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Israel mourns rabbi and politician, Ovadia Yosef

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have mourned Sephardic Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, also an influential and often controversial politician. A police spokesman said the Jerusalem funeral was Israel's largest ever.

The Israeli police estimated that 700,000 people turned out to mourn rabbi and politician Ovadia Yosef on Monday night. The spiritual leader of Israel's Sephardic Jews, and the founder of the Shas political party representing them, died in hospital on Monday after months of treatment and heart surgery.

"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.

The founder of the Shas (a Hebrew acronym for "Sephardic Torah Guardians") political party in the 1980s, Yosef went on to become a regular fixture as "kingmaker" in Israel's usually coalition-dependant political realm. After years as a junior coalition partner to various governments, Shas went into opposition after this year's elections. In the previous term, Yosef's party was an ally to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"The people of Israel lost one of the wisest of a generation," Netanyahu said in a statement on Monday. "Rabbi [Yosef] was a giant in Torah and Jewish law and a mentor to tens of thousands."

Presidential eulogy

As news spread early on Monday that Yosef's condition was worsening in the Hadassa hospital, Israeli President Shimon Peres cut short a meeting with his Czech counterpart Milos Zeman to rush to the 93-year-old's bedside.

"I held his hand which was still warm and kissed his forehead," Peres said. "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." The president later delivered a eulogy for Yosef, describing him as "my teacher, my rabbi, my friend."

A divisive figure, Yosef's critics sometimes dubbed him "Israel's Ayatollah" in light of his more outspoken sermons or edicts. Sephardic Jews make up around half of Israel's population, but the Ashkenazic Jews have largely enjoyed greater control over political and religious institutions.

Ashkenazic Jews are largely descended from inhabitants of France, Germany or Eastern Europe; the name stems from the Hebrew for Germany. Sephardic Jews are more commonly descended from people in Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East; the name is based on the Hebrew word for the Iberian Peninsula. In modern-day Israel, however, the terms apply more broadly and can refer to the liturgy and customs a given believer adheres to.

msh/ccp (AFP, AP, Reuters)