The old synagogue in the Bukharim neighborhood in Jerusalem is known as the stronghold of Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party Shas. The party’s late spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, used to give his weekly sermon there every Saturday night, making it the perfect place for the party’s leaders to whip Shas voters into a frenzy mere days before the September 17 elections.
So there they were on Saturday night, at the same time and the same place, featuring a dramatic, all-star cast on stage: President of Shas’s Council of Torah Sages Rabbi Shalom Cohen; party leader Aryeh Deri and his brother, Beersheba Chief Rabbi Yehuda Deri; Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Rabbi Ovadia’s son, and Rabbi Reuven Elbaz, one of the most charismatic speakers in the history of the party.
For Shas, the fact that the elections are held in the Jewish month of Elul — the 12th month of the Jewish calendar, which is followed by Tishrei, the herald of the High Holidays and a month of atonement and forgiveness, is nothing short of a miracle.
The possibility of linking the month of atonement with the elections is critical, as it gives party leaders the chance to rally voters; to link between making amends with casting the right vote; between political sacrifice and forgiveness, and between the Almighty and the ballot.
The message relayed to Shas’s constituents was ominous and the traditional Sephardi voter has no room to maneuver.
“There has never been an election in Elul,” Deri called out to hundreds of Shas followers who crowded the synagogue and filled its courtyards. “God has given us the greatest thing that can happen. Anyone who wants to weather the month of Tishrei unscathed should strive for zikui harabim, and where can you do that more than on Tuesday?” (Zikui harabim is the concept of helping others repent, thus earning them the merit of observing religious practices.)
And if that was not enough of a prompt, Deri then added a heartfelt plea: “The honor of the Almighty God is at stake.” Nothing less.
Deri’s message is communicated to his followers on Saturday night with a smidge of incitement. At this moment, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz is the biggest drive for Shas’s voters. Deri has already warned voters that Gantz is pushing not just for a secular national unity government, but “an Ashkenazi secular government. God help us.”
A secular government would abolish past coalition agreements that benefit the Haredi sector, Deri further warned, stressing that “they will transfer funds elsewhere.” This terrible, reformist government will stop at nothing to bring about the collapse of all religious services and undermine religious seminars, according to Deri. What will become of us, he seems to ask.
Personally, I believe in the power of the combination of elections and atonement. I have been following Shas through the second election campaign of 2019 and I can spot the difference between April and September — Nissan and Elul. The atmosphere is different. Tradition is taking over, and the situation on the ground is also playing in the party’s favor.
Six months ago, Shas laid the groundwork, building election headquarters and shuttle infrastructure ahead of April 9. Ahead of September 17, this infrastructure already exists and Shas can focus all of its energy on its faith-based campaign.
On Sunday Shas was endorsed by Rabbi Meir Mazuz, the patron of Yachad party leader Eli Yishai. In April, Mazuz endorsed United Torah Judaism but now he urges the public to vote for Shas.
The polls aired Friday by Channels 12 and 13 predicted Shas would win six or seven seats on Tuesday. But if there is one party I believe will buck the polls, it’s Shas. Given the special circumstances — the coinciding of the elections with the month of Elul — I’m willing to bet they could win as many as nine Knesset seats. Maybe even more.
Shas will remain on the edge of its seat until 10 p.m. on Tuesday, at which point the first exit polls are published and the vote-counting begins.
Voters will cast their ballots with the rabbis’ statements ringing in their ears and the words of Shas’s Council of Torah Sages head Rabbi Shalom Cohen — “seculars are deprived” — playing in their mind.
Shas’s Rabbi Elbaz also left voters with an interesting tidbit, saying that he believes Shas represents the secular public because it strives to save the seculars from themselves. After all, if one is Jewish, one cannot be secular, and if you insist on remaining secular then, “Go look for someplace else [to live]. This isn’t Red Russia,” he asserted.
Haredi TV personality Rabbi Zamir Cohen offered his own take on the situation, telling Shas supporters in the synagogue on Saturday night that in Hebrew, the name “Elul” stands for “No [Yesh Atid party leader Yair] Lapid and no [Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor] Liberman.”
If Shas does secure nine or more Knesset seats on Tuesday, that is exactly what the next coalition will look like.
This article first appeared in Hebrew on The Times of Israel’s sister site, Zman Yisrael.