The Orlah Man

Tu Beshevat children's craft figure made of fruitMy daughter made this figure in honor of Tu BiShvat, the holiday known in the Mishnah as the New Year of the Trees. The teacher said it wasn’t for eating, but because my daughter stayed home from school with a fever we will enjoy it for our Shabbat dessert.

According to the Talmud, the majority of the winter rains have fallen by Tu BiShvat. Israel has had a wet winter. According to predictions by meteorologists, the first part of the winter would be wet, and the second half dry. We haven’t seen a drop of rain since the big storm a few weeks ago that brought record amounts of snow and rain to Israel, but we may still have enough extra water to sell some to neighboring countries.

The New Year of the Trees is essentially a technical device to determine the “age” of a tree and the “yield year” of its fruit.  The sages chose the date of the 15th of Shevat, furthest from the optimal season for planting, in order to eliminate confusion about these items. The timing means, of course, that most trees planted this time of year get washed away.

The calculation helps determine how to tithe fruit (different tithes are taken on fruit from different years) and when the first fruits from a young tree can be eaten. In the first three years, the fruit is prohibited and is known as orlah.

Orlah also refers to a foreskin, so we would get a kick out of the name my husband’s aunt, of blessed memory, gave to one of the stall-owners in the shuk. His fruit had kosher certification, so she called him the “orlah man.”  Leora asked if my daughter’s model was the Petach Tikva version of a snowman. But I think we should call this little guy the orlah man.

Not all growers in Israel observe the orlah prohibition, so that fruit bought in the market without kashrut supervision can be problematic.  The status of a particular fruit depends on the percentage of  orlah fruit available in the market.  Rabbis differ on the percentage in the market below which one may buy fruit without worrying about orlah; the standard ranges from about 3% to 50%. Fruit trees that produce little fruit when young, like avocados, rarely have an orlah problem (but they do need to be tithed). Summer fruit, like plums, grapes, apricots, and the Ana breed of apples are more likely to be an issue. Various organizations survey the fruit to determine the percentages.

Wishing you all a happy Tu BiShvat and Shabbat shalom!

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