An estimated half-million people made their way to Jerusalem on Monday to pay their final respects to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who died earlier in the day at the age of 93. The staggering figure, provided by Israeli police, would mean one out of every 15 of Israel’s 8 million Israeli citizens attended the funeral.
The powerful and influential Yosef was the spiritual leader of the nation’s Sephardi community — Jews whose ancestors came from the Arab world — and guided the moves of the religious Shas Party which represents the Sephardi, religious, working class population.
Yosef’s devotees were shown on television ripping their shirts and praying after they heard the news in keeping with the Jewish tradition of mourning and saying they felt like “orphans” now that he’s gone. Politicians representing the Shas Party broke down in tears as they eulogized him to colleagues.
Yosef had been in and out of the hospital in recent weeks as his health deteriorated.
When his death was announced by hospital officials, “anguished cries could be heard from a large crowd of supporters that had gathered,” the Associated Press reports.
“The light of the sun has been extinguished,” Shas leader Aryeh Deri cried. “How will we remain alone? Who will lead us?”
All the roads around the funeral procession were closed. Police set up a special hotline for those interested in attending and asked citizens to use public transportation. As the overwhelming numbers of attendees became apparent, the police chief implored people to stay home.
The Times of Israel described the scene as “one of the largest funeral processions ever seen in Israel.”
The funeral was supposed to get underway at 11am eastern but even after 1pm, the flood of mourners made moving Yosef’s body almost impossible.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “I heard with profound grief of the passing of [former] Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, among the greatest rabbis of our generation.”
“Rabbi Ovadia was a giant in Torah and Jewish law and a teacher for tens of thousands. He worked greatly to enhance Jewish heritage and at the same time, his rulings took into consideration the times and the realities of renewed life in the State of Israel. He was imbued with love of the Torah and the people. I very much appreciated his convivial personality and his directness. In my meetings with him, I always learned very much,” Netanyahu said.
“The Jewish People have lost one of the wisest men of this generation,” the prime minister said.
The AP writes this of the Rabbi’s unique biography:
Yosef was often called the outstanding Sephardic rabbinical authority of the century. His prominence helped boost the confidence of his community, which makes up roughly half of Israel’s population but was long impoverished and faced discrimination by Ashkenazi — or European — Jews who traditionally dominated Israel’s government and religious institution.
His weekly sermons were widely attended and watched on video, during which he at times made controversial statements targeting various communities including gays, Palestinians and secular Jews.
While in the past, he had ruled that Israel could hand over parts of the West Bank in exchange for a peace agreement with the Palestinians, more recently he spoke about the religious connection with the West Bank and the historical Jewish connection to the territories.
Here is a video posted to Yosef’s YouTube channel showing the throngs of mourners gathering earlier in the evening: