( You will notice that this entry is pretty much straight lomdus rather than my usual fare. When I wrote Rafi’s bar mitzvah speech, I ran overly long. Here is an even longer earlier edition, but one that is more complete in covering my thoughts on the subject. -mi)
In parashas Behar (25:18), it says:
“Vesapharta lekha sheva` shabasos shanim sheva` shanim sheva` pe`amim vehayu lekha yemei sheva` shabasos hashanim teisha vi’arbai`im shanah.”
“And you shall count for yourself seven sabbaths of years seven years seven times and i shall be for you the days of the seven sabbaths of years 49 years.”
The Torah here is discussing the mitzvah of Yovel, of the Jubilee year. The word “yovel” refers to the blast of the shofar which is blown on Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year. In that year, any land that was divided by Joshua amongst the tribes is returned to the family that it was allotted to. Also, in the yovel year, all slaves are freed.
Yovel only applies when “kol yosheveha aleha — all of Israel’s inhabitants live on it”. Only when the majority of all 12 tribes and Levi are living within their ancestral borders — again, as Yehoshu’a divided them — does Yovel apply. There has not been a Yovel since the fall of the Kingdom of Israel, or perhaps even since the tribes in Transjordan were exiled, in the first Temple period.
The Torah is being pretty wordy, and that isn’t its normal style. Usually, the Torah will use the fewest words possible to get the idea across. Extra words imply extra, not obvious, ideas.
The Torah tells us that there is a mitzvah to count the number of years between two yovelos, two jubilee years. But why does Hashem spell out that we should count 7 cycles of seven years, and then again to count 49 years? Do we need Hashem to tell us that seven times seven is forty-nine? Can’t we do the math ourselves?
When it comes to the mitzvah of counting omer, the Torah uses similar terms. Omer is a special grain sacrifice brought during this time of year, every day from the 2nd day of Pesach, of Passover, until Shavuos. During this period there is also an obligation to count out 49 days. For example, last night we said, in Hebrew, “Today is 42 days which is 6 weeks in the omer.” There are two parts, counting 42 days, and counting 6 weeks.
For counting omer, the Torah in Vayikra (23:15) says:
“Vesafartem lachem mimocharas hashabas miyom havi’achem es omer hatenufah sheva` shabasos temimos tihyenah. Ad mimacharas hashabas hashevi`is, tisperu chamishim yom.”
“And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the day of rest, from the day you bring the raised omer offering it shall be seven whole weeks until the day after the seventh week, you shall count fifty days”.
The two are very similar, but we can also see some subtle differences.
The first is that by omer the Torah speaks in the plural — “vesafartem” is “and you shall count” when “you” means many people. By our pasuq, by yovel, the word is “vesaphrta”, “and you will count” speaking to only one “you”.
This is because the mitzvah of counting for yovel isn’t on each and every Jew, the way omer is. Each of us count omer. Each person needs to prepare themselves for Shavuos, for reliving getting the Torah. Yovel is one mitzvah for the entire Jewish people as a whole. The one “you” counting the years toward yovel is the nation.
Since we can’t all count together, Sanhedrin has the obligation to count as the representatives of Benei Yisra’el.
The Hapanim Yafos says that the reason why the math is spelled out by yovel is for the same reason as by omer. We learn from the pasuq by omer that we need to count both 49 days and seven weeks. As we said there are two parts to the count. Similarly when Sanhedrin would count the years toward yovel, they would have to count that it was “the 39th year” as well as being “the 5th cycle of 7 years, the 4th year of that cycle”.
There is a mitzvah that comes in cycles of 7 years, one that we just started, called shemittah. In the seventh year, the shemittah year, farmers in Israel are not permitted to work the land. The land of Israel rests. Also, in that year, all loans are forgiven.
The Torah is combining the mitzvos of shemittah and yovel, of the sabbatical and jubilee years. In fact, it is the opinion of Rebbe (given in the Yerushalmi, Shevi`is, 10:2) that whenever one does not apply, neither does the other. Since there is no yovel, shemittah today can not be the real mitzvah. We observe it only as a commemoration, to keep the mitzvah alive until we do once again live in Israel.
When Rebbe’s opinion appears in the Talmud Bavli, though, it is cited as part of a disagreement. Rebbe still says that shemittah today is not the biblical mitzvah, but his peers, the other rabbis, say that it is. That even without yovel, the Torah’s idea of shemittah still stands.
The later sages, Abayei and Rava, are quoted in the Talmud in three places trying to explain various rulings about shemittah in light of this debate. As we will see, Abayei’s position is quite clear — he assumes that the law is like Rebbe, that shemittah isn’t the biblical shemittah, and therefore one can take some leniencies. Rava’s isn’t as straightforward.
The first of these discussions is in Moed Katan 2b. There the mishnah says that one may water a fields that is on a slope, and must be watered manually, during the shemittah year. The gemara asks how this is permissible — how is one permitted to tend a field by watering it during shemittah? Abayei answers that the mishnah is like Rebbe. This wouldn’t be too surprising, since Rebbe is the one who compiled the entire structure of Mishnah, including this one. But this means that the mishnah permits watering a field on the side of a mountain because it assumes that shemittah today isn’t real shemittah.
Rava says that one can even say that the mishnah goes like the Rabbanan, the rabbis other than Rebbe, who say that shemittah is from the Torah even today. However, the Torah only prohibited the av, the actual kind of tending one’s field as framed for the laws of resting on Shabbos. Shemittah does not include any tolados, other derivatives of the same basic idea that are close enough for Shabbos to prohibit. What is being permitted in the mishnah is only one of these tolados, derivatives.
Note that Rava doesn’t actually say that he holds like the other sages. It is possible that he personally rules that shemittah is no longer the biblical shemittah. However, in explaining the mishnah, he can understand the mishnah even without assuming its author agrees.
The second gemara is in Gitin (36b). This gemara should help us understand Rava’s position.
In Gitin, the gemara asks about the justification for the law of “pruzbul“. As we said, normally all loans end at shemittah, and can’t be collected any more. Hillel enacted a kind of loophole, called pruzbul. It’s a contract, by which the loan is handed over to the court and thereby there is no one person who is obligated to annul the loan. In this way, people would still be willing to lend money to those who need it — even late in the sixth year. If they need to collect on the loan, they can write up a pruzbul and still collect.
The gemara asks how Hillel could have enacted pruzbul — doesn’t is defy a major point of shemittah?
And again Abayei appeals to Rebbe’s idea to explain the leniency. Since this isn’t the biblical shemittah, Hillel is not overriding the Torah. Maybe we can explain Abayei’s idea further by suggesting that since shemittah today is a commemoration, one remembers the Torah’s mitzvah when he does the pruzbul, and that’s enough.
The gemara continues and asks: but still, you’re overriding an earlier Rabbinic enactment. Even with our suggested reasoning behind his ruling, how does Hillel have the authority to do override an earlier and greater court?
Rava provides an answer, but we’re not sure which question he’s answering: the original one — how can Hillel override shemittah? Or the later one — how can he override even rabbinic shemittah?
According to Rashi, Rava answers the original question. In other words, he is starting from ground zero, that shemittah isn’t necessarily from the rabbis. Instead Rava assumes that shemittah is from the Torah even today, and uses a different principle. Hefker beis din hefker — something a court declares ownerless is ownerless. One once they make it ownerless, they can give it to someone else. So, they can make the borrowed money ownerless and hand it back to the lender. And on those grounds, he justifies pruzbul.
In other words, Rashi says that Rava does hold like the other Rabbis, that the Torah’s shemittah applies even today.
Tosafos disagree with Rashi. They say he is coming to answer the second question and he is adding to Abayei’s answer. They say that even according to Rava, the law is like Rebbe, and we assume shemittah is NOT biblical.
Rava is answering how Hillel can overturn the earlier sages, those who said we should continue to observe shemittah as a commemoration. He says that Hillel doesn’t override them. Instead, the court is using its power to hand money from one person to another.
Tosafos therefore have no later sage who upholds the opinion that shemittah today is from the Torah, so they clearly rule that it isn’t.
But, Rashi makes this out to be a debate between Abayei and Rava as well. Abayei, like Rebbe, says that shemittah is only a commemoration; while Rava, like the other Rabbis of Rebbe’s day, says that the original Torah law still applies.
However, Rashi states his own position when explaining a third gemara. Sanhedrin (25a) again questions a leniency about shemittah. The Romans levied a new tax, and R’ Yanai allowed sowing during shemittah so that people could pay it in the seventh year too. Rashi there assumes that the law is Rabbinic, and R’ Yannai rules that they never imposed such a costly commemoration. Much like Abayei’s explanation of why one can water a field that is sloped.
In contrast to Rashi and Tosafos, the Ramban comments on Gitin, the gemara on pruzbul, that shemittah is from the Torah even today. After all, this is the majority opinion against Rebbe, and we almost always rule like the majority. This is also the opinion of the 19th century responsa of the Beis Haleivi and the Netziv.
On the other hand, the Me’iri on that gemara in Gitin is MORE lenient than anyone else we mentioned so far. He says that not only isn’t the mitzvah from the Torah, there isn’t even a rabbinic mitzvah of shemittah today! During the 2nd Temple period, a rabbinic yovel was observed. The Me’iri understands Rebbe to say that when that rabbinic yovel existed, there was also a rabbinic shemittah. However, today shemittah is only a minhag chassidus, a nice custom, not a halachah.
All this helps us understand our opening pasuq from the Torah. We are told to count “sheva` shabasos shanim” — seven sabbaths, shemittos, of years, because shemittah is inherently connected to yovel.
Perhaps we can go one step further. There is a debate in Eiruchin (24b) as to when the eighth shemittah ought to be. Should it be seven years after the previous shemittah, like the weeks, going by sevens forever? Or, do we not count the yovel year toward the seven for shemittah?
In the first opinion, given by R’ Yehudah, one yovel could be the year after the seventh shemittah. But the next shemittah will be only SIX years after that. So that by the time you get to the 50th year the next time around, it will be the SECOND year after shemittah. Yovel‘s place within the shemittah cycle will drift.
Going back to the two quotes from the Torah at the beginning of this devar Torah, this is actually closer to counting omer. Omer too we are told to count 7 weeks, but we don’t mean starting on Sunday and keeping the weeks of omer in sync with the weeks of omer counting. Even though the word used in the Torah for week was “shabbasos” — Sabbaths. Instead, it is merely 7 period of 7 days. Whatever day of the week that period might end on.
So, when it says by yovel “shabbasos shanim — Sabbaths of years” it doesn’t mean 7 Sabbaticals, but merely 7 cycles of 7.
The second opinion would not count yovel toward the shemittah cycle. The first shemittah of every yovel would therefore be the 7th year of the yovel. Instead of shemittah being an independent cycle of 7 years, it is set up as the 7th, 14th, 21st and so on in the yovel cycle. Shemittah and Yovel are parts of the same cycle.
We could suggest a reason based on the opinion of Rebbe. He makes shemittah dependent on yovel because they are parts of one bigger picture. Which is why they’re on the same cycle.
Looking at it the other way, if you say that yovel doesn’t count toward the shemittah cycle, what happens to shemittah when there is no Yovel? Because yovel isn’t skipped, shemittah is in a different pattern than it used to be. Which fits Rebbe, who says it’s only commemorative.
In which case, we can answer one last question. The Ramban rules that shemittah is still a Torah law, following the principle of ruling like the majority. How then can anyone else rule otherwise?
However, in the debate about whether to count yovel amongst the 7 years toward shemittah, it was the majority who said that one should not. That majority would therefore say that shemittah today, being every 7th year with no exceptions, is not the same as the original mitzvah. It is not Rebbe’s opinion alone.
Whatever the status is today, may we observe the next shemittah because of the Torah law; with the mitzvah of yovel restored because the people of Israel will have returned to our homes.