Bnei Brak, Israel --- With only a few hours' notice, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews scrambled into this tiny suburb Friday to bury a 107-year-old religious leader and maker of two prime ministers.
A sea of men in black coats and wide-brimmed hats escorted the body of Rabbi Eliezer Shach, once one of the pre-eminent voices in a cultural war still being fought as to whether Israel will be a religious or secular state.
Shach once criticized the Westernized residents of Israeli communal farms, the kibbutzim, for not teaching their children to observe the Sabbath and for being "breeders of rabbits and pigs" --- whose meat is forbidden under Jewish dietary law. Shach condemned Tel Aviv's nightclub district as "a place where people walk around and behave like animals."
Shach was acknowledged by many as the leader of the world's Talmudic scholars. "We're an orphan generation," said Rabbi Eliyahu Klugman, 46, one of the mourners.
The funeral procession also was a testament to the growing influence of religious conservatism in Israel, a movement that Shach nurtured.
The rabbi was present at the creation of two political parties. Although small in numbers, they often held the balance of power in Israel's coalition politics. It was Shach's support that brought the right-wing Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir to power in 1990 and helped secure the narrow electoral victory of Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996.
With women standing at the roadside, black-cloaked men choked the mile-long route between the rabbinical seminary where Shach taught and the cemetery in this Tel Aviv suburb. Spectators climbed lampposts and rooftops. His younger students clung to the sides of the ambulance that bore his body.
Orthodox Jews make up 8 percent to 10 percent of Israel's population. But among those 18 and younger, the percentage doubles, said Jonathan Rosenbloom, a newspaper columnist and spokesman for a branch of Orthodox Judaism.
The timing of Shach's death created a huge logistical challenge for his followers, who strictly observe the Sabbath. The rabbi died at 2 a.m. Friday. Mourners had to be back in their homes at 4:30 p.m. for the beginning of the Sabbath at sunset.
Police barred all traffic from the town while Shach's followers arrived busload after busload. Only one eulogy was delivered, by the rabbi's son-in-law.
Shach was born in Lithuania in 1894, although some authorities put his birth at 1898, and left the country shortly before World War II. He came to influence in Israeli politics well after his 70th birthday. He had been inactive the last six or seven years.