Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

He Is like a Tree Planted beside Streams of Water ... Reflections of Trees and Men in the Bible

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

He Is like a Tree Planted beside Streams of Water ... Reflections of Trees and Men in the Bible

Article excerpt

The Bible presents man, whether righteous or wicked, redeemed or doomed, naive, wise, or merely mortal, through tree imagery. (1) This rich imagery has been discussed in rabbinic texts and by medieval and modern scholars alike. (2) Much of the modern discussion highlights the central role trees played in agrarian societies from biblical times through antiquity and how, as such, they were a ready metaphor for man. Considerably less of the discussion focuses on concrete implications of man's relationship to trees, of the sort that would shed light upon a Jewish environmental perspective. (3)

In the following pages I probe this imagery as it surfaces in four seemingly unrelated biblical legal contexts: the prohibition of the first three years' fruit (Lev. 19:23-25), the prohibition of cutting down fruit trees (Deut. 20:19-20), the prohibition of letting the body of a person hang overnight (Deut. 21:22-23), and the case of manslaughter (Deut. 19:4-5). The first two inform and instruct mankind's particular regard for fruit-bearing trees, while in the latter two the tree's role appears coincidental. The phrasing and context of these four commandments highlight a practical facet of the biblical understanding of man's relation to trees.


In Leviticus we read:

When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the Lord; and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit--that its yield to you may be increased: I the Lord am your God (Lev. 19:23-25).

This prohibition is referred to in rabbinic literature as orlah, a term derived from the Hebrew root a-r-l which is peculiar to men and fruit trees. It is applied here, the only time in the Bible, as a positive commandment--you shall regard its fruit as forbidden--ve-araltem orlato. We are familiar with the term orlah from Genesis 17:11, where it refers to the foreskin removed through circumcision. In verse 14 of that chapter, arel refers to the uncircumcised male as well. Elsewhere, application of this term to lips (Ex. 6:12), ears (Jer. 6:10), and the heart (Deut. 10:16) implies their dysfunction. Based on these citations, rabbinic Midrash, and medieval commentators in its wake interpret the root's meaning in Leviticus 19 as "shut off" and "blocked" from man's use.

Samson Raphael Hirsch, the nineteenth-century commentator, articulated this interpretation when he stated that it connotes that which is uncultivated or wild. Accordingly, orlah relating to speech impediments, plugged ears, and errant hearts indicates that these are not at the command of their owners. Moreover, circumcision is rendered a proactive attempt to confront the male sex drive (hence the Hebrew [berit] milah, from mul--"opposed"). Likewise, Leviticus 19 teaches that the first three years' produce be left in its natural state, unmanaged and unhandled by man.

The rationale for leaving the first three years' produce on the tree is that the farmer should acknowledge God as the ultimate owner of the fruit of his labor. Just as his firstborn, that of his livestock (Ex. 13:2), and the firstfruits of each harvest (Deut. 26:1-11) are to be dedicated to God, so too should the first year's produce of the tree. It would indeed have been so, were it not for the poor quality fruit of the immature tree that delays this act of recognition and praise until the fourth year. (4)

The prohibition of orlah in Leviticus is followed by a list of prohibited Canaanite rites, particularly soothsaying, witchcraft, tattooing and other kinds of disfigurement:

You shall not eat anything with its blood. You shall not practice divination or soothsaying. You shall not round off the side-growth [hair] on your head or destroy the side-growth of your beard. You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.