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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Half a Tree (Part 5: Philosophy)

The basic idea that emerges from this sugya is that the definition of a fruit tree in the framework of orlah is not absolute, but is defined relative to man. We think that this idea naturally points to the essential philosophical reason behind the prohibition of eating fruits from a tree in the first three years after it was planted.  (This philosophical idea is stated by the Ramban on Vayikrah 19:23, as well as being implicit in the psukim themselves.)

If the primary reason for the prohibition was that the Torah believed there was something intrinsically harmful (whether physically or spiritually) about fruits in the first three years, it should have chosen an absolute definition of a fruit tree.  If there was something intrinsically bad about eating them, then they should've been prohibited even if you plant the tree as a fence. Apparently, this is not the reason.

Rather, the idea of orlah is tied to the positive idea of bringing the fruits to Jerusalem in the forth year and eating them there before God (the institution of neteh revai).  It is  prohibited to derive benefit from them during the first three years because it is improper to benefit from the fruits before first bringing them before God.  Essentially, the Torah is saying that you first have to recognize the true source of your blessing of fruits of the land, and only afterwards is it permissible to enjoy them.  This philosophical idea is similar to the basis of the requirement to recite a blessing before benefiting from anything in this world, as well as the concept that underlies the mitzva of giving the first fruits of every year's crop to Hashem (bikurim).

You might ask a simple question:  Why not just bring the first year's fruits to Jerusalem?  Why did the Torah prohibit the first three years, and only command bringing the forth years fruits?

The Ramban provides a very compelling explanation.  Almost all fruit trees do not produce good fruits for the first three years after they are planted.  The fruits are small, have a poor taste and smell, and are inferior to the fruits that the mature tree will produce.  As such, it is inappropriate to bring these sub-par fruits to be eaten before Hashem. The Torah therefore commanded us to wait until the forth year before the fruits could be brought.

When seen in this light, the prohibition of orlah is almost an accident of the fact that you have to wait four years to get fruit that is appropriate to bring to Jerusalem.  If fruit trees generally produced good fruit after two years, the Torah would have said to bring the second year's fruit and only prohibited the first year's fruit.  The essence of the prohibition is eating the fruits before first recognizing the true source of the good that Hashem has given us in the land of Israel and its fruits.

This explanation might sound troubling because of the fact that the prohibition of orlah applies even outside of Eretz Yisrael, where there is no institution of bringing the fruits that grow there to Jerusalem.  How are we to understand this prohibition in light of the Ramban's explanation? We hope to answer this question at the end of our next series of posts on the halacha of orlah outside of Eretz Yisrael.


  1. וטעם המצווה הזאת, לכבד את ה' מראשית כל תבואתנו מפרי העץ ותבואת הכרם ולא נאכל מהם עד שנביא כל פרי שנה אחת הלולים לה'. והנה אין הפרי בתוך שלוש שנים ראוי להקריבו לפני השם הנכבד, לפי שהוא מועט, ואין האילן נותן בפריו טעם או ריח טוב בתוך שלוש שנים, ורובן לא יוציאו פירות כלל עד השנה הרביעית. ולכך נמתין לכולן ולא נטעום מהם עד שנביא מן הנטע שנטענו כל פריו הראשון הטוב קדש לפני השם ושם יאכלוהו ויהללו את שם ה', והמצווה הזאת דומה למצוות הבכורים

    1. We have another question on this philosophical explanation of the Ramban, based upon a halacha that is brought down in the Rambam 10:1-2

      כל שהוא חייב בעורלה, יש לו רבעי, וכל שפטור מן העורלה, אינו חייב ברבעי--שנאמר: שלוש שנים, יהיה לכם ערלים--לא ייאכל. ובשנה, הרביעית, יהיה, כל פרייו--קודש הילולים, לה

      נטעו שלוש שנים לסייג, ומכאן ואילך למאכל--אין לו רבעי: שכל שאין לו עורלה, אין לו רבעי

      When a person has in mind for the first 3 years that the tree is for a fence, and only in the forth year changes his intent about it for food, it is still exempt from neteh revai, since it never partook of orlah.

      But why should this be according the the reasoning of the Ramban? The opposite would have made sense (that if it is excluded from neteh revai it is excluded from orlah). But if the prohibition of orlah is seen as an almost accidental result of neteh revai, the institution of neteh revai should not be contingent on the existence of orlah!

      Any thoughts on how to resolve this apparent problem with the Ramban's philosophical explanation of the mitzva?

  2. I'm wondering about the methodology: doesn't philosophy of mitzvas explain the conceptual framework of the halachos and not the particular halachos themselves? Meaning we should try to explain the theory of the halacha and then maybe the philosophy will be in line with that theory. I don't know where to go from here, but isn't this the proper direction?

    1. Good question.
      We agree that details of the halachik system are usually not based on philosophy, but on the "science" of halacha and its formulations. Rather, philosophy is the cause of the basic elements of the mitzvah which are not just details.

      However, we think that the definition of a fruit tree relative to man as opposed to in an absolute sense is not a detail, but a definition of the basic entity upon which the issur falls. The relative fruit tree is an agricultural entity, while the absolute fruit tree is a botanical entity.

      Support for the fact that it is a basic idea and not just a detail can be found by (a) its placement in the Mishne and the Rambam - at the beginning of the masechta and the halachos of orlah; and (b) that it is not a machlokes (generally, machlokesim are over details, not fundamentals). Notice that we did not introduce any philosophy to the machlokes RY/TK which is seemingly a halachik detail.

      Additionally, though it is certainly true that not all details are based upon the philosophy of a mitzvah, it seems problematic if they contradict the philosophy (this is why the question we raised in the comment above is bothersome to us). For instance, if orlah was forbidden because the first 3 years of fruits were poisonous (or something else harmful about them), it would seem crazy that if you planted the tree for a fence, then it would be permitted. If however, it is a limitation of man's relationship to his fruits and a realization that they are from Hashem, then a relative definition of a fruit tree is good.

      Lastly, we would like to emphasize methodology regarding the connection between halacha and philosophy. Notice, that in the first 4 posts, we defined the halacha and made no recourse to philosophy at all. We think leaning on philosophy while defining a halacha is a bad idea. It is highly speculative and can prevent you from formulating a precise definition for the halachik system.

      Post 5 was after we had a good formulation. We then considered if the fundamental halachik definition was in line with or pointed to a philosophical idea. We found the Ramban and realized that it was very much in line with the philosophy. It is reasonable that the Torah chose this definition of a fruit tree, based upon the philosophy of orlah stated by the Ramban. We think this is a good example of the tie between halcha and philosophy.

    2. I hear your point, but I personally disagree that philosophy has to play any role in the halachik formulation. It would not bother me if the halachik formulation contradicted the philosophical idea posed by the Ramban; that's his own idea anyway -- it's not Torah MiSinai. I have no particular problem with speculating about philosophy at this point, I just would not make it change my views on the halachik structure.

      On the other hand, the formulation of neta revai makes sense if you understand it as a matir for the issur orlah. Therefore, if there was never issur orlah to begin with, of course there would be no need for the matir of revai.

    3. Jeff, Would you say the same thing if trying to understand the Ramban's structure of the mitzvah?

    4. Yes. I would say that the philosophy dictates the existence of the mitzvah, but if there were a particular reason why the mitzvah should be structured a certain way, it wouldn't bother me that it contradicted my understanding of the philosophy of the mitzvah. This is for two reasons: (a) I don't think it matters anyway, (b) maybe I'm wrong.
      I have never seen a rishon ask a question on another rishon asking how his philosophical views can be true if the structure of the mitzva is a certain way or vice versa. I understand the absence of evidence is no proof and I am no baki, but I would like to see some confirmation of that because everything else seems to indicate the opposite.

    5. I meant to say, (b) maybe I'm wrong about my understanding of the philosophy

    6. Jeff, according to your position, based upon what does a rishon try to understand the philosophical idea behind the mitzva? Is it entirely based on the verses of the written Torah, or does there also have to be some correspondence between the oral Torah (the halacha) and the philosophy?

    7. I would say yes, it's based entirely on the structure of the mitzvah as written in the verses. In fact, I would say that is part of what the written Torah does, in contrast to the oral Torah. It introduces the mitzvah in the context of its philosophy. The fact that there is a detail in the structure of the mitzvah (in the oral Torah) that doesn't seem to fit exactly with the philosophy doesn't bother me. If the mitzvah seems to contradict the philosophy, then I would say it is likely that the proposed philosophical idea is wrong.

      Great discussion,


    8. When you say "If the mitzvah seems to contradict the philosophy, then I would say it is likely that the proposed philosophical idea is wrong."

      Do you mean the mitzva as it is understood by the halacha contradicts the proposed philisophical explanation based on the written law? (In which case, it would seem that you are agreeing to our basic position.)

      Also, how would you understand certain mitzvos which only (or predominantly) have an oral Torah (halacha) such as the sacrifice of water libations on succos? Do they have philosophical ideas behind them, and wouldn't those ideas have to be derivable solely from a study of the halachic structures of the oral law?

    9. Based upon your line of questioning, I would admit to the fact that it's possible to take an overall imnpression of the oral and written parts of the law to derive a philosophical idea. However, one need not analyze each and every individual law to see if it jives with the philosophy of the mitzva.

    10. Agreed. It depends upon whether one deems a particular law to be a detail of the halachic system or not. To say a law is a detail would mean that it is a result of the necessary consistency and formulation of the halachic structures.

      You can always answer that perhaps the law is the result of the halachic system and has no relevance to any philosophical implications. Sometimes this fact can be openly illustrated, sometimes it is merely intuitively reasonable, and sometimes it seems like a very forced answer.

      We gave three reasons above to Mio about why we think our question on the Ramban is not simply an accident of the halachic system, but rather poses a serious challenge to his philosophical explanation.

      If ultimately we couldn't explain it, we would leave the question and say something along the lines of "maybe its just a detail". (We happen to think there is a better solution.) The problem would not bother us as much as a contradiction in the formulation of the halacha itself, but nevertheless, it still is a problem.

    11. I guess you can also ask why the mitzvah is called orlah and not neta revai according to the Ramban as well. It seems that the very name of the mitzvah contradicts his rationale that the essence of the mitzva is neta revai and not orlah.

    12. Can you say that it's really one kiyum? According to the Ramban, the mitzva is not simply to bring the fruits to Yerushahlyim in the fourth year, but also to reject the fruit of the first three years as being inferior and not fit to offer praise to Hashem -- as he mentions (perhaps similar to the difference between the korabnos of Kayin and Hevel).

    13. Jeff-
      Regarding your first comment:
      There are 2 different mitzvos, at least according to the Rambam (nete revai is in hilchos maaser sheini u'nete rivai). The Sefer Hachinuch has Orlah (mitzvah 246) and nete rivai (mitzvah 247). Interestingly enough, he has orlah first (it's first in the Torah), but in the sharashai ha'mitzvah, he references you to the next mitzvah, nete rivai. By nete rivai, he brings down (and gives his own additions to) the Ramban's reason. It seems he also learns the essence is nete rivai. If you look at the Rambam in the moreh nevuchim (3:37), he seems to treat the essence as orlah, with nete rivai being a detail.

    14. Jeff-
      Regarding your second comment:
      Good approach. We have a similar approach. It seems smart to try to define the relationship between the two in order to answer the question.

      However, even if they are one kiyum as you suggest, the nete rivai seems primary. It is not clear why there should be no nete rivai when there is no orlah.


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