The news spread like wildfire throughout Ami-Oz and the neighboring moshavim, making waves that reached even more distanced farms. “Itzik Attia is keeping Shmitah.”
Anyone who heard the news either burst out laughing or was sure that it had to be a mistake. “Itzik? Shmitah?” one farmer put it best. “Those two are, like, an oxymoron!”
Yet as the days slipped by, and the message repeated itself, awareness filtered in that, indeed, Itzik had plans for the year of 5782—plans to keep Shmitah. The rumors solidified the day that those driving past his farm stopped and gawked at the giant tarp banner hung from two stakes outside his greenhouse. There, emblazoned on the colorful sign and leaving no room for doubt were the familiar words “Kan shomrim Shmitah!”
For as long as he can remember, Itzik Attia, who was born and bred in Ami-Oz, a moshav on the Gazan border, enjoyed the festivities on Simchat Torah. After the Mussaf prayer reached its end, the Moroccan congregation would head out to the large square outside their beit knesset with the joyous words of prayer still on their lips, and lift their eyes heavenward in an earnest request for rain.
It was a ceremony that represented Itzik Attia's life, and the look of yearning anticipation that filled the eyes of his parents, their neighbors and friends is interwoven in his memories with the pleasant harmonies of the prayer of Tefillat Geshem, which remains the soundtrack of his childhood. The look in their eyes was one of pure hope, faith and belief in the Power of the Creator to rain down His blessing and irrigate the thirsty earth that Itzik so loves, the earth that was still dry and desiccated after a scorching summer.
The Attia family farm is their exclusive source of income, and everyone plays an essential role in the family endeavor. From a remarkably early age, Itzik was already toiling in his father’s fields of grain, and when his father passed away, he inherited the farm. With hard work, sweat and incalculable toil, Itzik developed and expanded his father’s small private farm into a mini-kingdom of greenhouses that produce some of the finest greenhouse-cultivated tomatoes in the country.
Attia’s tomatoes are sought after by exclusive produce stores, as well as fancy restaurants that won’t settle for anything less than Attia’s super-sweet Maggie tomatoes. Attia tomatoes are not of the variety available in the local supermarket. Each one is a prize, chock-full of sweetness and taste and available for purchase only in exclusive produce stores. Each fruit likewise comes with a hefty price tag, but those who insist on quality fruit are willing to pay the price.
“Itzik invests his heart and soul into his greenhouses which span an impressive area of 700 dunams and are rated among the top 100 farms in Israel. Yet those who are well-acquainted with Itzik also know him to be much more than your modern-day farmer. He’s a man with a highly spiritual nature, a man who’s willing to sacrifice comfort for the needs of his soul.”
The one to pull Itzik Attia onto the Shmitah bandwagon was his close friend and colleague Avichai Koch, who took the heroic step of keeping Shmitah during the previous cycle in 5775. Avichai’s farms are nowhere near the size or scope of Itzik’s, yet his friend’s valiant resolution, along with the determination and passion that accompanied it, piqued Itzik’s curiosity; he found himself wondering who and what had bewitched Avichai and convinced him to shut his farm and business down for an entire year.
“Itzik, it’s a tough call, and the process wasn’t easy at all, but believe me, I wouldn’t exchange the spiritual pleasure that I garnered throughout that year for all the riches in the world!” Koch exclaimed emotionally.
His friend’s words ignited a yearning in Itzik’s heart to touch that same spiritual pleasure. Itzik Attia prays three times a day. He’s a man of deep faith in Hashem who engages in myriad acts of charity and chessed, yet he’s always felt that there was something missing in his life, something significant and profound that would change the course of his life.
Seeing that his friend was seriously contemplating observing Shmitah k’hilchasah, Avichai made the connection between Itzik and a Keren Hashviis regional director who visited Itzik at home, taught him all the relevant halachos and explained, step-by-step, how a year of Shmitah observance would play itself out. While the meeting opened on an enthusiastic note, minute by minute, Itzik’s enthusiasm waned as he began appreciating the harsh financial implications of such a commitment.
The last few months were filled with ups and downs as Itzik vacillated numerous times in his choice. Yet what does a Jew infused with faith do when his doubts confront him and cause him to waver?
He asks a shailah.
Itzik climbed into his jeep and began the long drive down to Beer Sheva, home of the revered Rabbi Pinchas Abuchatzeira, shlit”a. There, in the tzaddik’s study, he spilled his concerns, thoughts, feelings and doubts. He presented the financial risks along with his sense of responsibility to dozens of families whose fathers and husbands he employs and who rely on Attia for their livelihood.
“The decision is too overwhelming for me. What should I do?” he wept to his rebbi, leaving it to Rabbi Pinchas Abuchatzeira to make the choice.
The tzaddik gazed long and deep into Itzik’s eyes, appreciating that this was not an easy choice. The immediate decision was clear, but the temptation to give up along the way would be huge and persist throughout a full year. Yet he was acquainted with Itzik Attia, and he believed in him.
“Rav Yitzchak,” Rabbi Pinchas addressed him with his full Hebrew name. “Are you prepared to accept my ruling with a full heart?”
Itzik lowered his head and nodded. “The Rav’s words are sacred to me, and I will abide by whatever you rule.”
Rabbi Pinchas Abuchatzeira closed his eyes, and for a moment, he appeared to be hovering in a different plane. After a long moment, he opened his eyes and proclaimed: “Rabbi Yitzchak Attia! Keep Shmitah k’hilchata, and the heavens shall grant you the strength to withstand this challenge.”
Then and there, Itzik Attia accepted the challenge of keeping Shmitah.
He didn’t make any grand announcement, but gradually word began leaking that Itzik Attia was planning to keep the imminent Shmitah. Those who heard automatically rejected the possibility, aware that no farmer could possibly sustain such a massive loss and then return to the fields. The financial loss would be be tremendous, but reinforced by the tzaddik’s promise, Itzik is committed to fulfill the mitzvah in the best way—because Hashem wills it.
The challenges were enormous, and they came daily. Less than a week after arriving at his landmark decision, Itzik gathered all his courage and dispatched a letter to cancel a giant order of seeds. The seed company reacted in astonishment, calling to find out what happened. The cost of the seeds alone is tens of thousands of shekels, and the indirect damages incurred from failing to plant them amount to hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of shekels!
Yet Itzik Attia was made of firmer stuff: He made up his mind and stuck firmly to his decision, despite the loud, derisive whisperings all around. There were colleagues and friends who went as far as saying that he’d actually lost his mind, but Itzik was calm as a cucumber (or a tomato!) He’d received his special blessing from the Rabbi, and his wife was not only fully supportive of his commitment, but would encourage him when the going gets tough.
“Every day, I pray to Hakadosh Baruch Hu to imbue within me faith and spiritual strength to continue keeping Shmitah,” Itzik confided in a Keren Hashviis agent. “I know that if my faith is deep and fortified enough, then it’ll be that much easier for me to ignore the fields.”
Several weeks prior to Rosh Hahanah, when it emerged that all vegetables were delayed in their growth, and Keren Hashviis’ Rabbanim ruled that all produce needed to be uprooted and destroyed, there was a prevalent fear that several farmers who had undertaken Shmitah observance would break right in the beginning.
Yet they were mistaken, especially about Itzik.
In order to avoid transgressing the prohibition of selling produce on Shviis, Itzik uprooted 50 tons of red, juicy tomatoes, which amounted to an estimated loss of millions of shekels.
Yet this is Itzik Attia of Ami-Oz. He’s a man of faith. He’s faithful to the vow that he delivered to his rebbi Rabbi Pinchas Abuchatzeira and even more faithful to his promise to Hashem.
His commitment impresses and inspires some of the smaller-scale farmers in his moshav. His observance has inspired many, and as a result, others are emulating him by accepting the observance of Shmitah upon themselves as well.
But it’s rough. So much rougher than he could have ever imagined. Every morning when he awakens, he’s forced to take another deep breath, search for and draw the emotional and spiritual strength inside of him that he never knew he possessed.
During the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, a delegation arrived from Keren Hashviis to bring chizuk to the Shmitah-observant farmers right at the beginning of their long, arduous road, and Itzik met with the saintly kabbalist Harav Moshe Abuchatzeira, shlit”a.
In the course of their brief encounter, Itzik leaned his head close to the tzaddik’s and whispered into his hear: “This year, I brought Hakadosh Baruch Hu the gift of clean land, and I’m asking the Rav to bless me with the strength and commitment to withstand this challenge easily.”
Rabbi Moshe Abuchatzeira was touched by the farmer’s genuine words and simplicity that accompanied his request, and he delivered a heartfelt, emotional blessing for siyata diShmaya in all his endeavors.
Itzik is not alone in his challenges. His expansive farm employs several dozens of Jewish workers, the majority of whom support their families minimally on their salaries.
“I’ll manage,” Itzik had said confidently to the Keren Hashviis agent who came to teach him the halachos and rules of observing Shmitah. “I believe in Hashem, and I’m at peace with my decision to keep this mitzvah. Whatever happens, I know that it will be okay. But what about all my workers? I have a responsibility and commitment to them, and I definitely can’t afford to continue supporting them throughout an entire year while my farm lies fallow.”
Still reeling from his commitment to observe Shmitah, Itzik launched a second campaign to arrange new jobs for every one of his employees, refusing to rest until everyone was comfortably settled in their new jobs.
In a moment of frankness, a Keren Hashviis rabbi turned to him and asked, “Itzik, how do you do it? From where do you draw your phenomenal strength of spirit?”
With a bashful smile illuminating his sun-baked features, Itzik lifts his ever-present sunglasses and meets the rabbi’s gaze with calm serenity and a glowing countenance. “For six years,” he replied, “Hakadosh Baruch Hu took care of me unfailingly. He sent me a comfortable livelihood and provided for all my needs. Now is my turn to give back to Him, to fulfill His command, and I have no doubt that just as He provided for my needs throughout the past six years, He can take care of me this year, as well. I know that it won’t be an easy year.
“It will be a year filled with challenges and hardships. We’ve just started out, and there are many months still to go. I’m sure I’ll suffer many nervous stomachaches and sleepless nights. People will tell me that it’s suicide, and I’ll probably wonder if they’re right. But no matter what, I won’t give in. I won’t surrender this mitzvah of Shmitah—my mitzvah.”
And as you’ve already gleaned from the words of this article, when Itzik does something, he does it big. One of his most remarkable traits is his generous spirit, which extends to the spiritual realm too. He’d already embarked on a personal campaign to persuade more farmers to join the growing circle of Shmitah observers, announcing that with Hashem’s help, next Shmitah, there will be many more of his colleagues and friends observing Shmitah. And anyone who knows Itzik, also knows that when he says something, it’s as good as done!
This year on Shemini Atzeres, when Itzik joined his friends in the Moroccan congregation who exited the synagogue after prayers and lifted his eyes to entreat for rain, he added an extra prayer. This prayer soared from the innermost recesses in his heart and caused tears to sparkle in his eyes. It was a prayer unlike he’d ever offered before:
“Ribono shel Olam!” he whispered soundlessly. “Give me the strength to withstand this nisayon of Shmitah!”
And we, at Keren Hashviis, join Itzik in heartfelt prayer on his behalf and behalf of all Shomrei Shviis. Together, we beseech Hashem that we should succeed in the mission entrusted to us by our Gedolei Hador, and with the help of Klal Yisroel, empower Itzik and his friends to keep Shmitah!