Ariel Sharon was dead for less than four hours on Saturday when Shabbat ended and the religious social network began buzzing with omens. One of the most popular celestial theories making the rounds was the Hebrew date on which the former prime minister had returned his soul to his maker - the tenth of Shvat 5774. Scrabbling to find its meaning, they quickly came up with one - it was exactly ten years to the day that Sharon had first disclosed his plan to "disengage" from Gaza, over a lavish breakfast in the prime minister's residence with Haaretz's Yoel Marcus.
This was just the most recent in a long ritual of tzidduk ha-din, justifying the verdict, explaining how Sharon's bizarre medical condition was a direct result of his grievous sin - expelling 8,000 Jews from Gaza and northern Samaria and destroying their homes.
This hasn't been just an exercise in reverse soothsaying. Previous to Sharon's stroke on January 4, 2006, he was the target of various kabbalistic curses and holy warnings. Perhaps the most poignant of which came in Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's regular Saturday night sermon at the Yazdim Synagogue in Jerusalem, on the eve of the disengagement.
Shas' spiritual leader had been under pressure for weeks to join the coalition and give some much-needed religious support to the controversial move, including personal entreaties from Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and his old friend Shimon Peres. But he was not having any of it. He ripped into Sharon, saying in his televised address: "He (God) will give him one banna (slang for 'hit on the head'), he (Sharon) will die, sleep and not arise. He is cruel to the people of Israel, what did those poor people (settlers) do? There are yeshivas there (in the Gush Katif settlements) and Torah study."
At the time, recalls former Shas spokesman Itzik Sudri, the party was mainly concerned that the rabbi's words would not be interpreted as actual incitement to harm the prime minister. Only seventeen months later, when Sharon slipped into his long coma, did some people begin to wonder whether Rabbi Yosef had played a part in it.
Sudri insists the late rabbi had no such intention.
"It was part of his colloquial folksy style of speaking," he says. "It reflected his growing frustration at Sharon who he felt had become prime minister thanks to Shas, and then left us out of the coalition, cut the yeshivas' budget and on top off all of that the disengagement. But he never actually meant any harm to Sharon. After the stroke he blessed him with a long life. Of course there are those who believe that the Rabbi's curse was fulfilled but I won't do God's accounting for him."
Religious Jews who believe that nothing in this world happens without a reason from above are divided. There are those who, like Itzik Sudri, will not directly connect between God's actions, at least not in public. And there are those who feel free to pin every earthquake, genocide and road accident - including the Holocaust - on a specific earthly sin (Rabbi Yosef frequently did this in his sermons).
This thinking was certainly evident in what MK Orit Strock (Habayit Hayehudi) wrote on her Facebook page praising God that "Sharon was taken from public life before succeeding in wreaking the same disaster on residents of Judea and Samaria as he did on settlers in Gush Katif and the Gaza border communities."
Strock's praise for the lord, in no way unrepresentative of the thoughts of many in the religious-settler camp, caused a backlash and a rare public condemnation from her own party leader, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. She was forced to publish a partial retraction saying that she had not prayed for Sharon's death and that she did "not manage God's checkbook," though this was obviously what she had been doing in her original post.
And of course there are those not content with just taking notes, who seek to intervene in the divine decision-making process. In July 2005, a group of far-right activists carried out a pulsa de'nura (Aramaic for "bolt of fire") rite in a cemetery on Sharon. Masquerading as a kabbalist ceremony, the pulsa de'nura is actually a modern mishmash of ancient texts originally conceived in the early 20th Century by Haredi politicians in Jerusalem to threaten rivals accused of heresy.
The "ceremony" which resembles voodoo practice more than any Jewish ritual, involves ten men calling upon the "angels of destruction" to kill a man who has desecrated sacred Jewish values. Over the years it was used (or claimed to have been used after various figures met untimely deaths) against politicians and journalists who angered the ultra-Orthodox, and architects and archaeologists who were accused of having disturbed ancient graves. In the 1990s, it became the preserve of the most extreme fringe of the settler camp when the kabbalist texts were uttered against Yitzhak Rabin, for the sin of signing the Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Some believers were quick to connect this with Rabin's assassination a month later, while others accused those who participated in the curse of contributing to the incitement that drove Yigal Amir.
Whatever the effect, as Florida International University's Professor Zion Zohar - who researched the pulsa de'nura - wrote, it is a totally made-up rite which is directed today more at the media than the heavens. Its efficacy is unclear – a pulsa was carried out in July 2005 against Sharon but he continued functioning for six months – leading the disengagement from Gaza. A year later, his successor, Ehud Olmert was the subject of another one and he is still alive and running 10 kilometers each morning. There are rumors that pulsas were held also for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah who continues to survive in his Beirut bunker. And you can bet that the bearded men will gather again among the gravestones to curse Benjamin Netanyahu if he dares sign a peace agreement with the Palestinians. But that should be the least of his worries.
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