Selected Topics in the Second Perek of Shvi'it
Dedicated in memory of Gertrude and Samuel Spiegel z”l
by Michael and Patti Steinmetz
1) Plowing fields until Rosh Hashana
The entire first perek of Shvi'it, as well as the first mishna of the second perek, describe the various prohibitions surrounding plowing on erev shevi’it. In the era of the Beit Hamikdash, a Biblical prohibition existed thirty days prior to shemitta, while various Rabbinical extensions applied to orchards and fields from Shavuot and Pesach, respectively. The only allowance mentioned pertains a field containing ten young seedlings, which may be plowed right until shemitta commences. It is therefore surprising to discover the second mishna of the second perek which begins with an allowance to plow "miksha'ot" "ve-midla'ot" (various vegetables patches) until Rosh Hashana. Why should one be allowed to plow these vegetables patches when all other plowing is prohibited?
The Rash comments that this type of plowing is obviously intended to improve the vegetables of the sixth year. Unlike grain or even fruit trees, vegetables demand constant attention, and any work which directly impacts upon the prior year's crop is permissible. Obviously, according to the position of Rabbenu Tam regarding tosefet shevi'it (discussed in shiurim 3 and 4), this allowance is logical. Since the entire notion of tosefet shevi'it was not a formal one but rather avoiding work which might facilitate agricultural activity during shemitta itself, work which serves the old crop is definitely permitted. Even if we disagree with Rabbenu Tam and adopt a more objective, or formal, view of tosefet shevi'it, we might find ourselves allowing work which is still necessary to complete the agricultural cycle of the previous year.
The Rambam, in his commentary to the mishna, follows the Rash's position, though with one modification. He stipulates that "idur" (the term for plowing employed by this mishna) is performed directly upon the roots of the vegetation. Unlike "charisha" (the more traditional term for plowing and the one used by the first perek), which is performed on the entire field, "idur" must be performed "upon" only the roots themselves. By this definition the Rambam appears to limit the allowance of this mishna to a very specific form of activity – plowing the roots themselves. The Rash, for his part, explicitly argues with the Rambam, citing a Yerushalmi that any form of plowing is permitted, as long as it primarily improves the past crop.
The Rosh presents a second strategy for solving the mishna. He claims that this mishna is authored by Rebbi Shimon ben Gamliel, who extended the special dispensation for seedlings beyond trees to pumpkins as well. This mishna is just reiterating Rebbi Shimon ben Galmliel's position that young trees, or for that matter, young pumpkin plants may continue to be plowed until Rosh Hashana. The Rosh's position seems unlikely in light of the fact that this mishna is completely dislocated textually from the earlier mishnayot which detailed the eser netiyot rule. In addition, the mishna is stated in a universal tone, suggesting that all opinions embrace this allowance – not just Rebbi Shimon ben Gamliel.
Having presented two different approaches toward understanding the mishna, we might turn our attention to an interesting postulation in the Rambam Hilkhot Shemitta perek 1. In halakha 2 the Rambam is quite clear that a person would not receive lashes for plowing; after all, the Torah does not explicitly state a negative commandment for this action. We would expect (and this is indeed the manner in which most commentators read the Rambam) that plowing should nevertheless fall under the Biblical category of shevitat ha'aretz and be forbidden, even though it does not carry a penalty of lashes. To our surprise the Rambam (in halakha 4) groups plowing with other forms of actions which are forbidden only mi-derabanan, without allowing for the obvious difference between them: Plowing is forbidden mi-de'oraita!!
The Radvaz (responsa no.1550) claims that the Rambam actually distinguishes between two forms of plowing. Any type of plowing which assists the tree or the grain and helps it grow is essentially a form of planting which is Biblically forbidden during shemitta (and presumably during tosefet shemitta as well). The Rambam in halakha 4, on the other hand, is referring to plowing which only affects the land (in preparing it for future activity); this form of work is only forbidden during shemitta proper mi-derabanan (and is not at all forbidden during tosefet shemitta). This position stands in almost direct contrast to Rabbenu Tam, who ruled that the very essence of the tosefet shevi'it clause is a prohibition against actions which will enrich the land for future planting. Actual planting during tosefet, according to Rabbenu Tam, is only forbidden mi-derabanan. It should be stressed that the Ratvaz makes no mention of our mishna, and his reading in the Rambam would not resolve our issue. It seems that our mishna allows a form of plowing which directly assists the pumpkins and vegetables in their growth!!
2) The debate surrounding working "on" trees
The second mishna cites a three-way argument regarding the removal of dry branches or leaves that are too wet (various forms of work meant to improve the tree). The most understandable position is presented by the tana kamma, who allows this work during tosefet but forbids it during shemitta proper. As the Rash himself (commentary to mishna 2) asserts, any forms of work which are forbidden during shemitta mi-derabanan are permitted during tosefet shemitta. This makes the third position cited in the mishna somewhat surprising. Rebbi Shimon claims that this type of work is only permissible until Shavuot (similar to actual plowing of orchards, which must cease at this point). Does Rebbi Shimon claim that even rabbinically forbidden types of work should be banned during tosefet? If so, why doesn't he argue with the impressive list of de-rabanan forms of work cited in the previous mishnayot as being permissible during tosefet shemitta?
Evidently, this debate - particularly the dispute between Rebbi Shimon and the tana kamma-surrounds a different factor. It is not impossible to view these types of pruning as de'oraita forms of work, since they assist the actual growth of the tree. As such, Rebbi Shimon's ban beginning from Shavuot is quite logical. The tana kamma might have contended (as noted according to Rabbenu Tam) that tosefet shevi'it does not include an outright extension of shevi'it, but rather demands that we refrain from any work which will improve the land for shemitta. Pruning these trees, however, in no way affects the land and should not be forbidden. Conceivably, Rebbi Shimon and the tana kamma debated the very issue which Rabbenu Tam and the other Rishonim themselves debated hundreds of years later. (See Shiur Nos. 3 and 4 for a more detailed elaboration of the debate between Rabenu Tam and other Rishonim regarding tosefet shevi'it.)
3) Working with fruits during tosefet shevi'it
A similar picture emerges from an interesting halakha cited by the fifth mishna in the perek. There are various methods to assist a fruit in reaching its fully ripened state. Predictably, as these types of work are geared to improving the fruits of the sixth year, the tana kamma allows them to continue until Rosh Hashana. This work, however, cannot be performed upon fruits which will only ripen fully during the shemitta year. Rebbi Yehuda introduces a new condition: Such work is permitted only in areas in which it is not normally performed. In locations in which this treatment is routinely performed on fruits, it cannot be practiced during tosefet shemitta. However, in locations in which the work is generally not performed, it can be carried out even upon fruits which will only ripen fully during shemitta. Rebbi Yehuda's position seems logical: Namely, these acts should only be defined as "labor" in areas in which they are routinely performed. What, then, is the basis for the tana kamma's absolute ban on this work, even in places in which this labor does not occur regularly?
Again, this debate might have revolved around the nature of tosefet shevi'it. If we view it as a formal extension of shemitta, we might indeed be interested in defining certain acts as "labor" as a precondition to their being prohibited. Such formal definitions of labor would depend upon location. If, however, tosefet shevi'it demands refraining from any action which will benefit the land during the year of shemitta we might be less concerned with formal designations and more concerned with one bottom line: Does it impact upon shemitta? Any device to assist fruits to ripen during shemitta would be forbidden before shemitta, even if it did not constitute a formal type of work. Rebbi Yehuda and the tana kamma might have also been debating the nature of tosefet shevi'it in the same manner that the Rishonim debated it.