Maaser Sheni, Chapter Five, Mishnah One
The final chapter of Maaser Sheni deals with vineyards and other fruit-bearing trees which are in their fourth year. This topic is addressed in Leviticus 19:23-24:
When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the LORD; and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit — that its yield to you may be increased: I the LORD am your God.
While the Torah mentions only the vineyard, the rabbis extended this law to include all fruit-bearing trees. Thus during the first three years of a trees growth one cannot eat the produce. This is called orlah and there is an entire tractate dedicated to the subject. During the fourth year the fruits are holy and they must be brought to Jerusalem and eaten there, or redeemed, like maaser sheni, and the money is brought to Jerusalem and used there to buy food.
Our mishnah deals with the topic of how they would mark a vineyard to let people know that it was in its fourth year.
1) A vineyard in its fourth year, they mark it with clods of earth, and of orlah with potter’s clay, and graves with lime which is dissolved and poured on.
2) Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel said: When does this apply? In the seventh year.
3) The conscientious used to put down money and say: any fruit gathered from this vineyard may be exchanged for this money.
Section one: In order to let people know that various vineyards or orchards were prohibited, they would mark them off in different ways. They would mark off fourth-year vineyards and orchards with special clods of earth. If the vineyard or orchard was of orlahtrees from their first three yearsthen they would mark it off with potters clay. Finally, the mishnah notes that in order to let priests know where graves were located, they would mark them off with lime.
Section two: Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel says that they didnt always mark off fourth-year and orlah vineyards and orchards, only during the seventh year. During the seventh year all produce is considered ownerless and anyone can enter a field and eat from the trees. To let people know that this produce was prohibited because it was in its first four years of growth they would mark it off. But during other years, one is not allowed to enter into another persons field and eat from the trees. One who does so is a thief. According to Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel we dont need to take special actions to prevent thieves from eating prohibited food. On the contrary, we allow the thief to transgress another transgression as well, in the hope that he will receive his just punishment. This is, in my opinion, a radical, but interesting concept. Do we try to prevent people who are committing moral crimes (thievery) from also committing ritual crimes, such as eating prohibited food? Or do we hold back and watch them sin even more?
Section three: Those who conscientiously observed the commandments would not abide by Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliels principal. Rather, they would go even a step further and set aside money that would be redeemed for any fruit that was picked from the tree/vineyard during its fourth year. When a person would enter the field, without the owners permission or knowledge, and he would steal some fruit from the tree, the sanctity of the fruit would automatically transfer to the money. This would prevent the thief from committing the additional sin of eating produce during its fourth year. We can see here that the conscientious refer to a group of people who were willing to spend their own money to make sure that others didnt unwittingly transgress.