An estimated 800,000 mourners – approximately one-tenth of Israel’s population – attended the funeral in Jerusalem this past Monday evening for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, considered one of the greatest Torah sages of this generation and a leading authority on Jewish law.
Yosef served as Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel from 1973 to 1983 and subsequently as the spiritual guide of the ultra-Orthodox Shas political movement. His Shas party was, in a sense, a kingmaker; it could make or break coalition governments.
Yosef’s funeral was the largest in Israeli history and it shut down Israel’s capital. Roads were closed to traffic; the city opened a special hotline for questions regarding transportation and parking.
“A few hours ago I went to the hospital to say goodbye to my teacher, my rabbi, my friend Rabbi Ovadia Yosef,” President Shimon Peres said in an official statement after the announcement of the great spiritual leader’s passing early Monday afternoon. “It was a difficult time…. When I pressed his hand I felt I was touching history, and when I kissed his head it was as though I kissed the very greatness of Israel.”
He was a “giant and a mentor to tens of thousands,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated. “He worked tirelessly to glorify the Israeli heritage, while at the same time his rabbinic rulings took into account the changing times and the renewed Jewish presence in the State of Israel. He was filled with the love of the Torah and of the people. I held his cordial personality and his direct manner in great esteem. Every time I met with him I learned and was made wiser. The people of Israel lost one of the wisest people of this generation.”
Born in Baghdad, Yosef was especially appreciated by the Sephardi community, who credited him with raising their socio-economic status, bringing about a renaissance of Sephardi culture and renewing pride in their heritage.
Yosef was “the teacher of the entire Israeli people, of the whole diaspora, not just of one sector,” according to Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.
“Entire Jewish communities returned to Israel thanks to Rav Ovadia’s rulings,” said Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky.
According to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who said he was impressed with the rabbi’s knowledge and understanding of security issues, Yosef was “careful to listen to different opinions before formulating his position, and did that with great openness and patience,” showing “true concern for Israel and for the security and strength of Israeli society in all its forms.”
Quoting the Jewish legal dictum that the preservation of life supersedes Jewish law in most cases, such as Sabbath observance and dietary restrictions, Yosef initially supported the peace process with the Palestinians, claiming that it could save lives, which would be more important than holding onto some of the territory of the ancient Jewish homeland. He changed his approach, however, when the Oslo Accords resulted in terror and murder.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef passed away at the age of 93. He had been hospitalized for several weeks due to organ failure. He leaves 10 children and dozens of grandchildren. His late wife Margalit was deceased in 1994.
Author: Atara Beck, Senior Writer, United with Israel