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Class Notes - Class #17

Mitzvah #84 is our first introduction to shmitah, the Sabbatical year.  Every seven years, the subsistence agricultural base of the Jewish community in Israel went through radical change.  Most agricultural work aimed at growing crops was prohibited.  Whatever grew on its own was available to everyone, but each person could only pick what was needed for food for very short-term personal use.  Commercial harvest was forbidden.  In addition, many debts were cancelled.

            This must have been a terrifying prospect for people.  Normal economic activity, growing food, was prohibited.  But, as opposed to other situations where the rabbis describe practices that may never have been implemented, we actually have historical evidence of Jews observing shmitah.  According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, in the Roman period, Jews were sometimes exempt from annual taxes because they did not plant anything in that year.  Josephus says that when Alexander the Great came through Israel, he encountered shmitah.

            Mitzvah #84 provides that whatever grew on its own in shmitah was “hefker,” ownerless. The owner of the land on which the food grew was prohibited from preventing others from taking the food. If you had a fig tree growing in your yard, anyone could come and take figs when the figs ripened, but only enough for short-term use.  You could take your own figs, but you could not take more than anyone else.

In the dinei hamitzvah section, we get the usual line-drawing questions we have become accustomed to, although they do not seem to be limited to the aspect of shmitah making produce hefker.  The author discusses which labors are forbidden by Torah law, which by rabbinic law, and which are permitted.  Some of the prohibitions begin before the shmitah year actually starts.  He mentions how shmitah applies to plants normally eaten by animals. And he raises the question of what is to be done with produce grown in violation of the shmitah regulations.

This mitzvah, like several others we have seen, applies only in Israel, and when the Jews are living there.  Defining what is and what is not Israel is actually quite complex.  Here, the author gives several different models.  There is the territory conquered by the Jews who came with Joshua.  There is the territory conquered by David and incorporated into his kingdom, and further territory under David’s sphere of influence but not directly incorporated into his kingdom.  There is the territory to which the Jews returned from Babylonia with Ezra and Nehemiah.  None of these models yields the same outline on a map. The land covered by each of these models does not necessarily have clear boundaries we can reconstruct.  The author says each of these areas might have different sets of shmitah rules, as they might have for other mitzvot as well.

Shmitah, like many other mitzvot that apply in Israel, only applies by Torah law when the Jews are living there.  It is not clear what that means.

His discussion here does not go into much practical detail, but he does give substantial attention to the shoresh.

First, out author mentions the observation that this, like Shabbat, commemorates God’s creation in six days.  Because of the importance of the doctrine that God created the universe from nothing, we are required to count six days toward Shabbat and six years toward shmitah.  That helps us keep the concept of God as creator always in mind.  We discussed this notion earlier when we covered the aseres hadibros.

But there is much more to the institution of shmitah.  Because we refrain from agricultural work and rely only on what grows of itself, we are reminded that our sustenance comes from God, and not only from our own efforts.  And we learn in a radical way that we are dependent on God for our needs.  During shmitah, we have no choice but to trust in God.

The author also points out that shmitah inculcates in us a sense of yielding and relinquishing.  Let me play out this point a little further.  Shmitah radically alters out relationship to our property, and our relationship to others in our community.  None of us can survive without food.  For most people throughout history, obtaining enough food was their primary activity.  Yet shmitah requires that we relinquish ownership even over the food that grows on our own land.  Thus, shmitah is a radical dis-attachment from the most crucial of our physical goods.

Instead, shmitah requires that we spend a whole year being down to our last meal, and trusting that we will walk out the door and God will provide.  As to our food supply, although we may have saved food from the prior year if we had enough, we cannot even save what is currently available. 

And that leaves each of us, one year out of seven, in a situation very parallel to the situation of the poorest members of society.  There is nothing in store, we are entitled to take only what we need for immediate use, and we cannot do much planning about where that will come from. 

It is hard to imagine doing this, let alone doing it on a national scale.  We are blessed with abundance, and used to the luxury of being able to provide in advance.  I can hardly imagine how this institution must have felt.

We have seen the rabbis take many different approaches to different mitzvot.  We have seen them build legal fences around prohibitions to keep us from violating Torah law, as they do with Shabbat.   We have seen them virtually eliminate the death penalty by heaping on requirements that would have been almost impossible to meet.  And we have seen them delineate detailed rules keyed to the reality of society, as they do with commercial regulations involving orphans.  When if comes to shmitah, we might have expected the rabbis to mitigate the harshness of shmitah as much as possible.  But that is not what they do.  Instead, the build fences around shmitah just as they do around Shabbat.  They extend the time period in which the restrictions of shmitah apply, lest we push our activity past the “last minute.”  They extend the restrictions of shmitah to geographical areas where by Torah law they do not apply, apparently in an attempt to discourage Jews from living in those places.  They also prohibit eating some food that grows on its own in certain parts of Israel.  Apparently, they are not terribly interested in mitigating the effects of shmitah.

With the Zionist return to Israel, the rubric of shmitah as a practical institution was revived after centuries when it was dormant. That is no easy job. The rules are complex to understand and to implement.  Those trying to observe the agricultural aspects of shmitah put food away in advance, rely on imported food or food grown in Israel by non-Jews, rely on an interpretation that selling the topsoil to a non-Jew allows Jews to plant and harvest in Israel, eat produce grown hydroponically, or buy food grown by Jews in Israel on land that is technically owned by the beit din.  None of those solutions revive the radical sense of dependence on God that the original institution of shmitah entailed, and none of those solutions reflects how Jewish society could keep shmitah and function independently and fully. 


Mitzvah #85 is a positive mitzvah to rest on Shabbat.  The author refers us to his earlier essay, #32, and says that the mitzvah of observing Shabbat is mentioned 24 times in the Torah.


Mitzvah #86 prohibits swearing in the name of an idol.  Actually, this mitzvah covers several related prohibitions:

            We must not swear in the name of an idol for our own purposes.

            We must not swear in the name of an idol in dealings with non-Jews.

            We must not ask a non-Jew to swear in the name of an idol.

            We must not enter certain business dealings with non-Jews shortly before their holidays, when the non-Jews might take the occasion of their holiday to thank their idol for the profits to the non-Jew from the transaction.

            We must not use an idol as a point of reference, for example by telling someone to meet you at the statue of the idol.

            We must not even mention the names of idols, except when those names are mentioned in a passage of the Torah we are reading.


            Only swearing in the name of the idol is punishable, but that is punishable by malkos even though speech rather than action constitutes violation of this mitzvah.  The shoresh of this mitzvah is to keep us away from any association with idols. 

            The author mentions that idol worship is prohibited by the Torah 44 times.  Actually, we have seen the author give us these sorts of tallies several times, and in this mitzvah we find out why.  After giving the count, he says, “Go and count.”  He is setting a challenge for his son to find all the cases he has tallied.


Mitzvah #87 prohibits summoning others to idol worship, even if the one summoning does not actually worship the idol.  The prohibition is on leading others into trouble.  We will later see a mitzvah that prohibits enticing even one other person to worship idols (mitzvah #462.)

            Dealing yet again with a mitzvah about idol worship that is subject to the death penalty, the author explores another aspect of anthropomorphism.  The Torah says that idol worship is so severely prohibited because God is jealous and vengeful.  But God has no need for human worship.  God is God, whether people recognize Him or not, whether people worship idols or not.  Nothing people can do will enhance or diminish God.  Rather, saying that God is jealous and vengeful is to motivate people. If God really wanted to take vengeance, He could simply will the universe out of existence.  There is nothing people hate more than other people who are vengeful and jealous.  When people do not properly recognize God, when they “attach themselves to vapid nonsense,” they are not deserving of the blessing God want to bestow on them.  God is not hostile to people, or vengeful; God wants the best for the people He creates.  Calling Himself “vengeful” helps motivate people to do the right thing.

            This passage adds to our understanding of the author’s enterprise of shorshei hamitzvah.  The author treats some mitzvot as representative of moral principles, and encourages us to inculcate those moral principles in ourselves.  One source of those moral principles is imitation of God, to the extent that we can characterize God:  we should seek to act as God acts; we should be kind, generous, etc.  Do we also emulate God when we are jealous and vengeful?  The Torah describes God in those terms, but what we have seen of our author so far would tend to indicate those are not moral principles the author would encourage.  In this passage, the author explains that vengeance and jealousy are not descriptions of God at all.  Those words are designed to remind us how seriously we should avoid certain behavior.  They are not attributes for us to emulate.


Mitzvah #88 requires us to come to the Temple three times a year, just before Pessah, Shavuot and Succot, and to bring the appropriate sacrifices when we come.  Three sacrifices are required:

  1. An olah, called the “reiyah.”  An olah sacrifice is entirely burned.
  2. A shlamim, called the “shalmei simchah.”  Part of this sacrifice was burned; part was given to the cohanim who could share it with their families; the owner and his guests ate it in Jerusalem at any time over the subsequent two days.
  3. A hagigah, which is a specialized type of shlamim.  This is the sacrifice required by this mitzvah.  Like any shlamim, part of a hagigah is burned, and part is given to the cohanim to eat.  The remainder stays with the owner.  The owner, and anyone he cares to share it with, eats the remainder anywhere in Jerusalem at any time over the subsequent two days.

Thus, bringing a hagigah means that the owner and his guests will have meat to feast on while visiting Jerusalem for the holiday.  The author explains that one must bring at least one hagigah, but he may bring more than one.  The hagigah had to be a domestic animal, whereas the olah could also have been a bird.  The person coming to Jerusalem had to bring the animal or bring cash to buy an animal.  If he brought goods to barter for an animal to sacrifice, he has not fully complied with the mitzvah.  If the person arrives on the first day of Pessah or Succot, he can bring the hagigah on any day of the festival.

            This mitzvah applies to men, but not to women or those of ambiguous gender.  Men are exempt if they are old, ill, blind or lame so they cannot walk easily, since the obligation is to come to Jerusalem on foot.  But, according to the author, the mitzvah does include men whole occupations leave them looking or smelling foul: tanners, copper miners, and collectors of dog excrement (needed by the tanners), once they bathe and put on clean clothes.  These people may not be pleasant for other people to be around, but that is irrelevant.  As long as they are honest, they are as acceptable to God as anyone else.  It is “foulness of spirit” that makes people unacceptable to God.

            The shoresh of this mitzvah is that we should not come to approach God in the Temple empty handed.  We should bring something to dedicate to God, and not take the visit for granted.  God does not need our sacrifices, but we need to bring them to be worthy of the good God wants to bestow on us.  We will learn more about the Temple beginning with the next class, and we will learn lots more about sacrifices as we continue our study.


Mitzvot # 89 and 90 add details to our understanding of korban pessah, a topic we covered early in our study.  Mitzvah #89 requires us to get rid of our hametz before we bring the korban pessah.  In fact, this mitzvah applies to everyone in the group that owns the korban, the person who slaughters it and the cohanim who burn the fat and sprinkle the blood.  The last moment to get rid of hametz is midday.  That is also the first moment to bring the korban pessah, although the actual process of korban pessah was delayed until after the routine afternoon Temple ritual was complete:  the communal sacrifice is brought, the afternoon incense is burned, and the menorah is lit. 

            The shoresh of this mitzvah seems very straightforward.  If you want to make sure something gets done, set a deadline. 

            The mitzvah applies to men and women.  The mitzvah is violated if anyone to whom the mitzvah applies still owns a kzayis of hametz.  However, the korban pessah is valid even if someone involved in bringing it, or someone in the haburah, violates this mitzvah.


The source verse for mitzvah #90 prohibits delaying the process of burning the parts of the korban pessah that are to be burned until the morning; the parts that need to be burned must be burned during the night.  The mitzvah applies to male cohanim, because burning the required parts was their job.

The shoresh relates to how time reflects on the seriousness of our attitude.  When we procrastinate over something, we indicate it is not so important to us.  If you really value something, you get it done on time.

In the dinei hamitzvah section of this essay, the author traces an argument about the scope of this mitzvah.  This is our first introduction to the details of korbanot; we will learn a great deal more as we go on.  But we need part of the picture to understand this discussion.

Two communal sacrifices were brought each day in the Temple.  A korban olah is a sacrifice that is entirely burned.  Every day, the olas hashachar was brought first thing in the morning, and the olas bein ha’arbayim was the last korban brought each afternoon.  No sacrifices were brought at night.  Pessah was an exception; the olas bein ha’arbayim was brought before the korban pessah.  Then a korban pessah was brought for each haburah, and these all had to be completed before twilight.  There are several steps to bringing a korban, and we will cover them later, but the last step was to burn the required parts on the altar.  The parts that are to be burned are called emurim.  The emurim include some of the animal’s abdominal organs as well as the helev, the hard fats from the body cavity. 

Normally, the emurim from a given korban are burned as soon as possible after the korban is brought.  Processes required for korbanot override many of the prohibitions of Shabbat and holidays.  So the emurim of a korban brought on Shabbat are burned on Shabbat, and the emurim of a korban brought on a holiday are burned on the holiday.  But the emurim from korbanot brought on a weekday are not burned on Shabbat or a holiday.

Applying these rules to the korban pessah, if erev pessah is on a weekday, the emurim of each korban pessah would have to be burned on that same afternoon, before the beginning of pessah.  If there is a delay, the cohanim will end up burning the emurim of the weekday korban pessah on the holiday of pessah, which they may not do.  The emurim from each sacrifice must be burned individually, so getting this mitzvah done must have been quite a job.  (Let’s remember this when we complain about how much we have to do on erev pessah.)

Now look at the source verse for this mitzvah.  It says not to leave burning of the emurim of a korban pessah until morning.  That implies those emurim could be burned any time during the night.  There must be a case when this rule applies. The rabbis are forced into reading the verse narrowly, to a case where erev pessah falls on Shabbat.  This korban pessah was not brought on a weekday, but on Shabbat, so this verse permits burning the emurim of a korban pessah brought on Shabbat on the holiday, during the night up until dawn.  The cohanim need not get all the emurim burned on Shabbat before pessah begins.


Mitzvah #91 requires us to bring our first fruits, “bikkurim,” to the Temple.  We give the bikkurim to a cohen who is on duty in the Temple.  The cohen gets to eat them.  The mitzvah covers the first harvest of the seven species for which Israel is praised in the Torah: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.  Each farmer would save the fruit, drying it if it was not going to be delivered while it was still fresh, and arranging it beautifully in a basket or other vessel.  The author traces the halachic logic behind limiting the mitzvah of bikkurim to these seven species, but he does not sound entirely satisfied with the argument.

            The shoresh here is similar to what we saw about a b’hor, a first-born, earlier in out study.  It reflects our thanks to God for the upcoming harvest, and the thought that what we have does not come from our own labors alone.  Here, the fruit is given as a gift to the cohanim.

            In the dinei hamitzvah, our author fills in some of the details of the ceremony involved in bringing the bikkurim.  Our author often includes passages from earlier sources that draw a vivid picture of Temple ceremonies, but he does not do so here.  Rambam, in his Mishneh Torah, relying on Mishneh Bikkurim, does describe the ceremony:

How were the first fruits brought up to Jerusalem?  The men of all the smaller towns … gathered together … so as not to come up to Jerusalem as isolated individuals…. Having arrived, they spent the night in the open street of the town and did not enter the homes for fear of becoming tamei.  Early in the morning, the … [leader] said, “Arise and let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.”  In front of them went an ox, having its horns overlaid with gold and a wreath of olive-leaves on its head, to indicate that the first fruits were taken from the seven species of farm products.  The flute was played in front of them until they reached Jerusalem.  As they walked all the way, they chanted: “I was glad when they said to me: Let us go up to the house of the Lord.”  They walked only two thirds of the day. Upon arriving at the outskirts of Jerusalem, they sent messengers to let the men of Jerusalem know.  They bedecked their first fruits and adorned them, putting the fresh ones on top of the dry.  The high officers and treasurers of the Temple came out of Jerusalem to meet them…. When all of them entered within the gates of Jerusalem, they began to chant, “Our feet stand at last within your gates, O Jerusalem.”

            All the craftsmen in Jerusalem used to rise up before them and greet them, saying:  “Brethren, men of such-and-such a place, you are welcome!”  The flute was played in front of them as they marched inside Jerusalem until they reached the Temple Mount.  Having arrived at the Temple Mount, each pilgrim would take his basket on his shoulder as they chanted:  “Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary.”  They marched on the Temple Mount chanting until they reached the Temple Court.  When they reached the Temple Court, the Levites sang:  “I extol thee, O Lord, for thou hast lifted me….”

Hilchot Bikkurim 4: 16 – 17, as translated in Philip Birnbaum, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Hebrew Publishing Co., 1989.