Shiur #06: Calculating the Year of Shemitta

  • Rav Shlomo Levy

Based on a Shiur by Rav Shlomo Levy *



Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua, said: “If one does not know what this year is in the shemitta cycle, let him add one year[1] and let him put aside the centuries as yovel cycles and convert the remainder into shemitta cycles, after adding thereto two years for every complete century; what is left over will give him the number of the given year in the current shemitta cycle.  Use as a mnemonic [for adding two years for every century]: 'For these two years has the famine been in the land' (Bereishit 45:6).” Avoda Zara 9b


            Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua, suggests a simple method for calculating what year it is in the shemitta (sabbatical) cycle, but the Rishonim disagree about how to understand Rav Huna's system.  Before I begin to examine the various understandings, let me mention the famous disagreement between Rabbi Yehuda and the Sages about the yovel (jubilee) year:


And [according to] the Sages, you count it as the fiftieth year, but you do not count the fiftieth year as the first year [of the next yovel cycle].  To the exclusion of Rabbi Yehuda who says: The fiftieth year counts for this [yovel cycle] and for that [yovel cycle]

                                                             (Rosh Ha-shana 9a)



The Ba'al Ha-ma'or



            The Ba'al Ha-ma'or argues that the count of the years with respect to shemitta and yovel is a “calculation from the creation of the world” (2b in Alfasi, Avoda Zara).  He understands that the passage in Avoda Zara follows the position of Rabbi Yehuda, who maintains that the fiftieth year - the year of yovel - counts also as the first year of the next yovel cycle.  Thus, in order to establish the status of the current year, we can count the years that have passed since the creation of the world, divide that number by seven, and thus determine what year it is in the shemitta cycle.  Rav Huna's suggestion comes to assist those who find it difficult to make this calculation.  Instead of taking the number 500, for example, and dividing it by seven, risking a mistake in the computation, Rav Huna suggests that one take 2 for every century, add the remaining years, and divide that sum by 7.  According to his calculation, the present year 5768 is indeed a shemitta year.[2]


            However, the Ba'al Ha-ma'or's position is difficult, for we know that shemitta did not apply until the people of Israel entered Eretz Yisra'el, and thus it is unreasonable to start the count from the creation of the world!  It might be argued that the Ba'al Ha-ma'or is not suggesting that shemitta applied from the time of creation; instead, he holds that Rav Huna offers a method of calculating the shemitta year (as is implied by the plain sense of his words), and that he comes to teach us that the law is in accordance with Rabbi Yehuda.





            Rashi (ad loc.) explains that Rav Huna's calculation is from the year of the destruction of the Second Temple.  The Temple was destroyed in the year 3828,[3] which was the year after shemitta (motza'ei shevi'it).  If we go back a year, we get to a shemitta year, and using that information we can calculate all the future shemitta years.  Rashi understands that the law follows the position of Rabbi Yehuda, and so if we count how many years have passed since the year before the destruction of the Temple, and divide that sum by seven, we can determine what year it is in the shemitta cycle.  According to this, it turns out that shemitta fell out last year – in 5767 – rather than this year – 5768.[4]  The Rosh (Avoda Zara 1:7) cites Rashi and Tosafot (see below), discusses the two positions, and seems to rule in accordance with Rashi.  This is also apparently the ruling of his son, the Tur (CM 87). 



Those Who Disagree with Rashi


            Heading those who disagree with Rashi are Tosafot (specifically Rabbeinu Tam and the Rashbam), who maintain that Rav Huna's calculation is indeed from the year of the destruction of the Temple, but say that the destruction took place not in 3828, but rather in 3829.  That is to say, the destruction took place in the year following the 420th year of the Second Temple.  That year was the year following the shemitta year, and so all the computations are pushed one year ahead.  According to this, this year (5768) is indeed the year of shemitta.[5]


According to the Rambam's ruling (see below), the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 3828, but that year was a year of shemitta and not the year after shemitta, as understood by Rashi and the Tosafot.  According to the Rambam, the sources that speak of the year of the destruction of the Temple as motza'ei shevi'it (Tosefta Ta'anit 3:9, et al.) refer to the month of Av which was at the end of the shemitta year.  According to this calculation as well, it turns out that the present year – 5768 – is the year of shemitta.  The Shulchan Arukh rules in accordance with this view. 


            According to what we have said thus far, it turns out that according to the positions of the Ba'al Ha-ma'or and the Tosafot and the rulings of the Rambam and the Shulchan Arukh, the current year – 5768 – is indeed the year of shemitta, whereas according to Rashi, the Rosh and the Tur, the year 5768 is the year following shemitta. 


            The law has been decided in accordance with the view of Tosafot and those who follow in their wake, and the common practice follows this ruling.  The Vilna Gaon writes that one should be stringent and fulfill Rashi's view as well, but this stringency has not been accepted in practice.  The Chazon Ish even writes that observing such a stringency could lead to leniencies, as it casts a shadow of doubt on the regular shemitta year.  The rule is that in cases of doubt regarding a rabbinic law (and we rule in accordance with Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi that the observance of shemitta in our time is only by rabbinic decree [Gittin 36b]), we may practice leniency.[6]



The Rambam


Even though the yovel was not in force during the time of the Second Temple, it was nevertheless counted in order to hallow the shemitta years. 

You thus learn that the year in which the Second Temple was destroyed, which begins with the month of Tishrei, about two months after the actual destruction of the Temple — for it is from Tishrei that we count the shemitta and yovel years — that year was motza'ei shevi'it… According to this reckoning, the present year, which is the year 1107 since the destruction of the Second Temple… corresponding to the year 4936 of the era of Creation, is a shemitta year, and the twenty-first year of the yovel cycle.                                                                             (Hilkhot Shemitta Ve-yovel 10:3-4)


            The Rambam rules that during the Second Temple period the years were counted in accordance with the position of the Sages (see Arakhin 32b-33a), that the fiftieth year stands outside of the sabbatical cycles, so that every century would contain 14 shemitta years and 2 yovel years.  The Rambam extends the calculation to his day (adding a year for every seven sabbatical cycles), noting the year that should be shemitta according to his own reckoning.  The Rambam, however, does not rule in accordance with his view, but rather in accordance with a Geonic tradition:


All the Geonim, however, have said that they had a tradition, handed down from person to person, to the effect that during the seventy years between the destruction of the First Temple and the completion of the Second Temple only shemitta years were counted, but not yovel years.  Similarly, after the Second Temple was destroyed, the fiftieth year was no longer counted, only the shemitta years, reckoning from the beginning of the year of the destruction of that Temple.  The same reckoning, which is traditional, follows also from the Gemara in Tractate Avoda Zara. 

The shemitta year has been known and widely publicized among the Geonim and the people of the Land of Israel.  All of them counted the years since the destruction of the Second Temple only in groups of seven…  

                                                                         (Ibid. 5-6)


            According to the Geonic tradition, we rule in accordance with the view of the Sages,[7] that the yovel year does not count toward the next sabbatical cycle; nevertheless, following the destruction of the Temple, we no longer count the years of yovel, but only the years of shemitta.  Thus, every seventh year is a year of shemitta, and the count is never interrupted by a yovel year. 

            The Ra'avad (ad loc.) raises an objection against the view of the Geonim: “It cannot be that after the destruction we count, in remembrance of the Temple, using a different calculation than the original one!”  Instead, the Ra'avad proposes a different understanding: “We count every fifty years, opposing Rabbi Yehuda, as we counted originally; perhaps this is the position of the Geonim.”  Thus, the Ra'avad raises an objection against the view of the Geonim (according to the Rambam's understanding), arguing that that there is no reason to distinguish between the count before the destruction and the count after the destruction. 


            Rav Chayyim Brisker (Chiddushei Rabbeinu Chayyim Ha-levi, ad loc.) explains the rationale underlying the distinction between the periods before and after the destruction.  Prior to the destruction, even though the yovel year could not be observed (see Arakhin, ibid.), the Sanhedrin, which had the ability to calculate and sanctify the yovel year, was in place; therefore the yovel years were included in the count.  After the destruction, however, when the Sanhedrin no longer sat in its place, the yovel years could no longer be included in the count.  Furthermore, Rav Chayyim says that the view of the Geonim is based on the argument that it is possible to distinguish between the count of yovel and the count of shemitta. 


            Still, two points in the Rambam require explanation. 


1)          Why does he maintain that the fiftieth year should be counted even after the destruction, when there is no Sanhedrin?


2)          Why does he push his own position aside and accept that of the Geonim?


As with respect to yovel, the Sanhedrin is needed to sanctify the new month.  The question therefore arises how the months are sanctified in our time, when there is no Sanhedrin.  The Ramban (Hassagot Le-Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Ase 153) maintains that Hillel, son of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi, and his court sanctified all the months until the reestablishment of the Sanhedrin, so that we need not be concerned about the calendar. 


The Rambam, however, does not accept the Ramban's view.  According to him, Hillel made the calculations and established a calendar, but the act of sanctification continues to this day:


If we were to suppose, for example, that the inhabitants of the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisra'el) disappeared – God forbid, since He has promised that He will not altogether wipe out and uproot the remnant of the nation…  in that case our calculations would be of no use to us whatsoever…

                                     (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Ase 153)


            The sanctification of the month, which is ordinarily given over to the Sanhedrin, depends on the presence of Jews in Eretz Yisra'el.  The common understanding of the Rambam's view is that this law is based on his view concerning the renewal of the Sanhedrin.  According to the Rambam, the sages of Eretz Yisra'el have the authority to grant true semikha (ordination) and reestablish the Sanhedrin.[8]  According to the Rambam, therefore, the sages of Eretz Yisra'el have the status of a Sanhedrin; they impact on the sanctification of the months. 


            In light of this, it can be argued that with respect to the sanctification of the jubilee year as well, the Jews living in Eretz Yisra'el have a certain standing, even after the destruction.  They can sanctify the yovel year for the purpose of counting the sabbatical cycles, even though the yovel is not observed in practice, as was the case during the time of the Second Temple.  The Rambam, who rules in 10:4 that the yovel year is counted even in our time, does not mean that it can be included in the count even though it is not sanctified; rather, he means that the yovel year can be consecrated and therefore also included in the count even in our time.  This calculation, however, depends on the desire on the part of the Jews living in Eretz Yisra'el to sanctify the yovel year.[9] 


            The Geonim who disagree with the Rambam might maintain that it is impossible to sanctify the yovel year without a Sanhedrin, or they might say that there is no need to sanctify the yovel year, were it possible.  From what the Rambam says about the people of Eretz Yisra'el, who conduct themselves in accordance with the view of the Geonim, it is clear that in actual practice the yovel year is not consecrated.  This being the case, even the Rambam agrees that after the destruction, the count includes only the shemitta cycles, even if fundamentally it might have been preferable to count the yovel years as well. 


            According to what we have said, even though the Rambam rules in accordance with the Sages against Rabbi Yehuda, and even though he disagrees with the Geonim about the preferred way of counting the years after the destruction, he fully agrees that in light of the situation that has been created in Eretz Yisra'el, the count that is followed there is the correct calculation. 


            Furthermore, the Rambam writes (ibid. 12:16):


So too, in the future, in the third coming,[10] at the time when they will enter the Land, they will commence counting shemitta and yovel years and they will sanctify walled cities…  Just as with your ancestors' inheritance, you observed the innovation of all of these matters, so too with your inheritance, you will observe the innovation of all of these matters.


             From this Rav Chayyim concludes:


This implies that without inheritance there is no count… and that which they counted yovel years in order to sanctify the shemitta years was, of necessity, by rabbinic decree. 


            From the fact that it will become necessary to renew the count, Rav Chayyim understands that thus far the count is only by rabbinic decree.  It might be suggested, against what Rav Chayyim says, that the count in our time is indeed by Torah law (if we understand that the count depends on the part of the Jewish people living in Eretz Yisra'el).  In the future we will once again commence counting shemitta and yovel years, because currently (according to the Rambam) we follow the view of the Geonim and count only the shemitta cycles, whereas in the future we will have to start a new count that includes the yovel years as well. 


(Translated by David Strauss)




* This shiur was delivered in the Yeshiva on Motza'ei Shabbat, Parashat Shelach, 5767, and edited (and altered to fit the present year) by Ori Ya'akov Biran.  The shiur was reviewed by Rav Levi.

[1]           See Ba'al Ha-ma'or, who cites a disagreement between the Geonim and the sages of Spain, whether Rav Huna's suggestion includes the words, "let him add one year."  We will not address this question. 

[2]           5768 / 7 = 824.  Since there is no remainder, it is a shemitta year.  According to Rav Huna, the calculation is as follows: from 5700, take 114 [2 for every century; 57 x 2 = 114]; add the remaining 68, for a total of 182; divide that sum by 7, arriving at 26 with no remainder; hence, 5768 is a shemitta year. 

[3]           Based on the assumption that the Second Temple was built in 3408 and stood for 420 years. 

[4]           Before I spell out the calculation, I wish to cite the words of the Chazon Ish, who notes as follows: "The entire calculation [of the shemitta and yovel cycles] is from Adam, whereas the count of years from the creation includes the year of chaos which preceded the creation.  Therefore, year 88 from Adam is what we call year 89 [from creation]."

            Returning now to Rashi, the shemitta year which preceded the year of the destruction of the Second Temple, which was year 3827 from Adam, let us call it – as we indeed refer to it today - year 3828 from creation.  Subtract from 5767 (last year) the shemitta year 3828, and we are left with 1939.  Divide 1939 by 7, and we are left with 277 with no remainder.  Using Rav Huna's suggestion – from 1939, take 38 [19 x 2]; add 39, for a total of 77; divide that sum by 7, and we are left with 11, with no remainder.  Thus, according to Rashi, 5767 (last year) was a shemitta year! And if we make the calculation from the current year – 5768 – we will end up with a remainder which indicates that it is not a shemitta year!

[5]           According to the Tosafot, the shemitta year which preceded the year of the destruction of the Second Temple, which was year 3828 from Adam, let us call it – following the Chazon Ish - year 3829 from creation.  Subtract from 5768 (this year) the shemitta year 3829, and we are left with 1939.  If we do the computation, we are left with no remainder, which indicates that 5768 is indeed a year of shemitta!

[6]           Indeed, proponents of the hetter mekhira, selling all farmland to a non-Jew for the shemitta year, mention this disagreement about how to calculate the years as an additional factor that allows for leniency. 

[7]           According to one understanding cited by the Ra'avad, the Geonim rule in accordance with Rabbi Yehuda, but it is clear from the Rambam's wording that this is not their position. 

[8]           "It seems to me that if all the wise men in Eretz Yisra'el were to agree to appoint judges and to ordain them, the ordination would be valid, empowering the ordained to adjudicate cases involving fines and to ordain others" (Hilkhot Sanhedrin 4:11). 

[9]           According to some, the sanctification of the month also depends on the Birkat Ha-chodesh recited by the Jews living in Eretz Yisra'el.  In any event, their consent and agreement are necessary.  

[10]          The first was under Yehoshua's leadership, the second under Ezra's.