Our Torah reading today from Leviticus 19:23-37 consists of 14 verses packed full of God’s commandments instructing us what we must do and what we must not do. The first verse, however, differs in that it commands us when we must do something and the timing by which we must do it: “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food your shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the Lord; and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit — that its yield to you may be increased: I am the Lord your God.”
The definition of orlah in relationship to fruit trees is extremely intricate. To give you some idea of just how intricate we first need to define what qualifies as fruit. Technically, fruit is defined as the “edible seed bearing structure of a plant”. This definition includes melons, berries, tropical fruits such as bananas, as well as other popular fruits. Horticulturists define fruits as “the edible food of a woody perennial,” where a perennial is a plant that lives for two years or more and an annual a plant that dies or degenerates after one year.
The Code of Jewish Law and horticulturists consider the fruit of an annual a vegetable. A banana is a perfect example of a tropical fruit that grows on an annual plant. After one season the banana bush dies and a new shoot grows in its place. Hence a banana is halachically considered a vegetable. A further example of an annual fruit, is the aubergine (sometime referred to as an eggplant or, in Israel, chatzilim).
More than 500 years ago the people of Tzfat a town high in the mountains of Northern Israel, asked their Rabbis whether the “aubergine,” because it bore its fruit within one year of the tree’s planting, was subject to the laws of orlah. The Rabbis, after careful consideration, concluded that since the tree bore fruit so quickly and the quality diminished so rapidly the aubergine is considered to be a vegetable and the laws of orlah did not apply. Therefore the bracha, the blessing, made on bananas and aubergines is borei pri ha‘adama.
What was the motive behind God’s commandment of orlah? Surely as the children of Israel entered the land of Canaan they would have found an abundance of fruit trees left by the Canaanites. The Book of Numbers describes the 12 spies that were sent out to scout the land of Canaan, returning from the valley of Eshcol with a cluster of grapes, pomegranates and figs. They addressed Moses, Arron and the congregation saying: “We came unto the land wither thou sentest us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it.” Torah uses the phrase “a land flowing with milk and honey” 20 times thus indicating Canaan was indeed a land of high agricultural productivity.
In an attempt to provide some logic to God’s commandment concerning orlah we need only reflect on our modern day life style.
Today, perhaps more than at any other time in our history, we tend to focus our efforts and energies on things that have the potential to bring us swift results and immediate gratification. Western society and its “time-saving” innovations have left us acutely impatient and intolerant of even the slightest delays. Overnight shipping, e.g., Amazon Prime, once an expensive extravagance, is now the norm. We want what we want and we want it now! Rather than caring for and tending a newly planted tree for three years before being able to enjoy it fruit, we would prefer to simply plant a seed, have a tree sprout overnight and wake up the next morning ready to enjoy its fruits.
What message is the commandment of orlah telling us? Consider the following examples:
Suppose the authorities were to tell a farmer that his crop must be uprooted because the HS2 high speed railway is being routed through his land. Who would agonise over it more, the farmer who worked for many years to build-up his crop or the “overnight farmer” whose seedlings sprout faster than you can say “Jack Robinson”?
We all receive emails sent from our work colleagues friends and family. Electronic mail is a fast and efficient way of communication, however, an email pales in significance when compared to a hand written letter sent by slow mail. A message presented in an individual and unique style of hand writing and not the boring 12 pt Arial font that we can select on our computer in an instant. If someone worked for weeks to knit a sweater or to turn a lamp stand on a wood lathe, would he or she throw it out just like that? I’m sure some of you have an old hand-knitted jumper hanging around your homes that you just can’t bear to throw away, even though its threadbare and worn. Why? Is it the cost of the wool? We easily discard items of far greater monetary value. No, it’s because in our hearts we know the love, care and effort that went into to creating that old knitted sweater. Easy come, easy go. What we achieve with ease has little lasting value to us. The commandment of orlah acts against our impulsive nature and our need to see instant results from our efforts.
There is a well know Midrash that recounts when the Roman emperor Hadrian once passed through Palestine on his way to war in the East where he happened upon an elderly Jew planting fig trees. The sight of such altruism prompted the emperor to ask the man his motives. “My lord, the king,” said the man, “I trouble myself to plant them because, if I merit it, I myself shall eat of the fruits of my labour. And if not, then my children will.” Three years later, Hadrian returned to that self-same spot in Palestine to be greeted by the elderly farmer with a basket full of fresh figs. He reminded the emperor of their previous conversation and gave him the figs. Awed by the man’s lack of self-centredness, Hadrian returned his basket full of Roman gold coins.
The Midrash reiterates its lesson, let no one ever cease from planting. Fields filled with trees greeted us at birth and we should add to their number even in old age. For God has already taught us by example that personal gain is too narrow a base for human behaviour, as it is written. “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the East” surely done for human benefit, without any thought of self. You will plant a tree and you will wait three full years before you are allowed any kind of pleasure from its fruits.
I think there is something sad about the fact that we have lost our connection to the earth. Orlah was one of the many ways that our ancestors expressed their belief that we belong to the earth and the earth does not belong to us. There is something deeper and more abiding in the idea that there is more to our lives than productivity. Nurturing a tree or allowing the fruit of its first years to return to the earth was a way of saying that we are caretakers and not the landlords of our environment.