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Shiur #04: Tosefet Shvi'it (Part 2)

  • Rav Moshe Taragin


Having introduced in the last shiur the position of Rabbenu Tam and the unique perspective upon tosefet shvi'it which he develops, we might now consider his position in light of the broader issues pertaining to this thirty day period.  Are there any sources in the mishna which might seem to support this view of tosefet shvi'it.  The mishnayot in Shvi'it (primarily in the first two perakim) list several types of work which are permitted during this period.  How might we understand these halakhot in light of Rabbenu Tam? 


            The mishna (3:8) describes a prohibition of building steps down to wells of water before shvi'it.  These steps assist people in drawing water with which to irrigate their fields.  As the building of steps before shvi'it will enhance the watering during shvi'it, this is prohibited (see the Rambam Hilkhot Shemitta 2:11 for a different reading of this mishna).  Might this mishna echo the position of Rabbenu Tam?  Building steps itself cannot be considered "avoda" (working of the land), as one is not working the land itself.  However, in as much as this construction facilitates work during shvi'it, it is forbidden. 


            Though the mishna seems to reflect the stance of Rabbenu Tam, two factors must be taken into account.  First of all, is this prohibition part of the Biblical tosefet which Rabbenu Tam described?  One factor which suggests that it isn't is the fact that the building of steps is prohibited well before the thirty day period prior to shemitta - from the time when the rainfall of the sixth year subsides.  In general, we assume that tosefet shvi'it from the Torah is limited to the thirty day period from Rosh Chodesh Ellul until Rosh Hashana!  Indeed, the Rash comments that the mishna forbids building these steps because it appears as if he is fixing the steps with intent to water his fields during the upcoming shemitta.  This construction might be forbidden not because it violates tosefet shvi'it, but because it arouses suspicion as to his ultimate design (mar'it ayin).  In fact, the mishna cites this law in the third perek (amidst other halakhot which might be based upon the mar'it ayin principle) and not in the first perek, which more directly describes the Biblical prohibition of tosefet shvi'it.


            From a logical standpoint as well, we might question the very applicability of Rabbenu Tam's principle to our mishna.  In the case of plowing a benefit was provided to the actual land and the "shevita" (dormancy) of the land was disturbed (as discussed in last week's shiur).  In our mishna, though future watering was clearly enhanced, no discernible impact was made upon the land, and we might claim that its shevita has not been disturbed.  It is questionable whether the mishna prohibiting the construction of steps is really based upon Rabbenu Tam's theory.


            Mishna 2:5, which describes a machloket between a tanna kamma and Rebbi Yehuda about "sichat peirot," might more closely resemble Rabbenu Tam's model of tosefet shevi'it. Farmers used to treat fruit while the fruit were still on the tree in order to accelerate their development or, in the case of weak fruit, assure their ripening.  The farmers would apply certain substances, and in some cases they would poke holes in the fruit and fill them with liquids which assist the natural process.  Rebbi Yehuda claims that these treatments might be considered avoda in locations in which this practice is commonplace and therefore prohibited even before shemitta begins.  Obviously, in areas in which this practice is not widespread, these treatments cannot be defined as avoda and are therefore permitted before shemitta.  The position of the Chakhamim prohibiting these treatments in all locations requires further examination.


            One approach toward understanding the Chakhamim would suggest that they employ a much more objective gauge in defining avoda. Unlike Rebbi Yehuda, who adopts a relative definition, the Chakhamim claim that these treatments are considered avoda regardless of local custom and cannot be performed before shvi'it.  If so, this machloket surrounds a very parochial issue - how to arrive at halakhic definitions of avoda. 


             A different approach would be that the Chakhamim agree to Rebbi Yehuda that definitions of avoda are based upon local customs.  Treating fruits before shvi'it, however, is forbidden, EVEN IF THE ACT ITSELF IS NOT CONISDERED AVODA.  The mishna (as the Rash notes) refers to fruits which though they have begun to ripen, will not be ready to eat until shemitta.  Hence any treatment before shvi'it will provide tangible benefit to these fruits during shvi'it.  Any process - akin to plowing - which provides a benefit during shemitta is forbidden prior to shemitta.  Rabbenu Tam's model of plowing (according to many Rishonim) is not a formal avoda and not Biblically forbidden before shvi'it and yet is forbidden thirty days before Rosh Hashana because of the utility it will provide during shvi'it.  The tanna kamma and Rebbi Yehuda might be debating the very issue which Rabbenu Tam developed. 


            Here, too, it is important to consider factors which are discrepant with Rabbenu Tam's original position.  Unlike plowing, which is forbidden thirty days prior to shemitta, these fruit treatments are seemingly forbidden well before the thirty day period - at any point from which the treatment will improve the ultimate shemitta fruits.  Might we suggest that according to Rabbenu Tam, the Torah, by establishing the thirty day period regarding plowing, was not legislating a law but asserting a paradigm?  Plowing is forbidden during this period because it will enhance the land during shemitta.  Prior to this period, any effects of plowing will dissolve.  From this template we can extrapolate to other activities which will enhance shvi'it production and which might therefore be forbidden well before this thirty day period.  Building steps are forbidden as soon as last season's rain ceases, while treating fruits is forbidden as soon as those treatments will improve the shvi'it crop. 


            A second concern pertains to the relationship between these treatments and the land itself.  Earlier we were suspect about linking the construction of steps to Rabbenu Tam because these steps did not render a palpable change to the land itself.  Treating fruits might bolster the development of fruits but might not disturb the shevita of the land itself.  We would have to more precisely define Rabbenu Tam's form of tosefet shvi'it in order to determine its extendibility to these cases.  Would a process which benefits shvi'it while not affecting the land proper be considered a violation of Rabbenu Tam's form of tosefet shvi'it?  This itself might have been the core of the debate between Rebbi Yehuda and the tanna kamma. 


            Having formulated this difference between work performed directly on the land and work which does not directly impact the land, we might consider an interesting debate between the Rabanan and Rebbi Shimon.  The third mishna in the second perek of Shvi'it discusses different forms of pruning a tree to reduce its branches and leaves and thereby augment growth for the remaining tree- "One may prune trees, thin them, and cut away their decay until Rosh Hashana."  Rebbi Shimon allows these forms of work only until the tosefet period thirty days prior to Rosh Hashana begins.  What is the basis of this machloket?


            One the one hand, we might claim that the tanna'im debate whether the prohibition against these forms of pruning are of Biblical or rabbinic origin.  The Rash already informs us (see his comments to mishna 2:2) that only Biblical forms of work are forbidden during tosefet shvi'it.  The gemara in Mo'ed Katan 3a concludes that the only acts which are Biblically forbidden on shvi'it (and hence forbidden during tosefet shvi'it) are planting, pruning a vineyard, harvesting grain, and harvesting grapes.  Would the forms of "de-leafing" trees presented in our mishna be considered Biblical prohibitions and therefore be forbidden during tosefet shvi'it?  Rebbi Shimon might have claimed that they should be compared to the examples in Mo'ed Katan and therefore be Biblically forbidden, while the tanna kamma argued with that claim. 


            Alternatively, the debate might have surrounded a completely different issue.  Indeed, I might define this process as formal work, but as it doesn't directly affect the land but merely improves the trees, perhaps it should be permitted during tosefet.  If we rule like Rabbenu Tam but limit the prohibition to plowing and other types of work which directly affect the land, we might allow improvements performed to the tree.  Rebbi Shimon might have seen tosefet as an extension of shvi'it prohibitions and therefore prohibited work performed upon the tree.  The tanna kamma might have agreed with Rabbenu Tam that work during tosefet shvi'it cannot improve the land, but work upon trees is permitted.  It should be reiterated that this view - limiting Rabbenu Tam's prohibition to work which affects the land - would not justify the prohibition of step construction or fruit treatment mentioned earlier.  If we allow tree de-leafing because it doesn't impact the land, we would ostensibly permit stair construction as well as fruit treatment.


            Finally, we might consider the implication for Rabbenu Tam of the halakha known as 'eser netiot.'  The halakha le-Moshe mi-sinai determines that one may plow a field containing ten seedlings until Rosh Hashana.  This form of plowing is permitted even during the thirty day period of Biblical tosefet.  At first glance this halakha is fully consistent with Rabbenu Tam's position.  In as much as plowing is forbidden because of the benefit it yields to shemitta, this plowing would not be banned.  As these seedlings need the extra plowing to survive, we would not forbid this plowing as it is not primarily intended to improve the land during shemitta. 


            We must, however, be able to embrace this halakha even if we disagree with Rabbenu Tam.  Even if we view the prohibition of plowing during tosefet as formal in nature, we must embrace this special dispensation which stems from a halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai.  We might claim, for example, that the basis for this leniency is the significant loss of money which not plowing these seedlings would cause.  Regarding established trees, abstaining from plowing thirty days before might at most affect the fruits which are on the trees.  Not plowing the seedlings, in contrast, would lead to their death, a less recoverable loss which inspired the Torah to grant a special allowance.  See, for example, Rashi in Mo'ed Katan (3b) and the Rash in his comments to Shvi'it 1:6, who justify the allowance of eser netiot in this manner.