Shas’s religious leaders wasted little time after the passing of the party’s founder and spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef on Monday before raising Ovadia’s death in one of the party’s political campaigns.

Shas’s three-member Council of Torah Sages, the party’s top decision-making body which Yosef chaired until his death, called on the party’s supporters to back Moshe Lion over incumbent Nir Barkat for mayor of Jerusalem in the municipal elections on October 22.

The call emphasized Lion’s ethnic origins. “We must act for the member of our ethnic group,” the Council wrote in a message drawn up Tuesday — a reference to Lion’s Sephardi roots. Lion “is a God-fearing man,” the Council added in its public message, titled “A holy calling.”

Lion’s main competitor in the race, frontrunner Barkat, is secular and comes from an Ashkenazi, or European Jewish, background.

Yosef’s funeral Monday night was the largest in Israel’s history, with police estimates of the number of participants reaching as high as 850,000 (though others put the figure at no more than 450,000). Shas’s decision to back Lion was made before Yosef’s death and enjoyed his support, though many observers expected the party to wait until the end of the traditional seven-day mourning period before using the rabbi’s name in further political campaigning.

Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion, at a press conference in Jerusalem. July 22, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Lion, at a press conference in Jerusalem. July 22, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

But some in Shas believe the days immediately following Yosef’s death carry heightened political potential in the wake of the crescendo of popular support for the nonagenarian rabbi expressed at Monday’s funeral.

The call to vote for Lion was Yosef’s “last directive,” the Council’s message, signed by its three members, rabbis Shalom Cohen, Moshe Maya and Shimon Ba’adani, emphasized prominently.

The message marks the first-ever public statement by the Council of Torah Sages that does not bear Yosef’s signature, and offers little reason to vote for Lion except his ethnicity and Yosef’s support.

Ovadia Yosef “has already placed his hands upon [Lion to bless him] and expressed support for him several times in our presence,” according to the message. “Since this was the wish of Maran [‘Master,’ an honorific for Yosef], there is no doubt we must act in every way we can to assist in the election of this candidate.”

The message may signal the beginning of an internal battle for the leadership of Shas. Shas chairman Aryeh Deri has backed Lion for weeks. But Lion is believed to be trailing Barkat in internal polling of the campaigns, and Haredi politicians who have sided with Lion have expressed reservations about his ability to win City Hall. If Deri’s candidate loses so close after the death of the party’s beloved founder and religious mentor, the blow could launch a significant campaign against Deri’s leadership by the recently ousted former party leader MK Eli Yishai.

Lion and Barkat both visited the Yosef family in their condolence tent on Tuesday. Yosef’s sons, including Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, reportedly told Lion of their father’s support for his candidacy during the visit. Lion had sought in vain to meet Yosef, and receive his public endorsement, in recent weeks.