We recently were asked how to apply this commandment in our lives. This is a very good question as we also want to plant some fruit trees. We also need to learn how to care for them according to Scripture, as well as when we can start eating of their fruit. For these reasons, we want to explore what this means and how to apply this commandment in our lives. We have mentioned this commandment before in the article “To eat or not to eat…What is the Scriptural standard?“
There is, moreover, also a spiritual application to this commandment which we shall share with you. There always is a physical and a spiritual component to every commandment. Sometimes it is revealed to us, but other times it is not. However, we are to obey first, even if we don’t understand.
The Uncircumcised tree or the Orlah prohibition.
We find this commandment in the book of Leviticus.
23 ‘When you enter the land and plant all kinds of trees for food, then you shall count their fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden to you; it shall not be eaten. 24 ‘But in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy, an offering of praise to YHVH. 25 ‘In the fifth year you are to eat of its fruit, that its yield may increase for you; I am YHVH your Elohim.
What do we learn from this passage?
The fruit of the first three years
The first three years, the fruit is forbidden; we may not eat of it. It is considered uncircumcised, Mr. J.E. Feinberg from his book “Walk Leviticus” phrases it “unfit like a foreskin.2”
The tree and its fruit are immature. It is best for the tree if we remove this fruit in order for it to put all its energy into growing strong roots and branches. We shall expand on this later.
The fruit of the forth year
The fruit of the fourth year is set apart to YHVH.
The fruit of this year is considered the same as the fruit for the second tithe. It is to be taken to Jerusalem and eaten before YHVH in thanksgiving. If you are unable to carry it; you may redeem it, and take the money and buy food and drink and rejoice before YHVH.
How would we do this if we have our own fruit trees? We probably have to sell it and take the money with us to Jerusalem when we go up for the Pilgrimage festivals, most probably Sukkot, because most fruit is harvestable in the fall.
How would you do this? Please share your insight with us.
Fruit of the fifth year
From the fifth year onwards, the fruit is acceptable for consumption.
There is also a blessing involved in keeping this. The phrase “that its yield may increase for you,” indicates this. We see once again how YHVH gave this commandment, for our benefit. If we are obedient, the tree will produce more fruit.
We will, in addition, look at the physical significance of this commandment for the tree, because I do believe that the tree also benefits from this.
Let us look at the word “orla” to see what we can learn from it. The Hebrew word “orla” was translated as “forbidden” in this verse.
The word “orlah” means foreskin or uncircumcised. So a tree is uncircumcised, and its fruit unfit for consumption, for the first three years. In the fourth year, the fruit is set apart unto YHVH and in the fifth year, it is ready for consumption.
In order to apply this commandment we need to understand what a tree is.
What is a tree?
This may seem like a trivial question, but read on and you will understand why we need to know this. The commandment reads “When you enter the land and plant all kinds of trees for food” In order to understand what exactly is meant, we need to define a tree.
In Genesis, we see YHVH making a distinction between plants yielding seed and fruit trees.
10Elohim called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters He called seas; and Elohim saw that it was good. 11 Then Elohim said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit after their kind with seed in them”; and it was so.
If we want to keep this commandment, we, too need to distinguish between plants and trees. When we think of a tree, we think of “a woody perennial plant, typically having a single stem or trunk growing to a considerable height and bearing lateral branches at some distance from the ground.”4
However, how does Scripture define a tree? Did you know a grape vine is considered a tree in Scripture? (Eze 15:2)
The word that was translated as trees is “es” in Hebrew and is defined as follows by the Dictionary of Biblical Languages:
From the definition, we learn that a tree is “any kind of relatively large woody plant.” That is quite a wide definition. We also know that in order for a tree to be orlah, it must grow for more than five years at least. The prohibition could otherwise not apply to it. That rules out all annuals that produce fruit. These would fall under “plants yielding seed” This seems a no-brainer, but when you look at specific plants that are defined as trees, you will understand.
Which trees are included in this command?
We shall now look at a few examples of trees to see whether “orlah” applies to it or not.
These are defined as trees by our modern standards mostly based on size.
The normal fruit-bearing trees like apples, pears, figs, olives, dates, citrus and nuts will all fall under the “orlah” prohibition. Some of these only start producing fruit after four to five years, so that is easy. Date palms, for example, start producing fruit after four to five years and fig trees after five years.
There are, however, some cultivars that start producing fruit after three years, so we can’t assume that fruit of all these trees are acceptable to eat when we buy it. Neither can we generalize and say every perennial that produces fruit is under the “orlah” prohibition.
There are a few “trees” that are different to the normal fruit-bearing trees. We shall look at a few examples.
Bananas for example, are quite unique and can for this reason not be categorized as a fruit “tree.”
The lifespan of a banana rhizome is approximately 6 years, and the life cycle of a plant is 13 months. During this 13 months, the plant produces fruit and then dies. The rhizome produces another plant after that, and that continues for about six years where after the rhizome dies. The “orlah” prohibition could, for this reason, not be applied to a banana plant.
A Raspberry plant is another good example. It produces shoots that start to bear fruit in the second year where after the shoot dies off. The root remains and continues to produce new shoots, which bear fruit. The orlah prohibition can therefor not be applied to raspberries either.
Blackberries are related to raspberries in the way they grow. They also produce shoots that bear fruit in the second year.
Blueberry, on the other hand, is like a small tree which can live as long as 50 years. It produces fruit on its branch year after year. The “orlah” prohibition would therefor apply to blueberries. Currants and Gooseberries are long-live perennials like Blueberries so the “orlah” prohibition would apply to them too.
Vines are categorized, according to Scripture, as trees(Eze 15:2) so “orlah” applies to them. A healthy vine can live for fifty to a hundred years.
A Papaya tree is also quite interesting. In some parts of the world, it is an annual due to the climate, but it usually lives for two to five years. The “orlah” prohibition would therefor not apply to papayas.
Eggplant is another interesting example. The plant is a perennial, but only lives for three years. The best fruit is produced in the first year. The fruit deteriorates in quality after the first year and the plant dies after the third year. So, although this is a perennial, it would be exempt from the “orlah” prohibition.
These are just a few interesting examples to show you that we need to look at individual plants in order to determine if the “orlah” prohibition applies or not. However, in general, it is not too difficult to determine.
Nevertheless, when we buy our fruit in a market, we don’t know the age of the tree it was harvested from.
What about fruit bought in the supermarket?
We live in the Diaspora and the fruit we buy in the marketplace can be from a tree of any age. Farmers can start harvesting fruit from the third year of a tree’s life depending on the rootstock and cultivar. Some fruit trees only start producing fruit after five years, so that won’t be a problem. Moreover, here in the Netherlands, for example, we can get oranges from Spain, Egypt or South Africa. The climate is unsuitable for cultivating oranges, so it has to be imported. So, when we buy fruit, we have no way of knowing if the fruit was indeed from a tree older than four years.
It would be impossible to contact the farmers before we buy from the supermarket. In some cases, the only information we have is the land of origin. Harvested fruit often goes to a co-op before distribution. The fruits from different farmers are all mixed together at the co-op.
The question is: are we transgressing this commandment when we eat immature fruit bought from the supermarket? The answer is yes; we would be transgressing the commandment if we knew we were eating immature fruit. What options do we have?
Some people can, to a certain degree, cultivate their own fruit trees, if they have the space to do so. Another option is to buy from farmers in your area after enquiring after the age of the trees. This is, however, a very limited option. Another option is to buy from a kosher market, if you have one close to you. However, if none of these options are available to us, what are we to do? We cannot simply stop eating fruit as we need the vitamins and minerals in order to be healthy.
Consider the commandment to keep the Sabbath. We are commanded to bring sacrifices on this day. Do we now not keep it because there is no Temple, or do we do the best we can? We can still rest to give but one example. So what do we do? We will answer this question with another: have you done everything possible to obey this commandment? If you have a piece of land, have you planted fruit trees? If you are close to a kosher market, do you buy there?
We, in the Diaspora, are to obey the commandments to the best of our ability. It is always the easy way out to say it only pertains to those living in the land, or we can’t obey, because it is too difficult to do. We are not saying this to condemn anybody. We have not obeyed this commandment prior to this study, but we will now see if we can do better in future.
If we know the truth, we have to live it, for we will be judged according to the truth revealed to us. Consider the parable of the talents in this context. The talents can be compared to truth. What happened to the man who received one talent? He buried it under the ground, and it was taken away from him….
The benefit to the tree
Why did YHVH give us this commandment?
YHVH owns the land; we are stewards of the land, and we are to care for it in the way YHVH instructed us to do. When we adhere to this commandment, we benefit from it in that the trees yield more fruit. The trees also benefit from it as it gets an opportunity to form strong roots and branches. The branches of an immature tree can tear if it is left to fruit too early. Also, the growth of an immature tree can be stunted when it is allowed to fruit from the beginning. It is even advised that the fruit lets are removed in the first few years in order to help the tree redirect its growth to its roots and branches.
This commandment has been followed by the ancient Israelites and still is obeyed in Israel by the Jews. They also believe that the fruit should be removed during this time in order for the tree to grow strong and to ensure that no-one eats the fruit in ignorance.
From these quotes, we learn that both, us and the tee, benefit from keeping this commandment. The tree gets the opportunity to grow strong and as a result of that yields more fruit. That is in line with the last part of the instruction in Leviticus “that its yield may increase for you”
Once again, we see how wonderful YHVH’s instructions are. He designed the world in a specific way and gave us the instructions on how to care for it. This proper care according to His instructions benefits us and His creation.
The Spiritual application
For every commandment given, there seems to be a physical and a spiritual application. However, we don’t always see or understand it. It is the same with this commandment. One of my Facebook friends, Ken Rank, wrote a note on the spiritual application of this commandment. We would like to share it with you (with his permission).
In researching the various stages of spiritual maturity we all go through, I came across a rather interesting Hebrew word, orla. (H6190) Like many Hebrew words, orla has many meanings. It is generally translated into English as foreskin or uncircumcision. On one hand then, this word tends to speak about physical things, as in Genesis 17:11 and Leviticus 12:3 where it deals with literal foreskins. We then see it used in Exodus 12:48 or Joshua 5:7 where it speaks of being physically uncircumcised. But then Orla takes a interesting turn, a more spiritual turn, and we see it used as follows:
And Moses spoke before the Lord, saying, “The children of Israel have not heeded me. How then shall Pharaoh heed me, for I am of uncircumcised lips?”
Egypt, Judah, Edom, the people of Ammon, Moab, and all who are in the farthest corners, who dwell in the wilderness. For all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart.”
circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiff-necked.
Interesting, uncircumcised lips, an uncircumcised heart, and foreskin of your heart… this is clearly more spiritual than physical. Once I saw these, I was pointed to another set of verses, a command actually, which has many meanings beyond just our need to obey it physically.
and when ye shall come into the land, and shall have planted all manner of trees for food,then ye shall count the fruit thereof as uncircumcised: three years shall it be as uncircumcised unto you: it shall not be eaten of. (24) But in the fourth year all the fruit thereof shall be holy to praise the LORD withal. (25) And in the fifth year shall ye eat of the fruit thereof, that it may yield unto you the increase thereof: I am the LORD your God.
When “orla” is used relating to the physical, it seems to imply an inner impurity made manifest on the outside, the physical points at the spiritual. We see that trend really revealed when orla points to the impurity of the lips, mouth, and heart. But now in Leviticus we really can’t take orla any other way than as pointing at immaturity. During the 3 years we are not to eat the fruit, the roots of the fruit tree are growing, a foundation is being laid for that tree so that it will grow strong and produce great fruit… later… when it is ready to. But for those first three years, it seems, we are not touching it so that it can gain strength, mature… grow to the point where it not only will produce fruit but will also withstand the elements which will come against it.
I find then, the similarity between Yehoshua teaching his students for 3 +/- years to be not so coincidental! During the 3 years they walked with Messiah, they were taught and while they were at times sent out to preach, Yehoshua was generally there and they were always under his tutelage, under his direction (The mark of a good teacher). They would not be “let loose” though until he ascended, 3 years after he called them. We might also factor in the Apostle Paul, who, once his eyes were opened on the Damascus Rd., went away for three years to Arabia, perhaps to the true Mt. Sinai, presumably to relearn a great many things (Gal. 1:15-18).
I happen to believe we should follow the Leviticus command and not eat from a tree that is 3 years old or less. At the same time, I think it is showing us a picture that while God may call us to do a certain thing, that doesn’t always mean that HE MEANS today. So much of what God does is a process. The Abrahamic covenant is still to this day not completely fulfilled, the land promised through him has never been fully lived in by Israel. No one alive has all of Torah written on their hearts. These things are in the process of being done. Likewise, we ourselves are a process. We come in faith believing, and we are ALL called to do a work for the Father. Yet, when that work or ministry begins depends on when we are spiritually mature enough to handle the job. There are many “teachers” especially online who may very well be called to teach, yet, based on their words and how they treat others, I wonder if it really is their time to teach yet? In any event, I think it is clear through the lesson of orla fruit that we know that some things simply take time to be made manifest and we all should remain in constant prayer regarding our callings. We need to be patient and wait on God.9
Another reason for this commandment is to ensure that the Israelites did not follow the ways of the heathen nations around them. Here is a commentary by Rambam on this:
Idolaters have acted similarly in reference to property. They made it a law that a certain tree, the asherah, should be worshipped, and that of its fruit one part should be offered, and the rest consumed in the temple of the idol: this is stated in the regulations concerning the asherah. In the same manner, they made it a rule, that the first-fruit of every fruit-tree should be partly offered as a sacrifice and partly consumed in the idol’s temple. It was also a widespread belief that if the first-fruit of any tree was not treated in this manner, the tree would dry up, its fruit would be cast off, its increase would be diminished, or some disease would come over it; just as they spread the belief that every child, that was not passed through the fire, must die. People in their anxiety for their property obeyed also this precept unhesitatingly. The Law, in opposition to this doctrine, commanded us to burn the produce of fruit-trees the first three years; for some trees bear fruit after one year, whilst some begin to yield fruit after two, and others after three years. The law is based upon the nature of trees grown in an ordinary way, namely, in one of the three well-known methods: planting, propagation, and inoculation (neti‘ah, habrakah, and harcabah). The Law does not take notice of the case that a kernel or stone is sown; for the ordinances of the Law are based on the usual condition of things, and as a rule a young tree in Palestine bears fruit for the first time not later than the third year after it has been planted. According to the divine promise, the waste and destruction of this first-fruit of the tree will be followed by years of plenty of fruit; for it is said, “that it may increase unto you the fruit thereof” (Lev. xix. 25). The fruit of the fourth year we are commanded to eat before God, instead of [the heathen custom of] eating ‘orlab, “the fruit of the preceding years,” in the temples of the idols, as has been described by us.
We have learned through this study that YHVH, in His greatness, gave us this commandment too, not to be a burden, but a blessing. Keeping this commandment is blessing to us and to the trees. There is also a spiritual application to this commandment; this is another blessing from YHVH! This commandment is another wonderful thing from YHVH’s Torah. We can pray that YHVH will open our eyes to the wonders of His Torah.
18 Open my eyes, that I may behold Wonderful things from Your law. 19 I am a stranger in the earth; Do not hide Your commandments from me.
We are strangers in the earth, and we need to live according to YHVH’s instructions, for it is life to us!
19 “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants,
- All quoted passages are from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995. We have substituted YHVH for LORD and Y’shua for Jesus.
- Feinberg, J. E., Ph. D., & Moudy, K. A. (2001). Walk Leviticus!: and He called (p. 126). Baltimore, MD: Messianic Jewish Publishers.
- Strong, J. (2001). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
- Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
- Ken Rank, Taking the time to be discipled
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