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Vayikra/Leviticus 19:23 And when you come into the Land and you plant any tree for eating, you shall regard as uncircumcised its fruit as its foreskin
This is one of those delightful texts that has a fairly simple literal translation (as above) yet must have an idiomatic meaning as the words or concepts do not match in context. This can be seen by comparing it with one of the modern published translations: "When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden" (JPS).Rashi's paraphrase says, "you shall leave the foreskin of that fruit uncircumcised." How did fruit come to be thought of as having a foreskin which was uncircumcised?
The root appears twice in the text, first as a verb - , Qal affix 2mp, with a vav-reversive to give a future tense - and again in the immediately following word - , the fs noun with a 3ms possessive pronoun suffix, 'his' or here 'its'. The word probably originates from an adjective form , meaning simply 'uncircumcised', with the verb and noun forms being derivatives. TheRashbam says that "this refers to stoppage, blockage or avoidance", and points to "Their ears are blocked and they cannot listen" (Jeremiah 6:10, JPS), where the Hebrew literally suggests that their ears have a foreskin. It appears again in "No foreigner, uncircumcised in heart and flesh ... shall enter my sanctuary" (Ezekiel 44:9, NRSV).
At the Bush, when being called to go to Pharaoh withHaShem's mandate to release the Israelites, Moshe tells HaShem, "How then shall Pharaoh listen to me, for I am of uncircumcised lips?" (Shemot 6:12, ESV) - another use of the idiom that other translations bring into modern English: "since I speak with faltering lips" (NIV). The Ramban uses the open/closed image to build his explanation about the fruit: "In contrast to Moshe's speech that was blocked by uncircumcised lips, speech is like opening - 'Speak up for the dumb, for the rights of all the unfortunate. Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy' (Proverbs 31:8-9, JPS) literally says 'open your mouth'. So the 'opening' metaphor is used for the development of fruit, 'Let us go early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine has flowered, if its blossoms have opened, if the pomegranates are in bloom' (Song 7:13, JPS). That is why the fruit tree is described as 'blocked, unopened' for use during its first three years."
But that still doesn't help us to work out why a fruit tree is 'closed' for three years. Gunther Plaut proposes that "This law no doubt originated in the widespread belief that all new life - vegetable, animal or human - belongs to the deity; giving a part of it as a redemptive offering makes the remainder available for our use." This could certainly explain why the fruit of the tree's fourth year is dedicated to HaShem, but doesn't do much for the first three. TheRambam tells us that "Ancient magicians used to do magic in order to increase the rapidity of a tree producing fruit, a form of idolatry, so the law forbids all that is grown by trees for three years from the day they were planted. After three years most of the trees in Syria bearing edible fruit have reached their maturity so magic is no longer an issue and the fruit may be freely eaten" (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:37). This, as might be expected from Maimonides, is a very pragmatic explanation. Baruch Levine takes a different point of view: that a tree is to be trimmed during its first three years of life: that "the sense is to 'trim' or 'remove' certain growths. A good case can be made for understanding the law as requiring the trimming of trees and vines. Trimming may have been the actual intent of biblical law." The Mishnah requires that the trimmings be burnt (m. Orlah 3:9).
When and were is this to be done? The ancient rabbis provided a number of qualifications: if a tree is planted as a fence or for timber, it is exempt (m. Orlah 1:1); Rabbi Yose explained that "the side of the tree facing inwards [towards the field] is for food and subject, while the side facing outwards is a fence and exempt." The rabbis held that the rules applied as soon as the Israelites entered the Land (m. Orlah 1:2);Hirsch explains that the words, "When you enter the Land" (Vayikra 19:23), are a definition of time, not of place. The rabbis also taught that it applies to fruit trees planted by non-Jews and to wild trees (m. Orlah 1:2); in fact to any tree for which a planting time is known. The Talmudic Sages affirmed that these rules apply not only in the Land but outside it as well: "Rabbi Judah said, 'every precept which is a personal obligation is is practised both within and without the Land'" (b. Kiddushin 37a); Don Abravanel notes that, "This rule, being at least partly directed against idolatry, applies outside Israel as well; it is introduced here with 'when you enter the land' because at the time it was given they were in the desert, thirsting for fresh fruit." The command is operative in all places and at all times; it must always be done.
Levine comments that the uncircumcision/foreskin motif "usually connotes physical conditions that may have moral or religious ramifications." He connects this to Moshe's plea to the Israelites: "Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more" (D'varim 10:16, JPS), suggesting that this "prevents the heart from experiencing proper attitudes ... the metaphor is based on a real physical condition." Jeremiah picks up the same image when he cries out, "Circumcise yourselves to the L-RD; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest My wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds" (Jeremiah 4:4, ESV). Rather like thickening of the arteries, in which the walls of the arteries become thick and stiff because of too much cholesterol in the blood stream, needing surgery to cut it away or replace valves, when we allow too much fat from sin in our lives, our hearts become thick and hardened against the word of the L-rd, so that surgery is necessary to trim away the hardened material and bring back life.
We too have something to learn here as followers of Yeshua. Rav Sha'ul uses the same analogy in his letter to the Romans: "For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical" (Romans 2:28, ESV). Simply being physically circumcised but having no relationship with G-d, not keeping any of the commandments and having no connection with the Torah and the traditions of our people, does not make one a Jew. Sha'ul continues: "But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from G-d" (v. 29, ESV). If the inside doesn't match the outside, then the external circumcision or behaviour is of no value. Be aware that Sha'ul isn't commenting on whether Jews should be physically circumcised, or suggesting that Gentile believers in Messiah become Jews because the hearts are now circumcised. A Jew is a Jew and a Gentile is a Gentile, but a real relationship as either with G-d requires a 'trimmed' heart that is open to His word and His Spirit. This has to be done in all places and at all times.
How does this happen? Rav Sha'ul explains: "In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Messiah" (Colossians 2:11, ESV). Does it require open-heart surgery? Yes and no. This is not a physical procedure conducted in an operating theatre by a team of surgeons under general anaesthic who stop and then restart the beating of the heart. But it does have many remarkable similarities. The text goes on: "having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the powerful working of G-d, who raised Him from the dead" (v.12, ESV) - that sounds rather like the stop/start coming back to life again of physical surgery. And the next verse: "And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, G-d made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses" (v. 13, ESV). We were already dead - that is, spiritually dead and physically as good as dead since we were condemned because of our sin - but G-d restarted our real lives in Messiah by reconnecting us in relationship with Himself. He did this, "by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross" (v. 14, ESV); the thickening, the result of all that fat/sin in our hearts, was nailed to the cross with Yeshua, so that we might have a new lease of life. The impossible became possible: "G-d in the Messiah was reconciling mankind to himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19, CJB)!
Further Study: Jeremiah 1:6-10; Acts 7:51-53; Ephesians 2:11-13
Application: Have you been circumcised in your heart? Have you been prepared to set everything from the beginning of your life up until now aside for burning so that you may have a clean and pure harvest of good fruit for G-d? Whether Jew or Gentile, in Israel or the Diaspora, this must be done to have relationship with G-d!
© Jonathan Allen, 2015
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