Leviticus 19:23-25 prescribes what we are to do with newly planted fruit trees. This law, which is still valid today, states:
“When you come into the land, and HAVE PLANTED all kinds of trees for food, then you shall count their fruit as uncircumcised (or: unclean). Three years it shall be as uncircumcised to you. It shall not be eaten. But in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy, a praise to the LORD. And in the fifth year you may eat its fruit, that it may yield to you its increase: I am the LORD your God.”
These verses prohibit the consumption of fruit from a NEWLY PLANTED fruit tree for the first three years. The Ryrie Study Bible explains: “When they came to Canaan, they were not to eat fruit from the [newly planted] fruit trees [for a certain number of years].” To abstain from eating the fruit from the newly planted fruit trees for the first three years allows the trees to become established, and what little fruit may be produced during the first three years of a new tree, should be allowed to fall to the ground and to serve as manure or fertilizer. The passage refers to the AGE of the tree — not to the number of years it has borne fruit. We are to begin counting, when the tree is planted or rooted, or when it comes up.
In the fourth year, the fruit is to be used to praise God. In ancient times, the fruits were given to the Levites, together with the tithe. Today, the fruit could be given to the minister, or the equivalent of the wholesale value of the fruit — in the fourth year — should be sent to the Church. (In that case, the individual is of course permitted to eat the fruit during the fourth year). In the fifth year, and all following years, the fruit belongs to the individual — but the individual is of course still obligated to tithe on the increase.
This law only refers to newly planted fruit trees that bear fruit. It does not refer to existing fruit trees, which are older than three or four years. This means, if one plants a three-year old fruit tree, one does not start counting that year as year #1. Rather, it is already year #3. Further, this law does not refer to shrubs, bushes, grapefruits, or olive trees. Those “trees” are described in the Bible as field crops, as they have a different production cycle.
The distinction is shown in the law of gleaning (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 24:19-22). It is also shown in the law of the Sabbath rest (Leviticus 25:3-5; Exodus 23:10-11). Notice carefully that the law of gleaning and the Sabbath rest does NOT refer to fruit trees.
Although some have forgotten this important distinction, it is clearly revealed in Scripture, and it has been the long-standing teaching of the Church.
For further information, how to apply the law of the Sabbath rest today, please read our Q&A on Leviticus 25:1-7, in our Update # 72 (dated December 20, 2002).
A related question was recently asked of us — whether it is within the Biblical injunctions to mow down the hay on our land and to let it lie for green manure, during the Sabbath year. The person asking the question was wondering whether this might violate the principle not to prune our trees for the purpose of producing a better harvest.
Leviticus 25:3-4 instructs us not to sow our field, nor to prune our vineyard during the Sabbath year. (Again, this passage does not refer to fruit trees.) We are also told, in verses 7 and 8, that the Sabbath produce of the land shall be food for us and our livestock and other beasts during the Sabbath year.
While we must replace grain when we mow it down, this is not the case with hay, as hay will grow back the next year. Whether hay is mowed or not, it goes back “as manure” into the ground in either case. To mow hay and let it lie on the ground is not the same as pruning our vineyard (note the distinction in Scripture) and does therefore not fall under that same kind of prohibition.