And What if Rabbi Ovadia Doesn't Live Until 120?

The cardiac catheterization of Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef reminded his party of something it has been trying to avoid for years: The elderly rabbi is the only thing holding it together. Shas is Yosef, and Yosef is Shas. Only he managed to gather under one roof traditional ultra-Orthodox and newly-observant Jews, knitted-scullcap modern Orthodox and extremists like the followers of the Abu Hatzeira dynasty. And now he is 86 years old and suffering from heart problems.

Yosef is not just another great and charismatic leader. He is Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians. It's not just that there is no heir apparent of his stature; it's that there isn't anyone even a level below him. There is no Middle Eastern ultra-Orthodox rabbi who can even be cited as a possible heir. The secret of Yosef's greatness is his combination of an unusual mastery of halakha with a populist leadership style. As for the Council of Torah Sages, it was established primarily so Shas would not be a one-man show. Its members, rabbis Shalom Cohen, Shimon Ba'adani and Moshe Maya are more knowledgeable in Kabbalah lore.

Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Rabbi Yosef's emissary and right-hand man, has not managed to rise to Shas' leadership. In the end, for most of the Mizrahi public, Rabbi Yosef was and remains the chief rabbi. Amar is merely a substitute on earth.

Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox leaders tend to anoint their successors, for example, by sending others to consult with them. Amar does frequently submit halakhic rulings to Rabbi Yosef for his approval, but it would be difficult to consider this a vote in his favor. A source close to Yosef said he has never heard him discussing what would happen after his death.

So who's left? Aryeh Deri, of course. He may not be such a lofty spiritual figure, but when it comes to charisma and popularity among Mizrahi Jews, he undoubtedly rivals Yosef. Deri was released from jail on July 15, 2002. He will be permitted to run for public office seven years after his release - the summer of 2009. In recent weeks, rumors circulating around Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski claimed Deri was planning to run in the next mayoral elections in 2008. But that is impossible. His next target is the Knesset elections, provided they take place late enough. Therefore, it would not be surprising if in the next few years, Deri were to work behind the scenes to ensure the government's stability and prevent early elections.

However, the law is not the only thing blocking Deri's return to politics. There is also a mystical barrier. Deri believes all of his troubles stemmed from his disobedience of late Degel Hatorah leader Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Schach. Since getting out of jail, he has been careful not to rebel against Rabbi Yosef.

But the moment Deri is legally allowed to return to politics, the temptation will be greater. Shas' legal adviser, David Glass, likes to say of the urge to be in politics, "There are a thousand reasons not to drink whiskey, but the taste of whiskey outweighs them all." Deri likes the whiskey of politics perhaps more than anyone else. In any case, after the death of Rabbi Yosef, as far as Deri is concerned, anything will be possible. He will be a factor in any succession fight within Shas.

The most likely scenario in the post-Yosef era is ostensibly a civil war in Shas, full of allegations and defamations. On one side will be the deposed establishment, led by Deri and Yosef's son David. On the other side will be the new establishment, including Yosef's son Moshe and party chair Eli Yishai. All will try to attract the largest number of rabbis and ultra-Orthodox sects to their camp. It is certainly possible that the suicidal infighting between the two factions of the late Shinui party will pale in comparison to this battle. Will only two brothers be involved?

Dr. Nissim Leon of Bar-Ilan University's Department of Sociology and Anthropology is researching the Shas movement. He says a new rising star worthy of note is the rabbi of Holon, Avraham Yosef, the brother of David and Moshe. Leon says Rabbi Avraham Yosef is building up his reputation using a similar method to his father's, combining halakhic rulings with lectures and classes for large audiences. Among other things, he is a very popular halakhic arbiter on the ultra-Orthodox radio station, Radio Kol Hai.

Presumably there will also be camps outside the family. Followers of Rabbi Reuven Elbaz, who encourages people to become religious, believe he is responsible for a large part of Shas' electoral power and that he is the one who distributes pamphlets to newly observant party activists.

But in order to enter the race to succeed Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Elbaz will have to emerge unscathed from a corruption trial in which he is entangled along with his associate, MK Shlomo Benizri. Perhaps the rabbis of the Abu Hatzeira family also will want to form a party. Is there a way to avoid this war? There are some who think so: if all the important leaders (including Deri) unite, like the leaders of Kadima did after Sharon's collapse. The chances of this happening do not look particularly good.

Rabbi Ovadia's legacy

In Shas, not only are they refusing to criticize Rabbi Yosef for not designating an heir, they are even put off by discussing what will happen after the rabbi "lives to be 120." In the past, Shas spokesman Itzik Suderi adhered to this approach: "Rabbi Ovadia was the guest of honor at my bar mitzvah, he officiated at my wedding, he was the godfather at my oldest son's circumcision. Today my son is eight and I believe with perfect faith that the Rabbi will be the guest of honor at his bar mitzvah - that's even before I wish the Rabbi that he should live to 120."

Leon says that unrelated to Shas, after Rabbi Ovadia Yosef passes away, his legacy will evolve, and there will be a mass cultural stream of people and movements claiming to be his successors. As is the case with such movements, it is not clear Rabbi Yosef would even recognize the opinions and ideas attributed to him.

A new demographic forecast

At the press conference held by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) on Tuesday, they were still presenting the old demographic forecast for 2025. The government statistician, Prof. Shlomo Yitzhaki, even said he wanted to hear arguments against it only in 2026. This projection indicates that by 2025, the share of Jews in the population will drop from 76 percent to 70 percent, whereas Arabs will increase from 20 percent to 25 percent. But the truth is that the CBS also realizes a new forecast is needed, and quickly.

The CBS forecast is essentially based on three scenarios, but it is common to refer to the intermediate one. The intermediate forecast is based, among other things, on the assumption that the fertility rate of Muslims in Israel will drop in 2025 to 3.8 children per woman. In practice, due to the decline in the Muslim fertility rate, that figure was reached this year - 20 years ahead of the forecast.

On Tuesday, the head of the CBS' demography section, Ahmed Halihal, told Haaretz that the CBS has started working on an updated projection. In this forecast, apparently, there will be more Jews and fewer Arabs. The deliberation now is whether to change the underlying assumptions of the forecast and by how much. In any case, Halihal says drafting the new forecast will take at least six months. He is not sure the differences between it and the old projection will be that great.

The sense among women in Tel Aviv that there are not enough men, specifically men 35 and older, actually has a pretty solid basis. The new statistical yearbook published this week indicates that among Jews, for every 1,000 women there are only 967 men. At birth the ratio is actually reversed - for every 100 girls born, there are 106 boys. When does the ratio change? You guessed it, at age 35. From that point on, the gap continues to grow in men's favor - so by age 75 there are two men for every three women and finding a spouse becomes even more difficult.

The perception that it is easier for divorced men than divorced women to remarry is correct. In 2004, only 5.4 percent of Jewish men were registered as divorced, compared to 8.7 percent of women.

In general, the yearbook offers a lot of statistics about relationships between the sexes. For example, one out of every 200 couples will divorce within a year, one out of every 50 will divorce within two years, and one out of every nine will divorce within seven years. Three out of every four couples that married more than 25 years ago are still together, but the chances of couples marrying now reaching that landmark are lower.

There were almost 20,000 abortions in 2005, as in the preceding three years. Every eighth pregnancy ends in abortion. The reason for 55 percent of abortions (around 11,000) is extramarital pregnancy.

And those who do give birth will likely need a nanny or caretaker. During the economic prosperity at the beginning of the decade, 17 percent of Israeli households employed a nanny or caretaker. But in 2004, there was sharp decline to 14.5 percent, and there has been no recovery since then.

It is no secret that men live shorter lives than women. The average male life span is 78 years (and four months) and the average female life span is 82 years (and five months). Nevertheless, men have no reason to feel deprived: Israel has the third longest male life span among the industrialized countries (and the sixth longest female life span).

As is the case when it comes to budgets, Arabs receive less and have shorter life spans (and presumably there is a correlation between budget and life span). The average Arab life span is four years shorter than the average Jewish life span.