Purpose of Orlah

Introduction

Why Wait?

Vayikra 19 mandates two commandments related to fruit trees, the laws of orlah (ערלה) and neta revai (נטע רבעי):

EN/HEע/E
(כג) וְכִי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ וּנְטַעְתֶּם כׇּל עֵץ מַאֲכָל וַעֲרַלְתֶּם עׇרְלָתוֹ אֶת פִּרְיוֹ שָׁלֹשׁ שָׁנִים יִהְיֶה לָכֶם עֲרֵלִים לֹא יֵאָכֵל. (כד) וּבַשָּׁנָה הָרְבִיעִת יִהְיֶה כׇּל פִּרְיוֹ קֹדֶשׁ הִלּוּלִים לַי"י. (כה) וּבַשָּׁנָה הַחֲמִישִׁת תֹּאכְלוּ אֶת פִּרְיוֹ לְהוֹסִיף לָכֶם תְּבוּאָתוֹ אֲנִי י"י אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
(23) “‘When you come into the land, and have planted all kinds of trees for food, then you shall count their fruit as forbidden. Three years shall they be forbidden to you. It shall not be eaten. (24) But in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy, for giving praise to Hashem. (25) In the fifth year you shall eat its fruit, that it may yield its increase to you. I am Hashem your God.
These verses prohibit eating from the fruit born by a tree in its first three years (orlah) and obligate one to sanctify the fruit of the fourth year's crop to Hashem (neta revai).1  The concept of consecrating the first of one's produce, animals, and the like is fairly intuitive and not unique to here, but how is one to understand the mitzvah of orlah? Why is the fruit forbidden in its first three years? Is the reasoning for the laws of orlah connected to that of neta revai or are they totally distinct?

Additional Questions

This short passage raises several additional questions:

  • "וַעֲרַלְתֶּם עׇרְלָתוֹ... יִהְיֶה לָכֶם עֲרֵלִים" – Why are the forbidden fruits referred to as orlah specifically? Elsewhere, the noun refers to a foreskin or to something which is uncircumcised.2 Is there any significance to this association?
  • Larger context: "קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ" – Chapter 19 opens with a directive that the nation "be holy" suggesting that the laws which follow somehow promote sanctification. How is this true of the laws of orlah? In what way do they help one become "holy"?
  • Immediate context – The commandment of orlah follows a prohibition against having relations with a pledged maidservant (שפחה חרופה) and precedes the laws of divination and "eating on blood".  How does it relate to its context?  Is there any significance to its juxtaposition to these laws specifically?
  • "לְהוֹסִיף לָכֶם תְּבוּאָתוֹ" – The Torah does not normally promise blessings with regards to the fulfillment of individual commandments.3 Yet, here, Hashem promises the people that observance of the law will result in an increased yield.  Why is this commandment unique in this regard?
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