Assaf Assis has been a farmer from the day he was born. He grew up on a moshav helping his parents raise cows and grow cotton and peanuts, only taking a break to serve in the Israeli army and study at university.
Assaf says this is his sixth shemittah as an adult. “It was always a debate between Kibbutz Yavne [the community where he attended school] and Kibbutz Hafetz Haim. The other debate between the two kibbutzim regarded how to milk cows on Shabbat.
“Kibbutz Hafetz Haim always did what they consider shemittah k’hilchata by buying from non-Jews, or trying to grow in water (hydroponics), but in Yavne they tried to find solutions that were technological because they did not want to depend on non-Jews; their idea was that a Torah-observant Jew can do everything necessary for the state to exist.” He adds that hydroponics does not work for orchards or field crops.
During the War of Attrition, Assaf was stationed in the Sinai Desert. The war lasted from November 1968 till a ceasefire in August 1970. But it ended for Assaf in June of 1970, when he was wounded and lost a leg. Since then, he walks with a prothesis.
After the army he studied electrical engineering at a branch of the Technion in Be’er Sheva, but it felt strange to him to work from eight to five after having grown up on a moshav, so he and his young wife, Bracha, went on Bnei Akiva shlichut to Italy for three years.
When they returned, they joined the collective Moshav Yonatan in the Golan Heights. “I became the coordinator of the field plantings. That was the highest position one could achieve in a collective moshav.”
He had wanted to help stop the pullback from Sinai in 1982, but they didn’t want him to go because they said he was an essential worker, so Assaf and Bracha decided to leave.
They went to Moshav Ganei Tal, in Gush Katif, in 1983. He relates that all the farmers were regulated and could only grow a certain amount of crops. Regulations were even imposed on farms that produced milk, chickens and eggs, as well as on the aquaculture industry. “So I looked to grow something where I could decide how much I could grow and to whom I could sell,” he says.
Along with some others, Assis began growing geraniums, as there were fewer regulations governing the production of flowers and he could sell as much as he wanted abroad. “In the beginning I raised various types of gypsophila flowers [baby’s breath].” Eventually, there were 22 flower growers in Ganei Tal – flowers became one of Gush Katif’s leading agricultural products.
With the destruction of Gush Katif in 2005, Assis did not allow the business he had built for several decades to dissolve. At his own expense, he transported hundreds of geranium plants from the Gush to the outskirts of Ashkelon, where he found land on which to rebuild his greenhouses. Assaf and Bracha live in the reestablished Ganei Tal in the area of Yad Binyamin and Hafetz Haim.
Assaf is today one of the most successful growers of geraniums and other flowering plants in Israel. In his 80 dunams (around twenty acres) of greenhouses, he grows about a hundred different species of flowers and plants, in a variety of colors and sizes.
Assaf grows his flowers following specific halachic guidelines. “Shemittah is a beautiful mitzvah but hard to keep in the modern world. If I stopped working entirely during shemittah, I would have to fire fifty workers,” he says. He grows his flowers in a greenhouse with a roof, on tables that are disconnected from the ground (matza menutak) and with plastic sheeting between the tables and the ground, which provides a “hatzitza,” a separation between the plants and the ground. Assis states that he always grows his flowers this way – even during a non-shemittah year. The hechsher for his flowers is the heter mechira from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
Philosophically, Assaf is opposed to buying yevul nochri (produce grown by non-Jews) during shemittah. As a religious Zionist, he is not comfortable with the idea of buying produce from Arabs.
“If you let the Arabs do all the agricultural work and take over the land during shemittah, it will continue that way,” he says. By giving over the working of the land during shemittah to Arabs, Assaf says, “we have cancelled the prohibition of lo tehonem, which is d’oriyta (from the Torah) and Chazal said it means, according to Rashi, not to give them ‘an encamping in the earth’ [hanaya b’karka]. But that’s what happens, because every shemittah there are more and more Arabs working the land.”
He explains that shemittah is rooted in the idea that there should not be significant economic gaps in society. “Shemittah is not a stand-alone mitzvah. It includes shemitat karka’ot (the land rests), shemitat kesafim (monetary debts are forgiven), and yovel (after forty-nine years the land returns to its original owner).
“All these mitzvot are in order that the poor people of your town be able to eat. I see it as doing a ‘reset’ once in seven years,” he says.
Farming is not easy, admits Assaf. “To be a true farmer, one needs to be connected twenty-four hours a day to the ground. You constantly walk around the area to be sure that what you are doing is good for the plants.”
And yet Assaf cannot envision doing anything else; farming is in his blood. “I have a primal love – love for the earth, the adama. As a farmer, you see the renewal every day. One must believe that something will come from it, and we have the experience of years confirming it.”
Emunah and farming are inextricably linked, he says. “When do people begin to remember that we need HaKadosh Baruch Hu? When there is no rain. So once a year an ordinary person thinks about the rain. When you are a farmer, the little plant needs you every moment, and so every moment you think about HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
“Every farmer has faith deep within him. A farmer without emunah is not a farmer.”