A Gibbor Koach for the First Time

Moshav Revaya is located in the Beit Shean Valley. A gas station and a branch of Café Café, under mehadrin supervision, mark the end of the highway. We are told to turn left at the end of the road, where we will find the moshav after passing a grocery store. Less than 400 people live on the 2,000 dunams it occupies. Yaakov Deri is one of the few residents who work in agriculture. His father, who is a farmer as well, also lives on this moshav. The father observes Shabbos but not Shmittah.

But Yaakov, the son, observes Shmittah.

We are standing in the middle of Yaakov’s property. His farm is flourishing. At first, he did not even consider taking the Shmittah year off. The concept was utterly foreign to him. Now, as we stand on the limestone path between the sheep pen and the tomato hothouses, he recalls the events that led him to his fateful decision. “At first, Roni David came and tried to convince me. We are good friends, but I told him not to waste his time trying to talk me into it. But then Rav Dovid Abuchatzeirah came to me four months ago and said, ‘Observe Shmittah and you will be successful.’ I was still reluctant. How would I live? How would I buy food? At the last minute, Ira came to me.”

Ira Zimmerman, who is a charming individual, is an activist on behalf of Keren Hasheviis in northern Israel. Keren Hashviis is the organization that works every Shmittah year, on the initiative of the gedolim, to provide as much assistance as possible to the farmers who are prepared to forgo massive amounts of income in order to observe this difficult mitzvah. The fund does not offer them large sums of money; its stipends are not sufficient for the farmers to make it through the year comfortably, but they do manage somehow. Ira Zimmerman and Roni David – Yaakov’s good friend, who is a few years older than him – are both present for our conversation. Yaakov’s wife is also here. It is not every day that they receive visitors from Yerushalayim.

Roni David takes up the narrative. “It wasn’t easy to convince him. Telling a farmer to let his farm lie fallow for an entire year is a very difficult thing to do.” In fact, Roni did not succeed.

Roni is 60 years old and hails from Kurdistan. He is a pleasant, captivating person and a good friend of Yaakov Deri, who is 45 years old and was born in Revaya to Moroccan-born parents. Roni is passionately dedicated to the cause of Shmittah, and it was he who first introduced Yaakov to the idea. Rav Dovid Abuchatzeirah followed up on what Roni had begun, striking while the iron was hot, so to speak, and Ira Zimmerman finished the job. It was Ira who ultimately prevailed on Yaakov to stop working during Shmittah. But the connection between Ira, as a representative of Keren Hashviis, and Yaakov, as the farmer who would refrain from working the land for the year, was made by Rav Abuchatzeirah.

Yaakov, why is it so difficult to observe Shmittah?

“When you have an annual cash flow of 3 million shekels, and that flow suddenly stops, what do the banks do? What happens to your mortgage and your grocery bills? Do you have any idea of what it means to me that my hothouses are closed for the year? I am a man of work. I get up every morning at four o’clock and go to work. And now, suddenly, I am doing nothing! Every year, I raise 750 dunams of wheat and clover. My biggest profits come from the tomatoes, and I also export 250 tons of spices every year. And now, everything will stand still for an entire year. Do you understand the significance of that?”

I try to understand it. We take a tour of the fields. There is a pen holding dozens of sheep. We stare into their eyes and try to guess aloud what they are thinking – if anything at all. Yaakov isn’t amused. He tells me that he ordered 65,000 shekels worth of tomato plants before he decided to observe Shmittah. “They are very sensitive plants. Each one costs three shekels.” The plants were discarded, but he paid his supplier. An export company called to remind him that the season for exports to Europe is at hand, and he shocked them by responding that he would be neither planting nor harvesting this year.

How did your wife react? Was she angry?

“She didn’t know about it,” Yaakov says confidentially.

Mrs. Deri laughs and corrects him. “I knew, but I wasn’t angry.” As always, it is the women who stand behind their husbands when the difficult decisions need to be made. Indeed, Mrs. Deri can be credited for her husband’s Shmittah observance. As we walk across the grass, she shares more details. As the treasurer of the farm, she is worried. She is the one who signs the checks, makes the purchases, deals with the suppliers, and monitors the bank account. She is happy with the step they have taken; she has no regrets. But she is davening for success.

I ask how she davens. “In my own words,” she responds.

The couple point out a locked warehouse. “That is where the Thai workers stay,” they explain.

“Think about it,” Mrs. Deri adds. “We had 16 Thai workers, each of them receiving a salary of 6,000 shekels per month. If you add it up, you can understand the type of annual cash flow we had.”

At the moment, the workers are employed by a different farmer on the moshav, one who is not observing Shmittah.

There is a pile of sacks off to the side. “Take a picture of that,” Yaakov suggests.

What is in them?

“Those sacks contain the wheat seeds that we didn’t plant. There are ten tons of seeds there. Had those seeds been planted, we would have made a profit of half a million shekels. But because of Shmittah, we did not plant them.”

Deri brings us to the hothouses, which are spread out over a full 12 dunams. “Everything was ready for planting,” he says.

We enter one of the buildings. The floor is covered with stiff plastic, and I feel the mud moving beneath it.

“Look,” he says enthusiastically, “this plastic disinfects the earth and kills diseases. All I had to do was make holes in it and plant.” He returns to the point at which we began our discussion. “But then Ira came to me three weeks before Rosh Hashanah and said, ‘What about Shmittah?’ And I cancelled the planting. I paid 65,000 shekels for the plants. Have you ever seen how tomatoes are grown?” he asks. I admit that I haven’t. “That’s a pity,” he says. “Look here. They need room to breathe. Each plant must have its own space. Do you see? All the preparations were made. All I had left to do was plant them.”

I take it that Keren Hashviis will be giving you money.

“Yes. They promised me.”

Did you sign an agreement?

“Why would I do that? A man with a kippah gave me his word!”

Perhaps you should take advantage of this year and join a farmers kollel.

“That is what I was told by my friend, the rosh yeshiva of the yeshiva tichonit in Maaleh Gilboa. He told me he would pay me 700 shekels every month. I told him I would come if he gave me 700 shekels a day.”

The sun is now descending toward the treetops, forcing us to interrupt our discussion for Minchah. At the entrance to the moshav’s well-appointed shul, I meet a number of Moshav Revaya’s most respected residents. Most of them are older. They are all polite and personable, and they are all pleased to meet a stranger. As we wait for a tenth man to arrive, I ask if this is a Moroccan moshav. I quickly learn that I have touched a nerve. Revaya was founded in 5712 (1952), and there is still a debate as to whether the founding nucleus of the moshav was Moroccan. Nissim Amzaleg, who once served as the chairman of the moshav committee, says firmly, “It is a Moroccan moshav.” Someone else insists that the Kurds were there first.

They call for the tenth man, and he finally shows up on a bicycle. It is almost shkiah when we daven in a side room of the shul.

At the conclusion of davening, we return to Yaakov. This time, we are seated on comfortable chairs in the courtyard of his home. Tea and coffee – genuine Turkish coffee – are served, the vapors rising from the cup attesting to the Sefardic hospitality to which we are being treated. I examine the house. One room, made entirely of wood, contains a massive Jacuzzi. The porch is also made of wood. “I assume that you built it all with your own hands?” I ask him.

“Of course,” Yaakov says proudly.

Ira is still with us. He is from Kibbutz Miflasim in the Gaza envelope – “a very non-chareidi kibbutz,” he says – and a very close friend of Yaakov. After his army service and the customary period of travel following it, he discovered Yiddishkeit. He has learned in Yeshivas Ohr Yakar in Tzefas, as well as in a kollel, and today is part of Keren Hashviis. His car covers hundreds of kilometers on the roads in northern Israel every week.

“We came to Yaakov at the very last minute,” he relates, “and he jumped into the water without understanding the economic significance of it all. Shmittah began, and suddenly he had no cash. The banks are not giving loans, and he had no income. They found themselves in a situation that was foreign to them. Suddenly, they had to think before making every purchase. Suppliers come, and there is no money to pay them.”

Will you be able to help them?

“That’s why Keren Hashviis exists. Hashem helps.”

We are having a pleasant, relaxed conversation. Yaakov asks if I like the coffee. I ask if he grasps the concept of Shmittah, the philosophy behind it. “Yes,” he says proudly. “It’s like Shabbos. A person works for six years and then rests on the seventh. The problem is if you were used to a certain cash flow and suddenly it’s gone.”

Ira adds, “The Torah says that Hashem will bless those who observe Shmittah. A person who keeps Shmittah will not lose anything because of it.”

Is Shmittah a festival for the land or for the farmer?

“The farmer,” Ira says. “It gives him a chance to rest, to spend time with his wife and children, to understand that it isn’t all his. We all must understand that we are not the masters. The farmers are attracted to Shmittah observance by the brachos they are promised, but it is a great nisayon.”

I address Yaakov and his wife.

Keren Hasvhiis can’t give you the full sums that you won’t make this year.

“True,” they agree, “but they will help us live.”

Then you are observing Shmittah lesheim Shomayim!

“What other reason could there be? That’s the main reason! What else can I get out of it?”

Tell me how you were fortunate enough to have such a pure spirit.

Yaakov stares at the grass and struggles to formulate an answer. Finally, he says, “I don’t know. It came to me. And my wife also told me. And Ira promised that next year will be a good year. With Hashem’s help, it will be good.”

The time has come for us to depart. I stand up and Ira asks Yaakov to give us a brachah. It sounds strange to me, but Ira is not joking. “When people go to Rav Abuchatzeirah and ask for a brachah, he tells them to go to a farmer who is observing Shmittah and ask him.”

Yaakov is no longer a farmer. It seems that he is becoming a ben Torah. “Rabbi Kaminsky saw us in Kibbutz Chofetz Chaim and praised us. Some people say that they wish they could be moshavniks and observe this mitzvah. But I’m not such a big maven.”

Yaakov has actually confused the name Kanievsky with Kaminsky. He may not know much about halachah, but he is wise enough to understand that if Hashem has promised His blessing to those who observe Shmittah, then it is not a good idea to lose that blessing – even if it means that he will need to count pennies for a year and forgo a hefty amount of profit.