Starting Lewis Newman’s Sanctity of the Seventh Year

I started Louis E. Newman’s The Sanctity of the Seventh Year: A Study of Mishnah Tractate Shebiit.  The Mishnah tractate Shebiit concerns the land Sabbath (Leviticus 25:1-7’s prohibition on sowing the land and pruning the vineyard every seventh year), and other issues of relevance to the Sabbatical year (i.e., the cancellation of debts).  In this post, I have four items:

1.  On page 20, Newman discusses the relevance of the land Sabbath to the historical context of the Mishnah, which was “completed in Palestine at the end of the second century C.E.”  The Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans had failed, and Israel now had little chance of attaining political autonomy.  But the Mishnah said that the Jews still had to observe the Sabbatical year in Israel, which was a commandment that was based on God’s ownership of the land.  In observing the Sabbatical year, the Jews affirmed that they were God’s chosen people and that the land of Israel was God’s land, regardless of what occurred in history.

2.  On page 19, Newman states that the Mishnah holds that “those regions which have been inhabited by the Israelites for the longest period of time (both before and after the Babylonian exile) are subject to the greatest number of restrictions”, whereas “Areas of the land occupied for a shorter period of time (before the exile, but not afterward) are subject to fewer restrictions.”  According to Newman, the principle here is that the Israelites sanctify the land by inhabiting it, and so land becomes holier the longer that Israelites dwell on it.  Newman notes that the Mishnah’s view on the land’s holiness differs from that of Leviticus, which maintains that God is the one who sanctifies the land, as well as focuses on God dwelling on it.

3.  On pages 96-97, Newman explains 4:2 of the tractate, which touches on the issue of produce that grows on land worked during the Sabbatical year.  Suppose that a farmer offers to give away some of that produce.  Technically, the farmer is trying to give away something that is not his, I suppose because that land is considered ownerless during the Sabbatical year.  The Shammaites say that people cannot accept that produce, for they would be sharing in the farmer’s sin of misappropriation by doing so.  The Hillelites, by contrast, hold that all may eat of it.

4.  An interest of mine is the relationship of Gentiles to the Torah.  On page 83, Newman discusses Tosefta Shebiit 2:20 and Bavli Moed Qatan 12a, which pertain to that issue.  Newman states the following:

“The rule…claims that under no circumstances may gentiles perform forbidden labors for Israelites on Sabbaths and festivals.  Since Israelites themselves may not tend their flocks on those days, they also may not benefit from the labor of gentiles.  Rabbi…disagrees, for he holds that the law only regulates the conduct of Israelites on these holidays.  Moreover, different rules govern the labor of gentiles on Sabbaths, on festivals and on the intermediate days of festivals, for these days possess varying degrees of sanctity.  On the Sabbath, Israelites may ask a gentile to tend their flocks so long as they do not engage in ordinary business transaction, while on the intermediate days of festivals, business is permitted in the usual manner…An Israelite may not allow gentiles voluntarily to perform labor for him, even if the work itself is very minimal…Nor, clearly, may an Israelite engage gentiles to assist him in herding his animals on Sabbaths or festivals…”

On pages 98-99, Newman talks about Mishnah Shebiit 4:3 (5:9; b. Gittin 61a; b.Berachot 17a) and Tosefta Shebiit 3:12-13 (b. Baba Qama 79b).  Here are some of his comments:

“Gentile farmers are not obligated to observe restrictions of the Sabbatical year.  This is because, unlike Israelites, gentiles have been granted no special relationship to the Land of Israel.  God has neither set aside this area as their exclusive possession nor commanded them to live in it.  Since the land is sanctified for Israelites alone, gentiles are free to cultivate their fields during the Sabbatical year.  It follows that Israelites may help gentiles cultivate their fields or derive benefit from land that they till during the Sabbatical year, for this does not contribute to the performance of a transgression…During the Sabbatical year an Israelite may not work a field which he has rented from a gentile…The non-Israelite, who is exempt from the restrictions of the law, must sow and tend the field for himself during this year.”

What I get out of this is that, overall, Israelites may not benefit from the labor of Gentiles on their behalf during the Sabbatical year, on Sabbaths, and on festivals.  (But there are statements about what Gentiles can do for Israelites.)  Gentiles who own land in Israel, however, are not bound by the Sabbatical law, which concerns God’s gift of the land to Israelites.  Israelites can help the Gentiles on their (the Gentiles’) land, perhaps because that is benefiting the Gentiles, not themselves.  If an Israelite rents land from a Gentile, the Israelite must allow that land to lie fallow on the Sabbatical year, meaning that the Gentile landlord must sow and tend the field for himself during that time.  Perhaps this land benefited the Israelites renting it, which was why they had to allow it to lie fallow.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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