Scientific Experimentation on Trees

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by R. Gil Student

In their first three years, trees produce fruit that are orlah, which we are forbidden to eat or derive any benefit from them. We exhibit the important trait of patience in order to give the tree time to grow and strengthen, delaying our own gratification until after the tree is ready and we have thanked God properly for the fruit. While we may not eat or derive any benefit from orlah, can we learn from it?

The definition of a “benefit” here is key. In order to determine where and how to plant trees in the most effective way, agricultural scientists examine fruit in a lab environment. They measure and weigh the fruit, slice it and examine it under a microscope. With the information learned from these examinations, scientists can help farmers maximize the use of land in order to produce fruit. Having to wait over three years to learn about the relative effectiveness of tree planting strategies can delay successful food production and incur significant costs that might prove prohibitive. Rav Ya’akov Ariel (cont., Israel) discusses this question in a responsum (Be-Ohalah Shel Torah, vol. 4, no. 35).

I. Abnormal Enjoying

There is a general rule that you are only punished for deriving benefit from something forbidden if you do so in the usual manner, derekh hana’asan (Pesachim 24a). The Gemara explicitly applies that to orlah fruit, saying that you are only punished if you enjoy the fruit in the normal way. The usual manner to benefit from fruit is eating it. Scientific experimentation constitutes benefit in an unusual manner.

However, Rishonim debate whether such benefit is permissible or merely forbidden but unpunished. Rav Moshe Isserles (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 155:3) rules that when something is forbidden to benefit (assur be-hana’ah), it is only permissible to derive benefit from it in an unusual manner for someone who is mildly sick. Otherwise, such benefit remains forbidden. Shakh (ad loc., 13) states this explicitly. Therefore, while there is a need to conduct scientific experimentation on orlah fruits, it cannot be permitted merely because the benefit is in an unusual manner.

II. Seeing Is Not Enjoying

Another avenue to explore is whether examining a fruit constitutes benefit at all. The Gemara (Pesachim 26a) says that artisans who were sent into the Holy of Holies in the Temple, the Kodesh Kodashim, would be sent into the area within enclosed containers so they would only focus on their specific renovation work and not look around and enjoy the sight of the holy space. The Gemara challenges this with a saying that “sound, sight and smell are not violations of me’ilah,” i.e. do not constitute forbidden benefit. The Gemara answers that this is the general rule but we are stricter when it comes to the Holy of Holies. The implication of this passage is that sight, just looking at an orlah fruit or any consecrated object, is permissible.

However, another Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 28a) initially forbids blowing a shofar from an animal consecrated to a sacrifice. The Gemara concludes that it is permissible because mitzvos are not intended for benefit. Otherwise, blowing a consecrated shofar would be forbidden. This seems to contradict the previous passage which says that sound, sight and smell are not forbidden benefits.

Rav Moshe Ibn Chabib (17th cen., Israel; Yom Teru’ah 28b s.v. hadar amar Rava) distinguishes between an active and passive benefit. If you merely look at, hear or smell something whose benefit is forbidden, you have not done anything. That does not constitute benefit. However, if you take a shofar and blow it, you have actively heard the forbidden item and that itself is forbidden. Rav Ariel applies this to the case of scientific experimentation. The scientists do not merely look at an orlah fruit. They weigh it, measure it and subject it to other tests. This active way of seeing the fruit is forbidden.

III. Fruit Autopsies

Rav Ariel quotes Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (20th cen., Israel) who was asked whether a doctor can learn from a corpse that had undergone an autopsy (Responsa Har Tzvi, Yoreh De’ah, no. 278 and addendum). On the one hand, it is forbidden to conduct an autopsy in most circumstances and, more generally, it is forbidden to derive benefit from a corpse. On the other hand, Rav Frank argues, learning information from observation does not constitute deriving a benefit. He quotes Ritva (Sukkah 32b s.v. ve-ha’amar Rava) who says that only benefit from the actual substance of the item is forbidden. He explains that this is why it is permissible to perform mitzvos with an item from which it is forbidden to derive benefit even though you obtain divine reward from those mitzvos. The divine reward is a benefit but it does not come from the actual substance of the item. Similarly, a brother of a deceased husband may perform the chalitzah ceremony with a sandal from which benefit is forbidden even though the ceremony permits the wife to remarry. That benefit is not from the actual substance of the sandal and therefore is allowed.

Rav Frank argues that examining body parts from an autopsy also does not constitute deriving benefit from the substance of the forbidden item. Therefore, it is allowed. Similarly, Rav Ariel argues that deriving scientific information from an orlah does not constitute a forbidden benefit. Even though the scientific experiment involves active use of the forbidden fruit, the benefit does not come from the fruit’s substance but rather from the information.

In fact, the scientists themselves do not really benefit from the experimentation. Those who grow the fruits also do not see a benefit. The benefit really arises once the results from multiple experiments are combined to reach a conclusion and new trees are planted in the optimal way. That benefit could be years in the future through knowledge gained in multiple ways from different sources. Therefore, concludes Rav Ariel, with a bit of discussion about combined results (zeh ve-zeh gorem), it is permissible to conduct these types of scientific experiments on orlah fruit.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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