“The story of Koby Attia should be taught in yeshivos in mussar seder,” shares Rabbi Avraham Rubinstein, Mayor of Bnei Brak and Keren Hashviis Board Member. My eyes widen in surprise, and I listen in amazement to the heart-stopping story of a farmer from Porat.
In the heart of the Sharon plains, nestled somewhere between succulent citrus orchards and emerald fields is Porat, a scenic moshav in Israel. The pioneer settlers who founded the moshav in 1950 were 25 Libyan immigrant families who had been dwelling in the Pardesia transit camp and were offered the opportunity to found a religious moshav in the Sharon plains.
The new immigrants were enchanted by the proposal, and although they were seasoned merchants, metalworkers and artisans who had never before worked as farmers in their native land, they rose to the challenge of founding an agricultural settlement in the nachalah promised to Shevet Efraim. Borrowing from Yaakov Avinu’s blessing to Yosef, “Ben porat Yosef,” they named their new home Porat.
Over the years, the settlement grew and expanded. The hardworking residents cultivated vast fields, founded shuls and schools, and today Porat is a thriving moshav with a population of over 1,200.
Every sixth year in the Shmitah cycle, Keren Hashviis representatives travel the length and breadth of the country, visiting every kibbutz, moshav and settlement with the goal of motivating more and more Jewish farmers to join the ranks of Shmitah-observant farmers and fulfill the once-in-seven-year mitzvah.
Prior to Rosh Hashanah of Shmitah 5775, they visited Porat as well and spoke at length to the local farmers. Alas, Koby Attia, owner of hundreds of dunams of farmland in the moshav, was not swayed, and his name was not added to the list of farmers aiming to keep Shmitah throughout the coming year.
Rosh Hashanah 5775, dawned, and shuls in Porat were bursting at the seams. While the settlement was originally founded by religious residents, observance in the moshav unfortunately waned over the years, and today it encompasses a friendly mix of observant and non-observant residents. Still, on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Festivals, local shuls are filled to capacity, and this Rosh Hashanah was no exception.
Bedecked in his traditional white kippah and tallits, Koby Attia joined the throngs of mispallelim, reciting the familiar piyyutim with emotion and allowing the awe of the holy day to envelop him. The atmosphere in shul was elevated, yet Koby felt like he was missing something. There was an unfamiliar vacancy, a bitterness in his heart that refused to abate.
“Koby, what’s up, buddy?” Boaz, sitting next to him, whispered during a short break before krias haTorah. “You’re not with us. You okay?”
Koby didn’t reply, but anguished tears glinted in his eyes; and Boaz, a genuine friend, knew better than to press and returned his attention to his siddur. His friend was overpowered by emotions, and he would share with him whenever he felt ready. Koby, however, could not just return to davening. He knew exactly what was irking him and what would cause this uncharacteristic melancholy to fade.
At that point, he made a decision, a commitment—one that would change the course of his life forever.
From the moment his decision took root, the ache in his heart vanished, replaced by fiery passion that resonated through his tefillos and transformed his Rosh Hashanah into a holiday unlike he’d ever experienced. Every word of tefillah was suffused with pleasure and purity, testimony to his newfound bond with his Creator.
As soon as havdalah was recited, he picked up the phone, dialed the number on the card that the Keren Hashviis agent had left him, and announced his intention to observe Shmitah k’hilchasah.
He had only one caveat.
“I want to meet Rabbi Kanievsky.”
The request caught Keren Hashviis board member Rabbi Avraham Rubinstein off guard, yet if a Gibor Koach farmer expressed his desire to keep Shmitah, he would do whatever it took to make it possible. Rabbi Rubinstein was not yet in his influential position as mayor of the City of Torah, but that didn’t stop him from making Koby Attia of Moshav Porat’s wish come true and arranging a meeting between the Israeli farmer and Gadol Hador.
Several days later, everything was in place. Keren Hashviis’ directors, including Rabbi Avraham Rubinstein, were waiting outside the famous building on Rechov Rashbam when Koby Attia drove up in his large van. Koby exited his car, self-consciously straightening the kippah on his head, but instead of proceeding straight to the building, he circled his van to the trunk and removed a giant wicker basket.
At a time of year when many a visitor comes equipped with a selection of high-quality esrogim, curious onlookers were surprised to see the basket overflowing with the choicest produce of Koby’s farms. Colorful peppers, succulent strawberries, ripe cucumbers and other fresh produce emitted the sweet scents of the field, and Koby held the basket proudly in his hands, prepared to present it as a gift to Klal Yisroel’s Sar HaTorah.
These were not a random selection from his crop, but the crème de la crème, with each vegetable hand-picked by the farmer who had planted it, cultivated it, and knew his crops like the back of his hand.
“You’ve brought me bikkurim?” Rav Chaim quipped as he studied each vegetable and marveled over its beauty and perfection as if it were a prize esrog.
Koby struggled to contain his tears and raw emotion. “Yes,” he choked out. “I brought it to the Rav, and I picked each one so the Rav will recite a blessing on it.” Rav Chaim’s warm, fatherly smiled melted his heart as he bentched Koby and his fields, showering him with love, compassion and empathy.
Thus several days into the Shmitah year, Koby Attia began keeping Shmitah k’hilchasah.
Koby’s relationship with Keren Hashviis deepened and blossomed throughout the year and in the following years, as well. Whenever Rabbi Avraham Rubinstein needs a break, he heads out to Koby’s farm in Porat, and as Shmitah 5782 approached, Keren Hashviis knew that Koby Attia was already on board!
Koby has no doubts about keeping the imminent Shmitah. He’s well aware of what’s permitted, what’s prohibited, and how to best prepare his fields for the coming year. To minimize damage to his fields, he decides to plant watermelons on the fields that usually wave with sweet-smelling grain. Why watermelons? laymen among us might wonder. Because the watermelon season concludes right before Rosh Hashanah.
Yet this year, something went wrong. Inexplicably, his crop of watermelons ripened later than usual, and on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, an anxious Koby picked up the phone to his friend Rabbi Rubinstein and wept that his fields still contained 140 tons of unpicked melons.
“Rabbi,” his voice caught in his throat. “I’m talking millions in losses…”
Since halachah requires that all crops must be harvested prior to Shmitah, Keren Hashviis’ Rabbanim instructed Attia to cut the stems of all the watermelons before the onset of Rosh Hashanah.
Thus, with mere hours to go before Yom Tov, Koby Attia hired as many workers as he could possibly recruit at the last minute to begin harvesting his giant crop immediately. While Yidden around the world recited Selichos and prepared to greet the New Year, Koby and his crew of Thai laborers frantically chopped stems off hundreds of watermelons.
Endless hours of exhausting physical labor passed under the scorching son. Koby lost track of how many times he crouched, cut, stood up, took a step to the next melon, crouched, cut, stood up… only to do it again. The labor was grueling and monotonous, and countless times, Koby was on the verge of giving up and admitting defeat. Yet with every extra stem cut, Rav Chaim’s loving face appeared before his eyes, and he urged himself to keep on going.
The clock kept ticking, refusing to slow, and when only an hour remained until Yom Tov, Koby stood up and yelled out loud to stop working. They’d succeeded at harvesting some 70 tons of watermelon. True, there was another 70 tons to go, but they’d done their best, and now it was time to prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Shmitah, and to crown Hashem as King of the world.
Rosh Hashanah in the Sharon plains was a blazing hot day, and the harsh rays of sunshine had little mercy on Koby’s freshly harvested watermelon field, leaving ugly black marks on the emerald green rinds. Buyers from the produce chains that regularly purchase his crops took one look at the harvest and walked away, turning 70 tons of harvest into waste.
The remaining 70 tons that he did not manage to pick in time before Rosh Hashanah would still have to be picked, he knew, but all that labor would be carried out with the desolate knowledge that he would not be earning a shekel.
Yet even this was not enough to sway Koby Attia. He repeated his mantra that this was a test of faith and would continue observing Shmitah, come what may!
Keren Hashviis agents attempted to step in and help Koby sell his damaged watermelons to chessed organizations, but the latter explained that they regularly receive their produce for free and pay only for collection. Thus with no choice, Koby donated the entire crop, which was then delivered, free of charge, to disadvantaged families around the country.
“Now you understand why Koby’s story should be shared during mussar seder?” concludes Rabbi Avraham Rubinstein. I nod my head, humbled, and muse that Koby Attia of Moshav Porat is no simple farmer and no simple Jew. How much strength of spirit he possesses to silently watch 140 tons of produce —the fruits of his labor—go to waste for the zechus of observing a mitzvah!
My thoughts carry me farther as I imagine what it must be like for Koby—a farmer who doesn’t even wear a yarmulke, yet whose Judaism is infinitely precious to him. I imagine the questions that his family and friends will ask, the arguments and scornful looks that his neighbors who don’t observe Shmitah will shoot at him, and I realize that without the full-fledged friendship, support and assistance of Keren Hashviis, even a Gibor Koach like Koby can’t do it alone.