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The Difference Between Shemitta and Yovel

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 Based on a shiur by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l



            The observance of the shemitta (sabbatical) year gives rise to many pragmatic questions.  In the framework of this shiur, however, we will deal with a fundamental aspect of the laws of shemitta, even though it has no practical ramifications: the relationship between shemitta and yovel (the jubilee year), which does not apply in our time.  We will compare and contrast these ideas, unearthing the deep significance of their relationship.




            We will open the discussion with purely halakhic issues, namely, the prohibitions that apply during shemitta and during yovel.  The Torah, in Parashat Behar, opens with the laws of shemitta (Vayikra 25:1-7) and then moves on to yovel (ibid. 25:8-26:2).  The passage implies a parallel between shemitta and yovel:


In the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest (shabbaton) for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall neither sow your field, nor prune your vineyard.  You shall not reap that which grows of its own accord of your harvest, nor gather the grapes of your undressed vine; for it shall be a year of rest for the land.  The sabbath produce of the land shall be food for you — for you, and for your manservant, and for your maidservant, and for your hired servant, and for your stranger that sojourns with you.  All its yield shall be for your cattle and for the beast in your land, to eat.


Then you shall count for yourself seven sabbaths of years, seven years seven times, and the days of these seven sabbaths of years shall be for you forty-nine years…  You shall sanctify the year of the fiftieth year… It is the jubilee; it shall be the year of the fiftieth year for you: you shall not sow, nor reap that which grows of itself in it, nor gather in it the grapes of your undressed vine.  For it is the jubilee and it shall be holy to you: from the field, you shall eat its yield.

            (Vayikra 25:4-8, 10-12)


            Agricultural labor is forbidden in both the yovel year and the shemitta year.  Indeed, the Rambam rules (Hilkhot Shemitta Ve-yovel 10:15):


The law of letting the land rest for the yovel year is the same, in all respects, as the law for the shemitta year: whatever agricultural work is forbidden in the shemitta year is forbidden also in the yovel year, and whatever is permitted in the shemitta year is permitted also in the yovel year; whatever labor incurs a penalty of flogging in the shemitta year incurs the same penalty in the yovel year.  Similarly, the laws governing the consumption, sale, and removal of the produce in the yovel year are the same as the laws of the shemitta year in all respects.


            The Rambam opens with a sweeping statement — "the same, in all respects" — but he is not content with that; he explicitly mentions each of the shared laws.  However, we must still ask ourselves whether this correspondence is absolute.  This question arises in two areas:


1)    Does the parallelism apply also to other aspects of shemitta and yovel that are not connected to agricultural work or the sanctity of the produce?  An answer to this question may be found in the following ruling of the Rambam, based on the Sifra (Behar 2:3:6):


The seventh [year] is greater than the yovel year in that the seventh cancels debts, while yovel does not; the yovel year is greater than the seventh  in that yovel emancipates indentured servants and restores land to its original owner… The yovel year releases the land at its beginning, while the seventh cancels debts only at its end, as we have explained.  (Ibid. 16)


            The Rambam notes here that even though he has established in the previous paragraph that the law of shemitta and the law of yovel are the same, this rule applies only to the prohibitions of working the land: both shemitta and yovel retain their own unique mitzvot.


            The question that we will deal with below is whether the unique mitzvot of shemitta and yovel reflect a fundamental distinction between the two.


2)         Is the agricultural correspondence between the two absolute?  The Rambam's formulation is rather sweeping, but nevertheless there are various cases in which such statements are not absolute.  The Mishna in Megilla (1:4-11) lists more than a dozen halakhic pairs in the famous "ein bein" series, each pair having only one or two variations between them, but in fact, there are many differences besides those listed; for example, although food preparation is identified as the sole difference between Shabbat and Yom Tov, we find many distinctions between the weekly sabbath and seasonal holidays.  Another example may be brought from the Rambam himself, who in Hilkhot Ma'aser 1:7 equates the various agricultural gifts in a sweeping formulation, even though there are several differences between them.  Thus, even in the issue of the land and its produce, there may be a distinction between shemitta and yovel.


            Indeed, the Minchat Chinukh (335:1) notes two differences between shemitta and yovel in the framework of agricultural prohibitions.  One of the differences that he notes appears to emerge from the verses themselves.  Regarding shemitta, the Torah repeats several times the element of "shabbat," and even "shabbat shabbaton" ("a sabbath of rest"); regarding yovel, on the other hand, this wording is absent.  Rashi (Avoda Zara 15b) derives from the term "shabbat" that during the shemitta year, one is forbidden by Torah law to allow a non-Jew to work the field of a Jew, as the bottom line is that the field does not rest, even though the work is being performed by one who is not bound by the prohibition.  The Minchat Chinukh concludes that this unique aspect of shabbaton applies to the shemitta year, but not to yovel.


            Another distinction is found in the Rambam's own words at the beginning of Hilkhot Shemitta Ve-yovel (1:1):


It is a positive commandment to desist from working the land or tending the trees in the seventh year, as it is said: "Then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the Lord" (Vayikra 25:2), and elsewhere: "In plowing and in harvest you shall rest" (Shemot 34:21).  Whoever performs any labor in working the land or tending the trees in that year not only nullifies a positive commandment but also transgresses a negative commandment, as it is said: "You shall neither sow your field, nor prune your vineyard" (Vayikra 25:4).


            Regarding yovel, on the other hand, the Rambam makes no mention whatsoever of nullifying a positive commandment.  In contrast to the Rambam, the Sefer Ha-chinukh writes (332):


If someone violates this and performs a forbidden labor on his land in the yovel year, and so too if one does not wish to set his servant free, he disobeys the positive precept, apart from transgressing a negative precept.


            Clearly, according to the Sefer Ha-chinukh, one who performs a forbidden labor during the yovel year not only violates a prohibition, but also nullifies a positive commandment.  We are not dealing with the positive commandment of shemitta, but rather with an independent positive commandment of observing yovel.  In any event, there is a positive commandment of sanctifying the fiftieth year, but the Minchat Chinukh (332:1, 335:1) explains that in fact the Sefer Ha-chinukh and the Rambam disagree as to whether this can apply to an individual farmer.[1]


            A third point of difference between shemitta and yovel arises in the count of the negative commandments.   In the case of shemitta there is a prohibition to work the land (Rambam's Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Negative Commandment #220) and a separate prohibition to tend trees (#221), whereas in the case of yovel, there is only one prohibition for the two (#224).  Practically speaking, the same labors are forbidden in both years, but the ways in which the various prohibitions are counted are different.  This may indicate a distinction in the very nature of these mitzvot. 




            Let us now move on to a deeper examination of the nature of the difference between shemitta and yovel.  First of all, we must appreciate a novel understanding of yovel found in the gemara and in the Sifra.  Regarding the shemitta year, it goes without saying that even if its laws are not observed, its sanctity remains in place.  Nevertheless, with respect to the yovel year, the Sifra (Behar 2:2:4) proposes, based on the phrase "Yovel hi," "It is the jubilee" (Vayikra 25:10):


"'Yovel' – even though they did not release the land [and] even though they did not sound the shofar.  You might say: even though they did not set the indentured servants free; therefore the verse says 'hi'" — these are the words of Rabbi Yehuda.  Rabbi Yosei says: "'Yovel' – even though they did not release the land [and] even though they did not set the indentured servants free.  You might say: even though they did not sound the shofar; therefore the verse says 'hi.'" 

Rabbi Yosei says: "Inasmuch as one verse predicates it on sounding the shofar, and another verse predicates it on setting indentured servants free, why do I say it is yovel without setting indentured servants free?  Because yovel is possible without setting indentured servants free, but it is impossible without sounding the shofar.  Another explanation: sounding the shofar depends on the court, whereas setting indentured servants free depends on ordinary people."


            Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yosei disagree about the details, but both positions agree that if certain integral mitzvot are ignored, the very nature of the year is impaired.  As stated above, this is not true with respect to the shemitta year.


            As for the normative law, the Rambam rules (Hilkhot Shemitta Ve-yovel 10:13) in accordance with the most stringent view, that each of the mitzvot of yovel is indispensable:


            Three things are essential for the yovel year: sounding the ram's horn, emancipation of indentured servants, and restoration of fields to their original owners.


            We must, of course, ask: why with respect to yovel (and not with respect to shemitta) do the mitzvot of the year depend upon the release of the land?


            The Meshekh Chokhma notes this difference between shemitta and yovel and explains it on the basis of a different halakhic model:


In the Sifra, it says, "'A sabbath to the Lord' (Vayikra 25:2) – just as it says with respect to the sabbath of creation 'a sabbath to the Lord' (Shemot 20:9), so too it says with respect to the seventh [year], 'a sabbath to the Lord;'" see the Ramban's commentary.[2]  Nevertheless, in my humble opinion, it seems that this comes to teach a law, that just as the sanctity of Shabbat is different than the sanctity of Yom Tov – that Shabbat is fixed, whereas Yom Tov is sanctified by Israel; and they can push it up or push it off, as opposed to Shabbat which is fixed – so too the sanctity of the seventh [year] is different than the sanctity of the yovel year.  For whatever applies to the shemitta year applies to the yovel year, only that the yovel year depends on [Israel] – if they did not sound the shofar or if they did not set the indentured servants free or if they did not restore fields to their original owners, plowing and sowing are permitted, and it is not yovel at all.  This is not the case with shemitta, which is sanctified by itself, a special royal edict, not dependent upon the sanctification by Israel.  Therefore, regarding shemitta it says "a sabbath to the Lord," for even if they did not count the years or release anything, nevertheless, [the produce] is ownerless and exempt from tithes, it being a special royal edict…  because shemitta teaches about the creation of the world — "for the earth is mine" (Vayikra 25:23 — like Shabbat.  Yovel, on the other hand, teaches us about setting servants free, which is similar to the exodus from Egypt, like Yom Tov, which is in commemoration of the exodus from Egypt.  


            The Meshekh Chokhma distinguishes between the genesis of the sanctity of the shemitta year and that of the yovel year.  His position opens the door to an even more novel understanding, according to which shemitta and yovel differ not only with respect to the way in which the expropriation of the land is initiated, but also with respect to the very nature and essence of that expropriation.  If we say that the shemitta year and the yovel year differ with respect to the nature of this release, then the gap between them widens.


            In order to sharpen the difference between shemitta and yovel, let us make use of the model presented by The Meshekh Chokhma: Shabbat and Yom Tov.  The Meshekh Chokhma turns our attention to a Talmudic passage in Beitza 17b which relates to the manner in which the respective sanctities of Shabbat and Yom Tov are created.  As we explained above, however, the difference is not only with respect to the manner in which these days are imbued with holiness, but with respect to the very essence of the sanctity. Shabbat is different from Yom Tov in that it falls into the category of "shabbat shabbaton," and not merely "shabbaton;" that is to say, the holiness of Shabbat is more deeply rooted and essential.


            The blessing recited after the Haftara on Shabbat contains the words: "for holiness and for rest, for glory and for beauty," whereas the blessing recited on Yom Tov reads: "for joy and for gladness, for glory and for beauty." What is the root of this difference?  The gemara in Berakhot 49a states:


Rav Zeira was once sitting behind Rav Gidal, and Rav Gidal was sitting facing Rav Huna, and as [Rav Gidal] sat, he said: "If one forgot and did not mention Shabbat in the grace, he says: 'Blessed is He who gave Shabbat for rest to His people Israel in love for a sign and a covenant.  Blessed is He who sanctifies Shabbat…'" He then continued: "If one forgot and did not mention Yom Tov, he says: 'Blessed is He who gave Yom Tov to His people Israel for joy and for remembrance.  Blessed is He who sanctifies Israel and the festivals.'"


            Throughout the ages, our sages have dealt at length with this question: what is the function of Shabbat, and what does it symbolize?  As we know, Shabbat draws upon two sources: the creation of the world (Shemot 20:10) and the exodus from Egypt (Devarim 5:14).  Therefore, one who fails to mention the exodus from Egypt in Kiddush does not fulfill his obligation.  It would appear, however, that the dominant aspect of Shabbat is that of creation, i.e., remembering that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, the shabbat of creation.  It is for this reason that one who performs a forbidden labor on Shabbat impairs that essential content.


            In contrast to Shabbat, on Yom Tov there is no independent prohibition of labor.  Yom Tov was given "for joy and for gladness."  Practically speaking, a person cannot rejoice when is working, and so work is forbidden.


            In other words, a distinction can be made between an immanent and deeply-rooted prohibition of labor that is connected to the very nature of the day and a relatively accidental prohibition of labor, the objective of which is to prevent all interference with other contents of the day.[3]


            Let us return to the matter at hand.  Following the approach of the Meshekh Chokhma, we might argue that during the shemitta year there is an independent prohibition to work the land, whereas during the yovel year there is a certain objective that we want to attain, and the purpose of the prohibition to work the land is to prevent anything from interfering with the attainment of that objective.


            It seems that we have room to propose a similar distinction with respect to the shemitta year itself, which includes two dimensions:


1)         The year is one of "shabbat shabbaton," and therefore the performance of agricultural labor is forbidden.

2)         Reaping and gathering relate to the fruit and to the trees, and do not interfere with the land's rest, for it is obviously permissible to reap grain and gather fruit during the sabbatical year!  What is forbidden is action that expresses man's ownership.  As Rashi says (Vayikra 25:5, s.v. Lo tiktzor): "'You shall not reap' – to hold on to it as with any other harvest, but rather it shall be declared ownerless for all."


On a certain level, then, there is an essential clash between working the land and the nature of the year; on another level, working the land is forbidden in order to allow the actualization of the goals of the sabbatical year.


Does this fundamental difference find expression in the details of the prohibitions?  The Mishna in Shevi'it (8:6) deals with the requirement of working the land during the shemitta year in an unusual manner (see Rash and Shenot Eliyahu, ad loc., who discuss the issue at length), so that even basic labors which allow us to eat the produce must be performed differently.  We might suggest that the obligation to reap and gather fruit in a different way applies only during the shemitta year, but not during the yovel.  A change is only necessary when the prohibition to work the land is immanent, but during the yovel year, the prohibitions serve a certain objective, and therefore there is room to permit them even without changing the manner in which they are executed.




            The question was raised earlier whether the mitzvot that are unique to shemitta and yovel teach us anything about the essential essence of these years.  It is possible that this question underlies the words of the Ramban in Devarim (15:1) regarding the relationship between the release of monetary debts and the rest of the land:


"At the end of seven years you shall make a shemitta" – the correct interpretation appears to me that it is warning about the seventh year itself, that we make it a sabbatical year, [refraining] from plowing, [sowing] and reaping, just as it says: "But the seventh year, you shall let it rest and lie fallow" (Shemot 23:11).  This is the meaning of "you shall make a shemitta," that you should rest, similar to the expression, "to make the day of Shabbat" (Devarim 5:15).  He abridges the prohibitions of sowing and pruning because He expressly mentioned them already, but He supplements [what was previously said] to explain that it is "a shemitta of the Lord" also in regard to the release of money.  This is the sense of the expression, "because it is proclaimed shemitta to the Lord" (Devarim 15:2), which is similar to "a sabbath to the Lord" (Vayikra 25:2), and all work is to cease. 


The Ramban maintains that the shemitta mentioned in this passage is not only the shemitta of land, but also the shemitta of money.  This means that by its very essence the year stops all economic development, from the financial to the agricultural.  In other words, the Ramban maintains that the shemitta of money and the shemitta of land are intimately intertwined.  The two shemittot complement each other to create the nature of the year, turning it into "shabbat shabbaton."


What the Ramban says leads us to an even more important innovation.  According to the Ramban, if there is no shemitta of money, there is no "sabbath for the Lord," because there is no fulfillment of "all work is to cease."  Now, if during the yovel year there is no shemitta of money, we are then forced to say that the year is not a "shabbaton," but rather a year that is different from the sabbatical year in its very essence.


This understanding of the Ramban strongly supports what we suggested above, that the words of the Meshekh Chokhma relate not only to the manner in which the year is created, but also to its very essence: shemitta and yovel differ in their nature and in their goal.


The Rambam in Shemonah Perakim (Ch. 4) explains that all the mitzvot involving giving come to teach a person not to be greedy and not to enslave oneself to one's money.  The common understanding is that these mitzvot come also to help the poor, but the Rambam focuses on their educational dimension.  The novelty in the Rambam's position that is relevant to our discussion is that all the mitzvot of giving – tithes, gifts to the poor, shemitta and yovel – come to further this objective; that is to say, there is no distinguishing between the various mitzvot.


The Keli Yakar (Parashat Behar) presents a different approach that distinguishes between shemitta and yovel; nevertheless, he closes by saying that they both reflect the same idea:


Just as He commands to sanctify the seventh year so that man will know and internalize that the earth is the Lord's, so too He commands to sanctify the fiftieth year so that man will know that there is a limit to all his actions, and that he is not the absolute owner of the field, but like a sojourner in the land, and that he has rights in it for only fifty years…  According to the plain sense, shemitta and yovel are based on the same idea, namely, that we must place our trust in God and know that the earth is His. 


The Ramban (Vayikra 25:10), as well, reflects upon the nature of the mitzva of yovel through its etymology, associating it with the term "yuval" ("will be brought," as in Yeshayahu 18:7):


When He states "You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof," meaning that they shall all be free to reside wherever they please, He continues by saying "yovel hi," that it is a year in which every man "yuval" to his property. 


Without going into a lengthy explanation of what the Ramban is saying, what is most striking is that his rationale for yovel has a very clear agenda, to set yovel apart from shemitta. 




            In conclusion, I wish to briefly mention two additional points:


1)     When we come to compare the two realms, we must examine their meeting point.  The Meshekh Chokhma cites the opinion of the Ba'al Ha-ma'or (the source of which is found in Sefer Ha-terumot 45:4), according to which there is an obligation to sanctify the shemitta year.  This is based on the assumption that yovel and shemitta constitute a single unit, each being dependent upon the other.  The mutual dependency upon each other finds expression in the dispute (Nedarim 61a and elsewhere) whether the yovel year is counted in the shemitta cycle, i.e., whether this fiftieth year is the first year counting toward the next shemitta or is essentially a year zero.  If we say that we are dealing with a single phenomenon, it stands to reason that the yovel year is counted in the shemitta cycle; but if we say that we are dealing with two different phenomena, the yovel is an island that does not belong to the shemitta system.


2)     The curses in Parashat Bechukotai (26:34-35, 43) describe the exile from the land, emphasizing the non-observance of the shemitta years and the punishment to which that leads.  A similar description is found also in II Divrei Ha-yamim 36:21 and Rashi's comments to Yechezkel 4:6.  Indeed, the Gemara in Shabbat 33a says:


As a punishment for incest, idolatry and non-observance of the years of shemitta and yovel, exile comes into the world: [the Jews] are exiled, and others come and dwell in their place.


            According to our approach, there might have been room to say that exile comes as a punishment only for non-observance of shemitta, but not yovel.  This, however, does not fit in well with the plain sense of the Talmudic passage. 


            In this context, see also Avot 5:9, which deals with the punishment for neglect of "giving the land its shemitta," but does not explain whether it is referring only to shemitta, or to yovel as well.


(Translated by David Strauss)


*       This shiur was delivered at a conference dealing with the issue of shemitta held on Chanuka, 2006, and was summarized by Avihud Schwartz. The present version was not reviewed by HaRav Lichtenstein.

[1] See the editor's note in the Makhon Yerushalayim edition; he maintains that it is not necessary to understand the Rambam's view in this manner.

[2]  The Ramban notes the conceptual parallel between Shabbat and shemitta, and goes on at length with a kabbalistic explanation.  According to the Meshekh Chokhma, the comparison is not merely conceptual, but fundamental, connected to the nature of the time period.

[3]  This is even clearer on Chol Ha-mo'ed, the intermediate days of Pesach and Sukkot, which have no explicit Scriptural prohibitions.  The Torah has a certain objective with regard to these days, and the whole role of the prohibition of work on these days is to prevent anything that might interfere with achieving that objective.

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