Originally intended as a means to cultivate successors to the European luminaries of Jewish learning who were killed during the Holocaust, the exemptions today have become a contentious issue. Secular Israelis across the political spectrum are increasingly bitter about ultra-Orthodox who do not share in the burden of the country's defense: three years of army service for men and then reserve duty until well into one's 40s.
''People go every year to the reserves and risk their lives, undermine their businesses and are away from their families while others are not working, have a lot of kids, and are a burden on social services,'' says Uri Dromi, former spokesman for Yitzhak Rabin, the slain prime minister. ''Of course people see them as parasites.''
The regimen of learning and prayer at the Hebron Yeshiva is not for the lazy, however. It begins at 7:15 for morning prayers and lasts at least until 11:00 pm. On Sunday, even during the afternoon break, the spacious study hall resounded with students reading texts to themselves in a sing-song voice from the Talmud, a compendium of rabbinic discussions including rigorous legalistic argumentation dating back more than 1,500 years. Others animatedly discuss and debate interpretations of religious law with their havruta, or study partner.
''Sometimes we can spend a week on a line of text in the Talmud, in order to understand it to the end,'' says Gold. The head of the yeshiva lectures on the Talmud at noon each day, followed by afternoon prayers and lunch. Then there is a break before more study with one's havruta. Time before evening prayers is devoted to study of the Path of the Just, an 18th-century work on overcoming the inclination to sin and working to perfect one's character.
Draft waivers for the ultra-Orthodox began modestly. They go back nearly to the founding of Israel, when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion agreed to 400 exemptions.