In the famous 19th chapter of Vayikra, which is a summary of many essential principles of the Torah, the laws about fruit trees are stated. The produce of the first three years of the tree’s life (orlah) is forbidden. The fourth year’s produce (neta revai) is set aside as holy, and is to be eaten in Jerusalem or redeemed. But the fruit of the fifth year may be eaten in the ordinary manner: “And in the fifth year you may eat its fruit that it may increase its crop for you: I am the L‑rd your G‑d” (19:25).
The phrase which the Torah uses, “that it may increase its crop for you,” indicates that the purpose of the commandments about the first four years’ fruit is so that the fifth year should see a particularly prolific crop.
Rashi offers a straightforward explanation, quoting the Midrash: Rabbi Akiva used to say, “The Torah says this because it has man’s evil inclination in mind: that one should not say, ‘Behold, for four years I must take trouble with it for nothing.’ The Torah therefore states that (because of your obedience) the land will give you produce in larger quantities.”
We can, however, understand the passage at a deeper level. The five years of fruit correspond to the five “universes,” or dimensions of spirituality. The first three, which are forbidden for consumption, stand for the three lower levels (asiyah, yetzirah, and beriah—the dimensions of “action,” “formation,” and “Creation”), where there is a sufficient concealment of G‑d for the possibility of sin, division, and forbidden action to exist. The fourth year stands for the dimension of atzilut—“emanation”—where everything is in a state of holiness, and nothing is separated from G‑d. Therefore its fruit is called “holy, for giving praise to the L‑rd.” But the fifth is the highest level, called keser—the “crown.” The fruit of the fifth year is correspondingly the most precious, as we saw when we understood that the entire purpose of the commandments of the first four years was for the sake of the fifth.
Why then do we find the fruit of the fourth year called “holy?” Why is it to be eaten only in Jerusalem, and only by a person who is not ritually unclean? Why do none of these things apply to the fifth-year produce, which may be eaten anywhere, by anyone?
The Baal Shem Tov
And The Sage
To understand this, we must begin with a story told about the Baal Shem Tov. It was at a time when he had not yet emerged publicly as the leader of the Chassidic movement. He still wore the cloak of anonymity as he traveled through the towns and villages of the Carpathians. It was one of his holy practices to ask every Jew he met—man and woman, the aged and the children—how they were, how business was, and so on. One of his greatest pleasures was to listen to the answers that each of them would give—answers that came from the heart. For they would reply with words of praise and thanks to G‑d. Every answer would contain a “Thank G‑d” or a “The L‑rd be blessed.”
Once he reached a small township and began in his normal way to inquire after the welfare of the Jews he met, to get them to say words of praise and gratitude to G‑d, to demonstrate their faith and merit. In the town there was a very old man, a great scholar, who lived in isolation from the affairs of the world. For more than 50 years he had sat and studied Torah day and night, detached and holy. He would sit and learn every day, wrapped in his tallis and tefillin until the afternoon service, and would not eat anything all day, until he had said the evening prayers, when he would have a little bread and water.
When the Baal Shem Tov entered his study, a room in one of the corners of the synagogue, he asked the old man about his health and his welfare, but the man did not look up at the Baal Shem Tov, who was dressed in the clothes of a peasant. He repeated his question several times, until the sage became angry and gestured that he should leave the room. The Baal Shem Tov said: “Rabbi, why, as it were, do you not give G‑d his livelihood?” When he heard this, the old man was completely confused. A peasant was standing in front of him and talking about G‑d and the need to provide Him with a living!
The Baal Shem Tov read his thoughts and said, “The Jewish people are sustained by the livelihood which G‑d provides for them. But what sustains G‑d, that He may continue, as it were, to ‘inhabit’ the world? This is what David HaMelech meant when he wrote in Tehillim 22, ‘You are Holy, who inhabits the praises of Israel.’ ‘You’—that is, the Master of the Universe, ‘are Holy’—that is, You are apart from the world. What then is Your livelihood, that you are able to ‘inhabit’ it? It is ‘the praises of Israel.’ G‑d is sustained by the praise and the gratitude to which the Jews give voice, for their health and their sustenance with which He provides them. And because of these praises, He gives them children, health, and food, in plenty.”
The Dwelling Place
The Baal Shem Tov’s remark is not easy to understand. It is true that the G‑d of whom we say “You are Holy” (that is transcending the world) is brought to “inhabit” the world only by the service of the Jewish people. But surely learning Torah is part of that service! Surely it brings the presence of G‑d into the world! And, the old sage had studied Torah day and night for more than 50 years. Even at the very moment when the Baal Shem Tov spoke to him, he was preoccupied with study. How, then, could he have said: “Why, as it were, do you not give G‑d His livelihood?”
And even if it is the “praises of Israel” and not the sound of their studies that causes G‑d to “inhabit” the world, the Baal Shem Tov could surely have tried to elicit words of thanksgiving from the sage for being allowed by G‑d to study in serenity and seclusion. Why did he need to ask him about matters of physical concern, like his health?
The answer is that the whole purpose of creation was to make for G‑d a “dwelling place in the lower world” (Midrash Tanchuma, Naso 16). This world was to be transformed into a habitation for G‑d.
How is this dwelling place built? Not, primarily, through learning or through thanks to G‑d for the opportunity to learn. Study involves the “G‑dly soul” of the Jew, the highest part of his nature. But thanksgiving for food, for money, for health—these involve a sanctification of the body, of natural desires and physical needs. When a Jew recognizes even these as the gift of G‑d, then he has truly admitted G‑d into the “lower world.”
That is why when the Baal Shem Tov saw the sage, sitting in seclusion, disengaged from the world, unconcerned with the state of his body, and eating only to survive, not to sanctify the physical, he said: “Why, as it were, do you not give G‑d His livelihood?” For the Divine intention was to have a dwelling place precisely in the lower world that the sage had forsaken. And this is why he said that G‑d is made to “inhabit” the world “by the praise and the gratitude to which the Jews give voice, for their health and their sustenance with which He provides them.” This justified his interrupting him even in the middle of learning, which is the greatest of the mitzvos. For without this praise, his learning was defective. In the words of the Talmud, “Anyone who says, ‘I have nothing but (the study of) Torah,’ even Torah is denied to him.”
Fruit And Thanksgiving
In light of this story, we can see why the most precious fruit is not that of the fourth year—even though it is called “holy” (i.e., set aside, withdrawn) and it is to be eaten only within the walls of Jerusalem; and why it is the fifth year fruit, which could be eaten anywhere and by anyone.
When a Jew recognizes that even fruit which is not “holy” depends on the blessing of G‑d; when he sees with his own eyes that the land “may increase its crop for you” because of G‑d; and when he offers praises for these things, then he brings the “You,” the essence of G‑d, which is “holy” and beyond all finitude, to “inhabit” the world as His dwelling place, thus bringing the entire creation to its true fulfillment. v
From Torah Studies (Kehot 1986), an adaptation of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s talks by Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Dr. Jonathan Sacks. Courtesy of Chabad.org. Find more Torah articles for the whole family at www.chabad.org/parshah.