Shiur #11: Assisting Others in Shemitta Labor

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

            The concluding mishnayot of the fifth perek of Shvi'it discuss various items which may not be sold by a craftsman during the shemitta year.  Among these items are those which are employed to assist in various forms of labor which are forbidden during this year.  For example, a professional plowing device cannot be sold, though a handheld plowshare may be sold, since it is likely (or of even probability) that the item will be used for permissible work.  The mishna does not qualify the prohibition to sell and appears to apply it universally.  The Yerushalmi, however, limits the prohibition to sales to those suspected of violating shemitta laws.  As the Rambam explains in his commentary to the mishna, this prohibition is Biblical and is based upon the principle of "lifnei iver lo titen michshol" (Vayikra 19:14) – you are not allowed to serve as an accomplice in the transgression of a prohibition.  While selling items to ordinary people who are not suspected of shemitta violation would not qualify as lifnei iver, selling to shemitta suspects would. 


A second factor implicit in the mishna is the range of individuals who may not sell.  If the prohibition is based upon lifnei iver, the prohibition would assumedly relate to a craftsmen selling to a suspected shemitta violator as well as a common person selling to these individuals.  Though the mishna employs the term "uman," suggesting the limitation of this prohibition to craftsmen, the simple logic of the mishna demands expanding this prohibition to all people. 


Mishna 8 cites a disagreement between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel regarding selling a cow normally used to plow to someone suspected of shemitta violation.  Beit Hillel allows the sale because the cow may be used for other purposes.  This is, in fact, consistent with the earlier mishna's classification (mishna 6) that tools primarily used for forbidden labor may not be sold, while generic tools (which might be employed for acceptable labor) can be sold.  The assumption underlying these mishnayot is that lifnei iver is only violated if I provide a specific medium for future sin.  The classic example is one who makes wine accessible to a nazir (who is forbidden from drinking wine).  Since I handed him the very item with which he transgressed, I am considered an accomplice and in violation of lifnei iver.  Providing a professional plow or the yoke placed upon the plowing animals would provide the ingredients of sin.  In contrast, selling a general house tool – or, according to Beit Hillel, even an animal - does not constitute lifnei iver, even if these items can be directed toward forbidden work. 


An interesting exception to this rule appears in mishna 9 and in a parallel mishna in Gittin (61a).  The mishna allows a woman to lend her baking utensils to another woman suspected of non-shemitta compliance, as long as the first doesn't actively assist the second in baking.  Even though the prospect of lifnei iver applies, loaning these items is permissible, apparently because of "darchei shalom" - the desire to allow for harmonious neighborly relationships.  In fact, this mishna appears in a long list of mishnayot cited in the fifth perek of Gittin which all contain decrees and leniencies to promote darchei shalom.  This mishna leads to an important conclusion: Lifnei iver considerations may be suspended if it might lead to an erosion of darchei shalom.  Assumedly, as lifnei iver is intended to promote mitzva observance and limit transgressions, it can be temporarily suspended if its application will only alienate and cause greater violation or invite weaker performance of mitzvot.  [Practical questions such as inviting non-shomer shabbat individuals to attend shabbat functions (meals, tefilla, bar mitzva, etc.) are heavily influenced by this question.  See the Chazon Ish in his commentary to Masechet Shvi'it 12:9, who develops this concept.  It must be noted that our perek only suggests suspending possible cases of lifnei iver in favor of darchei shalom.  In all our mishnayot, the scenario of issur was never certain.  It was at most only likely, depending upon the item being sold and the person to whom it is being sold.  Would definite situations of lifnei iver be similarly suspended in favor of darchei shalom?  See Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbauch (Minchat Shlomo chapter 35), who addresses this issue.] 


The conclusion of the mishna discussing a woman lending baking tools to other women suspected of shvi'it violation dictates that the lender must not assist the borrower in her actual baking.  Even though lifnei iver was suspended, a different issur applies – actively participating in the performance of a sin.  As Rashi in Gittin comments, "You cannot actively assist someone in the performance of a sin assuming your participation occurs during the actual moment of the transgression."  Rashi informs us of the difference between two categories: lifnei iver, which is suspended in situations of darchei shalom, and "mesayei'a" (assisting in the actual sin), which still applies even in cases of darchei shalom.  According to Rashi, the latter only applies if you are contributing to the actual execution of the sin at the time the sin is being committed. 


An earlier mishna 4:3 (also cited in Gittin and repeated in the end of the fifth perek) allows us to be "machazik" a gentile while he is plowing land.  The Yerushalmi in Shvi'it provides two versions of what machazik refers to: According to the first approach, you may actually offer him money to plow the land, whereas according to the second approach, you may only provide verbal encouragement (to say "yasher ko'ach").  The gemara in Gittin (62a) only cites the second opinion – that one may offer a gentile verbal encouragement.  Toward a Jew violating the shemitta, this conduct is clearly forbidden.  Evidently, the mishnayot present a third category of issur: Aside from the Biblical prohibition of lifnei iver and the apparently rabbinic injunction against actually helping the transgression during its execution (not baking along with a shemitta violator), one cannot encourage or in any way inspire those who have committed sins - to literally be "machazik" them.  Even verbal encouragement, which in no way violates lifnei iver or mesayei'a, is forbidden.  Interestingly enough, the mishna in Gittin lumps the prohibition of baking with shemitta violators with the prohibition of verbally encouraging violators and calls them both "machazik" – encouragement.  Rashi, in his commentary to Gittin, distinguishes between the former case, which is a more severe situation of mesayei'a (actually participating in the performance of the aveira), and the latter, which is only machazik (encouraging the violator). 



To conclude, it is important to inspect the position of the Yerushalmi, which allowed verbal encouragement of a gentile but disallowed reaching a financial agreement for him to plow fields for you during shemitta.  As the gentile is not your agent (since he cannot halakhically act as an agent) and the lands are not yours, why is this forbidden?  Might we be witnessing another example where a prohibition is based upon the need that the land must rest in addition to man not performing agricultural labor?! By hiring the gentile, perhaps I am causing the shemitta of the land to be disturbed, even though I am in no way the author of this labor !!