The Torah in Parashat Kedoshim introduces the mitzva of neta revai, which applies to fruits produced by a tree on the fourth year since its planting. After the three-year period during which the fruit is forbidden for consumption (orla), the fruit during the tree’s fourth year is declared “kodesh hilulim le-Hashem” (“sacred for praise to the Lord” – 19:24). The commentaries (see Rashi, Rashbam) explain that the produce during the fourth year is considered sacred the same way the annual ma’aser sheni tithe is considered sacred – in that it must be brought to Jerusalem and eaten there. The produce is called “kodesh hilulim le-Hashem” because its consumption in Jerusalem is to be accompanied by joyous songs of praise to God.
The Gemara in Masekhet Berakhot (35a) cites this verse and considers interpreting it as a Biblical source for the requirement of berakha rishona – the recitation of a blessing before eating. The expression “kodesh hilulim,” according to this proposed reading, refers to the words of praise that must be expressed before partaking of the neta revai, thus establishing the general obligation to recite a blessing before partaking of food. The Gemara ultimately rejects this theory, concluding that the requirement of berakha rishona was enacted by Chazal, and in truth is not derived from this verse.
The question arises, according to the Gemara’s proposition that the phrase “kodesh hilulim” constitutes the source of the berakha rishona obligation, why would the Torah introduce this obligation specifically in the context of neta revai? At the stage when the Gemara viewed this obligation as a Torah requirement, why did it think that the Torah would introduce this mitzva in reference to neta revai, rather than present it as a generic command, applicable to all foods?
Rav Yosef Salant, in his Be’er Yosef, suggests an explanation based on the halakhic status of neta revai. As mentioned, neta revai has the same status as ma’aser sheni, the classification of which is subject to a debate among the Tanna’im. Rabbi Meir (Kiddushin 52b-53a) maintains that ma’aser sheni is considered sacred property, and not the legal property of the owner. Although he may eat the produce, he is not, from a technical, legal standpoint, the owner, as it has been consecrated and thus belongs to the Almighty. This has several legal implications, such as the inability to use the produce to betroth a woman, or to use an etrog of ma’aser sheni for the mitzva of the four species on Sukkot, as one may use only species which he legally owns. Although other Tanna’im disagree, the Rambam codifies this view of Rabbi Meir (Hilkhot Ma’aser Sheni 3:17), and he writes later (9:1) that neta revai has the same status as ma’aser sheni. It emerges, then, that when one eats his neta revai, he is, in essence, partaking of God’s food, so-to-speak. God allows – and even commands – him to partake of this food, but it does not belong to him.
On this basis, Rav Salant suggests, we can perhaps understand more clearly the Gemara’s proposed theory that the phrase “kodesh hilulim le-Hashem” forms the Biblical source of the requirement to recite a berakha before eating. The purpose of this berakha, as the Gemara there in Berakhot explains, is for a person to “take possession” of his food. The Gemara demonstrates based on sources in Tanakh that all food on earth belongs to the Almighty, and it is only by reciting a berakha that one earns rights over the food he wishes to eat. Accordingly, when the Gemara considered the possibility that berakha rishona constitutes a Biblical requirement, it cited a source specifically from the context of neta revai, food which does not become one’s possession even after reciting a berakha. This produce remains God’s property, as it were, even after one recites a blessing, yet God wants the individual to partake of it. As such, we might have assumed that one does not recite a berakha rishona over this produce, since the entire purpose of a berakha is to bring the food one wishes to eat under his possession – something that cannot happen when eating neta revai. And so the Torah – according to the Gemara’s hypothesis, which was ultimately dismissed – chose to introduce the berakha rishona requirement in this context, to clarify that one must recite a berakha even over hallowed produce which remains in God’s possession after the berakha is recited.