Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
With Rosh Hashanah upon us, Jewish retailers stock new fruits for us to enjoy. An interesting halacha related to fruits, one to which we don’t give much thought to, is orlah. The Gemara (Kiddushin 39) states that the mitzvah of orlah applies in the Diaspora. One may not benefit from the fruit produced in the first three years of a tree’s life. (The determination of what is considered three years is beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, it is usually shorter than three calendar years.) This halacha is not usually relevant to common fruit trees. Most fruit trees take considerably longer than three years to produce fruit. However, the Torah’s definition of “eitz,” a tree, to which orlah applies does not conform to the English definition. The bracha of ha’eitz is recited before eating blueberries even though they most certainly do not grow on trees. They grow on shrubs or bushes. Kiwis and grapes do not grow on trees or shrubs, yet ha’eitz is still recited on them as well. Their vines live for multiple years while producing fruit. Therefore, they are halachically categorized as eitzim. In fact, one may recite Birkas Ha’ilanos on a flowering blueberry bush. This halacha might make you so excited that you head to your local garden center to buy some shrubs. Almost all garden centers have blueberry plants. Lowe’s sells some specimens in a box. What is most interesting is a little fact printed on the back of the package, stating that it is a one-year plant. Blueberry bushes may flower and produce fruit in their second year. However, these fruit would be orlah. It is interesting to note that professional gardeners suggest that one should not allow a blueberry bush to produce fruit in its second year, as it may weaken the plant. It is best for the shrub if it uses all its energy on its leaves and roots the second year.
A pomegranate grower noted that pomegranate shrubs may also flower and produce fruit in their second year. That fruit would likewise be orlah. The Gemara offers a creative way to partially circumvent the prohibition of orlah in the Diaspora. However, the Gemara implies that one should not publicize the technique the Amoraim employed. The Aruch HaShulchan writes that it is for this very reason that the method they used is not mentioned in Shulchan Aruch. (And won’t be mentioned in this article either.) It is a technique that is easily misunderstood and therefore may be misused. Nevertheless, the Aruch HaShulchan writes that if one is aware of the technique and understands it, he may indeed use it. However, even for those who fully understand the trick, the Chasam Sofer writes that one cannot use the trick on his own produce, rather only on his friend’s. So one who has orlah would have to find someone knowledgeable in the technique and ask him to employ it. In the final analysis, according to the Chasam Sofer, the technique stops a person from benefiting from his own orlah, so its usefulness is limited. The Gemara also says that the prohibition of kilayim of trees applies in chutz la’Aretz. In our times, there has been an explosion of varieties of fruits related to crosses of plums and apricots. Some names for these fruits are aprium, apriplum, pluot, and plumcot. Just as there are many varieties of apples–such as Gala, Fuji, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, and Honeycrisp– there is more than one type of plumcot or pluot. There are over 30 named varieties of these “recent” fruits. It is a common misconception that these fruits were produced by techniques that would be forbidden to Jews. This is totally not the case. The prohibition against grafting trees applies when one inserts a branch of one tree onto another tree. For example, the commercial nursery Trees of Antiquity is currently selling an almond tree grafted onto peach roots. According to some Rishonim, one would not be allowed to grow that tree even if he purchased it already grafted. Another little-known fact is that virtually all fruit trees available for purchase or grown commercially are grafted.
When one grows a fruit tree by seed, one cannot be sure of the exact characteristics of the fruit that will grow from the resulting tree. The seed of a Gala apple tree will grow an apple, but it won’t be exactly the same as a Gala. It may be very different. The only way to ensure that a tree produces the exact fruit one desires is by grafting. There are multiple methods of grafting. One involves taking a branch of a tree that has fruit that one desires and inserting it into another tree. In my limited research, it appears that apple trees are generally grafted onto apple rootstocks. However, other trees are not as limited. The Lovell peach rootstock may be host to almond, apricot, nectarine, peach, and plum trees. Amazon sells a fruit cocktail tree that grows apricots, peaches, and nectarines on one tree. Once again, according to some Rishonim, one may not water or fertilize that tree even though it was purchased already grafted. Still, one would be permitted to eat the fruits of the tree that were already grown. If this were not the case, one would not be able to buy plums from the market, because one can’t be sure the nature of the grafted trees they are from. The hybrid fruits mentioned earlier, such as apriums, pluots, and plumcots, are produced by cross-pollination. For example, one may pollinate a bloom of a plum tree with pollen taken from an apricot tree. When the plum produced from that hand-pollinated bloom is ripe, one would plant the plum seed found inside and, years later, see what type of fruit it produces. The fruit will be some sort of cross between a plum and an apricot. If it tastes good, the new cultivar will be given its own name. To produce that new hybrid fruit commercially, branches or buds from that tree will be grafted onto other plum or apricot trees. This last step involves the Torah prohibition of grafting. The initial steps of cross-pollination are a long but permissible process not related to the prohibition against tree-grafting.
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.