Home    Introduction    Talmudic Issues    Essays  

 Pamphlets    Parsha    Original Essays    Contact Us 


-Chazal were confused about the chronology of the Persian kings and, in a mistaken attempt to make sense of it, said that Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes were the same person.
-The accepted year of shmita goes against the Talmud and commentaries. It should really be any of a number of different years.

Equating Different People

In another section, we will deal with the dating of the Persian period. However, before we address shmita, let us spend a little time on Chazal's practice of saying that two people are the same. For example, in Rosh Hashanah 3b the Gemara says that Cyrus is Darius is Artaxerxes. This is not entirely unfamiliar to the student of the Bible. In fact, there are a number of cases in the Bible where one person has more than one name. For example, Yaakov is also called Yisrael (see Genesis 32:29). Shlomo is also called Kohelet (see Ecclesiastes 1:1).

However, in these cases does the Gemara mean that these are literally the same people who are just called by different names in different places? R' Tzvi Hirsch Chayes (Maharatz Chayes) says no. This is how he explains it in his Introduction to the Talmud (chapter 21):

It was also their exegetical practice (midarchei hadrush) to place different people under one name if they found these people to be similar in a character trait or quality of observance, if there were certain similar actions, or if their names are close to each other. For example (Megillah 15a), "Malachi is Ezra"... They also said there that Hatach is Daniel, Petachiah is Mordechai, and Sheshbatzar is Daniel...

To explain the matter I will show you a clear proof from an explicit Gemara (Bava Batra 91a) where it is said, "Avtzan is Boaz." The Gemara then asks, "What difference does it make?" Rashbam explains, "What gain is there? Do we learn any mitzvah from this?" This is difficult for how is it different from the many other places in Gemara [where this is done] and this question is not asked? However, according to what we have explained this is very proper. In many places it is worthwhile to equate righteous people so that the praise given to one can be given to all. There is a great gain in increasing the praise of the righteous. Here, however, we do not find any praise for Avtzan so what gain is there in equating him with Boaz? This is why the Gemara asks, "What difference does it make?" The Gemara answers that it is to tell us that even though he had many sons, he fulfilled the mitzvah of continuing to have sons by marrying Ruth in his old age.

In other words, when the Gemara says that Cyrus is Darius is Artaxerxes, it does not mean it literally. Rather, it is a form of midrash that compares the three. It is not an historical statement but an ethical one.

Calculating Shmita

Let us now address the main point, the calculation of the the shmita year. There is a dispute in Arachin 12b between R' Yehuda and Rabbanan. According to R' Yehuda, the yovel year - the 50th year of the 50 year Jubilee cycle - counts as the first year of the next 50 year cycle. Therefore, the cycle is really 49 years with the 50th/1st year being a yovel. Rabbanan, however, hold that the cycle is actually 50 years and only after the yovel year does the cycle begin again. The consensus is that, at least after the destruction of the Temple, the halacha is like R' Yehuda that the cycles are 49 years.

Tosafot (Avodah Zara 9b sv hai) quote Rashi as saying that the Temple was destroyed in its 420th year but Tosafot disagree and say that it was destroyed in its 421st year. This dispute is very significant because the Gemara in Arachin says that the year before the Temple was destroyed was a shmita. Therefore, according to Rashi the 419th year of the Temple was a shmita and according to Tosafot the 420th year was a shmita. Translating that into more absolute years, according to Rashi 3827 was a shmita and according to Tosafot 3828 was. The basis for these dates is the Gemara in Avodah Zara 9b: "Rav Huna the son of Rav Yehoshua said, 'Whoever does not know what year it is in the seven year [shmita] cycle should add one year [to the current year] and count the large sections [of 50 years] for yovel and the remaining small sections for shmita and subtract 2 years for every 100 from the remaining small section and calculate the remainder. From this he will know what year it is in the seven year [shmita] cycle.'" The exact text and the explanation of this passage is a matter of dispute. However, it is the source of all calculations. Calculating forward in cycles of 7 from Rashi's 3827 we find that 5759 (1998-1999) was a shmita. From Tosafot's 3828, we find that 5760 (1999-2000) was a shmita.

The Rambam in Hilchot Shmita chapter 10 has a slightly more complicated view because he rules like Rabbanan above that the yovel cycle is 50 years long. According to the Rambam's calculations the year 5757 (1996-1997) was a shmita. However, in halacha 5 of that chapter the Rambam says that his view, which is based on his understanding of the texts, is overruled by the Gaonim's tradition. The Gaonim had a tradition of how this count was actually practiced. The Rambam, in a very important act of intellectual humility, said that even though he did not understand the Gaonim's tradition we must follow it. His lack of understanding should not change halacha. According to the Gaonim, the year 5761 (2000-2001) was a shmita.

However, R' Levi Ibn Chaviv (Maharalbach) in his responsum 143 points out something difficult. The Smag (Asin 150) quotes the Rambam's conclusion according to the Gaonim and says that according to this the year 5004 would be a shmita year. Calculating forward, this would mean that the year 5760 was a shmita. Yet, as we showed from the Rambam, according to the Gaonim the year 5761 was a shmita. Similarly, the Ran in his chiddushim to Avodah Zara 9b says that the Gaonim's calculation matches that of Tosafot and that 5109, and therefore also 5760, are shmita years.

The Vilna Gaon in his Biur HaGra to Choshen Mishpat 69 explains in his very brief and concise way as follows (for a longer and clearer explanation, see R' Eliyahu Lichtenstein's footnotes to the Mossad HaRav Kook edition of Chiddushei HaRan, p. 21 n. 152). In addition to the two disputes above, whether the yovel cycle is of 49 or 50 years and whether the destruction of the Temple was in its 420th year or 421st year, there is a dispute of whether the Gemara is talking about years counted fom "the year of Adam" - the year in which Adam was created - or "the year of chaos" - the year before Adam was created. Recall that the Gemara in Avodah Zara was advising how you can calculate the year you are in of the shmita cycle from the current year (add 1 year, divide by 50, subtract 2 for every 50 from the remainder - according to the version in our texts). But which current year - the year counted from "the year of Adam" or the year counted from "the year of chaos"? This is independent of how we or the rishonim count the years (Tosafot on Avodah Zara 10a sv safra and Rosh Hashanah 8a sv litkufot say that it is from "the year of chaos"). The issue is how the Gemara counted the years. [As an aside, one's hands should tremble at the suggestion that the great Vilna Gaon, who knew the entire Talmud by heart, was ignorant of a Tosafot.]

According to the Rambam, and also the Ba'al HaMaor on Avodah Zara , Rabbeinu Tam in Sefer HaYashar 690 (see R' Eliyahu Lichtenstein's footnote to Chiddushei HaRan), and Rashi (9a sv dechi me'aynet, ki me'aynet), the Gemara was counting from "the year of Adam". This is clear from Rambam's Hilchot Shmita 10:2. Indeed, according to the Ran, the Gaonim's version of the Gemara read, "Whoever does not know what year it is in the seven year [shmita] cycle should ask the tanna (reciter) of Seder Olam and add one year..." The count of years was based on the Seder Olam which starts at "the year of Adam". See Rabbeinu Chananel's commentary for a similar version of the Gemara.

However, Tosafot, the Smag, the Ran, and many others assume the Gemara is counting from "the year of chaos". When the Smag and the Ran quote the Gaonim's view, they are taking the Gaonim's method of counting but applying it based on Tosafot's assumption that the Gemara is counting from "the year of chaos". That is why they say that Tosafot and the Gaonim agree on when shmita should be. If we were to reverse this by taking Tosafot's method of counting and applying it based on the Rambam's (and Rashi's and Rabbeinu Tam's) assumption that the Gemara is counting from "the year of Adam" they would also agree. However, when doing this we would calculate that the year 5760 from "the year of Adam" was shmita and, adding one year to convert, the year 5761 (2000-2001) from "the year of chaos" was shmita.


As a matter of halacha, this is what we follow. We observe shmita according to the Gaonim and Tosafot, assuming that the Gemara counted from "the year of Adam" and we count from "the year of chaos". The difference of one year between our standard count and the Gemara's is just a matter of from where we begin counting. However, because of this difference R' Shimon ben Tzemach Duran (Rashbatz) writes in a responsum (3:301) that we must be careful to write in documents that the year is "according to the way we count here" to avoid ambiguity.

It could and has been suggested that since shmita is only a rabbinic obligation today (there is a dispute about this but many authorities rule that this is the case - see R' Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook's introduction to Shabbat HaAretz and R' Yosef Dov HaLevy Soloveitchik's Beit HaLevy 3:1) and there are different opinions about which year is shmita, we should rule that safek derabbanan lehakel - when there is a doubt about a rabbinic law we are lenient. Therefore, we should not observe shmita in any year because about each year there is a doubt whether it is truly a shmita year.

The simple answer is that there is no doubt. This is a halachic matter and the Rama in Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 67:1 rules like the Gaonim. If we considered every issue on which there is a debate to be a case of doubt, then on biblical issues where doubts must be resolved sctrictly we would have to be much stricter than we are. Rather, we have methods of halachic ruling and once a ruling is issued and accepted there ceases to be a doubt on the issue.

However, even the initial suggestion is incorrect. The Gemara in Pesachim 108a records a debate about leaning while drinking the four cups of the Pesach seder. According to one opinion, we only lean during the first two cups. According to another opinion, we only lean during the last two cups. The Gemara concludes, "Now that it is said one way and it is said the other way, all of [the cups] require leaning." As the Ran explains, if we ruled that since this is a case of doubt about a rabbinic law we should be lenient, we would end up not leaning at all and the entire enactment of leaning would be ignored. Therefore, rather than being lenient and not leaning for any cups, we are forced to be strict and lean for all of the cups.

Similarly in our case, if we were to say that there is a doubt about when the shmita year falls out then ruling leniently would mean that we never fulfill the rabbinic enactment of shmita. Therefore, rather than not observing shmita in any year, we would be forced to observe shmita an all of the possible years. Clearly, this logic has reversed itself. See Beit HaLevy 3:1:9 about this.

Rather, we follow the normal methods of determining halacha and observe shmita on the year determined by the Gaonim, agreed to by the Rambam, and confirmed using Tosafot's method of counting.

Back Home

Contributor(s): Gil Student
Last revised: 10/24/01
© Aishdas 2001