The Law of Fourth-Year Fruit: Restraining the Ancient Vintage Celebration
A law regarding the status of fruits during the first five years after a tree is planted appears in Leviticus 19:23-25:
יט:כג וְכִי־תָבֹ֣אוּ אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ וּנְטַעְתֶּם֙ כָּל־עֵ֣ץ מַאֲכָ֔ל וַעֲרַלְתֶּ֥ם עָרְלָת֖וֹ אֶת־פִּרְי֑וֹ שָׁלֹ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֗ים יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶ֛ם עֲרֵלִ֖ים לֹ֥א יֵאָכֵֽל:
19:23 When you come into the land and plant any kind of trees for food, then you shall regard their fruit as forbidden; for three years, it shall be forbidden to you; it must not be eaten.
יט:כד וּבַשָּׁנָה֙ הָרְבִיעִ֔ת יִהְיֶ֖ה כָּל־פִּרְי֑וֹ קֹ֥דֶשׁ הִלּוּלִ֖ים לַי-הֹוָֽה:
19:24 In the fourth year, all its fruit shall be holy for rejoicing to Yhwh.
יט:כה וּבַשָּׁנָ֣ה הַחֲמִישִׁ֗ת תֹּֽאכְלוּ֙ אֶת־פִּרְי֔וֹ לְהוֹסִ֥יף לָכֶ֖ם תְּבוּאָת֑וֹ אֲנִ֖י יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם:
19:25 But in the fifth year, you may eat of its fruit, that its yield may be increased for you: I am Yhwh your God.
Fourth Year Fruits for Whom?: Qumranic Halacha vs. Rabbinic Halacha
The precise meaning of v. 24 is unclear, and it is thus not surprising that ancient sources dispute the allocation of the fourth-year fruits. The Rabbis stated that the owners of the fourth-year fruits must take them to Jerusalem and eat them there (e.g. Sifre Bemidbar 6), making them similar to the laws of ma’aser sheni (the second tithe) as outlined in the Mishnah. Alternatively, in the Qumran scrolls as well as in Jubilees these fruits belong to the priests. In the Temple Scroll, for example, the fourth year produce appears among other priestly gifts (60:3-4).
Hebrew University professor of Talmud Menahem Kister correctly argued that this Qumranic halacha fits the plain meaning of the biblical law; the expression ‘holy… to Yhwh’ means that the fruits are not the owner’s. Moreover, the emphasis in the next verse that ‘in the fifth year you may eat its fruits’ strongly implies that until this fifth year, the owner may not enjoy the fruits.
The Deuteronomic Custom of חילול הכרם – First Use of a Vineyard by the Owner
Despite the correctness of the Qumranite reading of Leviticus 19:24, Kister argues that the Rabbis preserve an ancient custom of the owner—not the priests—enjoying the first fruits, articulated in the term חילול הכרם. There are three cases in Deuteronomy 20:5-7 in which there is an exemption from military service.
- The man who planted a vineyard ולא חללו.
- The man who built a new house, but did not live in it yet
- The man who betrothed a wife, but did not take her yet
This context suggests that the phrase ולא חללו should be interpreted as “the first use of the vineyard’s grapes,” similar to settling in a new house and having sex with a new wife. The same can be said about Deuteronomy 28:30:
אִשָּׁ֣ה תְאָרֵ֗שׂ וְאִ֤ישׁ אַחֵר֙ (ישגלנה) יִשְׁכָּבֶ֔נָּה
If you pay the bride-price for a wife, another man shall lie with her.
בַּ֥יִת תִּבְנֶ֖ה וְלֹא־תֵשֵׁ֣ב בּ֑וֹ
If you build a house, you shall not live in it.
כֶּ֥רֶם תִּטַּ֖ע וְלֹ֥א תְחַלְּלֶֽנּוּ:
If you plant a vineyard, you shall not enjoy it.
Jeremiah 31:4 substantiates this interpretation:
ע֚וֹד תִּטְּעִ֣י כְרָמִ֔ים
Again you shall plant vineyards
On the hills of Samaria;
נָטְע֥וּ נֹטְעִ֖ים וְחִלֵּֽלוּ:
Men shall plant and live to enjoy them.
This text teaches that according to the ancient practice the vine planter himself would enjoy the first produce of his vineyard. It may also teach that the first enjoyment of the vineyard’s produce took place in the temple, since the next verse (5/6) mentions the pilgrimage to Jerusalem: “arise, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.” This custom would then fully accord with the Rabbinic halacha.
The Meaning of הילולים in Leviticus and other Biblical Verses
The law in Leviticus uses the word הילולים, which is usually interpreted form the root h-l-l as “praise and rejoicing.” This obscure word appears only once again in the Bible, in Judges 9:27. In the time of Abimelech the son of Gideon הילולים were celebrated at Shechem:
וַיֵּצְא֨וּ הַשָּׂדֶ֜ה וַֽיִּבְצְר֤וּ אֶת־כַּרְמֵיהֶם֙ וַֽיִּדְרְכ֔וּ וַֽיַּעֲשׂ֖וּ הִלּוּלִ֑ים וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ בֵּ֣ית אֱֽלֹֽהֵיהֶ֔ם וַיֹּֽאכְלוּ֙ וַיִּשְׁתּ֔וּ וַֽיְקַלְל֖וּ אֶת־אֲבִימֶֽלֶךְ:
They went out into the field and gathered the grapes from their vineyards, trod them, and celebrated. Then they went into the temple of their god, ate and drank, and cursed Abimelech.
In this case, too, the owner himself consumes his produce.
A similar understanding may be derived from the verbal use of h-l-l in Isaiah 62:8-9:
נִשְׁבַּ֧ע יְ-הֹוָ֛ה בִּֽימִינ֖וֹ וּבִזְר֣וֹעַ עֻזּ֑וֹ אִם־אֶתֵּן֩ אֶת־דְּגָנֵ֨ךְ ע֤וֹד מַֽאֲכָל֙ לְאֹ֣יְבַ֔יִךְ וְאִם־יִשְׁתּ֤וּ בְנֵֽי־נֵכָר֙ תִּֽירוֹשֵׁ֔ךְ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָגַ֖עַתְּ בּֽוֹ: כִּ֤י מְאַסְפָיו֙ יֹאכְלֻ֔הוּ וְהִֽלְל֖וּ אֶת־יְ-הֹוָ֑ה וּֽמְקַבְּצָ֥יו יִשְׁתֻּ֖הוּ בְּחַצְר֥וֹת קָדְשִֽׁי:
Yhwh has sworn by His right hand, by His mighty arm: Nevermore will I give your new grain to your enemies for food, nor shall foreigners drink the new wine for which you have labored. But those who harvest it shall eat it and give praise to/celebrate Yhwh; and those who gather it shall drink it in My sacred courts.
The use of the verb הלל in this verse connects it to Judges 9:27 and suggests that the celebration which the verse alludes to is the הלולים.
These texts stand in contrast to the law in Leviticus according to which the הלולים occur in a case in which the owner himself does not enjoy his fruits. Out text in Leviticus is an outlier in other ways as well. The term הלולים in Judges and Isaiah and the חילול in Deuteronomy and Jeremiah relate only to vineyards and grapes. The text in Leviticus, however, is explicitly applied to “any kind of trees.”
Thus, to return to Kister’s observation, the law in Leviticus differs from the other passages. These other passages represent the ancient practice that the Rabbis try to preserve, whereas the Priestly law reflects a new treatment of this issue.
הילולים vs. חילול
The biblical material is actually even more complex, as הלולים and חילול should be distinguished from each other. The חילול described in Deuteronomy and Jeremiah relates specifically to a new vineyard. The verses in Judges and Isaiah, which refer to the הלולים, contain no reference to new vineyards, and offer no reason to limit the ritual to a new vineyard. Instead, הלולים would appear to have been an annual vintage celebration.
It stands to reason that the owner of a new vineyard, celebrating the חילול of a new vineyard, would fold his celebration into that of the general annual celebration of the הלולים. This does not mean that both rituals had the same meaning. The annual הלולים are probably a thanksgiving celebration, as the verb הלל, from which stems the noun הלולים, indicates. It is possible, however, that the חילול rite has a different meaning.
חילול as a Fertility Ritual
Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, who brought anthropological methods to bear on biblical studies, noted the threefold use of the verb ערל (lit: “uncircumcised”) in verse 23, and found parallels between the circumcision and the law in Leviticus 19:23-25. He argues, based on a comparative study, that just as the circumcision is a fertility rite preparing the male organ for its purpose, so too the ritual of giving the fourth year produce to the priest prepares the tree for producing an abundant yield. This interpretation is supported by the end of the passage:”’that its yield may be increased for you.” This passage suggests that the object of the rite is to multiply the tree’s yield. 
In Leviticus 19:24, however, the הלולים are mentioned as part of the fourth year event, namely the ritual for a new tree. Thus, Leviticus makes two adjustments to the law. It uses the term הילולים for what was once called חילול, and it grants the fruits to the priests and not the owner.
Why all these changes in the law? What is the message of the law of נטע רבעי in Leviticus (19:23-25)?
Leviticus Rewriting Ancient Ritual: The Evidence
Before answering these questions, I want to strengthen the evidence that the law in Leviticus was aware of the ancient customs mentioned in Deuteronomy and other texts, and was revising them consciously.
I already noted Leviticus’ use of the term הלולים, the same word used in other places in the Bible to describe the annual wine celebration. In addition, although the verses state explicitly that the ritual applies to any kind of fruit tree, the passage in Leviticus leaves some clues that the original law from which it was working referred specifically to the vine.
First, the assumption underlying Leviticus 19:23-25 is that the tree would give fruit at the latest by its fourth year. This assumption fits the grapevine better than any other fruit tree; most fruit trees bear fruit well after their fourth year. The grapevine bears fruits earlier than any other fruit tree since it is not a real tree, but a climbing plant.
Second, the passage ends with a statement of encouragement: “so that its yield (תבואתו) may be increased for you.” The noun תבואה in the Bible usually refers to grain crops, not to the yield of a tree. The only exception are grapes, the fruit of the vine or the vineyard (e.g. Num 18:30; Deut 22:9; Ps 107:37).
These textual clues strengthen the probability that Leviticus was reworking an older text that related specifically to the wine celebration. This strengthens the earlier question: Why did Leviticus feel the need to change the ancient ritual?
The Nature of the Vintage Celebration
An examination of the biblical and post-biblical sources that discuss these vintage celebrations help us discern why H, the author of the Holiness collection, changed this law.
Drinking of Wine
Judges 9:27, which briefly describes the הלולים at Shechem, notes that the Shechemites drank wine in this event. This drinking of wine led to the cursing of Abimelech; that is, the Shechemites got drunk.
Drinking of wine is also referenced for the חילול ritual, as described in some post-biblical sources such as Jubilees 7:1-6 and Genesis Apocryphon 12:13-19. The Mishnah as well (Pe’ah7:6), though it does not discuss drinking, does assume that all of the grapes from the fourth year (כרם רבעי) would be used for wine production (כולו לגת).
Libation and Temple
Jubilees (and probably the Genesis Apocryphon) teaches that the first new wine produced should be libated on the altar. Like the celebration at Shechem, which happened in the local temple, the vision in Jeremiah 31:4-5 includes a communal pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Since libation was involved in the vintage celebration (at least in that of the חילול), presumably, the owners of the vineyards brought wine to the temple, libated some of the wine on the altar and then drank the rest of the wine there, i.e., in the temple.
Judges 21:19-21 describes a feast in Shiloh where the maidens of Shiloh went to dance in the vineyards. In the case described there, the Benjaminites ambushed them and abducted some of them. A similar account is found in Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8, according to which the maidens of Jerusalem used to dance in the vineyards every year on 15 Ab and Yom Kippur. During these events, the young men watched the dancing maidens and chose wives from them.
The similarity between these sources is obvious and buttresses the opinion that the biblical account is an etiological explanation for a marriage practice that took place during a feast in the vineyards. The dates on which the maidens danced fall out during the vintage period. Therefore, it seems likely that the feast mentioned in Judges 21:19 is a vintage celebration, which included this marriage practice.
It can be surmised that as part of the vintage celebration the community came together to the (local) temple, celebrated and drank wine, while the custom of finding spouses among the dancing maidens—either by choosing as in the Mishnah or by abducting as in the account in Judges—also took place.
How and Why the Ritual was Changed
Now that we have a better sense of what the vintage celebration was like, we can understand why the author of the law in Leviticus made global and systemic changes to the custom. I believe the priestly author found a ritual centered around wine and dancing women to be problematic, and thus modified it in a way that made it fit better with his conception of what an appropriate ritual should look like.
This explains why he changed the ritual to focus on any kind of fruit tree. Emphasizing “fruit” in every verse, the author sought to deemphasize the involvement of wine in the celebration. In addition, stating that the owner does not enjoy his first yield—but brings it to the priests—naturally makes the celebration more restrained. Finally, it is possible that by the insertion of the term הלולים into the law of חילול of the vineyard the author intended to limit the annual vintage celebration as well.
The author of the current passage in Leviticus 19:23-25 knew of the ancient vintage rites, perhaps even its written formulation. As a restrained priest, he opposed this type of hedonistic celebration. He therefore made changes and inserted them into the law, thus obscuring the original, ancient character of the vintage rites.
The comparison of the content and terms of the law to other biblical and post-biblical sources enable the reconstruction of the ancient rites as well as the struggle over the nature of the Israelite cult reflected in the law. In this case, the law in Leviticus did not completely succeed in suppressing the ancient practices, which were partially preserved in some biblical and post-biblical sources, including rabbinic halacha.
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April 27, 2015
January 14, 2021
Dr. Itamar Kislev is Senior Lecturer of Hebrew Bible and Medieval Jewish Exegesis at the University of Haifa. His Ph.D. is from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Kislev’s book, On the Threshold of the Promised Land [Hebrew] was published last year.
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