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Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Sephardi party Shas and a former Sephardi chief rabbi, was considered one of the greatest living Torah scholars and was revered even by many non-Orthodox Sephardi Jews. He frequently played the kingmaker in Israeli politics, while his scholarly work made him an Israel Prize laureate.
“Forty years ago… we were a few hundred Sephardi yeshiva students in all of Israel. Look at us now, our rabbi, hundreds of thousands,” Shas chairman Aryeh Deri said in his eulogy. “It’s all thanks to you, our rabbi, it’s all the work of your hands...
“We [now] have no leader. Who would we ask? Who will unite us all? ... We are confident that you now expect us to unite around the Council of Torah Sages,” Deri added, referring to Shas’ governing body.
Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who is Ovadia Yosef's son, urged Sephardi Jews to remain unified, saying that was what his father would have wanted. “Woe to he who moves to divides us,” he said.
He also said his father’s death was the passing of an era. “There was time of the Tannaim, the time of Amora'im and the time of Rabbi Ovadia,” he said. The Tannaim and Amora’im are the scholars whose debates are codified in the Mishnah and Talmud, respectively.
Former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau delivered a eulogy as well, as did another prominent Ashkenazi Haredi rabbi, Shmuel Auerbach. “Our crown has been taken from us,” Lau said, in a play on Shas’ slogan of “restoring the crown [of Torah] to its ancient glory.” Yosef, he continued, “was a combination of a giant heart full of love for the people of Israel that beat within him like a torch, and above all, love of the Torah.”
Auerbach recalled how his father had praised Yosef’s great Torah scholarship – a notable mark of esteem, since Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was considered one of the greatest Torah scholars of the previous generation.
In addition to Yosef’s own Sephardi community, the mourners included large contingents of both Ashkenazi Haredim and religious Zionists. The former represented a kind of posthumous victory for Yosef, who in life was often looked down on by the Ashkenazi Haredi establishment. The latter attended in a sign of respect for Yosef’s scholarship despite the bad blood that has recently prevailed between Shas and the religious Zionist party, Habayit Hayehudi.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has already pledged that Yosef will be commemorated in the city.
Yosef's funeral procession left the Porat Yosef Yeshiva at 6 P.M. and made its way to the capital’s Sanhedria Cemetery. Police and emergency services were prepared to provide security and medical services during the funeral, and some 300 people ended up needing medical attention, the Magen David Adom ambulance service said. Of these, 17 needed to be hospitalized.
The funeral resulted in massive traffic jams throughout large swathes of Jerusalem. Many of the capital's streets were closed to traffic, including the main entrance to the city from the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Highway. The light rail schedule was altered, and police asked motorists to avoid entering and leaving the city if possible. The Egged bus company added extra buses to Jerusalem from several other cities to accommodate the throngs seeking to attend the funeral.
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, which he has spent at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem. During most of his hospital stay, he was anaesthetized and on a respirator, and though he regained full consciousness on Thursday, his condition deteriorated again on Sunday.