Saplings and Trees

Sheviit (1:6) | Yisrael Bankier | 11 years ago

Masechet Shviit deals with the laws of the shmittah year – the final year in the seven year cycle. One aspect of that year is the prohibition against any field work. The masechet opens with the concept of tosefet shviit – the extension of this prohibition before the shmittah year by a month. In particular, the Mishnah details the original rabbinic lengthening of the extension. When dealing with trees however the Mishnah differentiates between mature trees and saplings1. This distinction and how it relates to the source of tosefet shviit will be our focus.

The Mishnah (1:4) records a debate between R’ Akiva and R’ Yishmael. The Gemara (Moed Katan 3a) explains that one of the points of the debate is whether tosefet shviit is sourced in a pasuk or is a halacha l’moshe mi’sinai2. According to the latter opinion the halacha transmitted was the law of “Eser Netiyot” (ten saplings)3.

To explain, the Mishnah (1:6) teaches that if ten saplings are planted in an area of a beit seah (2500 square amot) then the entire area can be ploughed until Rosh Hashanah of the shmittah year – there is not tosefet shviit. The Rash explains that these immature plants are weak and likely to dry out if the earth around it is not ploughed. The Torah was concerned for the livelihood of Am Yisrael and therefore did not apply tosefet shviit to saplings. This is the halacha l’moshe mi’sinai of eser netiyot.

Now because the tradition tells us that only it is only for saplings that a field can be ploughed for the entire sixth year, by extension we learn that for mature trees field work cannot be performed at the end of the sixth year – tosefet shviit. The Tosfot (Moed Katan 3b) explain the justification: the halacha l’moshe mi’sinai cannot only be teaching that such field work is permitted. If that were the case then we would not need that tradition; there would have not been any reason to think that any work outside the shmittah is prohibited! Consequently, the necessity of this halacha l’moshe mi’sinai must be teaching the law of tosefet shviit.

When the Bartenura however explains our Mishnah he has a different observation that catches the attention of the mefarshim. He comments that we find that the law of saplings is actually stricter than mature trees. With mature trees, even if there are only three trees, provided that there is enough yield the entire beit seah can be ploughed (1:2). For saplings only if there are ten trees can the entire field ploughed.

Why did the Bartenura not mention the more obviously leniency of saplings – they can be ploughed until Rosh Hashanah. Furthermore, R’ Akiva Eiger is at a loss to the source of the stringency. While the Mishnah Rishona also questions the source, he notes that the Yerushalmi appears to be supporting the Bartenura’s*(and Rambam*’s) position.

The Tifferet Yisrael (Boaz 1:2) suggests a solution. Recall that tosefet shviit was derived from the halacha l’moshe mi’sinai of the permissible case of eser netiyot. Now if that was the only thing that the tradition was teaching us, it would have been much simpler and direct if the tradition related to tosefet shviit of mature trees. Consequently, argues the Tifferet Yisrael, it must be that the halacha of eser netiyot contains a stringency for those saplings as well. This stringency is the requirement of a minimum of ten saplings no matter their yield to allow the entire field to be ploughed, as explained by the Bartenura.


1The definition of “sapling” is debate in the Mishnah (1:8).

2 A law that was given to Moshe orally at the giving of the Torah and has the weight of a biblical law.

3 R’ Akiva’s opinion regarding Eser Netiyot is beyond the scope of this article.

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