Law of the Land – Yitro 5774
In honor of Tu BeShvat, the new year of trees. Below is an overview of some of the mitzvot that apply to the produce of the Land of Israel. The Land of Israel and its agricultural products are considered holy, therefore there are special laws that apply to them. The most well-known is the obligation in Biblical and Temple times to separate a percentage of the crop and give it to the Cohanim (Priests of the Holy Temple), the Levites and the poor. Some of the produce was separated from the crop and was supposed to be brought to Jerusalem, where it was eaten by the owners and by whomever they wanted to share it with. The distribution of the tithing worked according to a precise schedule that ran in seven-year cycles.
The most obvious lesson of the tithes is that the world and everything in it belongs to G-d and by obligating the farmer to either give away part of the crop or to eat it in a specific city, the idea that G-d, not the human being, is the ultimate landowner, was well learned. The other, more pragmatic purpose of the tithes was to support those who did not have land of their own, and who worked for the communal good. The Levites and the Cohanim were dedicated to working in the Temple in Jerusalem and to teaching Torah, and therefore they did not inherit land like the rest of the nation. Because of this, the Torah granted them the income from these taxes as their means of livelihood.
Another purpose of these agricultural laws is to inculcate in the Jewish people the positive character traits of compassion, justice and humility.
Today, since most Jews do not live in Israel and the Cohanim are not in a state of ritual purity (a prerequisite to eating tithed food), tithes are not given, nor are they eaten in Jerusalem. There is still an obligation, however, to separate the tithes from agricultural produce of the Land of Israel and dispose of them in a respectful fashion. The law requires that one separate a little more than 1% of any produce grown in Israel, and recite a declaration before the fruit or vegetables may be eaten. Even today, and even outside of Israel, one of the agricultural tithes is still fulfilled, albeit symbolically. When one makes dough, a small amount is taken off and burnt. In the times of the Temple, when the Cohanim were in a state of ritual purity, this separation, known as Challah, was given to them.
The Biblical laws of tithes only apply to agricultural produce. Jewish practice has extended the idea, however, to tithing one’s income as well. It has become the universal custom, (according to some authorities, it’s the law) that we give at least 10% of our income to charity. This practice is known as ma’aser kesafim, tithes of money. In setting aside a part of our incomes for charity in this way, we are acknowledging that our money was not earned through our efforts alone, but is a gift from G-d. As He has chosen to reward us with financial gain, it is our duty to share it with others.
In earlier times, Jewish law governed the harvest of crops in Israel. These laws were designed to channel support to poor people, while at the same time allowing them to retain their dignity by having them work for what they received. When a farmer harvested his field he was obligated to leave one corner (paya, in Hebrew), un-harvested, so that the poor could harvest it themselves and keep the produce. When he gathered his sheaves together, any sheaves that he forgot (shikchah) had to be left for the poor to gather for themselves. If he inadvertently dropped any stalks during the harvest (leket), he would leave them for the poor as well.
These laws only apply when there are, in fact, poor people who go to the fields to collect or harvest the grains. Nowadays, however, poor people do not wait near farms for the harvest. Instead, they are generally supported by various charitable organizations and therefore some of these laws are not applied in practice today.
In Temple times, laws that were not related to supporting the needy also regulated planting and harvesting. Some of these laws are still implemented today, while others cannot be. The first fruits to appear on a tree, for example, were taken to the Temple in Jerusalem as an offering. This offering of the first fruits, Bikurim, was another way of expressing gratitude to G-d for His blessings. Since the destruction of the Temple, this mitzvah cannot be fulfilled until the Messianic Era, when the Third Temple will exist.
For the first three years after a tree is planted, the fruit is known as orlah, and it may not be eaten, it is rather left for birds and other animals to eat. The fruit of the fourth year is holy, and therefore we wait for the fifth year to eat of the fruit. In Israel, any fruit that might possibly be orlah is prohibited. Outside of Israel, however, unless one knows that the fruit is definitely orlah, it may be eaten.
Similarly, wheat, barley, rye, spelt and oat grains from a new harvest was, in Temple times, not to be eaten until the first sheaf is cut in special manner and brought as an offering in the Temple on the second day of Passover. Any grain that was sown after the bringing of this offering, known as the Omer, was not to be eaten until after the next year’s offering. This prohibition is known as chadash, “new,” referring to the new harvest. Since the destruction of the Temple, we can no longer bring the Omer offering. Nevertheless, grain from the new harvest is still forbidden until the day after the offering would have been brought. There is some controversy about whether this prohibition applies only in Israel or outside as well. Today, most Jews outside of Israel follow the lenient view that chadash does not apply in the Diaspora.
The underlying message of both orlah and chadash is one of restraint and self-control, and the acknowledgement that, since everything ultimately belongs to G-d, it may only be used for purposes that are in keeping with G-d’s plan for the world. We are only free to use the fruit or grain after bringing some to Jerusalem to eat or for use as an offering, acts which impress upon us that everything we have is a gift of G-d.