Why Three Years?
The commandment of Shemittah, which prohibits sowing or harvesting fields for an entire year, is an extremely daunting one, especially for an almost completely agrarian based society. Thus, Hashem, recognizing the legitimate concern of "What shall we eat", reassures us that, before the Sabbatical year, He will bless the crops so that they will sustain the nation for three years:
(כ) וְכִי תֹאמְרוּ מַה נֹּאכַל בַּשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת הֵן לֹא נִזְרָע וְלֹא נֶאֱסֹף אֶת תְּבוּאָתֵנוּ. (כא) וְצִוִּיתִי אֶת בִּרְכָתִי לָכֶם בַּשָּׁנָה הַשִּׁשִּׁית וְעָשָׂת אֶת הַתְּבוּאָה לִשְׁלֹשׁ הַשָּׁנִים. (כב) וּזְרַעְתֶּם אֵת הַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁמִינִת וַאֲכַלְתֶּם מִן הַתְּבוּאָה יָשָׁן עַד הַשָּׁנָה הַתְּשִׁיעִת עַד בּוֹא תְּבוּאָתָהּ תֹּאכְלוּ יָשָׁן. (ויקרא כ"ה:כ'-כ"ב)
(20) And if ye shall say: 'What shall we eat the seventh year? behold, we may not sow, nor gather in our increase';
(21) then I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth produce for the three years.
(22) And ye shall sow the eighth year, and eat of the produce, the old store; until the ninth year, until her produce come in, ye shall eat the old store.
This promise of a three year blessing, however, seems strange. If farming is prohibited for only one year, should not a two year blessing1 have sufficed? Why does Hashem speak of three years and to which years is He referring? Finally, does the definite article in "לִשְׁלֹשׁ הַשָּׁנִים" ("for the three years") carry any special significance?
The brief passage above raises several other questions as well:
- "מַה נֹּאכַל בַּשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת" – The worry expressed in these words seems to be slightly imprecise. In the seventh year, the people should have less food concerns since, like every year, they can eat from the previous season's harvest. Should they not instead be expressing concern over what to eat in the eighth year?
- "וּזְרַעְתֶּם אֵת הַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁמִינִת וַאֲכַלְתֶּם מִן הַתְּבוּאָה יָשָׁן עַד הַשָּׁנָה הַתְּשִׁיעִת" – If the people are able to sow already in the eighth year, why are they eating from the old grains until the ninth year? Already with the beginning of the harvest in the middle of the eighth year, they should have new produce to eat.
- "עַד הַשָּׁנָה הַתְּשִׁיעִת עַד בּוֹא תְּבוּאָתָהּ תֹּאכְלוּ יָשָׁן" – Although the referent of the word "תְּבוּאָתָהּ" may be ambiguous,2 the straightforward reading seems to be that it is speaking of the harvesting of the produce in the ninth year. If so, not only would the people be eating of the old produce until the ninth year, they would be doing so even during the ninth year.3 But why would that be necessary?
- Doubling – Verse 22 contains an apparent redundancy, speaking twice about eating of the old crops: "וַאֲכַלְתֶּם מִן הַתְּבוּאָה יָשָׁן" and "עַד בּוֹא תְּבוּאָתָהּ תֹּאכְלוּ יָשָׁן". What is the need for the repetition?
The natural place for our verses would have seemed to be at the conclusion of the discussion of the Sabbatical year at the beginning of Vayikra 25:1-7. However, the Torah waits to record our verses until after first introducing the Jubilee year and delineating the laws of land purchase which are dependent upon it in Vayikra 25:8-17. Moreover, in the verses immediately following our section (25:23-55), the Torah resumes the discussion of the Yovel dependent laws of buying and selling land and slaves. As such, it is indeed perplexing why our verses interrupt the flow of the text rather than coming after the laws of Shemittah. How should we understand this placement? Is the Jubilee year somehow related to the concerns that Hashem is trying to allay in these verses?