TEL AVIV — Some 800,000 people flocked to the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Israeli sage who founded the Sephardi Orthodox Shas political party and exercised a major influence on Jewish law.
The renowned rabbi died Monday at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem. He was 93.
The rabbi’s followers flooded Jerusalem from around the country in order to pay their final respects.
After a number of eulogies, the rabbi was buried in the Sanhedria cemetery, alongside his wife, Margalit, who died in 1994.
Yosef served as Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi from 1973 to 1983, and extended his influence over the ensuing decades as the spiritual leader of Shas, which politically galvanized hundreds of thousands of Sephardi Israelis, though Yosef himself never served in the Knesset. In 1999, at its height, Shas was the third-largest Knesset party, with 17 seats.
Though he adhered to a haredi Orthodox ideology, Yosef, a charismatic speaker, published relatively liberal Jewish legal rulings and drew support both from traditional and secular Sephardi Israelis. Known to his followers as Maran, “our master” in Hebrew, Yosef’s main Jewish legal goal was to take diverse Jewish practices from the Middle East and North Africa and mold a “united legal system” for Sephardi Jews.
As his influence grew, Yosef presided over a veritable empire of Sephardi religious services. Shas opened a network of schools that now has 40,000 students. Yosef managed a kosher certification called Beit Yosef that has
become the standard for many religious Sephardim. And he was a dominant power broker when it came to electing Sephardi chief rabbis and appointing Sephardi judges in religious courts. This year, Yosef’s son — and preferred candidate — was elected to become the new Israeli Sephardi chief rabbi.
Through his work, Yosef, who was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1920, hoped to raise the status of Israel’s historically disadvantaged Sephardi community, both culturally and socioeconomically. He dressed in traditional Sephardi religious garb, including a turban and an embroidered robe, even as most of his close followers adopted the Ashkenazi haredi dress of a black fedora and suit.
As a scholar, Yosef was known for his ability to recite long, complex Jewish tracts from memory. His best-known works, Yabia Omer, Yehave Da’at and Yalkut Yosef, cover an array of Jewish legal topics.
“He was a character that people capitulated in front of, a man of Jewish law that created a political entity with strong influence on Israeli politics and culture,” said Menachem Friedman, an expert on the haredi community at Bar-Ilan University. “It raised up Middle Eastern Jewish culture, gave legitimacy to Middle Eastern Jewish traditions.”
Outside the religious community, Yosef was best known for his sometimes controversial political stances. His authority within Shas was virtually absolute, and even in his ninth decade he remained closely involved in the party’s decisions.
While Yosef favored policies that served the religious community’s interests, he also supported peace treaties involving Israeli withdrawal from conquered territory. He argued that such deals were allowed under Jewish law because they saved Jewish lives.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Shas joined left-wing governing coalitions multiple times, allowing for the advancement of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — though Yosef opposed the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip because it was done unilaterally.
In his later years, Yosef also stirred controversy with a number of inflammatory statements, often made at a weekly Saturday-night sermon. In 2000, he said that Holocaust victims were reincarnated sinners, and in 2005 he said that the victims of Hurricane Katrina deserved the tragedy “because they have no God.” In 2010, Yosef said, “The sole purpose of non-Jews is to serve Jews.”
“Rabbi Ovadia was a giant in Torah and Jewish law and a teacher for tens of thousands,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Monday.
“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.”