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Over 700,000 mourn influential Israeli rabbi

Hundreds of thousands of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish mourners attend the funeralof of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Jerusalem on October 7, 2013
Hundreds of thousands of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish mourners attend the funeralof of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Jerusalem on October 7, 2013

More than 700,000 people took to Jerusalem's streets to mourn the spiritual leader of Israel's Sephardic Jews, in an unprecedented procession for an influential figure who died after surgery.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, 93, wielded enormous influence among Israeli Jews of Middle Eastern and North African ancestry but courted controversy with his outspoken views.

He had been in and out of hospital for months and undergone heart surgery, before dying in hospital on Monday.

The mourners, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews and with men separated from women, gathered outside Yosef's seminary, before heading to his burial in Jerusalem's conservative Sanhedria district.

"We estimate there are more (than) 700,000 people taking part in the largest of funerals ever in Israel," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld wrote on Twitter.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Israel's Sephardic Jewish community and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, gestures during a meeting in Jerusalem on December 11, 2011
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Israel's Sephardic Jewish community and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, gestures during a meeting in Jerusalem on December 11, 2011

Officially, there are currently slightly over six million Jews in Israel, meaning more than one in every 10 was at the funeral.

Police deployed in their thousands, blocking off some of the Holy City's roads. The emergency services said the overcrowding injured some 300 people.

"We've lost a father," Eliel Hawzi, a 26-year-old in the middle of his military service, told AFP. "Rabbi Yosef is irreplacable for the Jewish people."

"I've been crying since I heard the news," said Aviel Mor, a 24-year-old yeshiva religious seminary student, who like hundreds of others tore the lapel of his shirt in the Jewish tradition of mourning for immediate family members.

The rabbi's death came after he had heart surgery at Hadassa hospital, where he eventually passed away.

"Despite all our efforts... since his deterioration overnight and huge efforts to halt that, and after a great struggle, the rabbi died just a few moments ago," cardiologist Dan Gilon said in remarks aired on radio.

Relative of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Israel's Sephardic Jewish community and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party mourn in front of this house following his death in Jerusalem on October 7, 2013
Relative of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Israel's Sephardic Jewish community and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party mourn in front of this house following his death in Jerusalem on October 7, 2013

News of his deteriorating health prompted President Shimon Peres to cut short a working meeting with his Czech counterpart Milos Zeman and rush to the rabbi's bedside, his office said.

Peres later delivered a eulogy for "my teacher, my rabbi, my friend."

"I held his hand which was still warm and kissed his forehead. When I pressed his hand I felt I was touching history and when I kissed his head it was as though I kissed the very greatness of Israel," he said of his earlier meeting with the rabbi.

Yosef, a former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel whose son took over the same role in June, had frequently played the role of kingmaker in the country's fickle coalition politics.

He was spiritual leader also of ultra-Orthodox party Shas, which was a member of most ruling coalitions before going into opposition after January elections.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish youths wait for the body of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Jerusalem on October 7, 2013
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish youths wait for the body of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Jerusalem on October 7, 2013

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Jews had lost "one of the wisest men of this generation."

"He was filled with love of the Torah and the people. I very much appreciated his convivial personality and his directness," said the Israeli premier.

Yosef founded Shas in 1984 on the platform of a return to religion and as a counter to an establishment dominated by Ashkenazi Jews of European ancestry.

His death sparked an outpouring of emotion within the Sephardi community.

"You abandoned us in the most difficult time for the religious world, and we don't know where to turn, who will guide us, who will show us the way?" Shas leader Arye Deri asked at the funeral.

But the Baghdad-born rabbi frequently courted controversy with his outspoken remarks, describing Palestinians and other Arabs as "snakes" and "vipers" who were "swarming like ants."

He called on God to strike down then premier Ariel Sharon over Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, and during the 2006 war in Lebanon, he implied Israeli soldiers killed in battle died because they didn't follow Jewish commandments.

Despite his outbursts, Yosef had for many years advocated peace talks with the Palestinians based on his respect for the sanctity of life, said the Jerusalem Post's Jeremy Sharon.

"Yosef was of the opinion that if a peace process could be conducted with Palestinians and save lives, then territorial compromises could be considered," he said.

But following the failure of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, Yosef shifted politically to the right.

Nonetheless, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was quick to pass on his "condolences to Ovadia Yosef's family" on Monday.

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