The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 14 May 2022 / 13 Iyar 5782

The Year of Slipping Away (Part 1 of 2)

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

The Torah commands that every seventh year be declared a Sabbatical Year, during which the Holy Land must be left fallow, and all loans are to be considered remitted. This year — 5782 — is a Sabbatical Year, so I thought it would be appropriate to discuss two Hebrew terms used to refer to the Sabbatical Year: Shemittah and Sheviit. The first essay focuses on the term Shemittah (“slipping away”) and explores various Hebrew words which appear to be synonymous with that term. The second essay focuses on the term Sheviit (“the seventh one”) and expounds on other related Hebrew expressions whose etymologies seem to be connected to the root of that word.

In five instances, the Book of Deuteronomy refers to the Sabbatical Year as Shemittah (Deut. 15:1–2, 15:9, 31:10). This noun is derived from the triliteral root SHIN-MEM-TET, which also gives us a verb that means “to slip away.” Indeed, the Torah uses forms of this verb when discussing the laws of Shemittah: "and six years shall you sow your land and you shall gather its produce, and [in] the seventh [year], you shall 'slip it away' (tishmitenah) and abandon it..." (Ex. 23:10-11). As Rashi explains, this passage refers to the requirement that one refrain from working the land during the Sabbatical Year. Elsewhere, the Torah speaks about a lender allowing all loans due to him to “slip away” (shamot, tashmet) during the Shemittah year (see Deut. 15:2–3). Thus, both the agricultural and financial laws regarding the Sabbatical Year are associated with the term Shemittah.

Although in the colloquial vernacular, many people nowadays continue to use the Biblical term Shemittah in reference to the Sabbatical Year, in the Babylonian Talmud that term is actually fairly rare and only appears a few times outside of citing the above-mentioned Biblical verses (Nazir 8b, Sotah 41a, Gittin 36a, Bava Metzia 30b, 48b, Sanhedrin 32a, Shevuot 44b, and several other places).

How does the literal meaning of “slipping off” relate back to laws of the Sabbatical Year? To better understand this, we will visit several other cases which use words derived from the same triliteral root at shemittah and infer from them a more precise definition of this root.

When Uzza sent forth his hand to support the Holy Ark as it was being transported on cattle, he did so because the beasts shamat the holy object (II Sam. 6:6, I Chron. 13:9). Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (in Sefer HaShorashim) explains that this means that the sheer weight of the ark was causing the animals’ joints to burst, and this would have led to the ark falling off (“slipping off”) the wagon, had the animals actually collapsed. Similarly, when Jehu killed Jezebel by way of defenestration (i.e., throwing her out the window), the verb used by the Bible to denote this gruesome action is a cognate of shemittah (II Kings 9:33), with Radak (there) and Ibn Ezra (Deut. 15:1) commenting that in this context the term means “to let something go so that it will fall.”

From these examples, it seems that the core denotation of shemittah is leaving something to its own devices, which will invariably cause it to fall or slip out of place. In that sense, shemittah denotes both “forsaking” something and the “falling/slipping” that results from it being forsaken. As a result, we may explain that by not working one’s fields during the Sabbatical Year as stipulated by the Torah, one essentially loosens their grip on their property (“forsaking”) and thus figuratively allows it to “slip away” from their control/ownership in a free-for-all freefall. Similarly, we can explain that when a lender forgoes collecting the debts he is owed (“forsaking”), those monies are no longer in his hand, but rather “slip away” from his proverbial grasp.

In discussing the case of the accidental killer who must flee to a City of Refuge, the Bible uses the example of somebody who was chopping wood in the forest and his hand “slipped” out of place, causing the metal part of the hammer or a piece of wood to fling outwards and kill somebody (Deut. 19:5). In explaining that the wood-chopper’s hand “slipped,” Rashi echoes the verbiage of the Mishnah (Makkot 2:1) in using a cognate of the word Shemittah (see also Rashi to II Sam. 6:6, who connects the usage of shemittah here to its appearance in the story of Uzza, mentioned above). In this case, the “slipping” is not necessarily the result of anything being “forsaken,” but seems to be a borrowed usage.

Additionally, when the Talmud (Chullin 57a) discusses whether an animal/bird with a dislocated shoulder or thigh is considered moribund (tereifah), it uses the term shmutat to denote that dislocation, as the affected bone is understood to have “slipped out” of place. This too is unrelated to “forsaking,” per se, but the “dislocation” aspect shares the same result as something “slipping away.”

Rashi extends the semantic range of shemittah to refer to something “slipping away” in the sense of “escaping” a specific danger and/or “fleeing” from trouble (see Rashi to Gen. 19:17, Iyov 1:15). Another expanded meaning of shemittah in rabbinic parlance is “an omission.” This term appears in the context of a scribe writing a Torah scroll while “skipping” (hishmit) a given letter, or one reading from the Torah Scroll while “skipping” (hishmit) over a given verse (Megillah 18b). In many Hebrew books a list of addenda/errataappears at the end under the title hashmatot (omissions).

The Torah mandates that a widow whose husband died without children (known as a yevamah) must either marry her deceased husband’s brother (yibbum, i.e., the Levirate marriage) or must perform the chalitzah ceremony, whereby she removes her brother-in-law’s shoe from upon his foot (Deut. 25:9). Before taking either of these courses of action, the yevamah is forbidden from marrying anybody else besides one of her deceased husband’s brothers. As the Talmud puts it, the yevamah's license to marry somebody else is commensurate with the shemittah ("slipping off") of most of the heel (Yevamos 102a).

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 34:15) explains that the term chalitzah holds four distinct meanings: “slipping,” “arming,” “saving,” and “leaving something resting in its place.” As an example of chalitzah in the sense of “slipping,” the Midrash mentions the chalitzah ceremony in which the yevamah “slips off” the shoe from her brother-in-law’s foot (Deut. 25:9). As an example of “arming,” the Midrash cites the fact that soldiers of the Jewish Army were called chalutzim (Deut. 3:18), and said soldiers were presumably armed for battle. To adduce the “saving” meaning, the Midrash cites the verse, “May G-d ‘save me’ (chaltzeini) from an evil person” (Ps. 140:2), and to adduce the “resting” meaning of chalitzah, the Midrash cites the Shabbat liturgy in which we beseech G-d to “be appeased and let us rest” (ritzay v’hachalitzeinu).

Some of these meanings of chalitzah line up with the various meanings of shemittah: Just like shemittah refers to “slipping,” so does chalitzah. Just like shemittah refers to “escaping,” so does chalitzah. Just like shemittah refers to “forsaking/leaving something,” so does chalitzah. In fact, the Midrash in question actually uses a cognate of shemittah when noting that chalitzah can mean “slip” (although, Radak to Isa. 58:11 and in Sefer HaShorashim seems to have had an alternate version of the Midrash that instead used the word shalaf for that purpose, see below).

As Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) explains it, chalitzah is characterized by “extracting” something from within something else that engulfs or envelops it. In the case of the Levirate chalitzah ritual, the woman must “extract” her brother-in-law’s foot from within his shoe. In other cases, the verb form of chalitzah refers to separating out something small from within something bigger. From example, when a house is stricken with tzara'at (roughly, "leprosy"), the affected stones must be extracted from the edifice, and the verb used for that action cognates with chalitzah (Lev. 14:40, 14:43). Similarly, when Moses told the Jews to conscript soldiers for their war against Midian, the word used for separating out those soldiers from the nation-at-large was a cognate of chalitzah (Num. 31:3), and the soldiers who were singled out from the rest of the nation were called chalutzim (Num. 32:30, Deut. 3:18).

In Biblical Hebrew, the “hips/thigh” is chalatzaim. This term typically appears in one of two contexts: a soldier girding himself for battle (Isa. 5:27, 11:5, 32:11, Job 38:3, 40:7) or the birth of a child (Gen. 35:11, I Kings 5:19, II Chron. 6:9, Jer. 30:6). Shoresh Yesha explains that both of these contexts hearken back to other meanings of chalitzah discussed above, positing that the hips/thigh was the place where soldier typically wore their weaponry (“arming”), or because that was place from which a newborn child can be said to “slip out” during birth. The Aramaic version of this word — charatz (see Dan. 5:6) — seems to be derived from the interchangeability of LAMMED and REISH.

Interestingly, in Aramaic the act of “removing clothing” is also a cognate of chalitzah (see Targum to I Sam. 31:8–9, I Chron. 10:8), possibly because stripping off one’s clothes is an act of extracting one’s body from within such garments. This Aramaic usage may be the etymological basis for the Modern Hebrew word chultzah (“shirt”). Nonetheless, Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899–1983) writes in his etymological dictionary that this term was originally coined by Prof. Joseph Klausner (1874-1958) to mean "blouse" and was derived from the “hips/thigh” meaning of chalatzaim (because a blouse typically covered the loins).

When the Bible reports that Delilah exerted pressure (alatz) on her husband Samson to divulge the secret behind his super-human strength, the Bible (Jud. 16:16) uses a cognate of the triliteral root ALEPH-LAMMED-TZADI to denote the pressure which she applied. Nachmanides (to Gen. 32:25) sees the ALEPH of alatz as interchangeable with the CHET of chalatz, which he understands as a metathesized permutation of lachatz (“pressure”). However, rabbinic tradition (Sotah 9b, Bereishet Rabbah 52:12) explains alatz differently as referring to Delilah “slipping away” (nishmatah) from underneath Samson in the throes of coital intimacy as a way of pressuring him to give away his secret. This suggests that perhaps the rabbis interpreted alatz as directly related to chalatz (not lachatz) — a contention I found expressed explicitly by Rabbi Moshe ben HaNessiah Britannico (13th century England) in his Sefer HaShoham and by Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (1832–1909) in his Ben Yehoyada (to Sotah 9b).

Another Biblical Hebrew word that refers to “slipping off” is shalaf (derived from the triliteral root SHIN-LAMMED-PEH). In general, words from this root refer to “slipping” something out of its container to brandish it for another purpose. Cognates of shalaf appear25 times in the Bible, most commonly when referring to the act of drawing one’s sword from its sheath (Num. 22:23, 22:31, Josh. 5:13, Jud. 3:22, 8:10, 8:20, 9:54, 20:2, 20:15, 20:17, 20:25, 20:35, 20:46, I Sam. 17:51, 31:4, II Sam. 24:9, II Kings 3:26, I Chron. 10:4, 21:16, 21:25). Less commonly, cognates of shalaf refer to the act of “slipping off” one’s shoe (Ruth 4:7–8) for symbolic deal-making (the ancient equivalent of shaking hands). In fact, Targum pseudo-Jonathan (to Deut. 25:9) renders the verb form of chalitzah (in the context of the chalitzah ritual) as a cognate of shalaf. Rashi (to Chullin 53a and Gittin 33b) also connects these two verbs and ostensibly sees them as synonymous.

Fascinatingly, the Bible relates that one of the sons of Eber, Joktan, had a son named Shalaf (Gen. 10:26). According to Targum known as Jonathan (there) and Targum Rav Yosef (to I Chron. 1:20), Shalaf was said to have been the first to “draw” water from rivers (i.e., he invented irrigation canals), and his name seems to allude to this innovation.

Rabbi Pappenheim explains that shalaf is a portmanteau derived from the roots SHIN-LAMMED (“remove/taken away”) and ALEPH-PEH (“face”), in the sense of taking something out in a confrontational “in your face” way. He explains that shalaf differs from chalitzah in that shalaf is used whenever the two items in question were only loosely attached and could easily be separated. As noted above, most appearances of this root involve “slipping out” one’s sword from its sheath or “slipping off” one’s shoe for the purposes of a business transaction. In both situations, this action is typically performed as quickly as possible. In the case of a business deal, the buyer and seller want to seal the deal before the other one backs out, and in the case of a sword, a warrior needs his weapon to be readily at his disposal. Because of the need to swiftly be able to remove one’s sword or shoe, we would not expect them to be fastened too strongly.

In a similar vein, Shoresh Yesha notes that Biblical Hebrew uses three verbs to denote “removing” one’s shoe: shal (Ex. 3:5, Josh. 5:15), shalaf, and chalitzah. He explains that these three terms correspond tothree different ways by which a shoe or sandal may be attached to one’s foot, with shal referring to slipping off one’s sandal without even using one’s hands, shalaf referring to taking off one’s shoe by hand, and chalitzah referring to removing a shoe fastened to the foot by first untying it.

What I found perplexing is the fact that the Talmud refers to a load mounted on top of an animal as a shlif (Bava Kamma 3a, see Rashi to Bava Kamma 17b, Shabbat 154b, Eruvin 16a, and Kiddushin 22b). This word is seemingly derived from the triliteral SHIN-LAMMED-PEH, but I do not understand why the word for a parcel that somebody hopes will not “slip off” the animal’s back is derived from the act of “slipping off.” Perhaps the word shlif refers to that very hope that it does not fall off the animal transporting it. Or, perhaps the word shalaf actually refers to the same sort of untying denoted by the word chalitzah (pace the Shoresh Yesha), so the term shlif refers to how one might remove the package from upon the animal after it reaches its final destination (see Rashi to Bava Batra 75b who notes that the shlif was tied to the animal).

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