(from an article by Rav She'ar-Yashuv Kohen in Techumin 7)

There are three types of Shabbatot, each of which is somehow connected to the idea of counting: the Shabbat that occurs at the end of every week, the Shabbat of the land that occurs every seven years (shemitta), and the Shabbat of the shemitta years, known as yoveil.

The counting for the weekly Shabbat occurs when we say the "shir shel yom," the song of the day, in which we refer to each day in terms of the number day of the week that it is. Unlike the non-Jews, who give each day a name in and of itself, for us the days of the week are significant only insofar as they are part of the progression that leads up to Shabbat. The one time that counting takes on real halachic significance with regard to Shabbat is a case of one who is lost in the desert and does not know what day of the week it is. Thus, the gemara in Shabbat 69b instructs him to count seven days and keep the seventh day as Shabbat with all of its laws.

However, there are different types of counting in halacha. On the one hand, there is the type of counting that leads up to something and creates that which comes at the end of it. The prime example of such a counting is the counting of the Omer, which creates Shavuot, since the date of Shavuot is wholly dependent on Pesach and the counting of the Omer. On the other hand, there is a counting whose purpose is to put a distance between the individual and some event in the past. The main example of this counting is the counting of seven days by a woman who has just had her period. The counting up to Shabbat seems to contain both of these aspects - while it clearly leads up to the coming Shabbat, there are also those who see it as a leaving behind of the Shabbat that has just passed.

Nevertheless, there is a clear difference between the counting for Shabbat and the counting of the Omer. Shabbat happens whether or not people count up to it. Its holiness is an independent entity and is not reliant on the Jewish people to create it. By contrast, Shavuot is entirely dependent on the counting in order for it to exist. To take this issue one step further, we have to introduce the other type of counting mentioned in the Torah, the mitzva to count for shemitta. Rambam (mitzvat aseh 170) compares the counting of shemitta to that of the Omer, and thus it behooves us to see what connection may exist between the two laws.

On a d'oraita level, there is a mitzva to count the years leading up to the yoveil year (see this week's parasha, Vayikra 25:8), and Rambam in fact lists a positive commandment to count the years up to yoveil beginning with the year after the Jews finally took control of the land and settled in it (mitzvat aseh 140 and Hilchot Shemitta V'Yoveil 10:1). Specifically, this is a commandment that is incumbent on the Beit Din to fulfill. The Sifra further points out that connected to this counting is the counting of the shemitta years, since one has to count seven sets of seven years in order to get to the yoveil (and cannot simply make shemitta every other year in order to have yoveil come more quickly).

Today, we no longer keep the yoveil year, since keeping it can only be done when all of the Jews reside in the Land of Israel ("l'chol yoshveha" - all the inhabitants of the land must be there). However, shemitta is still kept, either on a d'oraita or a d'rabbanan level. Thus the question arises: how do we keep shemitta today without counting towards it? Does the count create shemitta, and if it does, then how do we do the count without also counting for yoveil?

We first have to understand the connection between shemitta and yoveil. Do they depend wholly on one another, or can one exist without the other? Rashi in Gittin 36a says that shemitta today is d'rabbanan according to the view of Hillel, since it no longer has the connection to yoveil (an idea backed up by Erchin 32b). However, there is also a view among the commentaries to the Yerushalmi that claims that once there is no yoveil, shemitta disappears from practice as well. The Sifra on Behar takes a third approach, claiming that shemitta can exist without yoveil, but yoveil cannot exist without shemitta.

Rashi on the gemara in Erchin cited above, explains that even during the time of Ezra (when the people were already not keeping yoveil) there was a practice of counting the shemitta years. Even though the main mitzva of counting is to count both shemitta and yoveil, in this case the counting was done so as to ensure that at least the shemitta years were kept at their proper times. On the other hand, Tosafot on that same gemara conclude that yoveil happened whether or not their was a count, and the count was its own end. In other words, there is a mitzva to count that is completely unrelated to the sanctity of the shemitta and yoveil years.

There is a seeming contradiction in the words of Ra'avad concerning the status of shemitta today. In Hilchot Shemitta 9:16 he seems to say that shemitta today is d'rabbanan, while in Hilchot Shemitta 1:11 he seems to be saying that even today there is a d'oraita aspect of shemitta. Rav Kook explained that this may be rooted in the two types of shemitta. In the seventh year, not only must the land be given a rest (shemittat ha-aretz), but also all loans must be repaid (shemittat kesafim). Everyone agrees that shemittat kesafim is dependent on yoveil (and thus would only be d'rabbanan today), and thus we can infer that shemittat ha-aretz, which has even more aspects in common with yoveil than does shemittat kesafim, must certainly depend on yoveil as well.

The Beit HaLevi offers an interesting take on Ra'avad. He suggests, based on the gemara in Erchin, that during the time of Ezra the court would count the years towards yoveil, but only in order to keep shemitta at the proper times. However, the actual sanctity of the shemitta year was not dependent on the count. Only the knowledge of when shemitta actually was utilized this counting, but the holiness of the year happened by itself when the time came. As such, it would seem that there can be shemitta on a d'oraita level even when there is no yoveil!

Rav Kook adds on a bit to the Beit HaLevi. He draws a comparison between the counting of shemitta and yoveil and the counting of the Omer. By the Omer, we know that there are two elements to the counting - the counting of the days and the counting of the weeks (see Menachot 66a). So too, by shemitta and yoveil there is a mitzva to count for shemitta ("weeks") and a mitzva to count for yoveil ("days," or each individual year). Since the first exile of the Jews from Israel, however, since we are not really counting for something that is d'oraita, we should not have to count for either shemitta or yoveil. However, the count for yoveil continued as a reminder of what once was. Thus, what results within the words of Ra'avad is that there is no longer a count for shemitta, and its holiness happens all by itself without the help of human declarations.

Ra'avad seems to hold that shemitta today is not even a d'rabbanan commandment, but rather is kept as a "midat chassidut," and act of righteousness. Ramban argues against this, since anyone who does something that he is exempt from doing is considered to be a fool. In defense of Ra'avad, Rav Kook suggests that the idea of keeping shemitta today is not a function of the desire to give the land a year off, but rather a function of the fact that the overall sanctity of the Land of Israel has not been nullified, and thus the sanctity of the shemitta year still applies on some level.

There is a deeper explanation for this based on the different sanctities that time can have. There is a type of holiness of time that is automatic, such as Shabbat, and a type of sanctity that comes from the Jewish people, such as that of the holidays which only comes when the Jews say it does (since the Jews set the calendar). According to the Sages, the sanctity of shemitta and yoveil falls into both categories. Shemitta confers a holiness that is independent, not reliant on the Jewish count, while yoveil comes about only as a result of the fifty-year counting process undertaken by the Beit Din. Thus, the counting of shemitta is not for the shemitta, but is only for the purposes of the next yoveil, and thus when yoveil is no longer kept there is no longer a need for counting shemitta years. However, once the Beit HaMikdash is rebuilt and the counting of the years for yoveil is restored, then the counting of the shemitta years will be restored as well, as a function of yoveil and as a function of the overall sanctity of the land of Israel.

Back to Chabura-Net's Home Page