Orlah - No Shortcuts?
When you shall come to the Land, and you will plant any food-bearing
tree, you shall withhold its fruits; for three years they shall be
forbidden to you, they shall not be eaten. (19:23)
The mitzvah to refrain from partaking from the produce of a fruit-bearing
tree for its first three years is called orlah. The fruits of the fourth
year may only be eaten in Yerushalayim, and from the fifth year on, we may
eat and enjoy its fruits without any further restrictions (after separating
In its discussion of the mitzvah of orlah, the Midrash tells the following
The Roman Caesar Adrayanus was once walking through the pathways of
T'verya (Tiberias). He noticed a very old man who was preparing his
orchard to plant fig trees. "Old man," he said, "just because you got up
in the morning doesn't mean you'll live through the day! [Why bother
planting trees at such an advanced age when you'll never live to see
their fruits?!]" "I got up in the morning, and I will lay down at night -
and whatever the Almighty has planned for me He will do," he said.
"Tell me," the Caesar asked, "how old are you?" "I am one hundred years
old," he said. "One hundred - and you think you'll still live to eat
these fruits?!" "If I merit, I will live to eat them. And if not, then
just like my ancestors planted trees for me, so too will my trees provide
for my children." "Promise me," he said, "that if you live to eat from
these fruits, you will let me know."
Eventually, the trees bore fruit. The old man decided he would do as the
Caesar had told him. He prepared a basket of figs, and took it to the
palace. When the guards asked him what he was doing there, he told them
his story, and they let him in to see the Caesar. "Who are you?" asked the
Caesar, "and why have you brought me these figs?" "I am the old man you
met in the streets of Tiberias - my trees bore fruit, and here they
are!" "Take his basket of figs," said the Caesar, "and replace them with
golden coins." "Why do you give such honour to a Jew?" his servants
asked. "The Almighty has given him honour - should I not show him respect?"
The old man went home and told people his story - how the Caesar filled
his basket with gold. Hearing this, his neighbour's wife had an
idea. "The Caesar likes figs," she said to her husband. "He trades them
for gold coins! Take a basket of figs, and go to the palace." He did so.
When he reached the palace, the guards asked him what he wanted. "I heard
the Caesar trades figs for gold coins, so I have brought him a basket of
fine figs." "One moment," they said. They went and told the Caesar about
his guest. "Tell him to stand by the gate with his basket," the Caesar
said, "and let every man who passes through the gate take a fig and throw
it in his face!"
When he returned home, his wife asked him what happened. "Thanks for
all the honour you have brought me!" he said. "It's your own fault," she
said. "You should have brought him esrogim - or perhaps the figs you
brought were not ripe." (Vayikra Rabbah 25:5; Yalkut Shimoni 615)
A fascinating story, but how does it help us to understand the prohibition
to eat the fruits of the first three years? And why does the Midrash
bother to include the humorous incident with the neighbour?
What was it about the old man that so intrigued Adrayanus? Why was he
so surprised that an elderly man should spend his time planting trees?
"Many men dream of finishing the entire Talmud (Shas) in one evening,"
R' Yisrael Salanter zt"l is said to have once quipped, "and to get a good
night's sleep too!"
Today perhaps more than ever, 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, once an expensive extravagance, is now the norm.
We want what we want - and we want it now!
Adrayanus was amazed that someone at such an advanced age would
actually have the patience to invest his time and effort in planting
something, although he was unlikely to ever see the fruits of his labour.
As a Caesar, he was likely accustomed to having the life's pleasures at his
avail for the mere snap of a finger. The message of the old man - a
message often borne by the elderly who have lived long enough to know
good things come to those who wait - was that there is great value to be
found in patiently awaiting the products of one's labour, even when they
don't seem forthcoming.
Perhaps, too, this is one of the messages of the mitzvah of orlah.
Wouldn't it be great to plant a seed, have a tree sprout overnight
(perhaps for a premium one could acquire intraday seedlings!), and wake
up the next morning ready to enjoy its fruits, without ever having to
weed, water, or prune? Think about this: Suppose they were to tell a
farmer that his crop must be uprooted because a highway is being
routed through his property. Who would agonize 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
Easy come, easy go. What we achieve with ease has little lasting value to
us. If someone worked for weeks to knit a sweater or to weave a
carpet, would he throw it out just like that? People have hanging around
their homes hand-knit sweaters and blankets from their Bubbies that
they just can't bear to throw away, even though they're thread-bare and
worn. Why? Is it the cost of the wool? We easily discard items of far
greater monetary value. It's because in our hearts we know the love,
care, and effort that went into to creating them.
The mitzvah of orlah acts against our impulsive nature and our need to
see instant results from our efforts. You will plant a tree, and you will
wait three full years before you are allowed any kind of pleasure from
Of course our need for immediate results and instantaneous gratification
is not restricted to material things. In our avodas Hashem and our
character development, we also tend to get easily frustrated when things
don't proceed as quickly as we'd like. We tend to flock towards segulos,
and often use them as substitutes for earnest long-term effort. "You want
a segulah to remember what you study?" an elderly chassid renowned for
his diligence and long hours in the beis ha-midrash once asked, "maybe
try putting in more hours. If that doesn't work, you can always try
putting your Gemara under your pillow and sleeping on top of it!"
The neighbour's wife in the story is convinced that fruit-baskets can be
traded for gold coins just like that. There's nothing more to it. She fails
to realize that there's more to the old man's fruits than meets the eye.
It's not the fruits in the basket that so impressed the Caesar - it's how
they got there. Even after their "efforts" are met with scorn, she remains
unconvinced. "You should have brought a different fruit... " - maybe a
different segulah would have worked...
We can't turn back the clocks. Mass-production and disposable goods are
here to stay. Our task is to make sure the need for immediate
gratification that so pervades our world doesn't invade our efforts in
Torah, tefilah, and mitzvah performance, and chinuch ha-banim
(education). Remember: What comes easily is parted with easily. The
more of ourselves we invest in Torah, the more we value it, and the
more dear it becomes.
Have a good Shabbos.
***** This week's publication has been sponsored by R' Avraham
Koplowitz, in memory of his mother, Malka Liba bas Moshe Meir.
And by R' Shmiel Lemel, in memory of his father, Tzvi Yaakov Kopel ben
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Torah.org