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The Idea Behind the Mitzvah of Orlah

“When you come into the Land and you plant any food tree…” (Vayikra 19:23) This verse introduces us to the laws of “orlah.” Fruit produced by a tree in the first three years of its planting is prohibited to us in all forms of benefit. The fourth year the fruit must be eaten in Jerusalem or redeemed and the money spent on food in Jerusalem. In the fifth year and onward, the fruit is ours to eat and use freely.

What is the need for the Torah to tell us about these laws now? What was the situation in earlier days, in the time of the Avot, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Were these laws applicable to them as well since they lived in the Land?

One interesting deduction we can make is that at this moment, the Israelites with Moshe were poised to enter into the Land. They had received the Torah, built the Mishkan, inaugurated the Kohanim, and had begun performing the sacrificial service. All that was left was for them to enter the Land and establish “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Giving laws to the nation pertaining to their entry into the Land was indicative of the God’s initial plan, to quickly fulfill His promise to our forefathers. Due to their forthcoming sin, the event of the spies, God’s plan for coming into the Land was delayed, 40 years.

There is however a legal change with regard to the Land that is now being introduced to the Jewish people. Eretz Yisroel was promised to the Avot in the form of a covenant between them and God. There was a condition attached to this covenant. It was contingent upon Abraham’s descendants being enslaved in another land. This collective experience would mold and prepare the nation so that when they later took possession of their land, they would relate to in a unique way and spirit.

Until the time of conquest after the Exodus, complete manifestation of possessing the Land was not fulfilled. Rabbi Soloveitchik referred to this level of relationship to the Land as a “kinyan peirot.” Their rights to the Land were limited. They could use the Land, enjoy its fruits but they could not develop it. “Before the Exodus they had no right to develop an agricultural economy, to dig, to build, to destroy or to change the structure of the Land.” (Soloveitchik, Festival of Freedom, pp 127-128)

Once they left Egypt, the Torah began to prepare the people for their completion of God’s divine promise. Prior to the Exodus the chief occupation of the people was as shepherds.  When Yaakov and his sons were first introduced to Pharaoh by Joseph, he asked them “What is your occupation?” They responded, “Your servants are shepherds, we as well as our forefathers.” (B’resheit 47:3-4) That is, the family business was not real estate development. We simply used the land where we came from for our flocks. We intend, with your permission, to do so here as well. Pharaoh granted them this permission.

However, with leaving Egypt, the Israelites would now have to face the challenge of transitioning from shepherds to civilization building. The nature of their existence would change from a simple pastoral society to a complex agricultural society. The individual and national effort in planting, growing and harvesting the Land, of having a “kinyan haguf,”  complete rights, ownership and possession of the Land, brought with it its own potential dangers. This new relationship to the Land could lead to having an over enlarged individual and/or national ego. Moshe points out this danger 40 years later in his final address to the people. “You may say in your heart, ‘My strength and the might of my hand have made me all this wealth.’” (Devorim 8: 17) Giving up any benefit to the fruits of the first three years and eating the fourth year’s yield only in Jerusalem would drive home the idea that while their possession of the Land was complete, the cause of their possession and prosperity was due to the blessings of God.

As modern Israel continues to thrive and develop, we pray that Jews the world over and especially in Israel, all descents of the original “olim,” settlers of the Land of Israel, heed the message of the mitzvah of “orlah.” We must always recognize that without the continued watchfulness and blessings of Hashem over the Land, all of our efforts, both within and without, would be ineffectual and meaningless.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan