The Progression from Impurity to Holiness
When you come to the land and plant all types of fruit trees, you shall abstain from the orlah of its fruit; for three years it shall be orlah and not be eaten. And on the fourth year all of its fruit will be holy, praise for God. And on the fifth year you shall eat its fruit, so that its produce increase, I am Havayah your God.
When Jews plant fruit trees in the Land of Israel, the fruits are forbidden for the first three years and are referred to as orlah, which literally means “foreskin.” The fruit of the fourth year must be taken to Jerusalem, where it is to be eaten in purity and with praise of God. Only the fruit of the fifth year may be eaten freely in any location. God promises that if this commandment is kept, He will shower abundance upon the Jewish People.
Kabbalah and Chassidutpoint out that the three states of the fruit are part of a process:
- In the first three years, when the fruit is considered orlah, it is under the influence of the three impure shells (kelipot) that encompass all impurity in the world. These shells act like the foreskin of the fruit, and render it eternally forbidden.
- In the fourth year, the fruit is still in a limited state and must be eaten in a specific place in a specific manner. This corresponds to the fourth shell, called nogah. Whatever is under the influence of kelipat nogah can be liberated and used in a permissible and holy fashion by following a specific formula, in this case, taking the fruit to Jerusalem and eating it their in ritual purity.
- In the fifth year, the fruit is essentially good and holy. It can now be eaten with praise of God anywhere. The fruit itself has been transformed into a source of infinite blessing.
The Foreskin of the Tree and of the Flesh
The word for the first three years of the fruit, orlah, is identical to the word used to describe the foreskin of the uncircumcised male newborn. This suggests a parallel model between these commandments.
The Torah commands us to circumcise the foreskin of a male child when he is eight days old. There are two stages required for circumcision:
- The first stage, in which the coarse visible foreskin is removed is called “separation” (מִילָה ), or simply circumcision.
- The second stage, in which the translucent membrane is removed, revealing the crown of the covenant with God, as physically manifest in the male child, is called the “revelation” (פְּרִיעָה ).
There are non-Jews, notably Moslems, who practice circumcision as a religious rite. However, the Moslems perform only the first stage of circumcision but leave the thin transparent membrane of the foreskin intact. As the sages say,2 if one performs the separation but does not perform the revelation, it is as if the child was not circumcised at all.
Once the circumcision has been performed the procreative organ is spiritually prepared to serve as a vessel for the power of the infinite. This is the connotation given in Chassidut3 to the ability to procreate because procreation—begetting another holy soul—is where the Creator’s infinite power of creation is manifest in human beings.
Overt and Unconscious Evil
At every stage of our lives we are battling the evil within ourselves. In Kabbalah and Chassidut it is explained that spiritually, the two stages of circumcision are an ongoing commandment, applicable to our daily battle to rectify the evil within ourselves, the stronghold of the impure shells that resides within. The first stage of circumcision, which separates the visible foreskin, represents the power to get rid of the overt evil in ourselves. But, even when a person has rectified his external behavior completely, there is evil within that remains subconscious. The transparent, almost invisible layer of foreskin represents this type of covert evil. In the psyche, our egocentricity is usually transparent to us, and stains even our good deeds, encouraging us to do them in order to gain recognition or a reward—all out of self-interest.4 Thus, the second stage of circumcision, revelation, represents the power to reveal our covert evil and extract it too. Like circumcision that requires that both stages be performed, to truly serve God we must be prepared to eradiate both types of evil. If one performs only the first stage, it is as if one has done nothing.
The two stages of removal of both the overt and unconscious evil are described in a well-known verse, “Abstain from evil and do good.”5 First, all conscious evil must be removed from our lives. This can be accomplished through our own ethical strength. Before doing this, we cannot yet focus on doing good—the ultimate purpose of every Jew and every person on earth. However, thegood will not flow freely and be a source for the infinite will of the Almighty unless the thin membrane of unconscious evil is also removed. Indeed, to succeed in removing unconscious evil, to rid ourselves of our transparent self-interest and self-aggrandizement, we require Divine inspiration. This inspiration can be attained either as a gift from the Almighty directly, or be learnt by truly devoting oneself to a tzadik, a righteous and holy individual.
Once we have succeeded in uprooting both the conscious and unconscious evil in ourselves, we become a vessel for God’s infinite goodness and will. The state of mind we enter is callednatural consciousness, denoting an ability to be aware of ourselves as responsible for our actions yet at the same time pure conduits for the Divine purpose. In such a state, an individual finds himself or herself acting freely exactly as the Almighty wishes.6
The Progression from Impure to Holy in Trees
The same process found in circumcision and in our battle with evil is found in the fruit of a tree in the Land of Israel as well. Abstaining from the fruit of the first three years corresponds to banishing overt evil from our reality. In the fourth year, when we eat the fruit in purity only in Jerusalem, we accomplish the second stage, removing the transparent layer of egocentricity from our souls. In addition, eating the fruit in Jerusalem draws down the Divine inspiration we need to be conscious of God and to praise Him.7 By limiting our consumption of the fruit in this way the first four years, the fruit of the tree becomes a conduit for infinite Divine blessing. This is the meaning of the words, “So that its produce increase” in regard to the fifth year. Commenting on these words, Rashi writes,
This commandment [orlah] that you shall keep will increase the produce from the tree. For as a reward I [God] will bless the fruit of your new trees.
Eating the fruit of such a tree from the fifth year and on corresponds to entering the state of natural consciousness, allowing the tree too to be a conduit for God’s infinite blessing.
The Foreskin Inside
Besides its appearance in our parshah in relation to the fruit of trees and in the commandment of circumcision, the root of the word for “foreskin,” ערל , appears in the Bible in three additional contexts,
- “And you shall circumcise the foreskin of your hearts… [by returning to God].”8
- “Their ears are covered with foreskin….”9
- Moshe Rabbeinu describes himself as one who “has foreskin over his lips”10 (עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם ), making it difficult for him to express himself.
In relation to trees and circumcision, the foreskin is situated externally, representing our external reality. But, in relation to the heart, the ears, and the lips, the foreskin is situated internally, representing our internal reality. Let us continue by exploring how the two stage process of removing the foreskin applies in each context.
The Heart: Seat of Thoughts
Spontaneous thoughts of desires such as lust, power, cruelty, anger, etc. originate in the heart. Thoughts revolving around these desires stem from the attributes of a person’s heart (love, fear, praise, etc.) that he has not yet rectified. The first stage of teshuvah (“return to God”) in this case is to identify these thoughts as evil. One can then consciously immerse oneself in positive thoughts that will drive out the evil ones. This is the first stage of circumcision of the heart (removing oneself from evil), and is dependant upon one’s ethical and moral strength.11
The first stage of circumcision must be followed by the second stage of removing egocentric motivations that dictate our thoughts. To accomplish this, one needs Divine inspiration. In order to remove unconscious egocentric motivation, one must connect strongly to the deep and holy thoughts of the inner dimension of the Torah (Kabbalah and Chassidut). More than just replacing evil thoughts with holy ones, in this second stage one must think thoughts that consciously connect him to God.
Thoughts are likened to the fruits of the soul. Our first step is to abstain from all forbidden fruit of the first three years. When we consciously and deeply connect our thoughts to God, it is as if we are bringing the fruits of the fourth year to Jerusalem, where we partake of them with praise to God. By doing so, we reach the fifth year, when the natural flow of the heart is good thoughts and deeds.
The Ears: Good Vibrations
Our ears are our receivers, absorbing audible and inaudible transmissions from our environment. In the first stage of circumcision, one can close his ears as soon as he identifies a negative communication. In fact, the sages explain that the ear lobe is custom designed for this purpose.
But apart from direct messages, reality is full of vibrations. Some of the content included in these vibrations is clear and present and can be dealt with directly (by not processing it in the first place, as in the first stage). But, other vibrations are either themselves transparent or contain a concealed, subliminal message that conditions us to perceive reality in a particular (usually negative) way. Thus, the second stage of circumcising the foreskin, as it were, of the ears, requires that we remove the effects of the subliminal conditioning and attune our ears to receive only positive transmissions. This includes consciously hearing only positive things about others, as well as perceiving God’s Divine Providence on a personal and universal level. This corresponds to eating the fruits in Jerusalem in the fourth year, and elevates our consciousness to the natural flow of holiness of the fifth year.
Lips: Words of Torah
As the ears act as our receivers, the lips are our transmitters. The lips too have a figurative foreskin which must be removed in two stages. The first thing is to ensure that our lips are used to transmit no blatant evil.
The second stage of circumcising our lips requires that we fine-tune our power of speech. This includes removing all subtle egotistic motives that we may have for saying certain things, even words of holiness.12 In addition, one must make a conscious effort to speak holy words, particularly the words of Torah and prayer. By speaking and teaching these words of holiness, one connects to God in praise, as when partaking of the fruits of the fourth year in Jerusalem. Speaking words of Torah removes the unconscious evil of speech, and opens the way for the fifth year, when all of one’s speech flows in natural holiness.13
When we work on circumcising our external reality, our bodies and our souls, we achieve the flowing natural consciousness of holiness of the fifth year. In this way, we draw down infinite blessing from our Creator in every facet of our lives.
Let us summarize all that we have seen in table form,
|forbidden first 3 years
|removal of conscious evil (apparent in actions)
|subduing conscious negative thoughts
|ignoring negative words
|refraining from speaking ill
|eaten in Jerusalem in fourth year
|removal of subconscious evil (hidden in psyche’s ego)
|extracting hidden negative cravings
|disregarding subliminal negative vibrations
|removing self-interest even from holy words
|power of the infinite in procreation
|source of Divine blessing from fifth year
|natural flow of good thoughts
|hearing only good
|expressing the Divine word
1. Leviticus 19:23-25.
2. Mishnah Shabbat 19:6.
3. Derech Mitzvotecha, Mitzvat Pru Urevu.
4. The Ba’al Shem Tov explained that the verse, “For there is no such individual who is atzadik who does good and does not transgress” (Ecclesiastes 7:20), should be understood as saying that even within the good that we do there is a transgression—the self interest out of which we acted in the first place, or the feeling of accomplishment we receive upon completing a good act.
5. This verse appears twice in Psalms 34:15 and 37:27.
6. The reader will have noticed that natural consciousness is a paradoxical state of being, in which the autonomy of the individual is retained in spite of his acting exactly according to the Divine will.
7. Today, devoting oneself to a true tzadik in order to address one’s unconscious evil is akin to bringing the fruit to Jerusalem, the dwelling place of the Divine Presence and the priesthood that serves in the Holy Temple.
8. Deuteronomy 10:16.
9. Jeremiah 6:10.
10. Exodus 6:12.
11. In the verse, Abstain from evil and do good,” the word “abstain” (סוּר ) shares a common root with the word used to denote ethics and morals (מוּסַר ) and the Rabbinic literature on this topic (including works such as Orchot Tzadikim, Reishit Chochmah, etc.).
12. The Lubavitcher Rebbe is famous for never having uttered words such as “death,” “impure” (טוּמְאָה ) unnecessarily when speaking with others. Instead he would say “the opposite of life,” or “the opposite of purity.” For an explanation of this custom see Likutei Sichot, v. 10, pp. 24ff.
13. The epitome of this natural holy speech appearing in the fifth year is found in Moshe Rabbeinu who spoke the Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah, with the Divine Presence speaking form his throat (Zohar III, 232a; Shemot Rabbah 83:15).