Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat Behar-Behukotai

A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Behar-Behukotai 5758-1998

Prof. Yehuda Feliks

Land of Israel Studies

Editor's note: This year, both parashot are read in the Diaspora on May 23; in Israel, Behar is read on May 16 and Behukotai on May 23. We offer two selections, one on each Parasha. The second was written by a guest "lecturer" from Yeshiva University, Dr. Moshe Sokolow. As a service to our Israeli readers, we are placing both on the Internet for the week of May 16, when Behar is read in Israel (Emor in the Diaspora). We thank Baruch Kaufman for the suggestion.

The Sabbatical Year as Observed by the Ancient Hebrew Farmer

My studies of the sabbatical year, especially my book on Tractate Shevi`it in the Jerusalem Talmud, lead to the conclusion that the sabbatical year was actually observed during the Second Temple period and in the time of the Mishnah and Talmud.

Several sources indicate that the commandment of the sabbatical year was not observed in the time of the First Temple. The Torah warns us that if this command is not fulfilled, exile can be expected:

Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies;... Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it. (Lev. 26:34-35)

Jeremiah (25:9-13) and the end of Chronicles interpret the Biblical reference here as the seventy years of exile after the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE, because the sabbatical years were not observed.

Contrary to my opinion, some scholars believe that observance of the sabbatical year declined in the time of the Mishnah and Talmud. Our study of the sabbatical year, however, has shown that in these times the basic tenets of the sabbatical year were kept and technical solutions were found for carrying on, although given the advanced economy of the times it was not possible to observe the commandment of remission of debts (Deut. 15:1-3). Hillel the Elder (who lived in the first century B.C.E.) instituted the prozbul, a document that the lender files with the court on the eve of the seventh year, detailing the debts which he intends to collect after the seventh year. In his place, the court, not the lender, would collect the debts (Mishna Shevi`it, ch. 9). The prozbul was ordained after it had become clear that people were refraining from giving loans for fear of the debt being forgiven in the seventh year.

In order to strengthen observance of the sabbatical year, the Sages, especially at the Academy at Jabneh, added various strictures, such as a prohibition against gathering or eating the aftergrowth of the harvest, meaning crops which grew on their own (commonly called the prohibition of sefihim) and a prohibition against plowing in the summer before the seventh year. These prohibitions did not stand the test of real life. The prohibition against plowing on the eve of the seventh year was completely rescinded by Rabban Gamaliel, the son of Rabbi. The prohibitions concerning aftergrowths were reduced by Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai to a single variety, and over the years various ways were found of essentially divesting this prohibition of all content.

The laws of the seventh year posed a vocational and ecological challenge to the ancient Jewish farmer, forcing him to develop special techniques in order to maintain his farm while refraining from the activities proscribed in the seventh year. Plowing, a basic agricultural activity, provides a good example. The Torah explicitly forbade only two types of agricultural work in the seventh year: sowing and pruning. "But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, ... You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard" (Lev. 25:4).

The text continues:

You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. But you may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce--you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts in your land may eat all its yield.

The Sages deduced from this text that one may not "reap in the usual manner of harvesting," and that the owner of the field must forego any claim on its produce, making it free for all (hefker). As we discover, not everyone refrained from working his field. Thus, in the time of Rabban Gamaliel of Jabneh a stricter ruling was issued, forbidding everyone from enjoying the aftergrowth, meaning that even produce which grew on its own was prohibited, lest people think that so-and-so tended his fields. Reality was such that this ruling was not generally obeyed. Attempts were made to reduce the scope of its restrictions, to the extent that Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai ruled that all aftergrowths (except for cabbage) were permitted. Others instituted loopholes by which the aftergrowths were proclaimed free for all, so that even the owner of the field could benefit from them.

The Torah did not prohibit plowing in the seventh year, but the Sages interpreted the general rule that "the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord" (Lev. 25:4) as including a prohibition against plowing. This ruling, basically designed to prevent the farmer from preparing his fields for sowing in the seventh year, became devoid of content, since the Jews strictly observed the proscription against sowing in the seventh year and therefore the Sages did not strictly enforce their ruling against plowing when it was not for the purpose of sowing in the same year. We know that in the third century the Roman regime imposed heavier taxation and was unwilling to give up its tax income in the sabbatical year. The Sages also permitted plowing fallowed fields in the seventh year to prevent the field from being overgrown by weeds and to assure good crops the following year. This was the approach taken by the Jerusalem Talmud. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Rav Yannai permitted sowing, proclaiming, "Go out and sow your fields in the seventh year, because of taxation" (Sanhedrin 26a).

The technique of plowing fallowed fields proved itself in the seventh year as well as in other years. Generally the farmer would only sow half his fields every year, leaving the rest fallow and plowing them as many as seven times. This prevented the field from becoming overgrown with weeds and improved the structure of the soil. But most important of all, plowing reduced evaporation of water from the soil and enabled the field to absorb rainwater during the fallow year for the following year. If rainfall was slight that year, then the ground water would combine with the rainwater, assuring good yields. For the most part, fields that had been left fallow but were plowed yielded twice the produce of other fields. Indeed, the yields received by Jewish farmers in the ancient world were incomparably better than those of other peoples. Jewish farmers were praised for their high yields even by Roman agricultural experts.

In sum, plowing was permitted in the seventh year, primarily since the Torah only explicitly forbade sowing one's field and pruning one's vineyard. At first the Sages also forbade plowing, on the basis of the scriptural reference to the land enjoying a sabbath rest, but in time they permitted plowing that was not for the purpose of sowing in the seventh year. Here it must be stressed that in the Second Temple period the Mishnah and Talmud strictly maintained the proscription against sowing in the seventh year, for the Torah said that during the exile "the land shall make up for its sabbath years." After the return to Zion the Jews kept the laws of the seventh year, refraining from sowing and permitting the aftergrowths, on condition that they not be harvested in the usual way. In this manner the halakhah provided the ancient Jewish farmer a way of coping with the commandment of the sabbatical year.