Shemita — Halachic Viewpoint
“Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest.” (Leviticus 25:3)
The seventh year is approaching, the year 5761, which has been determined to be the next shmita year.
So we come here to clarify upon what they rely when they determine which is the year of shmita. First we will clarify the opinion of Chazal and afterwards the opinions of the many sages in determining the count of shmita.
The Gemara in Erchin 11b writes, “When the first Temple was destroyed it was the ninth of Av, a Saturday night, the year after the seventh…and so for the second,” that is, the second Temple was also destroyed in the year after the seventh. On page 12b Chazal clarified the calculation, “How long did the Temple stand? 420 years.” (Rashi comments that this does not include the year it was destroyed, that it was destroyed the year following). Therefore, if you count the shmita years from the first year of the building of the second Temple you will find that the 420th year was also a shmita year. If so, the Temple, which was destroyed the year following, was destroyed in the year after the seventh.
In Tractate Avodah Zara 9a, “Rabbi Yossi B’Rabbi said that the kingdom of Persia ruled 34 years during the time of the Temple, the kingdom of Greece ruled 180 years during the time of the Temple, the Hashmonaen kingdom ruled 103 years during the time of the Temple, and the kingdom of Herod 103 years” (for a total of 420 years that the Temple stood).
The words of Chazal are most puzzling, for Cyrus the king of Persia was spoken about in Ezra 1:1, “In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, when the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah was fulfilled [according to Rashi, when 70 years had passed since Jerusalem was destroyed: Jeremiah 25:11] the Lord roused the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia…and He has charged me with building Him a house in Jerusalem.” This was in 538 BCE and the destruction of the Temple by the evil empire was in 70 CE. Even if we figure in that the Temple was built 18 years later, as Rashi says in Ezra 1:1, we still find that the Second Temple stood for 590 years and not 420!
Besides the fact that Chazal seem to have lost 170 years of this world and therefore we should be now in the year 5930, the count of shmita years changes entirely. If you calculate shmita years according to the true calculation, you find that the last shmita during the time of the Temple was five years before its destruction.
But this you should know, that the kingdom of Persia ruled 200 years during the time of the Temple and not 34 as Chazal have it. The names of the kings are as follows: Cyrus, his son Cambyses, Darius I, then Xerxes, the son of Darius (of whom it is said that he is, apparently, Achashverus), Artaxerxes I who ruled until 424 BCE, and so on for the kings of Persia until the year 334 BCE when Alexander of Macedon conquered them.
Pay attention to these times, which exactly match what is written in Ezra 7:1, “After these events [after the emigration of Zerubabbel and the building of the second Temple], during the reign of King Artaxerxes of Persia…that Ezra came up from Babylon,” and in verse 7, “…in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes,” [458 BCE]. Ezra’s emigration to the land of Israel was in the time of King Artaxerxes which was some 80 years after King Cyrus of Persia’s declaration.
But Chazal determined that Ezra emigrated only six years after the building of the Temple, as brought in Erchin 13a, “Rav Ashi said: those six years until Ezra immigrated and made it holy were not important.” So they had a problem with what was written, that he came during the reign of Artaxerxes. And the way they settled it is most bizarre, for they say in Tractate Rosh Hashanah 3b that “Cyrus was Darius was Artaxerxes. Cyrus [Koresh] for he was a kosher king, Artaxerxes for the name of his kingdom, and his name was Darius.” With this nonsense they turned three kings, who reigned over a period of more than 100 years, into one king! Don’t wonder about it; in many places Chazal made several people into one. We will bring two examples. “Sheshbatzar is Danniel, and why was he called Sheshbatzar? For he withstood six (shesh) troubles (tzarot)” (Rashi on Ezra 1:8). About this did Ibn Ezra say (Daniel 1:4), “Daniel is not Sheshbatzar, with absolute proof.” Similarly, “Keturah is Hagar,” and the Rashbam wrote, “According to the plain meaning this is not Hagar” (Genesis 25:1).
We have found that on the matter of calculating time Chazal were as those who feel their way through the darkness and one can not rely upon them on issues of reality and time.
Even if we ignore the mistake they made about reality and accept Chazal’s opinion (that the second Temple was destroyed in the year following the seventh) as a matter of Halacha, the commentators frequently discussed the words of the Sages and found four methods from which four different dates for the shmita year result. We will only bring the conclusions and one who wishes can read more in books and do the calculations.
The Rambam, in the Laws of Shmita and Jubilees, chapter 10, halachot three and four, rules as do the Sages, that even after the Temple destruction, the Jubilee is not included in the count for shmita years, and according to his calculations the shmita year is 5757! (For he wrote that 4936 was a shmitayear, and the 21st year of a Jubilee cycle.) But in halacha six there he determined as did the Gaonim, relying on their tradition that after the Temple destruction the Jubilee is included in the count for shmita years, so that nowadays we count the shmita cycles only — and according to this viewpoint, the next shmita year is 5761. The Tosfot in Avodah Zara 9b, first reference, ruled as did Rabbi Yehuda, who considered the Jubilee part of the count of years for shmita, but they brought two differing opinions about when the Temple was destroyed; one opinion states that it was the 420th year after it was built and therefore the year 5010 was a shmita year, and 5759 (last year) was ashmita year. The second opinion is that it was the 421st year after it was built; therefore 5011 was a shmita year and 5760 (this year) is a shmita year. The Rosh, in his commentary on Avodah Zara, also brings these two opinions.
And in the “Biur HaGRA” on Choshen Mishpat, chapter seven, section eight, it is written that the words of the Tosfot are based on a count from the year of Creation (after the birth of Adam), which was actually the second year after the world was created (the year of its creation is called Molad Tohu – the New Moon of Chaos – and for more information, see our sixth pamphlet) and thereby he adds an extra year to the Tosfot’s opinion. Using his method there are only three opinions and not, as we said, four, but the Vilna Gaon did not relate to the words of the Tosfot in Rosh Hashana 8a, eighth reference, “And now we are accustomed to counting the years of the world from Tishrei ofTohu.” How is it possible, then, that the Tosfot would suppose that it was ashmita year in 4010, not taking into account their own words that the world is accustomed to counting from the year of Tohu, and thereby actually meaning the year 4011?
After all this, the “Beit Yosef” on Choshen Mishpat, paragraph seven, section one, wrote, “And in the counting of the shmita year there fell a disagreement 50 years before between the sages of Eretz Israel and the kingdom of Egypt.”
The Rama on Choshen Mishpat, paragraph seven, section one, ruled according to the opinion of the Gaonim, as brought by the Rambam, and this is what we practice today. And these are his words, “And in the calculation of theshmita year there fell a disagreement, and the main thing is that the year 5320 and the year 5327 were shmita years. Therefore the upcoming year 5334 will be a shmita year. May it be His will that the Temple be rebuilt and we will then return to counting the shmita and Jubilee years, for the Messiah will come.” But for this “main thing” there is no explanation.
And the most amazing matter is that we rule according to the tradition of the Gaonim, which is completely contrary to the words of the Gemara. As the Rambam wrote in his Responsa, paragraph 389, about Rabbeynu Hai Gaon, “He did not pay attention to these things explicated in Gemara Erchin at all, as though they hadn’t been written.”
From all said above we find that the shmita year we count today does not rely upon any factual basis of a true count of years, but it is one of those halachot determined by the sages without any knowledge, for there was no other choice. And because of their lack of knowledge on the matter of times we find ourselves “as one who walks in the desert and does not know when Shabbat falls — he should count seven days from the day he lost the count and sanctify the seventh day with kiddush and havdalah and it is forbidden for him to do work” (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 344:1). The sages just stood up and determined that the next year will be shmita, and we accept their words from the standpoint of “You, even if you err, you, even if you are purposely wrong,” but there is no certainty that the year 5761 is really a shmita based on a true count of the shmita years.
And you who loves truth have found yourself once again learning what we continuously say in our writings, that Halacha is a human creation like any other human creation; its creators are flesh and blood and its observers are flesh and blood, and one has no advantage over the other. Only one who is knowledgeable has any advantage over he who lacks knowledge. Know that knowledge is reserved for those who seek it fairly, honestly, wisely, and courageously. But anyone who follows blindly what others say, without investigation and examination, is naught but a fool, a pitiful person who believes anything, and he will not enter the congregation of the wise.
Words of True Knowledge.