Less than a week after Gedolei Yisrael from across the spectrum issued a call for Klal Yisrael to gather in tefillah in light of recent government moves to draft yeshivah bachurim into the army, an unprecedented number of shomrei Torah turned out at the entrance of Yerushalayim to heed their call. The crowd was estimated at well over 700,000. At the conclusion of the event, the blessing one makes when seeing more than 600,000 Jews was recited, perhaps for the first time in almost two millennium, since the destruction of Bayis Sheini.
On Friday, Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisrael and Degel HaTorah, and the Moetzes Chachmei HaTorah of Shas issued a joint statement:
“We are distraught and shocked by the desecration of G-d’s Name which the ruling authorities intend to perpetrate, headed by the prime minister, to prevent Torah students from studying in yeshivah, and to forcibly draft them into the army and to threaten those who do not [enlist] that they will be sentenced as criminals to imprisonment. We see in this matter a declaration of rebellion against the Heavenly Kingdom and a religious war, especially in light of the intention to throw Torah students into prison as did dark regimes throughout history.”
It took the organizers less than four days to organize the perfectly-executed mass event. Participants, local authorities, police, and the organizers themselves, marveled at how there was hardly a hitch in the plans, from transportation, to location, to amplifiers and other equipment. Even the weather seemed to take note: the day began hot and muggy, with haze and dust in the air. As the afternoon progressed, the haze remained, but the temperatures dropped drastically, and it was pleasant to be outside. This likely prevented many heat-related injuries such as dehydration, sunburn, and the like.
There was a fear that it would simply be impossible to transport all the people who wanted to come from other cities, as the regular bus companies didn’t have nearly enough buses. Buses departed for Yerushalayim from at least 30 cities, from Tzfas and Zichron Yaakov in the north to Ashdod and Tifrach in the south, beginning early in the day. Many yeshivos and high schools set out early Sunday morning and had arranged batei medrash and simchah halls in which to hold their studies for the day.
The streets of Yerushalayim were buzzing from around midday as people walked quietly, but purposefully, towards the area where the atzeres was to be held. The stream of people grew as the day wore on. When it was time for Minchah at 4 p.m., the crowds had far exceeded the area that had been allocated, which had been demarcated in maps in the printed media.
There was also an unprecedented turnout among the women and girls, many of whom came with carriages and small children. A huge swath of Yaffo Street was set aside for women; it was intended to reach Haturim. In reality, the crowd stretched even beyond — filling a four lane major artery and the side streets branching off it.
Beginning at the entrance to the city, the crowds extended far past the String Bridge in every direction. On the other side, people filled Yaffo Street until the Machaneh Yehudah Market; Malchei Yisrael to Kikar Shabbos; Sarei Yisrael and onto Yirmiyahu in both directions. The myriad streets and alleyways connecting the main arteries, even if they were not part of the official rally area, were also full of people.
In fact, turnout was so absolute, that families whose weddings were scheduled for Sunday evening asked Gedolei Yisrael if they should delay the chuppah until later or to hold it with fewer participants at the appointed time. The answer was unequivocal: the chassan and kallah should participate in the rally as well.
Indeed, at the outer edge of the crowd could be seen a chassan and his parents, standing near an ambulance in their finery, saying the Tefillos and being emotionally moved along with everyone else. As soon as the event was over, the ambulance got clearance from police to be the first out of the city, to make its way to the wedding hall in Bnei Brak.
Gedolei Yisrael from across the spectrum attended the atzeres, but there was no dais. The stage was only for baalei tefillah. Instead, the Gedolim stood either among the crowd, or on balconies just over the streets, where they could be clearly seen.
The police were out in their thousands, as well. But they were scarcely needed for anything beyond directing traffic. The event was a model of peaceful, orderly assembly. Beginning at noon, police started closing the city’s main streets as they began to fill with people. The crowds streamed towards the area set aside for the demonstrations for four hours straight, until it began at 4 p.m. sharp. Everyone stood in place decorously for the one and a half hour tefillah session, and then dispersed in an equally organized fashion.
When secular youths entered the scene at various points, seeking either curiosity or provocation, instead of causing trouble, they stood silently, spellbound by the sight of such history in the making. In all, a mere 52 people were treated by Magen Dovid Adom for minor injuries, such as fainting and bruises.
The solemn recitation of Tehillim, Selichos, the 13 Attributes of Mercy, and Shema Yisrael, led by Ashkenazi and Sephardic Rabbanim, dominated the proceedings. The Tehillim said, according to the order set by the Shlah HaKodesh, were: 79, 80, 137, 55, 51, 90, 89, 95, 107, and 96.
The rally began promptly at 4 p.m., when the emcee, Reb Elimelech Tirnauer, announced that Minchah would commence. Harav Akiva Brilant, the baal tefillah of Boyan, approached the podium to lead tefillas Minchah.
That was followed by the Aneinu Borei Olam prayer said in time of drought, recited by Harav Yoel Tobias, the Rav of Shikkun Gimmel, Bnei Brak. Eretz Yisrael is in the midst of the driest winter in history.
Tehillim was recited by Harav Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Rosh Yeshivah, Yeshivas Ateres Yisrael, and Harav Shmuel Yaakov Bornstein, Rosh Yeshivah, Yeshivas Kiryas Melech, concluding with Perek 83, recited verse for verse.
An emotional recitation of Selichos from the liturgy of Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur, Yisrael Nosha B’Hashem, Teshuas Olamim, was recited by Harav Borenstein.
The crowd then thundered in recital of the 13 Attributes of Mercy, followed by the blowing of the shofar led by Harav Yeshayahu Nosson Meltzer, Harav Dovid Batzri, Rosh Yeshivah, Yeshivas Hashalom, and Harav Amir Krispal, secretary of the Moetzes Chachmei HaTorah.
Harav Dovid Batzri then recited Selichos in the Sephardic nusach, including Aneinu and Adon Haselichot. Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike sang in unison, focusing on the powerful meaning of the words, and not whether it was the nusach they are accustomed to.
The atzeres reached a pinnacle as Harav Reuven Elbaz, Rosh Yeshivah, Yeshivat Ohr Hachaim, recited Kabbalas Ol Malchus Shamayim, Shema Yisrael, Hashem Hu Ha’Elokim, and Ana Hashem Hoshia Na and the crowd thundered the words after him, line by line.
“It was something special that everyone felt,” said Moshe Chaim, a bachur at Shaarei Yashar in Har Nof. “It made your hair stand on end.”
At this point, Rabbi Tirnauer announced that “we now have the zechus to recite a rare, unique brachah, said only at a gathering of more than 600,000 Jews, something that has not happened in Eretz Yisrael since the Churban of the Second Beis Hamikdash, and hopefully it will hasten the arrival of Moshiach and the building of the third Beis Hamikdash.” Harav Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi led the crowed in saying “Baruch Atah Hashem, Elokeinu Melech Ha’olam Chacham Harazim.”
After that, Rabbi Yeshayah Lieberman, Menahel of Mercaz Bais Yaakov High School, read the concluding statement of the atzeres (see box.)
That marked the official ending of the atzeres. But that’s when organized structure was over, and spontaneity took hold. As music blared through the loudspeakers, the crowds joined hands and began to dance in the streets. As one onlooker from a balcony high above the crowds said, “It looked like the whole street was moving.” The music began with Ani Maamin, and segued into numerous other inspiring niggunim.
Joel Rebibo, an editor at Hamodia in Yerushalayim, described Minchah at the beginning of the event as “unbelievably powerful, there was incredible feeling.
“A beautiful thing happened,” he added. “In Kaddish, when the crowd thundered forth with Yehei shmei rabbah, I saw a Sephardic man just burst into tears.”
For others the most memorable moment was at the end, with the joyous throngs singing and dancing in the street at the conclusion, an unrehearsed, spontaneous expression of joy. Thousands upon thousands joined in circle dances in the streets of Yerushalayim, as if it were one big chasunah.
A commentator on the radio station Kol Berama offered another interpretation: that “the dancing sent a message that we are not afraid, will not be intimidated.”
Some people found it all too much for words. “We’re just in the door and trying to catch our breaths and put our kids to sleep,” Mrs. Chaya Kornfeld of Yerushalayim told Hamodia. “However many words you will print, it will still not be able to describe what this was. That’s it in a nutshell.” She also added that remarkably enough, while there was a tremendous number of babies, carriages and small children, they seemed to also be impressed at the decorum and it was quiet throughout the atzeres. There was very little background noise of screaming babies or cranky toddlers. They sat in their carriages staring around in wonder. In fact, this woman noted that her two year old kept asking to be picked up, and murmuring “vill zein, vill zein (I want to see, I want to see.)”
I asked her husband what he thought the message to the government is. “The beauty of this event was that politics was totally not a part of it. Lapid, Bennett and Netanyahu did not enter my mind the entire 90 minutes. It began with Yehei Shemei Rabbah at Minchah, and ended with Hashem Hu Ha’Elokim. Whether they will draw the conclusion that this crowd has a higher Authority that they answer to is their prerogative, but we know the answer clearly.”
As the crowd dispersed, “things clicked back to normal,” observed Yerachmiel Daykin of Beitar. Understandably, there were traffic jams all over the city, as so many vehicles, public and private, tried to move out in such a short amount of time. But within about two hours, the streets were all open and clear of traffic. It was considered a remarkable success in that vein as well.
Many in the crowd still recalled the rally that was held in Shevat of 1999, when the chareidi community protested the High Court’s interventions in religious issues. Estimates of that rally ran to over half a million. This one surpassed that by far.