Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Re'eh 5763/ August 23, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Re'eh 5763/ August 23, 2003
"Mikketz"-Beginning or End?
Rabbi Judah Zoldan
The Midrasha for Women

The exact phrasing of the law concerning remission of debts, "every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts" (Deut. 15:1) raised disagreement among commentators regarding its timing. The Hebrew expression is mikketz sheva shanim, which literally could be rendered as "at the end of seven years." Hence, the question arises as to which end of the year is meant - the beginning of the seventh year, or its conclusion? Sifre on Deuteronomy, par. 111, reads:

"Every seventh year" - does that mean from the beginning of the year, or at its end? We can argue as follows: note that the word ketz (end) appears here and further on (Deut. 31:10). Just as ketz in the latter instance means at the conclusion, not the beginning, so too ketz here means at the conclusion, not the beginning.

The Talmud, too, says: "The sabbatical is at the end of the year, for it is written, 'At the end of seven years you shall have a remission'" (Arakhin 28b). On the other hand, the Tosefta, says: "When is the prosbul written? On the eve of the New Year of the seventh year" (Tosefta, Shevi'it [Lieberman ed.], ch. 8.10). Some people, however, have the reading "the eve after the New Year at the end of the seventh year."[1]

Several times in Ibn Ezra's commentaries on the Bible he notes that the word mikketz can be interpreted either as beginning or end. Thus he interprets the text about the spies (Numbers 13:25): "At the end of forty days they returned from scouting the land" - "Sometimes mikketz denotes the beginning, sometimes mikketz is the end; it could mean at the beginning of the forty days." Regarding Moses' return after forty days on Mount Sinai - "At the end of those forty days and forty nights, the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone, the Tablets of the Covenant" (Deut. 9:11) - Ibn Ezra comments: "Upon the conclusion or the beginning of the forty days; in this case it means that on the same day that Moses was given the Tablets the calf was made."

In some instances Ibn Ezra is more decisive, interpreting ketz as denoting the beginning, not the end. For example, in this week's reading, regarding setting aside tithes (14:28): "'After a period of three years (miqtze shalosh shanim) you shall bring out the full tithe of your yield of that year' - at the beginning." The same goes for the main subject of interest to us here - remission of debts. Here is his comment on our verse:

"At the beginning of the year, as I have explained. And the witness is: 'Gather the people'(31:12)" (Ibn Ezra on Deut. 15:1). Ibn Ezra means to say that the law of Hakhel, gathering the people for a festive Torah-reading once in seven years, also uses the phrase mikketz sheva shanim bemo'ed shnat hashemitta behag hasukkot" (31:10) and presumably means "every seven years" (JPS) at the beginning of the year, since it specifies "on Sukkot", which is but two weeks after the New Year (Rosh Hashana). He repeats this interpretation regarding the command to gather the people at Deut. 31:11, where the Law of Hakhel appears: "'Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths' - at the beginning of the year."[2]

Elsewhere Ibn Ezra proves his point from the verse, "In the seventh year [lit. mikketz, at the end of seven years] each of you must let go any fellow Hebrew who may be sold to you; when he has served you six years, you must set him free" (Jer. 34:14). According to the Torah a Hebrew servant is released after six years, at the beginning of the seventh year. This is Ibn Ezra's comment: "He shall work for six years and no more, and at the beginning of the seventh year from when he was sold he shall go free, no matter which year it is. Do not wonder about the text from Jeremiah, saying 'at the end of seven years,' for everything has two ends or extremes, and sometimes it is at the commencement, sometimes at the conclusion" (Ibn Ezra's commentary on Exodus 21:2 [long version]).[3]

In practice remission of debts is generally agreed to be at the end of the seventh year, and therefore those who write a prosbul do so towards the New Year of the eighth year.[4]

That remission of debts should take place at the beginning of the seventh year, Ibn Ezra's view, accords with what he says elsewhere. Nehemiah 5:1-5 tells of popular complaints against Jews who exploited their fellows on account of financial debts. The context of the people's outcry is not clear from the verses at hand. The commentary attributed to Ibn Ezra[5] (on Neh. 5:9) reads: "It was during the Year of Remission (sabbatical year), and therefore the people cried out." The masses apparently understood that the wealthy Jews who had given loans had no intention of granting remission of the debts, as the Torah demands, and therefore there was an outcry. It erupted during construction of the wall around Jerusalem, which commenced on the third of Av and concluded on the 25th of Elul (Nehemiah 6:15). Thus, we see, the timing was towards the end of the year. Computing the years and the events that took place according to the Sages, we discover that indeed it was the end of the sixth year, and the eve of the sabbatical year; now according to Ibn Ezra, the remission of debts takes place at the beginning of the sabbatical year.

Here is how we arrive at that conclusion: Construction of the wall commenced with Nehemiah's arrival in Israel, in the twentieth year of the reign of Artaxerxes (Neh. 2:1; 5:14). Earlier, in the seventh year of the reign of the king, in the month of Av, Ezra had returned to Israel (Ezra 7:7-9). According to Rav Ashi, the sabbatical year began to be calculated anew upon Ezra's return (BT, Arakhin 13a), the reckoning towards the sabbatical year commencing at the New Year after Ezra's arrival.[6] The eighth year of the king's reign was the first year in the reckoning of the sabbatical year; hence the fourteenth year of the king's reign was the first sabbatical year during the Second Temple period, and the twenty-first year of his reign was the second sabbatical year of the Second Temple period. Thus we conclude that the twentieth year, in which Nehemiah returned to Israel and in which the people cried out against exploitation and usury, was the sixth year of the cycle, on the eve of the sabbatical year. Bearing in mind Ibn Ezra's contention that remission of debts took place at the beginning of the sabbatical, when the people realized there would be no remittance, the reason for the popular outcry becomes clear.

[1] S. Lieberman, Tosefta Ki-fshutah, Zeraim 2, New York 1945, pp. 592-593, notes several manuscripts as well as several rishonim who had a version of the Tosefta reading: "on the eve of the New Year of the seventh year." He also notes that other manuscripts have the variant reading, "at the close of the seventh year."
[2] A similar interpretation is given in Ibn Ezra on Ex. 31:13 and in the commentaries attributed to him on Psalms 119:96 and Esther 2:12.
[3] Certain commentators have taken to task these remarks by Ibn Ezra, especially concerning remission of debts. For example, Rabbi Meir Leibush (Malbim), Ha-Torah ve-ha-Mitzvah, Deut. 15:1, who also notes the verse from Jeremiah, but due to the proximity there of a text about biur ma'asrot, getting rid of tithes, Malbim found it necessary to interpret "at the end of seven years - also refers to the end of the period." Rabbi Barukh Ha-Levy Epstein, Torah Temimah, Deut. 15:1, responded to Malbim's comment and maintained that the verse in Jeremiah does not provide any proof, since "the Sages already sensed this in the Talmud, Arakhin 33a, and explained that it was six for a person who had been sold and seven for a subjugated slave." Rabbi Jonathan Eibshutz, Sefer Urim ve-Tumim, 67.26, interpreted Ibn Ezra as meaning that from the onset of the seventh year the lender cannot demand repayment of a debt, but if the borrower comes to pay back, the lender does not have to say, "I forgo it" (following the approach of Rabbenu Asher (Rosh), Gittin, ch. 4, par. 18), "for Heaven forfend that we impute to him [Ibn Ezra] even the least bit of heresy as if he took a stand in contradiction to the Sages, who held that remission of debts is at the end of the sabbatical year." Rabbi Israel Mishklov, Pe'at ha-Shulhan - Beit Yisrael, in the section on laws of prosbul, par. 96, rejects what is said in Tumim: "There is not the least stain on the reputation of the saintly Ibn Ezra, who explained the plain sense of Scripture; and Sifre raised this possibility at the outset." There were, however, those who suspected Ibn Ezra of taking a position like that of the Karaites, who held that mi-ketz meant from the beginning. For reference to such sources, see D. Henschke, "Eimatai hu zmano shel hakhel?" Sefer Hakhel, Kefar Darom 2001, p. 454. For further reading on Ibn Ezra's position and other commentaries in response, see Rabbi Y. Hadari, Shabbat u-Mo'ed ba-Shevi'it, Jerusalem 1986, pp. 71-79.
[4] Thus Maimonides ruled in Hilkhot Shemita ve-Yovel, ch. 9, halakhah 4; Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Misphat, 67.30. For an overview of the sources, see Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Resp. Yehaveh Da'at, Part 4, par. 62. Some people are more strict in this regard and make a prosbul before the beginning of the seventh year.
[5] Some scholars attribute the Ibn Ezra Commentary on Ezra and Nehemiah to R. Moses Kimhi. See E. Weiser, Perushei ha-Torah le-R. Abraham Ibn Ezra, Jerusalem, 1977, Intro., p. 15.
[6] This is based on our understanding of Rashi's commentary on the gemara in Arakhin (loc. sit.). For a general summary of the computation of the years, according to the systems of Rashi, Rabbenu Gershom, and Maimonides, see A. Shulman, Seder Shemitot ve-Yovlot, Kol Mevasser Publishing, 2001, pp. 53-60.