President Shimon Peres made his traditional Passover visit to the house of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef on Sunday morning, but in an unusual move he visited former Sephardi chief rabbi Shlomo Amar as well.
In previous years, Peres used to visit the late Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, as well as Amar, the incumbent chief rabbi.
Tensions in Shas are running high at present, following the announcement that Rabbi Shalom Cohen is taking over as the spiritual leader of the movement, in a move widely believed to have been engineered by party chairman Arye Deri.
There are several discontented figures in the Sephardi haredi leadership at present, foremost among them Amar, who fell out dramatically with Deri and Ovadia Yosef before he died.
Their discontent has been heightened by the crowning of Cohen as the new “Maran,” a title meaning “Our master,” previously held by Yosef.
Cohen, who was long considered the most senior figure on the Shas Council of Torah Sages after Yosef, was feted as the new Shas leader on Thursday night at a traditional festive reception for the party’s rabbis, which took place in Bnei Brak.
There, Rabbi David Yosef, the son of Rabbi Ovadia, announced that he and the two other members of the Shas Council of Torah Sages had decided that Cohen should also take the title of president of the four-man council.
Cohen is considered a close ally of Deri’s and helped the politician return to Shas after his years in the political wilderness, following his conviction and prison term for accepting bribes.
In a separate event on Thursday, several significant Shas political and rabbinical figures gathered for a reception for Amar, including the highly respected and influential dean of the Kiseh Rahamim Yeshiva, Rabbi Meir Mazuz, and Deri’s main political opponent in Shas, former party chairman Eli Yishai. The former chairman was present at both Amar’s reception and at Cohen’s.
Yishai’s Shas allies MKs Avraham Michaeli, Ya’acov Margi and Nissim Ze’ev were present at the reception for Amar.
Speaking at the event, Mazuz was critical of the bitter invective that has emanated from leading Shas figures towards the national-religious community and called for greater unity with this sector.
Cohen has been perhaps the most outspoken of Shas leaders against Bayit Yehudi and the national-religious community. He insulted Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan during the ceremony installing Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef as chief rabbi and labeled the religious-Zionist sector “Amalek,” the ancient enemy of the Israelites.
At Shas’s event for Cohen, Rabbi David Yosef, himself a newly installed member of the Shas Council of Torah Sages, once again attacked Bayit Yehudi, calling the party’s MKs, along with those of Yesh Atid, “ignoramuses.”
Later on Thursday night, Amar held a private meeting with Yishai and several of his loyalists in Bnei Brak, the ultra-Orthodox B’Hadrei Haredim website reported.
Concerns are growing within the mainstream Shas leadership that Amar, who is a respected authority on Jewish law, is building his own court of followers and could become a political challenge to Shas’s political dominance of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox sector.
During Peres’s meeting with Yosef on Sunday, the president said that tremendous effort was needed to preserve the unity of the Jewish people.
“We must preserve our unity and prevent disintegration,” said Peres. “It is the greatness of our values, ethical and spiritual, that have preserved us.”
Yosef received Peres warmly, saying it was an honor to host him over Passover.
“Your name will be engraved for the generations in the chronicles of the Jewish people as someone who dedicated their life for the people and for the state,” he said.
“Specifically at this time, when there are sometimes people creating divisions in the Jewish people, the president has the ability to unite all parts of the Jewish people,” Yosef added.