Parashat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim / The World as Vineyard

It stands to reason that an expression of thanks should be said after the consumption and not beforehand. There is, however, a midrash in which Rabbi Ishmael says the precise opposite.

Close up shots of a vineyard.
Bloomberg

The commandment concerning neta revai – produce of the fourth year – that appears in this week’s reading, Aharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27), pertains to how crops should be cared for in the Promised Land, following the arrival of the Children of Israel there: “And when ye shall come into the land, and shall have planted all manner of trees for food, then ye shall count the fruit thereof as forbidden; three years shall it be as forbidden unto you; it shall not be eaten. And in the fourth year all the fruit thereof shall be holy, for giving praise unto the Lord. But in the fifth year may ye eat of the fruit thereof, that it may yield unto you more richly the increase thereof: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:23-25).

The fruit of a tree, in the first three years after it has begun to bear fruit, is regarded as orlah (literally, “uncircumcised”), and its consumption is strictly forbidden. The fourth year is a transition period, during which the fruit is considered holy and suitable for praising God only; that fruit must be brought to Jerusalem, to be consumed in a sanctified manner (the person consuming the fruit must be ritually pure), like a sacrifice offered in the Temple. Consumption of the holy fruit of the fourth year ends the prohibitions, and from the fifth year onward, it may be eaten.

The midrashic commentary on the Book of Leviticus, Sifre, says the following about Leviticus 19:24: “It is written ‘hilulim [for giving praise].’ This means a blessing must be recited before and after the fruit is eaten. Rabbi Akiva concludes from this that it is forbidden to eat anything without first saying a blessing” (Sifre, Kedoshim 4:1).

This homily has two parts. First of all, the homilist concludes that, just as the fruit of the fourth year is subject to the obligation of hilulim – it must be brought to Jerusalem and be consumed there by a person who is ritually pure – similarly, a blessing must be recited before and after the fruit’s consumption. In the second part of the homily, Rabbi Akiva is cited as saying that nothing may be eaten without the reciting of a blessing beforehand.

Both parts are puzzling. Regarding saying a prayer before eating the fruit of the fourth year, is the source of this obligation the multiyear, complex process of conveying the fruit from a so-callled uncircumcised state to the status of being freely consumed? And what is the connection between the commandments concerning the fruit of the fourth year and the obligation to say a blessing, as Rabbi Akiva says?

There is an obvious source in the Torah for the obligation to recite a blessing after consuming food – “And thou shalt eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord thy God for the good land which he hath given thee” (Deuteronomy 8:10) – but no source that calls for a blessing beforehand. So, a blessing must be said afterward, as thanks for both the food and for the Promised Land granted by God.

It stands to reason that an expression of thanks should be said after the consumption and not beforehand. There is, however, a midrash in which Rabbi Ishmael says the precise opposite: From the above verse, notes the midrash, “one could assume that the obligation to recite a blessing applies only after food is eaten. Rabbi Ishmael argues that, if a blessing is recited after one’s appetite has been satisfied, it is reasonable that a blessing should also be recited before the consumption of food when one is hungry” (Mechilta, Pischa 16).

According to Rabbi Ishmael, it makes more sense that a blessing should be said before eating, when one is hungry, rather than after one’s appetite has been satisfied. Although he bases himself on logic, his claim appears incongruent with a literal reading of the Torah text and with the logical, intuitive assumption that one expresses thanks for food after consuming it.

A solution is offered by Talmudic scholar Rabbi Moshe Benovitz in an article on blessings recited before a meal during the Second Temple period and in Tannaitic religious rulings. Benovitz believes the meaning of the recitation of a blessing in the Torah differs from the way the sages viewed blessings. Whereas, during the biblical period, a blessing was an expression of thanks to God for the food he grants, a blessing during the period of the sages became in essence a request for permission to use God’s world.

This assumption perhaps explains Rabbi Ishmael’s approach. The midrashic passage in Sifre appears in the Jerusalem Talmud as the fourth and last link in a sequence of homilies related to the concept of reciting a blessing before eating food; this sequence illustrates the nature of the aforementioned development in thought about blessings:

“1) It is written, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein’ (Psalms 24:1). Enjoyment of the pleasures of this world was forbidden until the commandments granted permission. (2) Rabbi Abahu said, ‘It is written, “Thou shalt not sow thy vineyard with two kinds of seed; lest the fullness of the seed which thou hast sown be forfeited together with the increase of the vineyard” [Deut. 22:9]. The entire world is like a vineyard. And how may it be redeemed? Through reciting of a blessing.

“(3) Rabbi Hizkiya, Rabbi Yirmiya and Rabbi Abun, citing Resh Lakish, engaged in a debate. They said: ‘It is written, “I have said unto the Lord: ‘Thou art my Lord; I have no good but in thee’ [Psalms 16:2]. If you have eaten and recited a blessing, it is as if you are eating something that belongs to you.’ (4) Rabbi Haya learned the following: It is written, ‘kodesh, hilulim’ [holy, for giving praise unto the Lord] It can thus be understood that one must recite a blessing before and after the consumption of the fruit. Rabbi Akiva concludes from this that it is forbidden to eat anything without first saying a blessing” (Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Berachot 6:1).

In the above passage, the homilist concludes from Psalms 24:1 that, if the entire world belongs to God, it is forbidden to enjoy its pleasures, and any use of what it offers is thus a form of theft. The only way to avoid that sin is through the commandments, which expropriate the world, as it were, and restore it to being usable by human beings.

Rabbi Abahu interprets Deut. 22:9, reasoning that the entire world is like a vineyard, which belongs to an owner – namely, God. Thus, he argues, one cannot eat the fruit of this vineyard – the fruit of this world – without “paying” for it. The coin that can be used to redeem, or purchase, the fruit is the blessing recited before its consumption.

According to Resh Lakish, one could claim that Psalms 16:2 proves that it is possible to say that a person’s food does not come directly from God: If you are commanded to eat a certain food and then recite a blessing over it, perhaps it is as if the food belongs to you.

The above Talmudic passage ends with Rabbi Haya’s conclusion that the words “kodesh, hilulim” in Leviticus 19:24 indicate that one must recite a blessing before eating the fruit of the fourth year. But Rabbi Akiva adds one must recite a blessing before consumption of any food.

Rabbi Abahu’s homily about the vineyard paves the way to the midrash in Sifre; it is not an interpretation of that midrash because Rabbi Abahu lived several generations after Rabbi Akiva. However, it is a statement that expresses a conception of the world that is similar to that in Sifre.

Rabbi Akiva’s homily is metaphoric: If the world is like a vineyard, one can deduct from the laws governing fourth-year fruit how to pay for the fruit of the vineyard. If, Rabbi Akiva argues, the coin used for payment is a blessing, it makes more sense that payment should be made – namely, that a blessing should be recited – before the fruit is eaten, rather than before and after, as Rabbi Ishmael claims.