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An abridged guide on the laws of orlah: what is the prohibition of orlah, when it applies, which fruit are subject to the prohibition, and how it applies outside of the Land of Israel.
Under Jewish law, the prohibition of orlah is defined as a negative precept that precludes eating the fruit of trees within the first three years of planting them. The source of the mitzvah is Vayikra 19:23. However, these three years are calculated according to the New Year for the world, and not the New Year for fruit. That is, the tree’s first year is counted after waiting two weeks for the sapling to sprout roots and be absorbed into the soil, and another 30 days or more before Rosh Hashanah. The following Rosh Hashanah will be its second year, and so forth. In this way, two years and 44 days is sufficient for the tree to reach its third birthday by the third Rosh Hashanah.
Following this third Rosh Hashanah (into the “fourth” year), one must wait until the 15th of Shevat, Tu BeShevat. Every tree that has begun to blossom (chanata) before Tu BeShevat will still be considered orlah, and the fruit of this tree will be forbidden for consumption. However, the fruit of trees that blossom after this date are defined as neta revay, plantings of the fourth year. The fruit of fourth year and the beginning of the fifth year are considered neta revay, and their sanctity must be transferred to a coin (similar to ma’aser sheni) before they can be eaten. The fruit of any tree that blossoms after the Tu BeShevat of the fifth year will be permitted to eat as is (after taking teruma and ma’asser).
There are Hebrew linguists who explain that anything unnecessary that conceals beneath it something necessary is called “orlah.”
Applications of the Prohibition
The prohibition of orlah applies only to the actual fruit of fruit trees, not to the parts of these trees that are not fit for consumption. For the first three years, these fruit are completely forbidden and it is prohibited to derive any benefit from them. There are types of fruit that will never have the status of orlah: date trees, for example, never bear fruit in their first three years.
According to our Sages, the prohibition of orlah is so severe that even a garment colored with orlah fruit peels must be burned, since it is utterly forbidden to derive any benefit from these forbidden fruit.
Outside of Israel
While orlah is considered one of the mitzvot associated with the Land of Israel, in contrast to other mitzvot of this sort, this prohibition also applies outside of Israel (with several leniencies). The source for orlah applying outside of Israel is a halacha leMoshe MeSinai.
According to the Mishna, only in cases where orlah status is in doubt outside of the Land of Israel can a Jew derive benefit from these fruit; and only on the condition that one did not actually witness orlah fruit harvested from the trees. That is, only definite orlah is prohibited outside of the Land of Israel, but when there is even the slightest doubt that the fruit might not be orlah, we are lenient and consider it to be a permitted fruit. Note that orlah fruit that grew in the Land of Israel retains its forbidden status even if exported abroad.