephardic Jews.

Through the Shas (Hebrew acronym for Sephardic Torah Guardians) party he founded in the early 1980s, Yosef, regal in his gold embroidered robes and turban, also wielded unique political influence from his modest apartment in Jerusalem.

“The people of Israel lost one of the wisest of a generation,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “Rabbi (Yosef) was a giant in Torah and Jewish law and a mentor to tens of thousands.”

Jerusalem district police chief Yossi Paryente estimated the crowds of mourners at more than 500,000 along the funeral route, which stretched from a high-tech industrial park to a religious Jewish neighbourhood.

At its height, Shas - now in the opposition - held 17 of parliament’s 120 seats. For years, Yosef as its leader served as a political kingmaker whose party could make or break Israeli coalition governments.

His political messages were sometimes mixed: he viewed the occupied West Bank, captured in the 1967 Middle East war, as part of the Biblical Land of Israel, but in a challenge to mainstream rabbis, he said it was permissible to cede land to prevent bloodshed.

CRITICAL OF ARABS

Although Shas served in governments that pursued peace talks with the Palestinians, Yosef voiced strong anti-Arab sentiments in sermons to devotees in Israel and abroad.

“Abu Mazen and all these evil people should perish from this world,” Yosef said in a sermon in 2010, referring to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians.”

Yosef also drew fire from Israelis when he once suggested that six million Jews had died in the Nazi Holocaust because they were reincarnated souls of sinners.

Abbas, meeting Israeli legislators in the West Bank after news of Yosef’s death, asked them to convey his condolences to the rabbi’s family, said a Reuters reporter who was present. Abbas resumed peace negotiations with Israel two months ago.

Yosef’s heavily Arabic-accented Hebrew may have been difficult to understand, but Shas members followed his political policy pronouncements and the Biblical religious edicts as if they were divine commandments.

His major work, “Responsa, Yabia Omer”, is a 10-volume collection of his rulings on issues of Jewish law and customs.

Weaving a new social fabric in a Jewish state dominated by a so-called elite of Ashkenazim, or Jews of European descent, he oversaw the establishment of Shas-run religious schools and charities that drew a new generation into his rabbinical fold.

His soft-spoken cadre of young Sephardic Orthodox activists, nattily attired in black business suits and neckties, helped to reshape their community’s self-image as an Israeli second class.

Outside his home, weeping seminary students tore their white shirts with a razor blade in a traditional sign of mourning.

“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?,” lamented Shas legislator Arye Deri.

Israel’s ambulance service said its crews were busy treating people who fainted in synagogues and at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, a Jewish holy site, after learning of Yosef’s death.

Born in Baghdad, Yosef arrived in Jerusalem when he was four and was ordained as a rabbi at the age of 20. In 1947, a year before Israel’s founding, Yosef went to Cairo, where he headed its rabbinical court and became Egypt’s deputy chief rabbi.

In 1950, Yosef returned to Jerusalem, serving as a judge in religious courts that deal with family matters and divorce and served as Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi from 1973 to 1983, a post now held by his son Yitzhak, one of his 11 children.

Yosef had been in failing health in recent months. President Shimon Peres visited his bedside on Monday in Jerusalem’s Hadassah hospital, joining a steady stream of Shas politicians and top rabbis.

Four rabbis have been mentioned as possible successors, but with Shas outside Netanyahu’s government, their political influence is likely to be limited.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.