Shiur #01: Examining the Two Shemitta Sections in the Torah

  • Rav Moshe Taragin


This week’s shiurim are dedicated in memory of
Moshe Eliezer Maeir Stillman z”l
by Isaac Ely Stillman



Shiur #1: Examining the Two Shemitta Sections in the Torah



Before beginning the masekhta proper, an attempt will be made to provide an overarching sense of Shemitta and its various motifs.  A careful reading of the parshiyot in the Torah coupled with an examination of various themes highlighted by the Meforshim should provide a sharper sense of the Shemitta experience. 


The first mention of Shemitta occurs in Parashat Mishpatim, a parasha dealing primarily with the social and civil laws vital towards constructing a just and stable society.  The various laws of Choshen Mishpat are geared toward establishing a social ethic and the responsibility of the judiciary to enforce that ethic.  Though the parasha generally refers to society at large, one particular section focuses upon one sector of society - the destitute.  Various halakhot in the parasha (the return of collateral, not favoring the rich in judicial proceedings, and not accepting bribes) are all geared toward protecting the rights of those who cannot protect themselves.  Amidst this backdrop the Torah cites the first mention of Shemitta, urging us to abandon the land so that the impoverished of the nation will be able to eat fruits (which are not gathered and stored, as in normal years).  Interestingly enough, the focus of this parasha is squarely upon the fruits, rather than the land which produces the fruits.  The Torah legislates that for the first 6 years of the cycle regular work may be performed and crops may be harvested.  On the 7th year, however, the crops should be abandoned and surrendered ("tishmitena u'netashta") so that the indigent (as well as the animals) may freely partake of them.  Both Rashi and the Ramban are troubled by the redundancy ("tishmitena u'netashtah") and by the obvious omission of any prohibition regarding working the land itself.  To this degree, they each (based upon the Mekhilta) labor to reinterpret the simple reading of the pasuk and include some mention of a mitzva concerning the land itself.  The Ibn Ezra sees the repetition as including the laws of shemittat kesafim, thereby ensuring early mention for this law as well.  (Typically, most believe that shemittat kesafim is entirely omitted from Mishpatim and that its first mention occurs in Behar.)  However, there is no denying that the primary focus of this parasha is upon the fruits, and the Torah's direct intent is to freely provide these fruits to the poor during Shemitta. 


An additional phenomenon unique to Mishpatim is the focus placed upon animals.  Not only may the poor people partake of these 'abandoned' fruits, but so may the 'beasts of the field.'  Man and his society 'civilize' areas of this world and claim them for human enterprise.  They establish boundaries between society and 'nature'; Mishpatim itself provides a blueprint toward the maintenance of this society.  Key to the survival of that society is the timely and efficient provision of food.  (When this capacity is impeded, society itself is crippled – recall the one-two punch of barad and arbeh which stripped this function from Egyptian society).  Once in seven years, these boundaries are relaxed.  Just as the undesirable boundaries within society (rich and poor) are removed, so are the external divisions between society and the 'field,' or between man and beast, temporarily suspended.  Indeed, much of the earlier sections of Mishpatim (particularly the laws of damages and the section detailing shomrim) addressed man and his domesticated animals - within society.  By switching the discussion to include beasts of the field, the Torah shifts the spotlight from the beginning of the parasha. 


            By contrast, the section in Behar is addressed to the land which will rest this year.  The section is dotted with mentions of the aretz and the passage even speaks directly to the land.  Though the Torah begins by speaking to us and delimiting the Shemitta experience to the period we spent in the land of Israel (Ki Tavo'u el Ha-aretz), it immediately shifts and speaks about the land and her fruits.  While Parashat Mishpatim almost entirely ignored the various types of work forbidden during Shemitta (focusing exclusively upon the method of gathering crops), Behar carefully delineates the forms of agricultural activity forbidden during Shemitta.  In fact, the Torah uncharacteristically spells out each and every form of work which is banned, relegating other types of activity as merely miderabanan (see Mo'ed Katan 3a).  Unlike Shabbat, regarding which the Torah is vague by design, on Shemitta the Torah fully and clearly enumerates, laying particular emphasis upon the work performed on the land and not just the fruits harvested by human beings.  As if the inherent reference to the land weren't sufficient, the Torah establishes the concept of a resting experience for the land 4 times (pesukim 2,4,5 & 6).  In fact, ensuing sections in Bechukotai warn us that non-compliance with the Torah will prompt our being sent into exile, which allows, among other things, the land's compensation for its deserved shemittot which were ignored during the period of the first Beit Hamikdash ('Az tirtzeh ha-aretz et shabtoteha'). 


             A second dimension which exists only in Behar is the religious or even theological nature of Shemitta.  Hashem's name is completely absent from Mishpatim, while it receives prominent attention in Behar.  The phrase 'Shabbat la-Hashem' (repeated twice), as well as the phrase 'Shabbat Shabatton,' each convey the sense that the practice of Shemitta has religious connotations.  The parasha is threaded with both overt mention of Hashem as well as words pregnant with religious meaning ('shabbaton').  Unlike Parashat Mishpatim, which ignores Yovel, Behar underscores the obvious, structural parallels between the two.  From a purely social standpoint – at least in terms of a particular individual - yovel does not provide the same correction that Shemitta affords.  Indeed, at a macro level, the return of lands is vital in avoiding the concentration of assets.  Yet, it may not provide relief for a specific person suffering from poverty.  The wait of up to 49 years can render yovel ineffective to any one person or even for an entire generation.  Mishpatim stresses the utility of Shemitta while paying no attention to yovel.  Behar, which alludes to a theological experience (recognizing Hashem's authority), is able to highlight the similarity between the two. 


A further difference concerns the animals mentioned in each section.  As noted earlier, the beasts of the field are awarded Shemitta-fruits on par with man in Parashat Mishpatim.  Behar describes the same phenomenon but addresses the animals within the domestic context.  The Torah describes the 'shabbat ha-aretz' as providing food for "you, your servant, your handmaid, worker, temporary resident, as well as your beheima (domesticated animal) and chayah (beast) who resides in your land."  The substance of the Torah's description is not that dissimilar, but the style in which this halakha is presented in crucial.  Unlike Mishpatim, the beheima (normally a word referring to domesticated animals) appears alongside the chayah, which themselves now live in your land rather than roaming the field.  This entire animal contingent is part of a larger society of various individuals who inhabit the land as a community and must commemorate Hashem's creation by experiencing Shemitta.  The Torah provides a fairly comprehensive listing of this society but omits an important member: the poor person.  Behar is uninterested in the charitable dimensions of the Shemitta experience.  Unlike Mishpatim, which awarded the fruits of the field to the underprivileged (poor, wild beasts), Behar makes it clear that: "the food should be for you to eat – for you, your servant etc."


Obviously, these differences must be further assessed when considering the various themes behind the Shemitta experience.  Next week's shiur will Iy"H focus upon these motifs, many of which draw heavily from these textual nuances.