As a reminder, the sabbatical year represents a rest from major agricultural enterprises such as plowing, sowing, irrigating, weeding and pruning. But when precisely must these activities cease? The disagreement over this issue, as we will see today, is not just about the minutiae of agricultural law — it’s about the authority to make (and change!) halakhic rulings. Let’s start with a bit of mishnah:
Until when may one plow a white field (that is, a grain field) during the year before the sabbatical year? Until the residual moisture (in the soil) ceases — and so long as people continue to plow their fields in order to plant cucumbers and gourds. Rabbi Shimon says: If it is so, then the Torah has given a measure into the hands of each and every individual.
If you follow the anonymous opinion that opens this mishnah, you can plow your white field as long as others are putting in cucumber plants. So if you happen to live in my neighborhood, you may plow as late as you please, as my cucumbers are always getting mauled by rabbits, and I am constantly planting new shoots to replace them.
Rabbi Shimon objects. Basing halakhah on the haphazard practices of one’s neighbors could be dangerous ground for Jewish law. The Book of Judges repeatedly intones, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he pleased” — which, in that context, meant idolatry, lawlessness and constant intertribal warfare. While I would love to see us empowered as individuals to make our own decisions about Jewish practices, Rabbi Shimon is drawing on a long-established biblical tradition of centralized law enforcement. He continues by supplying the ruling, according to Shammai (not named) and Hillel:
Rather: In a grain field one may plow until Passover, in an orchard one may plow until Shavuot. Beit Hillel say: Until Passover.
And Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi said that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said in the name of bar Kappara: Rabban Gamliel and his court voted about the length of these two periods and nullified them.
Rabbi Zeira said to Rabbi Abbahu, and some say that it was Reish Lakish who said to Rabbi Yohanan: How could Rabban Gamliel and his court nullify an ordinance instituted by Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel? Didn’t we learn that a court cannot nullify the ruling of another court unless it surpasses it in wisdom and in number of votes?
As Rabbi Zeira (or maybe Reish Lakish) reminds us, seniority is an important decider for halakhah in Judaism. As a general rule, earlier sources have more weight, and the majority carries the day in nearly all cases. To overturn a ruling, a court should be both larger and wiser than the court that made the original decision.
As we’ve studied the Talmud, we’ve seen Rabban Gamliel exercise muscular authority many times, often with unfortunate consequences (for instance Berakhot 28, Rosh Hashanah 24 and 25). Here, he uses his court to overturn the rulings of the older and much revered schools of Shammai and Hillel, who permitted plowing only until the springtime. In contrast, Gamliel permits it right up to the end of the year in the autumn. As we have also seen before, his aggressive flex of authority unsettles his colleagues.
Rabbi Abbahu “was astonished for a while” (a phrase from Daniel 4:16), and then said to him: Say that when Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel established their decree, they stipulated among themselves: Anyone who later wishes to nullify this decree may come and nullify it.
Rabbi Abbahu is shocked to see Rabban Gamliel riding roughshod over Hillel and Shammai. After a few moments of stunned silence, he resolves his dilemma by speculating that perhaps the older scholars built leeway into the rule from the start — a leeway that would give Rabban Gamliel the authority to later overturn it.
By design, the halakhic system has a certain amount of flexibility built into it. An important aspect of Oral Law was that it allowed individual rabbis to be cognizant of the unique demands of time and place relative to the requirements of tradition. You might say that Jewish law has spent more that 2,000 years trying to walk a middle ground between anarchy and obsolescence. Hillel and Shammai lived in an age where it was actually forbidden to write down the Oral Torah (Gittin 60b), lest the written record become dated and old-fashioned. It is not unreasonable to imagine they might have made a ruling with the caveat that anyone farming in different circumstances should have their local rabbi rule for that time and place.
Read all of Moed Katan 3 on Sefaria.