No-one really knows how many people attended the funeral of the Rav Ovadia Yosef last night. If it was 700,000, that's more than 10% of the Jewish population of the country. If it was 850,000, as published by some newspapers today, that's almost 11% of the entire population of Israel. No matter what the number, most of the participants were men, so that a similar number of women were left at home with the same mourning sentiments. The entire media agrees this morning that it was the largest funeral in Israel's history.
I think it was probably the largest in the entire long history of Judaism. Think about it for a moment. The Talmud tells about millions of people who used to come to Jerusalem for the pilgrimages, but those aren't eye-witness reports, rather wistful recounts from a few generations after the destruction of the Temple. Even to the extent they're true, there's no legend of a mass funeral of anyone. From then until the late 19th century, there were no Jewish communities large enough to create such a crowd of mourners. Even in pre-Holocaust Europe, or New York at any point, there were never anything near six-plus millions Jews in a region the size of Israel. And anyway, that's the recent past, so we simply know: there were no comparable events, not of that size, any time in the 20th century, not even at the funerals of the Lubavitcher Rebbe or Menachem Begin.
So what we saw yesterday was the largest Jewish funeral ever. It was a combination of the death of a Jew of historical stature; his followers' confidence of ownership of the public space such that shutting down half a city was not given a second thought; and the simple fact of having enough of them to generate the numbers. All of which came together in the most important city in the Jewish world. Jerusalem.
Postscript: I may be attuned to this insight as I'm in the middle of reading that PEW report on American Jewry, which I may post about once I'm finished. The contrasts are stark, of course, not to say harsh. One of them is that the Rav Ovadia, whom Israeli Jews just gave the biggest sendoff in 3,000 years, was largely irrelevant to American Jewry. To the limited extent he was relevant, it was when they totally misunderstood what he was all about. I once wrote about this, a few years ago; if you wish, you can re-read that post as my obituary of him.