On today’s page, the rabbis continue to grapple with laws governing travelers as we turn from the question of whether one may work on the eve of Passover to observing the laws of shmita, the sabbatical year.
According to the Bible, just as Jews rest one in seven days on Shabbat, the land is entitled to rest one in seven crop cycles. In a shmita year, the land is not farmed, though people may glean what grows on its own.
Arguably, the sabbatical year is a test of faith, not dissimilar from the one performed each year on Passover. Just as on Passover Jews destroy their hametz, including their sourdough starters, and hold faith that God will restore their ability to bake beautiful fluffy loaves, in the sabbatical year the land lies fallow and the people rely on God (and their storehouses) to provide sustenance.
Like most things in the Talmud, the laws of shmita become more complex in the hands of the rabbis. For today, what you need to know is that one is allowed to glean food the land produces spontaneously — grapes that grow on their own, for instance. But if you make wine from those grapes, you can only own the wine so long as there are ripe grapes still on the vine in the field. Once those grapes wither, you must declare the wine ownerless and make it publicly available.
On today’s page, the shmita produce (called shevi’it, from the Hebrew word for “seven”) goes traveling. What if your shmita wine comes to a location where that particular grape species is no longer available in the field, but you know it still is back home? Or conversely, you know it is no longer available back home but it is still in the fields in your new location? When must you remove it from your possession? Can you relocate so as to hold on to the shmita wine? When you travel and the time comes to give up your shmita wine, must you go home to declare it ownerless or can you do it where you are? The sages disagree on all of these matters, including the last, which is the subject of a quick story:
Rav Safra is carrying some shmita wine out of the Land of Israel and the time has come for the wine to leave his possession. But does he need to take it all the way back home to declare it ownerless, as Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar maintains? He turns to his two companions for advice: Rav Kahana says yes, while Rav Huna says no. Perhaps relieved there is an option that allows him to stay put, Rav Kahana immediately accepts Rav Huna’s more lenient opinion. He’s so satisfied with this answer that he perhaps lays it on a bit thick when he adds:
Take that principle of Rav Huna in your hand as he is scrupulous and he learned the halakhah well from the mouth of its originator…
Rav Safra’s (perhaps too) enthusiastic satisfaction with Rav Huna’s more lenient ruling does not go without comment. The Talmud records this footnote:
Rav Yosef read the verse: My nation ask counsel of their stock, and its staff (maklo) tells to them” (Hosea 4:12) with regard to Rav Safra: Anyone who is lenient (mekel) tells him the halakhah.
Zing! In context, Hosea poetically describes the people taking direction from a staff or rod (maklo) rather than God. (Rashi understands this to be some sort of idolatry.) But Rav Yosef wryly puns on the verse, substituting the word for rod (maklo) with the word for leniency (mekel) to take a snarky jab at Rav Safra, who too eagerly jumps at a lenient ruling.
But honestly, when it’s a matter of having to make an arduous trip just to give away some perfectly good wine, who can blame him?