Stairway down to the Ravine

Sheviit (3:8) | Yisrael Bankier | 12 days ago

The third perek discusses various activities in the field that need to be limited during shemita due to the appearance of being field work. One Mishnah teaches that one is not allowed to build stairs leading down to a ravine on erev Sheviit after the rain season has ended. The Mishnah adds however, that from that time of year during shemita one can start building those stairs in preparation for the next year -- motzei sheviit. We shall try to understand this Mishnah.

The Bartenura explains that the purpose of the stairs was to access the water that filled the ravine, for watering the field. Constructing them late in the sixth year would appears as though one was preparing to water their field on shemita and is therefore forbidden1. The same concern however is not present late in the shemitah year since watering one's field motzei sheviit is permited.

The Mishnah Rishona however notes that the Rambam (Shemitah 3:10) rules that the law prohibiting the construction only applied in the times of the Beit HaMikdash. Recall that we have learnt that it was only during the times of the Beit HaMikdash that the law of toseft shviit (extending the prohibitions of shemita to the sixth year) applied. The Mishnah Rishona explains that according to the Rambam this would suggest that this issue is not one of marit ayin. Instead, it would seem that that is an issue of avodah (field work). If that were the case then it should be prohibited to construct the steps during shemitah also, which the Mishnah explicitly permits. The Mishnah Rishona leaves the question unresolved.

The Rambam's ruling is based on the position of R' Krispa brought in the name of R' Yochanan in the Yerushalmi. The Rash Sirilio does indeed explain that R' Yochanan understands that the construction of the stairs is a toladah (derivative) of ploughing. Consequently, when tosefet sheviit does not apply, and ploughing is permitted until Rosh Hashanah, the construction is permitted also. R' Shammai however argues with R' Krispa and his question is unanswered. The Rash Sirilio explains that R' Shammai's question is that according to this understanding it should be prohibited on shemitah also. Put simply the Gemara appears to end with the question posed by the Mishnah Rishona above. Understanding the Yerushalmi this way would make it difficult to understand why the Rambam ruled against the conclusion of the Yerushalmi.

There is another way to understand the Yerushalmi. We can still understand that the prohibition of constructing the stairs during the sixth year is because it appears that one is preparing to water the field during shemitah. R' Yochanan's position is that the prohibition of constructing these stairs is only during the time of tosefet shevi. Why? After the destruction, R' Gamliel permitted ploughing until Rosh Hashanah, which benefits the shemittah year and is biblically prohibited during shemittah. Consequently, the construction of the stairs was permitted also.

According to this understanding, how do we understand the continuation of the Gemara? R' Chaim cites the Chazon Ish who explains that R' Shammai is asking that if the Mishnah was referring to the time when tosefet sheviit applied, then preparing the stairs on shemittah should also be prohibited. That is because it would appear to be preparing for watering on motzei sheviit for a time when tosefet shviit still applies. The Gemara however undoubtedly approved of R' Shammai's question. Returning then to our original questions, why does the Rambam rule like R' Yochanan in the face of R' Shammai's question?

R\' Chaim (Biur Halacha 2:11, 3:10) explains that whether tosefet sheviit applies to motzei sheviit is a debate between R' Akiva and R' Yishmael. R' Shammai's question only applied according to the position of R' Akiva that tosefet sheviit extends to motzei sheviit also. The Rambam however rules according to R' Yishmael. Consequently, it is understandable why, even during the times of the Beit HaMikdash, building the stairs towards the end of shemittah would not be problem. The construction itself is not considered field work and the appearance that one is preparing for watering after shemittah is not a problem since watering is permitted then.2


1 See the Mishnah Rishona deals with the question that the Bartenura appears to permit water during shemittah. See also the Tosfot Anshei Shem.

2 R' Chaim also uses this understanding to explain why he does not include the ruling that constructing the stairs after the rains on shemittah is permitted. As we explained, according to R' Yishmael, that conclusion is obvious.

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