JERUSALEM -- Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of Israel's most influential religious and political leaders, died Monday at age 93.
In recent weeks, the aging rabbi had hospitalized for a series of medical conditions including back surgery, respiratory problems and dialysis. He was also fitted with a pacemaker.
Thousands have been praying for Yosef's recovery at the Western Wall, in schools and in the hospital corridors, while family, rabbis and dignitaries visited his bedside.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Yosef one "of the greatest religious rulers of our generation."
Earlier, President Shimon Peres cut short a diplomatic meeting to visit the aging rabbi, a lifelong friend and one of Peres' few contemporaries in public life.
Condolences poured in from politicians spanning Israel's political spectrum. They expressed sorrow for the loss of a unique personality whose leadership touched many, despite political or religious differences.
Following the announcement of Yosef's death by Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem, Aryeh Deri, a lawmaker and the rabbi's longtime protege, sobbed in grief. "Our father has died ... we feel orphaned," Deri said, his voice scratchy as he cried.
He said religious Jews must accept Yosef's loss, "but how will we go on alone? Who shall lead us now?"
Yosef, whose religious rulings were respected and followed by many of Israel's Sephardic Jews, was also the leader of the Shas political party, which has been a key player in national politics in recent decades.
Born in Baghdad in 1920, Yosef moved with his family to Jerusalem at the age of 4. Despite having to work to help support his family, his passion for Torah scholarship quickly stood out. He taught his first religious class as a teenager and was ordained as a rabbi at age 20.
Yosef, who was known for an encyclopedic memory, was considered a prodigy and individual thinker who grew into a world-renowned scholar and revered religious leader.
He was Israel's chief Sephardic rabbi from 1973 to 1983, and early in his tenure, he showed a tendency toward bold, nonconformist rulings. While sticking to the written word of the Torah, he often favored lenience over rigid conventions.
Yosef was also known for his sharp tongue. His weekly lessons attracted many to his synagogue, and his flowery yet barbed language drew crowds and made headlines, as he often lashed out at secular politicians and world leaders.
His religious career merged into national politics in the 1980s with the formation of Shas, a movement that sought to revive pride in Sephardic traditions and reengage the country's secular Jews.
Shas became a kingmaker in Israel's coalition system of government, and Yosef was instrumental in key developments in Israeli politics. His ruling that it was religiously permissible under certain circumstances to give up Jewish lands provided political cover for the Oslo peace accords in the 1990s.
Yosef, a widower, is survived by 10 of his 11 children and several dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
His funeral is set for Monday evening in Jerusalem.