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Shana Strauch-Schick

Tova Sacher





The Inner Workings of a Genizah Midrash on the Symbolic Value of Orlah





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Shana Strauch-Schick


Tova Sacher




The Inner Workings of a Genizah Midrash on the Symbolic Value of Orlah








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Cairo Genizah and the Study of Midrash

The Inner Workings of a Genizah Midrash on the Symbolic Value of Orlah

A set of homilies from the Genizah connects two biblical readings (sidrot) in Leviticus by emphasizing the importance of the mitzvah of orlah as a key to inheriting and remaining on the land.


The Inner Workings of a Genizah Midrash on the Symbolic Value of Orlah

The Tree of Life by French painter Raphaël Toussaint 2009, wikimedia

Introduction and Background

Parasha vs Sidra: The Triennial Cycle of Torah Readings

The standard Torah reading cycle in late antique and early medieval Palestine was the triennial cycle, which completed the reading of the Torah over the course of three years.[1] Such a division meant that there were roughly three times the amount of sidrot (in the three-year cycle) than there are parashiyot (in the one-year cycle).

The division of sidrot was fluid; in other words, not all synagogues read exactly the same portion each week. Nevertheless, we can determine the division assumed by a particular midrashic collection by looking at the opening proem of the homily, known as a petihta,[2]since the proem made use of the opening verses of the sidra.

Collections of Homilies on the Sidrot

Instead of interpreting each biblical verse, as was the custom in exegetical midrashim of the Tannaitic period, Amoraic homiletical midrashim offer a developed thematic unit, touching upon the first verses of the sidra, and ignoring most of the remaining verses. In homiletical midrash, the darshan puts forth a central argument, with the various elements in each homily interconnected. Vayikra Rabba (ca. 5th cent. C.E.) is a classic example of midrashic texts compiled in this period, as are the Tanhuma style midrashim,[3] the most well-known being the seventh century Midrash Tanhuma.

In homiletic midrash collections, each homily is generally a distinct unit. Nevertheless, in one Tanhuma style midrashic fragment from the Genizah, the redactor takes the unusual step of connecting two different homilies.[4] This linking of two distinct sidrot is not simply a matter of literary style or composition, but rather reflects a thematic connection being made between the different segments of the book of Leviticus itself.

The Sidrot of כמעשה and ונטעתם: How Israel Can Inherit and Remain in the Promised Land

The Genizah fragment in question contains:

  1. The end of a homily on the sidra of Ke-ma’aseh Eretz Mitzrayim (כמעשה ארץ מצרים; Lev 18:1-18:30/19:22).[5]
  2. A homily on the sidra of U-neta’atem (ונטעתם; Lev 19:23-20:27).[6]

The author of the Genizah fragment relates the two sidrot by showing how each passage teaches Israel what they must do to enter and remain in the land:

  1. Staying away from illicit relations.
  2. Observing the commandments associated with Orlah [7]

As we will see, the darshan (author the homily) is picking up on a theme latent in the verses themselves.

The Sidra כמעשה (Leviticus 18:1-18:30): The Prohibitions of Illicit Relationships

In the biblical text, the sidra of כמעשה begins by instructing the Children of Israel not to imitate the behavior of the Egyptians or Canaanites.[8] This instruction is followed by a list of illicit relations and then moves to God’s conditional promise to allow them to stay on the land if they comply. Note the function of the land in this implied threat: 

ויקרא יח:כו וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֣ם אַתֶּ֗ם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי֙ וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֔י וְלֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ מִכֹּ֥ל הַתּוֹעֵבֹ֖ת הָאֵ֑לֶּה… יח:כז כִּ֚י אֶת־כָּל־הַתּוֹעֵבֹ֣ת הָאֵ֔ל עָשׂ֥וּ אַנְשֵֽׁי־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לִפְנֵיכֶ֑ם וַתִּטְמָ֖א הָאָֽרֶץיח:כח וְלֹֽא־תָקִ֤יא הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֶתְכֶ֔ם בְּטַֽמַּאֲכֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑הּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר קָאָ֛ה אֶת־הַגּ֖וֹי אֲשֶׁ֥ר לִפְנֵיכֶֽם:
Lev 18:26 But you must keep My laws and My rules, and you must not do any of those abhorrent things… 18:27 for all those abhorrent things were done by the people who were in the land before you, and the land became defiled18:28 So let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you.

The midrash relays this overall message in a paraphrase, but with a twist:

אמר להן האל’[9] בניי ;מבקשין אתן לירש את הארץ הזאת שמרו עצמכן מן העריות ומכל דבר שלקלקלה והיו טהורין וקדושין ואתן יושבין לבטח שנ’ ונטעתים על אדמתם וגו’
God said to them, my children if you want to inherit this land watch yourselves from illicit relations and from all things that (cause) ruin and be pure and holy and you will sit securely, as it says (Amos 9:15), “and they shall be planted on their land etc.”

This homily reframes the verses as a prerequisite for inheriting the land as opposed to a condition for remaining on it. It is possible that this reflects an attempt to place God’s words in their wilderness context. It is also possible, however, that the homily addresses its actual audience, Jews who have lost their land (or sovereignty) and can only hope that one day they too will be “planted in the land” as the prophet promises.[10]

The quote from Amos 9:15, attesting to God’s promise to plant Israel securely in the land, supports this latter reading.[11] Indeed, this same verse is quoted in other midrashim referring to the messianic age, and is fitting as the end of a messianic peroration.[12]

The Sidra ונטעתם (Leviticus 19:23-20:27): The Mitzvah of Orlah

Planting Israel = Planting Fruit: Linking Sidrot

The ending of the homily on כמעשה uses the word to plant “ונטעתים,” invoking the image of God “planting” Israel in its land, to connect thematically with the next sidra (ונטעתם), which begins with the commandment to avoid consuming the fruit of a newly planted tree for three years.[13]

ויקרא יט:כג וְכִי־תָבֹ֣אוּ אֶל הָאָ֗רֶץ וּנְטַעְתֶּם֙ כָּל עֵ֣ץ מַאֲכָ֔ל וַעֲרַלְתֶּ֥ם עָרְלָת֖וֹ אֶת פִּרְי֑וֹ שָׁלֹ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֗ים יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶ֛ם עֲרֵלִ֖ים לֹ֥א יֵאָכֵֽל:יט:כד וּבַשָּׁנָה֙ הָרְבִיעִ֔ת יִהְיֶ֖ה כָּל פִּרְי֑וֹ קֹ֥דֶשׁ הִלּוּלִ֖ים לַי-הֹוָֽה: יט:כה וּבַשָּׁנָ֣ה הַחֲמִישִׁ֗ת תֹּֽאכְלוּ֙ אֶת פִּרְי֔וֹ לְהוֹסִ֥יף לָכֶ֖ם תְּבוּאָת֑וֹ אֲנִ֖י יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם:
Lev 19:23 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 to be eaten. 19:24 In the fourth year, all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before YHWH; 19:25 and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit—that its yield to you may be increased: I, YHWH am your God.

The sidra continues with sundry other laws, and most probably spanned all of ch. 20, with its repetition/revision of the sexual prohibitions of Lev 18.

The Proem to the Sidra ונטעתם

The Genizah fragment opens up the sidra ונטעתם “and you shall plant” (Leviticus 19:23-20:27) with a unique proem which contains midrashim not found anywhere else.[14]

The basic structure of this proem is as follows:

  1. Opening with a remote verse (Prov 3:18) “It is a tree of life,”
    1. Interpreting the tree of life as the mitzvah of orlah.
      1. Connection of orlah to circumcision.
      2. Connection of 5 years of orlah to first 5 generations of Israel.
    2. Interpreting the tree of life as Torah.
      1. Connection between 5 years of orlah and 5 books of Moses.

As is customary with homiletic proems found in midrashic literature, it opens with a citation of a remote verse, in this case from Proverbs 3:18:[15]

עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר:
It is a tree of life to those who grasp it, And whoever holds on to it is happy.

First Interpretation: The Tree of Life is the Mitzvah of Orlah

In the plain sense of the verse, the tree of life is wisdom, which the rabbis generally interpret as a reference to the Torah or its laws.[16] The first interpretation in this homily, however, applies the verse specifically to the mitzvah of orlah, the command to abstain from consuming fruit from newly planted trees for three/four years—literally, the tree mitzvah. Thus, the verse in Proverbs is understood as stating that keeping orlah ensures life.

Connecting Orlah with Circumcision – ערלה and ערל

The midrash subsequently extends the connection between the tree of life and orlah to include circumcision, stating that God strove to bring lasting merit to Israel by commanding them about both the tree and circumcision.[17] Rabbi Yossi justifies the connection between the tree mitzvah and circumcision by calling attention to their common root,[18] ע-ר-ל. This connection has the effect of placing the mitzvah of orlah on the same plain of importance as one of the key covenantal mitzvot.[19]

Connecting the 5 Years of Orlah with First 5 Generations of Israel

More significantly for our purposes, the midrash offers an allegorical interpretation of orlah’s significance based upon a typology of its years. First, it ties the three years of sanctification with the three patriarchs.

יש לאילן ג’ שנים בשביל מה? בשביל זכות שלושת אבות.
The tree has three years. For what? For the merit of the three patriarchs.[20]

Next, it draws parallels between Israel’s history and the orlah timeframe in the fourth and fifth years.[21]

שכשם שבשנה הרביעית קדש הילולים לה’ כך בנו שליעקב רביעי קודש לאל’ שנ’ קדש ישראל לה’ ראשית תבואתו זה יהודה.
As in the fourth year [it is said] “holy, for giving praise to God” so was Jacob’s fourth son holy for God as it says (Jer 2:3), “Israel was holy to the LORD the first fruits of his harvest.” This is Judah.
ובשנה החמשית תאכלו את פריו [אילו] ישראל שהיו מאכל לאומות העולם שנ’ אכלי עמי
“And on the fifth year you shall eat its fruit” these [are] Israel that were food for the nations of the world as it says: “those that eat My people.”

Yehudah, Jacob’s fourth son, and the fourth generation from Abraham, represents the final generation of sanctified (=prohibited) fruit, while the “fifth-generation” fruit is permitted for consumption.

One would think that the availability of fruit for consumption would be a good thing and a cause for celebration—in the biblical context it is—in the context of this derasha, however, the tables are turned. The prohibition to consume the first four years of fruits represents God’s protection of the first four generations of Israelites, from Abraham through the twelve sons of Jacob. Once the next generation emerges, Israel loses its divine protection and is “consumed” by its enemies, in this case, the Egyptians.

This unexpected irony speaks to the reality of the intended audience who, like the fruit, believed themselves to be holy and chosen and yet were fated to be “eaten.” Just as the fruits can be eaten because they had been consecrated, Israel might now be suffering because they too are consecrated and holy. The suffering, almost perversely, confirms the chosen-ness.[22] 

This first analogy thus presents the stages of orlah as corresponding to stages of Jewish history, characterized by chosen-ness, sanctity, and persecution. The tree of life in the remote verse is understood to represent orlah, which in turn signifies the life of Israel.

The Second Interpretation: The Tree of Life is the Torah

The next segment offers an alternative, and more traditional exposition of Proverbs 3:18, with the “tree of life” representing the Torah, but still presents orlah as central:

אמ’ ר’ יוסי בשביל התורה שנקראת עץ חיים עץ חיים היא וגו’
Rabbi Yossi says: “For the Torah that is called a tree of life, ‘It is a tree of life etc.’’ 
אמר האל’ אם שימרתן מצות ערלה כך אני מעלה עליכן כילו קימתן כל המצות שבתורה שנקראת עץ חיים ובזכותה אתן נכנסין לארץ וכי תבאו אל הארץ ונטעתם.
The Lord said if you keep the commandment of orlah I will consider it as if you have kept all the commandments in the Torah that is called a tree of life and in its merit you will enter the land: “because you come to the land and you plant….”

The derasha reads the word כי not as “when” but as “because,” i.e., “you will enter the land because you plant and keep orlah.” This exposition ends with a quote of the lectionary verse, closing the first part of the proem.

Connecting the Five Years of Orlah to the Five Books of Moses

The parallels between orlah and Torah are enumerated for the numbers 3, 4, and 5, showing how the process of orlah reflects the process of receiving the Torah.[23]

  • The Torah was given in the third month, corresponding to the first three years of orlah. This also implies that the time before the Torah was revealed is considered as orlah– existence prior to the covenant between God and Israel.
  • The Torah was given to the fourth generation corresponding to fourth year when the fruits are holy to God.[24] In its original context, the prooftext verse refers to inheriting the land, and not receiving the Torah.[25] Quoting this verse in this context echoes the earlier connection made between the Torah, orlah, and entering the land.
  • The Torah is comprised of five books corresponding to the fruit that is eaten in the fifth year. The Torah, like the fruit of the land, is intended for Israel’s consumption and nourishment.

In this paradigm, the act of eating is portrayed positively; Israel “eats,” i.e., studies or observes the Torah, referred to as God’s fruit, as opposed to the previous analogy which compared Israel to the fruit that is eaten by the nations of the world. 

Israel Merits the Land through Keeping Orlah

The proem concludes by echoing the merit signified by orlah in the opening statement of the proem:

 אמר האל לישראל אם שימרתן מצות ערלה אתן נכנסין לארץ בזכותה וכי תבאו אל הארץ וערלתם ערלתו.
God said to Israel if you keep the commandment of orlah you will enter the land in its merit, “When you come into the land and then you shall regard its fruit as forbidden.”

By “consuming” the Torah, as signified by the midrashic connection between Israel consuming fruit in the fifth year and the five books of Moses (the Jewish people’s real fruit), Israel merits entering the land.[26]

The Connection between the Proem’s Two Expositions of Orlah

Despite the divergent interpretation of “tree” offered in the two sections of the proem, they are intimately connected. In the first interpretation, in which the tree of life means the mitzvah of orlah, Israel’s chosen-ness is intimately bound with Israel’s position in the world as a persecuted people. In the second interpretation, in which the tree of life and orlah are both Torah, Israel is not the passive victim of history, but determines her destiny by Torah observance, and specifically by the mitzvah of orlah, which represents all of Torah allegorically. 

Thus, the proem presents a triangle between orlah, the Torah, and the continued, albeit fraught, existence of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. The motif that ties them all together is the trees; both the actual trees of orlah as well as the metaphorical tree of Torah are the means by which the Jews’ ultimate goal of returning to the land of Israel will be achieved.

Uncovering the Overall Message of the Darshan: Connecting the Sidrot

The connection between the homilies on the sidrot, both of which focus on how the Jews can again inherit the land, is based on the verses upon which the midrash is building. The sidra of כמעשה (Lev 18:1-30/19:22), which focuses on forbidden sexual practices, contains a threat and the negative image of the land vomiting out its sinful inhabitants. The sidra of ונטעתם (Lev 19:23-20:27), the orlah sidra, begins with the positive imagery of Israel entering the land and planting there.

סדרת כמעשה
סדרת ונטעתם
ויקרא יח:כח וְלֹֽא־תָקִ֤יא הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֶתְכֶ֔ם בְּטַֽמַּאֲכֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑הּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר קָאָ֛ה אֶת־הַגּ֖וֹי אֲשֶׁ֥ר לִפְנֵיכֶֽם:
ויקרא יט:כג וְכִי־תָבֹ֣אוּ אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ וּנְטַעְתֶּם֙ כָּל־עֵ֣ץ מַאֲכָ֔ל…
Lev 18:28 So let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you. Lev 19:23 When you enter the land and plant any tree for food…

The first interpretation of orlah in the sidra of ונטעתם focuses on the correlation between the first five generations of Jews (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, slavery) and continues the negative vein of the previous sidra, by repeating the imagery of the wicked non-Israelites, this time as people who will consume the Jews as the Egyptians once did. Not only must the Israelites disregard the ways of the gentiles, but generations of Jews will suffer at their hands.

The second interpretation of orlah, which describes the consumption of the permitted 5th year fruits as an allegory for Torah observance, counters this negative imagery by focusing on the verses contained in ונטעתם, which stress the fulfillment of positive commandments. The link between the two sidrot is underscored by the reference from Amos to the Jewish people being planted (ונטעתים) at the conclusion of the proem to כמעשה.

סור מרע ועשה טוב “Leave Evil and do Good”
The Message of the Back-to-Back Homilies

The two sidrot each relay a viewpoint on how the Jews—the wandering Israelites in the wilderness along with the post-destruction Jews who were the audience of the homily—may (re-)enter the land of Israel, by stressing the different opening verses of their respective sidrot.

The Genizah text is driven by the contrast between the negative valence of the description of the land vomiting out its inhabitants (potentially the Israelites themselves if they sin) and the positive imagery of Israel entering the land and planting trees. While the midrash acknowledges and even forewarns of the negative, it nevertheless concludes on an optimistic note. Despite the danger of sin and exile, the Jewish people possess the power to return and remain in their land through observing the Torah’s commandments such as orlah.


What Happened to the Sidra of Kedoshim?

Dr. Moshe Lavee

In other collections of homiletic midrash from this period, in between the sidrot of כמעשה and ונטעתם comes the sidra of Kedoshim (19:1-19:22).[27] The Genizah fragment skips over this entirely.

We don’t know why Kedoshim was skipped over, and whether this reflected a lectionary reality (i.e., Kedoshim was not an independent lection read between כמעשה and ונטעתם, but was tucked into the earlier sidra) or a literary reality (the redactor of this midrash was not interested in offering a homily on this sidra or was more interested in presenting כמעשה and ונטעתם together.)

A text in the Sifra (Kedoshim 1:1) may explain the omission of Kedoshim:

וידבר ה’ אל משה לאמר דבר אל בני ישראל ואמרת אליהם קדושים תהיו מלמד שהפרשה נאמרה בהקהל ומפני מה נאמרה בהקהל מפני שרוב גופי תורה תלוים בה.
The Lord spoke to Moses saying: “Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy’” – this teaches that this parasha (=sidra) was read during the Hakhel ceremony. Why was this read during Hakhel? Because most of the principles of Torah are dependent upon it.[28]

Perhaps this statement suggests that the independent sidra of Kedoshim was read only during Hakhel (i.e., once in seven years), and was not part of the Shabbat lectionary, during which it would have been read as part of the sidra of [29] כמעשה. If so, the darshan may have been trying to make sense out of his lectionary cycle, in which a sidra beginning in כמעשה (describing the reasons God removed the Canaanites from the land), was followed by a sidra beginning in ונטעתם (describing Israel’s entering the land, planting trees, and keeping the mitzvah of orlah).


May 12, 2016


Last Updated

May 25, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Shana Strauch-Schick is a post-doctoral fellow at The Center for Inter-disciplinary Research of the Cairo Genizah at Haifa University. She received a Ph.D. in Talmudic Literature from Revel at Yeshiva University where she also completed an M.A. in Bible. Her publications include, “The Middle Persian Context of the Bavli’s Beruriah Narratives,” Zion 79.3 [Hebrew]. 

Tova Sacher received  her LL.B. from Bar Ilan University and a Masters in Jewish Education from the Hebrew  University. She is currently writing a doctoral thesis at the University of Haifa on the topic of Midrash Tanhuma in the Genizah and serves as the coordinator for the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research of the Cairo Genizah.