In order to know where you are going, you have to first know from where you came. This is why stories are so important within families, why shared history and the rich weave of cultures and traditions all matter so much.
The timeless stories in Judaism are those found within the Torah. And they are fresh in every generation, because these stories are not merely a means to perpetuating a culture, but they also serve as the spur to continued growth and development. So, for example, the Torah constantly reminds us of being slaves in Egypt (to empathize with strangers, to remember our debt to G-d, and for many other reasons besides), as well as telling us of many other commandments that are designed to strengthen the bonds between people, and between man and G-d.
Gratitude is a key part of Judaism and the Torah itself. The reminder to choose to be grateful is found in numerous sacrifices, in the celebrations of the festivals, in acknowledging that our creative gifts, from first born to first fruits, are all truly from G-d and not merely inevitable biological products of nature. Reaffirming G-d’s role in our lives helps us understand what our own roles are in this world, as partners in completing the world.
This helps us understand a commandment known as orloh, the idea that fruit from new trees is forbidden for the first three years. On the fourth year it can be eaten, but only as something holy, “an offering of praise to G-d.” And from the fifth year onward, it can be eaten freely. (Lev. 19:23-25)
Why? What is it about fruit trees that specifically require a waiting period? And why is the waiting period three years, with a fourth year dedicated to holiness?
Part of the answer is given by Joseph Cox, who points out that fruit are the only food we have that are complete as they are, ready to be eaten – and are indeed most nutritious – fresh off the branch. Everything else, from bread to wine to meat to vegetables requires effort from mankind in order to grow or improve them before they are ideal to eat. But tree fruits are pure gifts, not even requiring cultivation or weeding, and they taste best just as they are.
Every other kind of food, then, is something that we create in partnership with G-d. And so we gain an ownership stake it when we invest in it, meaning that there is no waiting period to eat an animal or a potato. But fruit requires no human investment; it is a gift. And when we receive gifts, we should show our gratitude; in this case, demonstrated through delayed gratification. (We say blessings before we eat food for similar reasons. And the commandment to not cut down fruit trees (Deut. 20:19) is doubtless connected as well.)
But why is there a period of three years, and then a fourth year of holiness?
I think the answer is that the Torah is connecting this commandment in Leviticus back to the creation as described in Genesis – the same source from which we get the commandment for Shabbos. Trees were made on the third day, and mankind was created on the sixth day. Since we do not invest in fruit, we do not eat them on the day/year we first get them; instead we wait.
The following day (the fourth day of existence for fruit trees) is of course the first Shabbos, the first time the word “holy” is mentioned in the Torah. That is the best day to enjoy gifts, new things that are given to us from others. We are commanded to make the Shabbos day holy, and so it is the first day/year in which we are allowed to eat the fruit from new trees.
The Shabbos is itself a pure gift from Hashem; we make it ours by making it holy. Similarly, once the tree has lived its fourth, the sabbatical year, and we have treated its fruit as holy for that year, then we have made it ours – and it becomes a treasured possession for all time. Making the fruit of a tree holy is thus analogous to making bread or wine; mankind’s sanctification is itself a form of investment, making the fruit something we are free to consume henceforth.