The Quality of the Fruits of Eretz Yisrael
"ואלו דברים מתעשרין דמאי בכל מקום, הדבילה, והתמרים, והחרובים, האורז, והכמון, האורז שבחוצה לארץ כל המשתמש ממנו פטור"
“The following things must be tithed as demai in all places: pressed figs, dates, carobs, rice and cumin. As to rice from outside the Land, whoever uses it is exempt from tithing it.”
[Mishna Demai 2:1]
The Mishna deals with the requirement to separate tithes (ma’asrot) from “doubtful” produce. Chazal (Our Sages) instituted the requirement to separate tithes when one bought or received produce from an “am ha’aretz,” one who is suspected of not having separated terumah and tithes. This obligation is known as “ma’aser demai.” Our Mishna teaches that there are types of produce which require ma’aser demai even outside the Land. The reason is that the produce listed in the Mishna, when grown in Eretz Yisrael, has unique beauty and quality, and had they been grown outside the Land, they would be noticeably different in appearance and in quality.
The Jerusalem Talmud [Demai 2:1] notes that the produce mentioned can be grown outside Eretz Yisrael as well and offers a detailed explanation of the unique aspects of appearance and quality for each of the items listed in the Mishna of that which was grown in Israel. For example, the Talmud says that the carobs of Israel are straight and symmetrical, giving them a beautiful appearance; and rice grown in Israel is unusually white and of great quality.
Today, the difference in quality and appearance of the produce of Eretz Yisrael versus that grown outside her is not evident. It is certainly true that the Land produces bountiful fruit, and “there is no more manifest sign of the impending redemption” [Gemara Sanhedrin 98a], but where is the uniqueness referred to by the Mishna?
Beyond this, the Gemara Sota 34a relates that the cluster of grapes brought back to the Israelite camp by Moshe’ spies was so large it had to be carried by eight of them; such was the size of fruit at that time. Presumably, during the period of the Mishna, fruit was not that gigantic, and today we see no reminder of this. Why are we not privileged to see this uniqueness in the produce of Eretz Yisrael?
The Quality of the Fruits of Eretz Yisrael
The Jerusalem Talmud [Pe’ah 7:3] relates a story which is directly connected to our question. Rabbi Abahu, Yossi ben Ḥanina and Shimon ben Lakish, walked through an orchard called “Doron” (gift) and the sharecropper gave them a peach, from which the three Sages and their donkeys ate, yet the peach was not completely eaten. The Sages estimated the size of the peach to be equal to a se’ah (approximately 1.7 liters in volume), the size of a cooking pot in Kfar Ḥananya (later we will deal with the comparison to the cooking pot of Kfar Ḥananya). Sometime later, the Sages returned to the orchard and the sharecropper brought them two or three peaches which he held in his hand. The Sages said to the sharecropper “We wish to eat the fruit of the same tree from which we ate previously; we want the giant peach which you brought us then.” The sharecropper responded that the peaches were indeed from the same tree. The sages then recited the verse “A fruitful land into a salty waste, because of the evil of its inhabitants.” [Tehillim (Psalms) 107:34] The meaning of the verse is that land which should produce excellent fruit has been turned into a salty waste, which cannot yield produce, the reason being “because of the evil of its inhabitants.” The Gemara phrases the point “because of their sins, the fruit has been cursed,” that is, because of our sins the fruit of the Land has been cursed and lost its unique quality.
Rabbi David ben Shimon (1826-79) in his sefer Sha’ar haḤatzer, writes at length about the fruit of the Land and its praise. In citing the story related by the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Ben Shimon explains the Sages’ comparison of the peach’s size to the cooking pot of Kfar Ḥananya. The Sages wanted to remember the impressive fruit and its contrast to ordinary fruit as an expression of the effects of sin. By making the connection to the cooking pot, every time they saw the cooking pot, they would be reminded of their experience with the unusual fruit and be motivated to repent.
The Quality of the Land’s Fruit Reflects the Spiritual Status of the Nation of Israel and of the World in General
Rabbi Ben Shimon explains that, as the fruits reflect, there is a connection between the quality of the fruit of Eretz Yisrael and our spiritual level. When we sin, we prevent manifestation of Divine abundance in the Land. Eretz Yisrael is the source of blessing for the entire world, therefore, when the Divine abundance is not manifest in the Land, all lands are effected, as Chazal taught “From the day the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) was destroyed, flavor departed from the fruit” [Mishna Sota 9:12], from the fruit of the entire world.
The Nation and the Land of Israel are a single entity, as Rabbi Kook z”tl explains in Orot Eretz Yisrael, including the physical - tangible level. When Am Yisrael sins, the Land, which is an inherent part of the nation is affected.
Rabbi Ben Shimon quotes another wonderful comment of the Jerusalem Talmud [Yoma 4]: King Solomon decorated the Temple with pictures (or sculptures) of a variety of trees, and miraculously, when trees produced fruit, Solomon’s representations of those trees produced fruit as well. When the evil King Menashe set up an idol in the Beit HaMikdash, the representations of trees which Solomon had made dried out. Why did Solomon create representations of trees in the Beit HaMikdash? What is the symbolism? Solomon’s “trees” represented the idea that it is through the service in the Beit HaMikdash, service of God, that trees throughout the world produce their fruit. The source of abundance in the world is Eretz Yisrael, and the source within the Land is the Beit HaMikdash, which is the focal point of everything and the source from which everything emanates. The Beit HaMikdash within the Land and the Land within the world are as the heart within a body; as the heart pumps blood and the life force throughout the body, so the Beit HaMikdash and Eretz Yisrael bring abundance to the world.
Rabbi Ben Shimon notes that everything began with Adam, as a result of his sin abundance was prevented from descending to the world and the flavor of fruit was diminished. God commanded that the Beit HaMikdash be built in Eretz Yisrael, from which blessing and abundance will be returned to the world through the service of High Priest, who is without blemish, as was Adam before he sinned.
Throughout Israel’s exile, Eretz Yisrael remained desolate. Chazal elucidate the posuk "וַהֲשִׁמֹּתִי אֲנִי אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְשָׁמְמוּ עָלֶיהָ אֹיְבֵיכֶם הַיֹּשְׁבִים בָּהּ" (“I will make the Land desolate, so that it will become desolate [also] of your enemies who live in it …”) [Vayikra (Leviticus) 26:32] to be a blessing: “Your enemies will not find contentment within the Land” [Torat Kohanim 6:8]. Today, we are privileged to see the Land blooming, with Eretz Yisrael producing fruit abundantly, which is the most manifest sign of the impending redemption. [Gemara Sanhedrin 98a, cited above] This fact indicates the lofty spiritual level reached by Am Yisrael, which, with God’s help, will influence the entire world.
However, we have not yet merited the abundance described by Chazal in connection with the fruit of the Land, because we are still engaged in the process of the Am Yisrael’s devotion to Eretz Yisrael and its elevation within her, on the spiritual and material levels. At the culmination of this process, the Beit HaMikdash will be rebuilt and we will merit the abundance of days past which Chazal describe.
Eretz Yisrael is the Land which flows milk and honey, whose fruit is not comparable to the fruit of any other land; she is the source of blessing and abundance for all lands, and materially she is the most blessed land on earth. However, as a result of our sins, the flavor of fruit has departed. The connection between Am Yisrael and its Land is that of a single body, a unitary entity. Our sins prevent the full expression of Divine abundance within the Land, and necessarily, within the entire world. We are now privileged to see the footsteps of the impending redemption and the return of blessings to Eretz Yisrael, which indicate the spiritual and material elevation of the nation within the Land.
By virtue of our devotion to Eretz Yisrael and to Torah, we will be privileged to see the blessings and abundance which Chazal described.
With God’s help, through sanctifying our actions and improving our ways, we will be privileged to see the Land at the peak of her beauty and glory, with the rebuilding of the Temple, speedily in our days. Amen.
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