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."
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.
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.
Our Sages explain that the prohibition to cut down fruit trees is not restricted to a time of war. 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. Since man is compared to a fruit tree, it is particularly harmful for a person to destroy a tree, for the act unleashes negative spiritual energies. In fact, the Talmud tells us that Shichvas, the son of Rabbi Chaninah, was severely punished for chopping down a fig tree.
(This prohibition does not apply to non-fruit trees; technically they may be destroyed even if there is no gain from doing so. The prohibition of bal tashchit merely requires that one not cut down such a tree in a wasteful manner; i.e., if the wood is valuable, it should be used and not simply discarded.)
One may not cut down a fruit tree...
- Even if it is young and not yet bearing fruit.
- Even if its fruits are worm infested.
- Even if its fruits are not edible on their own, but are instead used to produce a drink.
- Even if it is ownerless.
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.
One may cut down a fruit tree...
- If it has definitely aged to the extent that it is no longer yielding the amount of fruit that makes the labor for its maintenance worthwhile.
- If its wood is more valuable than the fruit that it produces.
- If it is damaging to surrounding trees.
- If one wants to build, and the tree is in the way. 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.
Some say that even when it is permissible to cut down a tree, it should still be avoided, but this is not the accepted opinion. 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.
Circumventing the Prohibition
- In cases when it is forbidden to cut down a tree, one may not hire a non-Jew to do so.
- 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.
- Nor is it permitted to intentionally cause a fruit tree to die by withholding irrigation.
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.