In what could be the largest gathering of Jews in modern times, hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men, women and children are expected to take part in a mass prayer rally in the capital on Sunday.
The gathering was called to protest government legislation designed to conscript haredi men into national service.
Ultra-Orthodox men will be traveling from around the country to attend the event, while women, and children over the age of nine, living in Jerusalem also look to take part.
The center of the prayer rally is to be by the junction of Jaffa Road, Nordau Street and Sarei Yisrael Avenue, but it could stretch back to the Bridge of Strings and possibly forward toward Sacher Park.
The leader of the non-hassidic Ashkenazi haredi world, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, who is approximately 100-years-old, is expected to be at the center point of the prayer rally, accompanied by the Grand Rabbi of the Vizhnitz Hassidim, Rabbi Yisroel Hager.
People are to begin arriving from early in the morning to avoid traffic standstills at the entrance to the city, and shuttles are to operate from the Latrun area to the capital.
Psalms and other prayers are to be recited at the rally, but neither the leading rabbis nor haredi politicians are scheduled speak to the masses.
A spokesman for Shteinman said that there is a special prayer to be recited if one witnesses a gathering of 600,000 Jews, in recognition of the tradition that in the biblical account there were 600,000 men at Mount Sinai when the Israelites received the Torah.
The prayer rally organizers estimate that some 600,000 people will be in attendance, including all of the major haredi groups and political movements. According to Shteinman’s spokesman, there has been a direct call not to engage in provocative or violent action, as has been witnessed at several anti-conscription demonstrations in recent months.
The last haredi protest of a similar size and nature was in 1999, when the community protested against several Supreme Court rulings on religious issues, including a ruling that ended the exemption of haredi yeshiva students from military service.
At that rally, some 250,000 members of the community turned out to protest. More than 100,000 haredim protested in 2010 against a Supreme Court ruling regarding separation of Sephardi and Ashkenazi girls in a school in the settlement of Emmanuel.
On Friday, the three rabbinic councils of the mainstream haredi political movements, Degel Hatorah, Agudat Yisrael and Shas, issued a joint statement published in the haredi weekend newspapers calling on “our brethren, the entire House of Israel,” to participate in Sunday’s rally.
“We are distraught and shocked by the desecration of God’s Name which the ruling authorities intend to perpetrate, headed by the prime minister, to prevent Torah students from studying in yeshiva, 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,” the rabbis of the rabbinical councils wrote. “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.”
Economy Minister and Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett posted a statement Saturday night on his Facebook page, saying the claims that the government bill would harm the Torah world were without any basis.
He said that the law would not lead to the imprisonment of even one yeshiva student, and he described the legislation as “balanced, gradual and good for the entire Jewish people and the haredim in particular.”
Several leading rabbis from the conservative wing of the national-religious community, including Rabbis Shmuel Eliyahu, Mordechai Sternberg, Micha Halevi and Shlomo Aviner, have come out in support of the rally, and significant numbers of men from this sector are expected to participate.
But other senior figures in the national-religious movement said they were opposed to the demonstration.
Speaking to Channel 2, Rabbi Haim Druckman said that the suggestion that the government of Israel was fighting against God was unacceptable, and people should not join the protest.
The Beit Hillel association of national-religious rabbis spoke out strongly against the rally and the participation of people from the Zionist sector, saying that one of the central foundations of religious Zionism was the integration of Torah study and military service.
The group said that the state was still in a period of war for which religious law mandates obligatory military service, called on haredim to serve in the army and said that participation in the rally would contradict the central values of religious Zionism.
The Forum for Draft Equality, which has campaigned for haredim to be drafted into military service, said the rally testified to “the great hypocrisy of the haredi leadership,” in light of what it called “the terrible legislation which will in practice bring about mass exemptions from military service and the abandonment of the value of national service.”
“It is a shame that the haredim are not going out to protest against the will of their leadership to keep them in their ghettos and to prevent them from joining with Israelis in the value of defending the homeland,” the forum said.