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Cutting Down Fruit Trees

Cutting Down Fruit Trees

Parshat Shoftim

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The twentieth chapter of Deuteronomy contains many of the laws of warfare. One of them involves the cutting down of fruit trees:

"When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Is the tree of the field a man, to go into the siege before you? However, a tree you know is not a food tree, you may destroy and cut down, and you shall build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you, until its submission."1

Our Sages explain this to mean that when it is not necessary to cut down fruit trees for the war effort – it is possible to build bulwarks from non-fruit-bearing trees – it is prohibited to cut them down. In this case, the only purpose of chopping down the fruit trees would be to scare the enemy and take vengeance upon them, and therefore it is not proper.2

In instances, however, when cutting down fruit trees is critical to the war effort – for example, the other trees do not provide enough wood to build the necessary war machines, or the enemy is hiding in the fruit trees or subsisting on the fruit, thus prolonging the siege – it is permissible to chop them down.3

Our Sages explain that the prohibition to cut down fruit trees is not restricted to a time of war.4 And it also includes the destruction of any object which is of benefit to mankind. This prohibition is referred to as bal tashchit.

Nevertheless, the prohibition of cutting down fruit trees is stricter than the prohibition of destroying other objects of value.5 Since man is compared to a fruit tree,6 it is particularly harmful for a person to destroy a tree, for the act unleashes negative spiritual energies.7 In fact, the Talmud tells us that Shichvas, the son of Rabbi Chaninah, was severely punished for chopping down a fig tree. 8

(This prohibition does not apply to non-fruit trees; technically they may be destroyed even if there is no gain from doing so.9 The prohibition of bal tashchit merely requires that one not cut down such a tree in a wasteful manner;10 i.e., if the wood is valuable, it should be used and not simply discarded.11)

The Details

One may not cut down a fruit tree...

  1. Even if it is young and not yet bearing fruit.
  2. Even if its fruits are worm infested.12
  3. Even if its fruits are not edible on their own, but are instead used to produce a drink.13
  4. Even if it is ownerless.14

It is also forbidden to cut off the branches of a fruit tree, unless there is good reason to do so, e. g., they are blocking the sun from one's window.15

One may cut down a fruit tree...

  1. If it has definitely16 aged to the extent that it is no longer yielding the amount of fruit that makes the labor for its maintenance worthwhile.17
  2. If its wood is more valuable than the fruit that it produces.18
  3. If it is damaging to surrounding trees.19
  4. If one wants to build,20 and the tree is in the way.21 Nevertheless, even in such an instance some authorities do not allow the tree to be chopped down, but only to be uprooted and replanted elsewhere in such a way that it would definitely take root there.22

Some say that even when it is permissible to cut down a tree, it should still be avoided,23 but this is not the accepted opinion.24 If, however, one wishes to be strict, he may ask a non-Jew do the cutting or even sell the tree to a non-Jew before having it cut.25

Circumventing the Prohibition

  1. In cases when it is forbidden to cut down a tree, one may not hire a non-Jew to do so.26
  2. One may not sell a tree (or land) to a non-Jew, arrange for the non-Jew to cut the tree down, and then buy it back.27
  3. Nor is it permitted to intentionally cause a fruit tree to die by withholding irrigation.28

In conclusion, it should be noted that there are many differing opinions regarding these complex laws, and, as mentioned above, not complying with this prohibition can be harmful. It is therefore advisable to consult with a competent rabbi before cutting down any fruit tree.

FOOTNOTES
1.

Deut. 20:19-20.

2.

There were historical instances when G‑d specifically commanded that fruit trees be destroyed in war. When the Jews went to war with the Midianites (Numbers 31), they destroyed the Midianite territory and cut down the fruit trees (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:6). Similarly, when the Jews made war against Moab, the prophet Elisha told the Jewish kings: "And you shall strike every fortified city and every choice city, and you shall fell every good tree, and you shall stop up all springs of water, and you shall clutter every good field with stones" (II Kings 3:19).
This was for a specific reason each time and not simply for the purpose of destruction.

3.

Rashbam and Nachmanides on the verses ibid., based on the Talmud, Bava Kamma 91b. But see Minchat Chinuch on the sixth mitzvah added by Nachmanides, that according to Maimonides (Laws of Kings 6:8-9), even this is forbidden.

4.

Maimonides, Laws of Kings 6:8-9.

5.

See Maimonides, ibid., that one receives proper lashes for destroying a fruit tree, whereas for other acts of destruction one only receives lashes for transgressing a rabbinic law.

6.

See Talmud, Taanit 7a. (This is derived from the wording of the verse, "Is the tree of the field a man?", which literally translates as, "For the tree of the field is a man.")

7.

Ha'amek Davar on this verse.

8.

Bava Kamma 91b.

9.

Alter Rebbe's Shulchan Aruch, Laws of Guarding the Body & Soul & Not Destroying s. 15.

10.

Considering that in certain cases chopping down trees – even non-fruit-bearing ones – can be harmful to the environment, it can be argued that doing so would also fall under the umbrella prohibition against being wantonly wasteful.

11.

See Imrei Yaakov ibid., biurim on "Ilan Serak."

12.

Darkei Teshuvah, ibid.

13.

Ibid.

14.

Alter Rebbe's Shulchan Aruch, ibid.

15.

Darkei Teshuvah, ibid.

16.

See Ha'amek Davar on the verse.

17.

Maimonides, ibid. – see there for the specific amounts.

18.

Talmud, Bava Kamma; and Maimonides ibid.

19.

Ibid. based on Bava Kamma ibid.

20.

Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (in Yabi'a Omer vol. 5, Yoreh De'ah no. 12) permits cutting down a tree in order to expand one's living quarters, but not for non-essential expansion.

21.

Taz on Yoreh De'ach 116 s.k. 6; Alter Rebbe's Shulchan Aruch, ibid.

22.

Responsa of Chatam Sofer Yoreh De'ah No. 102.

23.

She'ilat Ya'avetz vol. 1 no. 76.

24.

See Alter Rebbe's Shulchan Aruch, ibid.

25.

Imrei Yaakov on Alter Rebbe's Shulchan Aruch, ibid.

26.

Darkei Teshuvah, ibid.

27.

Ibid.

28.

Maimonides, ibid.

Rabbi Aryeh Citron was educated in Chabad yeshivahs in Los Angeles, New York, Israel and Australia. He was the Rosh Kollel of The Shul of Bal Harbour, Florida, and is now an adult Torah teacher in Surfside, Florida. He teaches classes on Talmud, Chassidism, Jewish history and contemporary Jewish law.
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Discussion (2)
April 27, 2014
Cutting tree before purchase
This is an interesting question.
Generally, one may not ask a non-Jew to do something that one may not do themselves.
So to explicitly ask would be forbidden.
It would seem, however, that one would be allowed to hint and say something like "It would be helpful if that tree could be uprooted so that I could build there."
I am not giving a practical ruling as I have not researched this thouroughly so please consult further before implementation.
Aryeh Citron
Surfside, Fl
April 27, 2014
Cutting Tree before sale
Can a non-Jewish home owner cut down a fruit bearing tree in order to facilitate the sale to a Jewish buyer (ie., the fruit bearing tree stands where the buyer would like to install a pool)?
Anonymous
Florida