Israelis Mourn Death of Shas Spiritual Leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef

Shas supporters assemble and grieve outside the hospital as preparations for the funeral commence; Netanyahu: People of Israel lost one of the wisest people of this generation.

Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef died on Monday in Jerusalem, following months of deteriorating illness, aged 93.

Hundreds of mourners arrived at the Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Karem following his death, many of them weeping, to pray and console one another.

Yosef had been hospitalized several times over the last few months with a host of medical problems, including kidney failure, heart problems, blood pressure problems and infections. His condition deteriorated rapidly over the last two weeks.

The funeral procession will leave the Porat Yosef Yeshiva in Jerusalem at 6 P.M. and will make its way to the Sanhedria Cemetery. Thousands of mourners were already making their way to Jerusalem to attend the funeral. Magen David Adom emergency service was preparing to provide security and medical services during the funeral. Many of the city's streets will be closed to traffic and the police have asked motorists to avoid entering and leaving the city if possible.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mourned the passing of Yosef, who he called one of the greatest religious commentators of this generation.

"I heard the news of the passing of the Rishon Lezion, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of the greatest commentators on the Torah of our generation, with great sorrow," said Netanyahu. "Rabbi Ovadia was a halakhic and biblical giant and a mentor to tens of thousands. 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. I send my condolences to his family, his students and his many followers."

Later on Sunday, Netanyahu went to pay his final respects to Rabbi Ovadia at the Jerusalem funeral home. "This is a great loss to the people of Israel. I am thinking of the chain of the generations, of the Geonim of Babylonia and Spain. I mentioned Rabbi Joseph Karo – he is a link in the chain of the love of the Torah and the people of Israel. He went where others didn't have the courage to go, like Nahshon he led the camp. It's a great loss to the people of Israel and to its spirit which he represented," Netanyahu said there.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau said as he left Yosef's room: "We knew of his good heart, his love of the Torah and his friendliness. He cared for all the people of Israel. It is a great loss. I was honored to be with him at his final moments."

Shas leader Aryeh Deri addressed the crowd in tears: "Woe to that I made it to this day in which I must announce the death of our father. We are as orphans. Just a few minutes ago our father, our leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef died. All day I waited to tell you that we are taking him home healthy. God be praised, he giveth and he taketh away. The creator of the world solely remains."

"We thank the entire medical staff and the hospital. We appreciate and cherish all that they have done. I thank all the hundreds of thousands of people in Israel and around the world who prayed. I'm certain the prayers worked," Deri added.

His partner in the Shas leadership, Eli Yishai tried to speak to the crowd, but was overwhelmed by tears. He was only able to say "Blessed is the true judge of souls. Our crown has fallen, we are orphans."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that he had met with Ovadia's family in the past and sent them his condolences. He was attending a meeting with Israeli MKs when the news of the rabbi's death came in. In August 2010 Yosef said that Abbas should "perish from the world" and described Palestinians as "evil, bitter enemies of Israel." He later apologized.

"The rabbi was an unusually impressive and wise man, well versed and involved in current affairs in Israel and abroad," Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said of Yosef.

Ovadia was taken to the Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Kerem over two weeks ago, and was anaesthetized and put on a respirator. He regained full consciousness on Sunday, but his condition rapidly deteriorated over the course of the evening.

"The rabbi died after a stubborn battle with his serious condition, together with the entire medical staff and all the specialists and despite the continuous efforts, since the deterioration started during the night and despite the many attempts that were made, he died," a statement by the hospital read.

Yosef's four sons and supporters from Shas rushed to his side in the hours prior to his death, and sat vigil in the hospital as his health deteriorated.

Over the years, Yosef served in a wide variety of roles: he was a kingmaker in Israeli politics, president of the Shas party's Council of Torah Sages, Israel's former Sephardi chief rabbi, an Israel Prize laureate and more.

Olivier Fitoussi
Oren Nahshon