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Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather near an ambulance during the funeral ceremony of prominent spiritual leader Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman, who died on Tuesday at the age of 104, in Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, Israel December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Baz Ratner


BNEI BRAK, Israel (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews crammed into the streets of a Tel Aviv suburb on Tuesday to mourn a 104-year-old rabbi who had significantly influenced a succession of Israeli coalition governments.

Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman led a council of sages that controlled the small Degel Hatorah lawmakers' faction, part of the United Torah Judaism party, which has often held the balance of power in Israel.

In particular, Shteinman broke with tradition by giving tacit consent to the enlistment of religious soldiers in the first ultra-Orthodox unit set up by the Israeli military.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government includes ultra-Orthodox political parties, said the Jewish people had "lost a central beacon of spirit, heritage and morality".

Special buses and trains ferried mourners to Bnei Brak, a religious town on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Police estimated that several hundred thousand people gathered for the funeral procession, dressed in traditional black ultra-Orthodox garb.

Shteinman, born in what is now Belarus, had led his community of Lithuanian-rooted ultra-Orthodox Jews since 2012.

(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Kevin Liffey)

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