Spiritual leader of Israel ultra-Orthodox party dies aged 94

The spiritual leader of the largest ultra-Orthodox Jewish party within Israel's ruling coalition, Rabbi Shimon Baadani, died Wednesday at the age of 94, his Shas party announced.

Ultra-Orthodox parties were key to right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's securing a 61-seat majority in parliament last month, with Shas handing the coalition its 11 seats.

Shas chairman and Israel's interior minister, Aryeh Deri, said "darkness has descended on our world" following Baadani's death.

"Woe is the ship that has lost its captain," Deri wrote on Twitter.

Baadani's death, however, is not expected to have practical implications for the ruling coalition.

A statement from Shas said it was "shocked, pained and devastated over the ascent in a whirlwind to heaven" of Baadani.

For his funeral, thousands of ultra-Orthodox men, clad in black, filled a street in Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox city where Baadani lived near Tel Aviv. Others peered down from rooftops at the procession escorted by security forces.

Since August, the rabbi had headed the Council of Torah Sages, the highest body in Shas.

In a statement, Netanyahu described Baadani as a "great scholar and spiritual leader".

President Isaac Herzog tweeted Baadani's death was a "huge loss to the world of Torah".

Baadani played an influential role in the life of Israel's Sephardic Jews.

Born in 1928 in what was British-ruled Palestine, he was one of the first rabbis named to the Shas council at the party's formation in 1984.

In 2014, his 17-year-old grandson was killed in a car-ramming attack in Jerusalem.

He is the second influential religious figure to die in the past month.

Rabbi Haim Druckman, spiritual leader of the religious Zionist movement in Israel, died on December 25 aged 90 after contracting Covid-19, a hospital said at the time.

Druckman was a mentor to Israeli politician Bezalel Smotrich from the extreme-right Religious Zionism political bloc. Smotrich is finance minister in Netanyahu's government and also oversees civilian affairs in the occupied West Bank.