Some 700,000 attend funeral of revered Israeli rabbi

Mon Oct 7, 2013 4:36pm EDT
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By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Some 700,000 mourners turned out on Monday for the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, an Iraqi-born sage who transformed an Israeli underclass of Sephardic Jews of Middle East heritage into a powerful political force.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that the funeral for Yosef, who died on Monday aged 93, was the biggest ever held in the holy city.

Streets were engulfed by a sea of black coats and hats as weeping ultra-Orthodox faithful honored a cleric they deemed their supreme spiritual leader. The van carrying his body was held up for hours as masses blocked the route to the cemetery.

Dubbed 'Israel's Ayatollah' by critics who condemned many of his pronouncements as racist - he likened Palestinians to snakes and said God put gentiles on earth only to serve Jews - Yosef was revered by many Sephardic Jews.

Through the Shas (Hebrew acronym for Sephardic Torah Guardians) party he founded in the early 1980s, Yosef, regal in his gold embroidered robes and turban, also wielded unique political influence from his modest apartment in Jerusalem.

"The people of Israel lost one of the wisest of a generation," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. "Rabbi (Yosef) was a giant in Torah and Jewish law and a mentor to tens of thousands."

More than 4,000 police officers were deployed to ensure the security of the "more than 700,000 people taking part in the largest of funeral ever in Israel," Rosenfeld said.

At its height, Shas - now in opposition - held 17 of parliament's 120 seats. For years, Yosef as its leader served as a political kingmaker who could make or break coalition governments.   Continued...

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men mourn during the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the ultra-religious Shas political party, in Jerusalem October 7, 2013. REUTERS/Baz Ratner