Parashat Behar Sinai
“When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe asabbath of the Lord. Six years may you sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard…But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest” (Leviticus 25:2)
When does the shemitah (sabbatical) year begin? The Torah does not specify anything about this, though it is one of the principles of the shemitah year. The two logical choices are Nisan, the first of all months, and Tishrei, in which we hold our traditional new year. We will clarify the matter here.
It is clear that at the time of the writing of the Torah the year had a clear beginning and end. In looking at the Scriptures one finds that Nisan is the first in the count of the months, as is written in Exodus 12:2, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you” and therefore the month of Iyar is called, in the Torah, the second month, as in Numbers 9:11, “They shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs” and Shevat is called the eleventh month, as in Deuteronomy 1:3, “It was in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, that Moses addressed…” (Nowhere in the Torah does it mention a thirteenth month, and this is part of the proof that the people of Israel counted a set thirty days in each month, as we explained in the portion of Noah, see there.)
See for yourself: the Scripture states that you should sow your field for six years and in the seventh year it shall have a sabbath of complete rest. Is it possible that the Scriptures meant to count from the seventh month without mentioning it explicitly? It’s logical that we would start counting from the first month, Nisan. To what can this be compared? A standard (secular) year, which also has an ascending count of month (as the count of months in the Torah), and some country’s law books would say, “In the seventh year the farmer shall not plow his field.” Would anyone think that the seventh year would start in July?
Another proof, better than the first, that the count of shemitah years is from Nisan and not Tishrei, is from Leviticus 25:20, “And should you ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?’ I will ordain my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will still be eating old grain of that crop; you will be eating the old until the ninth year, until its crops come in.” Think about it: If the seventh year starts in Tishrei, then the sowing is in Cheshvan and the reaping in Nisan. Therefore, one could sow in Tishrei of the eighth year and reap in Nisan of that year, so why did the Scripture say they would be eating old grain until the ninth year? (That is, that they would have to eat the yield from the sixth year until the crop of the ninth year came in.) But if we accept that the shemitah year begins in Nisan, the Scripture becomes clear, for the eighth year begins in Nisan, one can not sow until Cheshvan (the proper time for sowing), and the harvest really only is in Nisan of the ninth year, and until then they would have to eat the old grain. The Scripture becomes clear and lucid.
Another thing. The Scripture says, “And should you ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year?'” But if the shemitah year begins in Tishrei, why worry about the seventh year? The crop of the sixth year, cut in Nisan, will be the food for the seventh year. Every year they eat the crop harvested the year before. But if we say that the year begins in Nisan, again the matters fall into their proper places, for the crop is harvested in Nisan at the beginning of the sixth year and eaten over the course of that year. It is clear that the people of Israel would not sow in Cheshvan of the sixth year, for they would be forbidden to reap it in Nisan of the seventh year, and this explains and justifies the concern spoken of in the Scripture, “And should you ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year?'”
Nachmanides noticed this difficulty and wrote, on Leviticus 25:22, “And should you ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year?’ It is distorted–‘And should you ask in the seventh year, what are we to eat?’ The worry is about the eighth year, for as the beginning of shemitah and jubilee year is in Tishrei, the harvest of the sixth year will be eaten in the seventh, as is usual in all years until the next harvest, the holiday of Shavuot… And therefore the verse which states that you shall eat the harvest three years is correct, for it includes the jubilee year. The produce of the sixth year will suffice for the whole shemitah year and the jubilee year, for in all of them they eat old grain.” See how Nachmanides changes, with a wink of an eye, the Torah’s “seventh year” into the eighth year! And he didn’t rest until he made the eighth year the jubilee year! But the Scripture says, “When you sow in the eighth year,” though it is known that one may not sow in the jubilee year. This statement by Nachmanides requires great study.
We will quote Ibn Ezra who nicely summarizes in Exodus 12:2 the proofs that shemitah begins in Tishrei: “And the nations say that if the year is built from months, then the month of spring is the foundation and start. If so, why did you start your count from the seventh month and say it is the start of the new year? The answer is…and we have explicitly seen that the jubilee year is sanctified in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, and G-d commanded that the Torah be read [in the assembly of the whole people] in the shemitah year during the holiday of Sukkot, that people should hear and learn. If the start of the shemitah year were in Nisan, why were we not commanded to read the Torah on Passover, but a half a year they stand idle? It is written ‘the harvest festival in the turn of the year’ (Exodus 34:22), and in another place it is written ‘the harvest festival in the end of the year’ (Exodus 23:16). We can also learn from the way of the Torah, from the manner in which it is written, that first you shall not sow and then you shall not reap, for the sowing is close to Tishrei and not to Nisan.” And you, reader, look at the facts for each approach, study them and then decide for yourself. And in your study keep in mind that there is more and more proof that until the destruction of the First Temple the Jews kept a solar calendar and not a lunar one. Only when they returned from the Babylonian exile did the Jews bring back with them a new calendar which, as was the Babylonian way, was based on the appearance of the moon. All the names of the months which we have, to this very day, are Babylonian names (and some, like Tammuz, are distinctly idolatrous). Think, you student who seeks knowledge, about the influence this revolution had on the development of Halacha.
But what really puzzled us about this issue was Chazal’s lackadaisical attitude in determining that shemitah would be counted starting in Tishrei. In Tractate Rosh HaShana 8b: “From where do we know shemitah is counted (from Tishrei)? It is written, ‘And in the seventh year the land shall have asabbath of complete rest.’ And we learn by analogy (gzeira shava) that it is from Tishrei: ‘year’ is written here, and ‘year’ is written in ‘from the beginning of the year’ (Deuteronomy 11:12). Perhaps we should learn that a year is from Nisan, as is written, ‘It shall be for you the first of the months of the year’ (Exodus 12:2) [and here too it is written ‘year’]? We learn about a year of which no months are mentioned from a year of which no months are mentioned; we do not learn about a year of which no months are mentioned from a year of which months are mentioned.”
There are several puzzles in this manner of learning. Where did Chazal take this information from? That it is written “from the beginning of the year.” How do they know that the Scripture meant Tishrei? It doesn’t say Tishrei. Maybe “the beginning of the year” meant Nisan (which has already been said to be the first month). This is the very matter under discussion. We find that Chazal assume the hypothesis and this is their manner of proof… [And the Gemara in Rosh Hashana 8a says, “How do we know it is Tishrei? It is written, ‘Blow the shofar on the new moon, on the full moon for our feast day'” (Psalms 81:4). One who looks closely will see that this is not the plain meaning of the text.]
And more: If Chazal want to learn, using analogy from years with no months mentioned, the problem is worse: we have already found in Exodus 12:41, “And it was at the end of 430 years, and on this very day all the hosts of G-d left the land of Egypt.” Just as this is in Nisan, so shemitah should be counted from Nisan! This is a perfect analogy in every jot and tittle.
To add and illustrate that Chazal do not learn from the Scripture but bend it to their will, see whence they learned that a harvest which grew a third of the way in the seventh year but was harvested in the eighth year is considered as produce of the seventh year in Tractate Rosh Hashana 13a, “‘And the harvest festival (chag ha’asif) in at the end of the year.’ What is the harvest? If we say it is the holiday which comes at harvest time, it would be written b’asfecha. So what is asif? The reaping.” Just as we have found them turning Keturah into Hagar, Cyrus into Darius, and the cedar into a myrtle, so too are the agricultural seasons as clay in the hands of the sculptor and the harvest (of the fall) turns into the reaping (of the spring). In the heat of halachic debate factual reality is turned into clay in the hands of the sculptors, and any who wish may build their own reality not of this world.
Another example of the matter is in Tractate Shabbat 155a, where the Gemara turns a small animal (daka) into a large one (gasa)! It says, “Do you think a daka is a small one? What is a daka? A large one! So why is it calleddaka? It is precise (dayka) in its eating.” (Rashi explains: It chews well and makes the food small in its mouth.) So when Chazal discussed from whence Israel should count the shemitah when they come into the land, to fulfill what was written, “And when you come into the land…” it says in Erchin 12b, “Israel counted 17 jubilees from when they entered the land until they left. And you cannot say they started counting as soon as they entered the land, for in that case you find the Temple was destroyed at the beginning of a jubilee period, yet it is written, ‘In the 14th year after the city was hit’ (Ezekiel 40). But take from them the seven years in which they captured the land and the seven in which they divided it, and you find that there was a period of 14 and a half years until they began counting, and ‘In the 14th year after the city was hit’.”
How did Chazal know it took Joshua seven years to divide the land? Certainly they did not know, but they made the verse in Ezekiel work with the count of 17 jubilees since Israel entered. And certainly we see from the Scriptures that Israel entered the land in Nisan, so from Chazal’s notion of counting from Tishrei they get 14 and a half years until they began the count.
We have already hinted above at our opinion [and we will expand upon it in a special essay], that at the time of the writing of the Torah Nisan was the first month of the year, and when they came back from exile they brought back new names with them, from Babylon, as Nachmanides says on Exodus 12:2. And you should know that the name Marcheshvan, for example, originates from the Babylonian expression for “the eighth month” (see entry Marcheshvan in the Encyclopedia Hebraica). We have also mentioned above the transition from a solar year to a lunar year.
Therefore Chazal said in Rosh HaShana 8a that the reigns of the kings of Israel are counted from Nisan and of the gentiles from Tishrei, and the transition stage from the custom of the Torah to the Babylonian custom is the period of the first Temple destruction; see the Scroll of Esther and the book of Daniel, and many other Scriptures, such as Zachariah 7:1, “On the fourth of the ninth month, Kislev,” they wrote the count according to the Torah and the Babylonian month in the same verse. Since it was a transition stage, one can even find contradictions in the count of the reign of kings, for they were sometimes counted from Tishrei and sometimes from Nisan, as Chazal themselves noticed (Rosh HaShana 3b): “Rabbi Joseph asked, ‘On the 24thday of the sixth month of Darius’s second year’ (Haggai 1:16),” and it is written “On the 24th day of the ninth month of Darius’s second year” (Haggai 2:10; we have brought a verse different from the one brought in the Gemara, as it is clearer). If Tishrei is the start of the year for the gentiles and it is the seventh month, it should have been Darius’s third year. We see that according to Haggai we count even gentile kings from Nisan, but Chazal have a habit of settling disputes in the most bizarre ways, simply to keep from changing what they’ve said. That is why they explained “There is no difficulty, for before he became evil (his reign was counted from Nisan), but here it is after he became evil (and reverted to having his reign counted from Tishrei, as with all other kings).” Their answer is very puzzling to any reasonable person; what has evilness to do with counting months and years? This is also, we think, the reason Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua disagreed in Rosh HaShana 10b: “Rabbi Eliezer said that the world was created in Tishrei…And Rabbi Joshua said the world was created in Nisan.” Halacha, to this day, sometimes rules according to Rabbi Joshua, that the world was created in Nisan, and sometimes according to Rabbi Eliezer, that the world was created in Tishrei, and the Tosfot asked on Rosh HaShana 27a, third reference. See also pamphlet 6 what theMas’at Binyamin wrote on this matter.
And this is a testimony that as time changes, so does the count, for today no beginning student would write on a letter, “day one of the first month, being Nisan,” as cited in Daniel and Esther and Haggai. We say again and again that halacha is determined by the public and it changes and takes on and puts off guises from generation to generation. It is all the work of people and their notions. See how even in matters of utmost importance like the calendar which is the basis for all the time, holidays, and appointed times, Israel was influenced by the count of the gentiles and took upon themselves the Babylonian order of the months. Since they did so, Halacha followed this method and made Tishrei the first month at the start of the year, and even the count of shemitah years was so determined. This, though it was clear that according to the Torah only Nisan is the first month, for any and all issues. The Babylonian method came, became Halacha, and uprooted the explicit Scripture.
Words of True Knowledge