President Shimon Peres said yesterday that if it were up to him, all Jews would observe the Sabbath and work only six days a week - "as the Torah commands."

Speaking on an official visit to the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, Peres said he was proud that the state and the IDF released yeshiva students from military service so they could devote their life to Torah study.

The president, who spoke fondly and sympathetically of the ultra-Orthodox community, its rabbis, values and way of life, was welcomed by Bnei Brak's top officials and leading rabbis. He had come a long way from the days in which for them he epitomized the hated left wing, which the late ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian leader Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach lambasted in 1990 as "breeders of rabbits and pigs."

While students from Bnei Brak's renowned Ponevezh yeshiva pushed through the crowd of thousands of young men to be photographed with the president, fanatic ultra-Orthodox factions arrived on buses from Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh to demonstrate against the guest.

"The people who sit here really study Torah for its own sake. I'm very proud that the state and army have agreed to release them to devote their life to their studies," Peres said at the yeshiva.

After stopping at Ponevezh yeshiva, Peres met privately with one of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community's leaders, Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman. The president intended to discuss ways of advancing Bnei Brak economically, but also took time to address acute political issues such as the current tension in the coalition over the new conversion bill. He also reminisced about his childhood, waxing nostalgic over Gemara studies with his grandfather and the famous blessing he received as an infant from Rabbi Chofetz Chaim.

Demonstrators outside the meeting with Shteinman held up posters against "desecrating and degrading our holy Torah by paying respect in public to the the evil president of the heretic state! For money!" They railed against Shteinman and, after Peres left, threw rocks and other objects at the rabbi's house.

Speaking at the Haredi-owned IROX hi-tech company, which employs 80 ultra-Orthodox women, the president said: "I would say half-jokingly that if I really had the power to do so, I would have all the Jews keep the Sabbath and work only six days a week, as the Torah commands."

Improved relations

In recent years, Peres' ties with ultra-Orthodox leaders have improved. This began with regular holiday visits to Shas' spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and continued with Shas' and United Torah Judaism's support for his presidential candidacy in 2007, along with his historic visit to Lithuanian leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv a few months ago.

For Peres, the visit, which his aides planned for months, was also a return to his roots - not only to his childhood in Wiszniewo, Poland (now Visnieva, Belarus), but to his political beginnings, when he was David Ben-Gurion's right-hand man in the early days of the state.

The first prime minister was the first Israeli leader to visit Bnei Brak, in October 1952, and called on the Hazon Ish - the outstanding Talmud scholar Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, one of the founding fathers of the Haredi community in Israel. It was at this meeting that the two agreed on the arrangement that would exempt yeshiva students from military service.

Although a radical secularist in his private life, Ben-Gurion established the status quo with the ultra-Orthodox leaders. His work led to compromises which enabled the establishment of the Haredi education stream. And unlike others in his party, he believed in preserving the state's Jewish identity and maintaining an understanding with the ultra-Orthodox community.