This Land is My Land

  • Rav Ezra Bick

            Tonight is Tu Bishvat, the "new year of the trees," so I shall devote this week's shiur to agricultural halakha.

            Tu Bishvat is the 15th day of the month of Shvat (Tu is the sound of the Hebrew letters "tet" and "vav," which together have the numerical value of 15). According to the Mishna (Rosh HaShana 1,1), this date is the new year of the trees. Accordingly, the date has been appropriated in modern Israel as a day to plant trees, sort of a celebration of spring. This however has nothing to do with the halakhic meaning of the phrase "new year of trees." In fact, as we shall see, the actual celebration which has taken place for several centuries on Tu Bishvat has assumed a character almost the opposite of a "rite of spring." But that will come later.

            First, what does the "new year" refer to?

            A major section of halakha, encompassing one-sixth of the first code of Jewish law, the Mishna, deals with agricultural produce. Many different laws are included in this category. One of the consequences of these laws is that certain fruits are forbidden at certain times. This is fundamentally different from the laws usually subsumed under the category of kosher foods, which generally relate to animal products. Unlike the animal world, where certain species are prohibited, there is no such thing as a prohibited vegetative species. However, various laws prohibit certain parts of the produce of the fields during some years of the growth, or certain percentages of the yield. Let me first summarize very shortly the basic laws.

1. Teruma - A small percentage of all produce grown in the land of Israel is given to the priests, who according to Torah law, received no portion of their own when the land was divided up. This produce is prohibited to all who are not priests (kohanim). 

2.  Maaser - 1/10 of the produce grown in Israel is given to the levites, who also have no portion of their own.

3.  Tevel - All produce is prohibited before the teruma and maaser are separated.

4.  Bikkurim - The first-fruits of the trees are brought to the Temple. This law is not in effect today, when the Temple does not exist.

5.  Maaser sheni - During the years 1,2,4,5 of the seven-year sabbatical cycle, an additional 1/10 of the produce grown in Israel is set aside to be brought to the Temple, where it is eaten with great celebration by the owner himself. Maaser sheni may not be eaten outside of Jerusalem or by someone who is not ritually pure; e.g., someone who has been defiled by coming in contact with death.

6.  Maaser ani - During the years 3 and 6 of the sabbatical cycle, 1/10 of the produce is given to the poor.

7.  Leket, shikhicha, and pe'a - various parts of the yearly produce are left for the poor to gather on their own.

8.  Shemita - The seventh year of the cycle is completely set aside, and agricultural work may not be done. All produce that grows is free for whoever wants it, and may not be gathered or stored by the owner of the fields. Practically speaking, what was done was that the court gathered up the produce and distributed it.

9.  Challa - a small portion of every loaf of bread is given to the priests. This is basically an additional kind of teruma (#1), but this obligation, unlike teruma, applies even outside of Israel. (Since the challa is prohibited to all but priests, and since we do not today give the challa to priests, it is burnt. At one time, when people made their own bread at home, this mitzva was common to every Jewish home, and was usually performed by the mother of the household.)

10. Arla - Fruits which are produced during the first three years after the planting of a tree are forbidden. In the fourth year, they have the same status as bikkurim (#4).

            This is barely scratching the surface, but the minute details need not concern us now. First question - what is the section of halakha to which these laws belong? In other words, which area of our life is being affected? Obviously, the answer depends on whether you are a farmer or a consumer. While these laws are often called collectively "mitzvot ha-teluyot ba-aretz" - laws dependent on the land (of Israel) - the prohibitions involved, mostly involving eating, are not dependent on being anywhere in particular, and are, in effect part of the laws of kashrut. This was brought home to me by an unfortunate incident many years ago, one which I believe could not take place today.

            About 25 years ago, someone wanted to open up a middle-eastern style restaurant in a New York suburb where a friend of mine was the local rabbi. At that time, there were few such establishments in the US, and my friend was unsure of all the practical questions that might arise specifically in this sort of cuisine. He therefore went to a well-known Israeli restaurant in Manhattan that was under the supervision of a national Kashrut organization to speak to the kashrut supervisor there. After discussing different issues, he asked him, "and what about terumot and maaserot?" The answer he received was, "I am the mashgiach (supervisor) only for kashrut, not terumot and maaserot."

            Not being farmers, and not having to deal with produce grown in Israel, most Jews have more or less put these laws out of practical halakha. But unlike the laws of sacrifices, these laws are very much with us, and are slowly achieving a greater halakhic visibility. Of course, those of us who live in Israel face their implications daily.

            But even when approaching these laws as laws of kashrut, I think they are imbued with the spirit implied by the viewpoint of the farmer. Unlike animal kashrut, which disqualifies certain types of food and basically causes us to discriminate against them (see the shiur on kashrut from last year - no. 7), there is nothing "bad" about the foods prohibited in these categories. Tevel, produce that has not had teruma and maaser separated from it, becomes permissible once that separation has taken place. Maaser sheni is prohibited outside Jerusalem, but eaten within the city. Teruma is given to the kohen to eat - hardly because we think it is "bad" food. In order to understand the prohibitions of these laws, we have to understand from what these foodstuffs arise. For that, we all have to enter the mind of the farmers. But to do that, remembering that these laws are first and foremost laws dependent on the land - the Land of Israel - we have to take ourselves to the land, and see ourselves as settling it.

            The common ground to most of the laws I outlined above is that we give a portion away. The destiny of that given away varies - at times it goes to the priests, at times to the levites, at times to the poor, and at times the giver gets it back, to eat under special conditions. The law of "tevel" – prohibited untithed produce - declares: UNTIL YOU GIVE SOME AWAY, IT IS NOT REALLY YOURS TO USE. It is not merely that there is an obligation to share with others - this obligation precedes ownership rather than derives from it. In this sense, there is a basic difference between the mitzva of charity and that of maaser ani (the tithe to the poor). Charity is a consequence of riches; maaser is a precondition. Nothing can be yours if you do not realize that it is not really yours, not really your absolute possession. The actual recipient of the different portions is not as important here as the necessity to give, to detach oneself from the absoluteness of possessiveness. Hence, it is quite conceivable that in the end you yourself might be the one to eat the donation, as is the case with maaser sheni. But maaser sheni is not eaten by the rights of ownership, but as a guest at the table of God; it is eaten in Jerusalem, "before God."

            It is understandable why these mitzvot are all dependent on the Land of Israel. They are specifically addressed not merely to physical ownership but to the concept of "nachala," inheritance - one's portion in this world, a possession that is far deeper than mere property. The Land of Israel is the portion of the Jewish people. Each Jew received a part of it as his inheritance. The midrash speaks of every Jew having, even today, four cubits in the Land of Israel. If something can be said to really belong to you, to be yours in the deepest sense possible, it is the fruit of your labor in the promised land. The connection to land is a different sort of ownership than that over transient objects. One is, to a certain extent, defined by the land that is yours. (Rav Yaacov Emden, a rabbi in 18th century Germany, condemned those who build themselves new houses in the diaspora for precisely that reason - he could not countenance putting down roots - belonging - outside of Israel.) It is precisely at this point that the Torah girds the concept of possession in a web of obligations to divest oneself of part of it as a precondition of enjoying those fruits.

            This is expressed most clearly in the passage from the Torah ordained to be recited when bringing bikkurim, the first-fruits, to the Temple.

And it shall be when you come to the land which HaShem your God shall give you as a portion, and you shall inherit it and dwell in it;

You shall take from the first of all the fruits of the earth, which you shall bring of the land which HaShem your God shall give you, and place it in a basket. And you shall go to the place which HaShem your God shall choose to rest His name therein....

You shall speak and say before HaShem your God:

"An Aramean sought to wipe out my father, and he went down to Egypt and lived there with few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and numerous.

And the Egyptians were bad to us and afflicted us, and set upon us hard labor.

And we called out to HaShem the God of our fathers, and HaShem heard our voice and saw our affliction, our labor and oppression.

And God took us out of Egypt, with mighty hand and an outstretched arm and great terribleness, with signs and wonders.

And He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

And now, behold! I have brought the first-fruits of the land which You have given me, HaShem,"

and you shall place it before HaShem your God, and you shall bow down before HaShem your God. And you shall rejoice in all the bounty which HaShem your God has given you and your household, you and the levite and the stranger (the unlanded poor) in your midst. (Deut. 26,1-11)

            This passage was first given to the Jews when they were still in the desert on the way to the promised land. Imagine the anticipation of these sons of slaves who have been traveling for forty years to the land of their dreams, of the promise of their forefathers. The passage tersely summarizes Jewish history (ignoring all the ups-and-downs in the middle) - You were slaves and now you have come to THE LAND, you have reached fulfillment, you have MADE IT. Therefore ("and now, behold!"), you bring the first-fruits, the first products of the long anticipation to God and place it there - and then you may rejoice in all the bounty.

            I have in my mind an opposite picture, of the industrialist or artist who sells his products - but the first one he keeps in his home, hanging on his wall, parked in his garage. Before giving to others, the first one he keeps, because it is special. In other words, he celebrates his accomplishment, HIS accomplishment - this one, he says, must remain MINE. The Torah says, this land, which God has given you, which is your inheritance, your place on this earth, for which you were freed from slavery and for which you crossed the desert, this place in which you plant your roots and build your homes, is in trust for you. It is given you so that you may create and grow, in the image of God, so that it can be the field of your values - and that connection to God must be maintained. You get it because you know how to give from it. It is yours not to increase YOU, but to increase that which you produce.

            What I am saying is not just that since the land seems to belong to you in the deepest sense, the Torah as a counterweight stresses that the earth is the Lord's. On the contrary - the land is yours BECAUSE it is God's. The laws of the land are not obligatory despite the fact that we have inherited the land, but as part of that inheritance. If to possess is somehow understood to be the opposite of to give, then we do not possess anything at all.

            Tevel then, the untithed produce, is forbidden. Something produced only for oneself, without any obligation, any lien, to others, to other goals, is totally forbidden. It is valueless. The opposite is maaser sheni - one takes one's fruits (1/10 of the total produce) and brings it to the house of God, where one is able to eat it, in a festive celebration of the bounty of the fields. Having brought it to God, it is ours to enjoy, for now it represents true accomplishment - this is the true meaning of possession.

            Now, to get back to Tu Bishvat. Many of the laws I listed above are time-dependent. There is a seven-year cycle involved in agriculture, ending in the shemitta (sabbatical) year, when we in fact give up any attempt to utilize "our" fields at all. Tu Bishvat is the new year of the trees in the technical sense that for fruits (which grow on trees), the counting of the years begins from that date. Since fruit trees flower in the spring, a new season begins at that time. Tu Bishvat marks a date which, in Israel, is said to mark a time when most of the season's rain will have fallen. (A note for residents of the temperate zones - in Israel, nearly 100% of the year's rain falls in the winter, which is why the Arabic word for winter is "sita" - rain).

            Some centuries ago, Tu Bishvat became a day to remember the land of Israel and its fruits. Therefore, the custom arose to eat fruits on this day. Since in fact it is still the middle of the winter and there are no fruits available, it was generally dried fruits from the previous year which were eaten, especially fruits associated with Israel - raisins, figs, dates, and carob. For some reason (I assume having to do with the availability of fruits in Russia 100 years ago), dried carob, called in Yiddish "bokser," was especially associated with this day. In my opinion, the incredibly dry bokser I used to get on Tu Bishvat was so inedible, it probably was never eaten on any other day, and therefore became the Tu Bishvat "delicacy" par excellence. Frankly, I haven't touched the stuff for 35 years. I find dried apricot much more to my taste.

            For most of us, there is no direct connection to the agricultural obligations of these laws. We face, occasionally, different laws governing the produce, some of which cannot be eaten, some of which must be eaten under special circumstances. Although the daily ramifications of these laws may be slight, the message is, I think, very clear. This is all the more true today, when possessiveness and material acquisition threaten to become goals in themselves. The dual message of mitzvot ha-teluyot ba-aretz - that one's little four cubits, one's own acre, is in Israel, and that something can only be yours if you realize its potential to be given away, is no less relevant today than ever - and practically as well, is becoming more and more of a reality in Jewish halakhic life.

            Next week, we will return to our discussion on intersocial relations - until then, Shavua tov.