I’ve been learning Masechet Sheviit lately, well, for obvious reasons (I’ll also be teaching Hilchot Shemitta this upcoming school year). I was learning this past Shabbat afternoon when I cam across the following Mishna (Shevi’it 3:8):

אין בונין מדרגות על פי הגאיות ערב שביעית, משיפסקו הגשמים, מפני שהוא מתקינן לשביעית; אבל בונה הוא בשביעית משיפסקו הגשמים, מפני שהוא מתקינן למוצאי שביעית. לא יסמוך בעפר, אבל עושה הוא חיץ. כל אבן שהוא יכול לפשוט את ידו וליטלה, הרי זו תינטל

It reminded me of a Yerushalmi in Shabbat (7:2, 47b)that I had once learned:

החופר החורץ הנועץ המדייר המעדר המזבל המכבד המרבץ המפעפע גושים. המברה בחרשים. המצית את האור בחישת קנים ובאגד תמרים וכרבי זעירא אמת המים שהיא מכשרת צדדיה לזריעה. המסקל. הבונה מדריגות. הממלא את הנקעים שתחת הזיתים. והעושה עוגיות לגפנים. וכל דבר שהוא להניית קרקע חייב משום חורש

The connection should be obvious: there’s this activity, called ‘boneh madreigot’, which is both a derivative of plowing as far as Shabbat is concerned and a forbidden activity in preparation for Shemittah. The question is, what exactly is this activity?

A literal translation is ‘building steps’. In fact, this is how most commentaries understand the Mishna – it is forbidden to build a flight of stairs down to a pool of water, because you will end up using that water to water your fields on Shemittah. This explanation, as several acharonim point out, is very problematic. They note that it is not forbidden to water one’s field during Shemittah as long as the purpose is just to maintain, but not improve, one’s crops. The suggestion that it is forbidden to build steps because they provide access to water, when use of the water itself is permitted, is far-fetched to say the least. Furthermore, although none of the commentators point it out, this understanding of ‘boneh madreigot’ has nothing to do with ‘choreish’ and would not be considered a derivative of that category, which includes any action which improves the arability of the ground.

When I first learned that Yerushalmi, I was living in Israel. it was clear to me then, as it is clear to me now, that ‘boneh madreigot’ means terrace farming. Building something like this on Shabbat would clearly be a form of choreish; it is truly preparing land for planting. A short drive through the Judean Hills and one is immediately aware that this form of farming has been used in this area from time immemorial. /it just makes so much more sense than the other commentaries.

I’m trying to do more research into the issue. The word ‘madreigah’ comes up twice in Tanach – once in Yechezkel and once in Shir Hashirim – and in both cases it refers to some type of outdoor structure in the hills. I plan to look in the Targumim and in Dr. Feliks’ commentary to Shir Hashirim to see what they say. I’m pretty convinced that I’m right, though.

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