By MATTHEW WAGNER
Shas activists and supporters were gripped Thursday by the trauma of facing the mortality of their spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
On Wednesday night, on his way to a pre-High Holy Days rally in Acre, Yosef complained of chest pains and was rushed to Nahariya Hospital. He was later released with orders to rest for a few weeks. He did not lose consciousness.
Ovadia, who will be 86 in three weeks, has a history of heart problems and suffers from diabetes.
Although no one in Shas was willing to discuss it, Ovadia's latest heart incident sent a clear message that there will come a day when the Torah giant will no longer be among the living.
Yossi Elituv, editor of the haredi weekly Mishpaha, estimated that after Yosef's unifying force was gone, the various Sephardi kabbalists, yeshiva heads and spiritual populists and preachers would separate into smaller fiefdoms.
"It will be similar to what happened after the Ba'al Shem Tov [the 18th-century founder of Hassidism] passed away," said Elituv. "Dozens of different dynasties headed by their own rabbis will spring up.
"Rabbi Ovadia is what keeps everyone together. After he is gone I foresee various rabbis and spiritual leaders splitting between them what Rabbi Ovadia manages to encompass by himself."
Elituv estimated that Rabbi Shalom Cohen, head of Porat Yosef Yeshiva, would lead the Sephardi yeshiva world while Yosef's son, David, would become the halachic authority.
Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Yosef's prot g , would also have a central leadership role.
"It remains to be seen, however, who will have the guts to stand up to the Ashkenazi rabbinic establishment," said Anshel Pfeffer, a Jerusalem Post columnist who co-authored Maran, a biography of Yosef. Pfeffer predicted that Yosef's death would not destroy Shas, but expected a tough power struggle.
Yosef more than any other religious leader of the 20th century, except perhaps for Chabad Rebbe Menahem Mendel Schneerson, reached out to large swathes of secular Jews and incorporated them in a spiritual revival. His departure will leave a vacuum which will cast a shadow of doubt on Shas's political future.
One haredi journalist, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that Shas chairman Eli Yishai would fail to unite the diverse forces within Shas.
"If, God forbid, it happens only Aryeh [Deri] has the courage, the leadership qualities and the political skills to keep it all together," he said.
Yitzhak Sudri, a former Shas spokesman, said that Ovadia's sudden heart problem was traumatic.
"I still haven't completely recovered," said Sudri who refused to comment on "the day after."
"In the month of Elul Rabbi Ovadia has a tradition of traveling the country meeting the people. No other rabbi of his caliber meets so many simple folk.
"It's a message the rabbi sends to his students. He always says, 'All the Torah that you learn is not worth anything if you don't go out and teach it to others.'"
The rabbi's library has about 50,000 perused books, many of which include Yosef's handwritten glossing.
Yosef, who is said to have a photographic memory, is recognized as one the greatest living halachic authorities in the world.
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