Before we can answer why a banana is considered a “vegetable,” we first must define a tree according to Jewish law. The definition of a tree is not just a botanical or lexical question; it is a fundamental part of Jewish observance, affecting the blessings that we make every day on foods. Before eating a fruit that grew from a tree, we recite the blessing of Baruch Atah . . . borei peri ha'etz, “Blessed are You . . . who created the fruit of the tree.” And before eating a fruit that grew from the ground (often colloquially referred to as a vegetable), we recite, Baruch Atah . . . borei peri ha'adamah, “Blessed are You . . . who created the fruit of the ground.”

Additionally, there are laws that apply specifically to trees, such as the prohibition of eating the fruit of a tree in its first three years (orlah), as well as a special prohibition of cutting down a fruit tree.

What Is a Tree?

Talmud defines it as such: if when you remove the fruit, the gavza remains and produces more fruit, then it is a tree and the blessing on the fruit is borei peri ha’etz. If, however, the gavza does not remain, the blessing is borei pri ha’adamah.

What exactly is this gavza, this element that needs to remain from year to year for the plant to be considered a tree?

According to Rabbeinu Asher (the Rosh) and Tosafot,1 this refers to the roots. Thus, the blessing for any perennial (i.e., plant whose roots remain from year to year) would be borei pri ha’etz. If it is an annual (i.e., it needs to be replanted every year), then the blessing is borei pri ha’adamah.

The Geonim, however, hold that the gavza is the central stem or trunk. Thus, it is not enough for the plant to be a perennial; the trunk itself needs to last from year to year.2

A third opinion is that the branches, too, must remain from year to year.3

In general, the halachah follows the opinion of the Geonim, and a tree is defined by a central stem or trunk that stays from year to year.4 However, there are additional factors and definitions that at times come into play. Let’s explore these issues as we discuss a number of common fruits whose blessings may not be so straightforward.

While We're on the Subject...

Banana

Let’s begin with the banana. On the one hand, the banana plant is a perennial. On the other hand, almost the entire structure that is above ground dies and regrows each year. If the definition of a tree is a plant whose central stem stays from year to year, the proper blessing on a banana would be borei pri ha’adamah, and this is the established halachah.5

However, according to the opinion of Rabbeinu Asher cited above, the proper blessing on a banana would actually be borei pri ha’eitz.

(Thus, if one plans on also eating other fruits and vegetables, it is suggested that he first make the ha’etz blessing over a bona fide tree-fruit and then a ha’adamah on a confirmed vegetable—covering all bases, since the banana would be included in either of those blessings.

Additionally, if one accidentally made a ha’etz blessing over a banana, he need not recite a new blessing.6 )

Papaya

Unlike a banana, the papaya tree remains intact all year round. However, after its fruits are removed, it grows taller, and the following year it produces fruit only from its new growth. After four or five years, the tree collapses and must be replanted. At first glance, it would seem that the papaya is considered a tree, and some rabbis do indeed rule that one should make ha’etz on its fruit.7

Others, however, disagree and point to several unique characteristics of the papaya that lead them to conclude that that the appropriate blessing is ha’adamah:

● The papaya’s trunk is hollow.8

● Unlike most perennials, it produces fruit in the first year of planting.9

● The fruit comes from the actual trunk, not the branches.10

● The quality of the fruit declines after the first few years.11

Based on this, most authorities hold that at least in terms of blessings (as opposed to the laws of orlah), one should treat it as “fruit of the earth” and recite the blessing of ha’adamah on papaya.12 This would seem to be the opinion of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi as well.13

Eggplant

We can now turn to eggplants. Since an eggplant has a wooden stem and lasts for more than one year, some are of the opinion that it is considered a tree-fruit and the proper blessing would be ha’etz.14 However, if an eggplant is indeed a tree, then it would seemingly always be prohibited due to the prohibition of orlah, since the eggplant plant only lasts for about three years.15

Pointing to the fact that many great rabbis, including Rabbi Yosef Caro and Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Arizal, ate eggplant,16 a number of explanations are given as to why it isn’t considered a tree and the proper blessing would be ha’adamah:

● It produces fruit in its first year.17

● Although it lasts for a few years, unlike a tree, the quality of its fruit deteriorates after the first year.18

Others explain that orlah can only apply to a plant that will eventually produce (permitted) fruit in its fourth year. Since the eggplant generally does not live that long, it is clearly not a tree and not subject to orlah.19

Based on the above, the custom is to make a ha’adamah on eggplant.

Grapes and Kiwi

It should be noted that fruits can grow on a vine and still be considered a fruit of the tree. Thus, the blessing for both grapes and kiwis is ha’etz.

Strawberry

Like the banana plant, the strawberry plant is a perennial, which dies and regrows from its roots every year. Thus, following the opinion of the Geonim, the blessing on strawberries is ha’adamah,20 and all of the above-mentioned rules regarding bananas apply to them as well.

Cranberry

According to many, a tree is defined only by the criteria mentioned above, regardless of height.21 Others, however, have the custom of not saying ha’etz unless the plant grows at least three tefachim (handbreadths), approximately 9.45-12 inches, tall.22

This brings us to the cranberry bush. Although it fulfills all other requirements of a tree, and some cranberry bushes can grow to significant heights, most cranberries (especially commercially grown ones) usually grow very close to the ground. There is thus a dispute among contemporary rabbis whether to make the blessing of ha’etz or ha’adamah on them.23 According to Shulchan Aruch Harav, one makes ha’etz on cranberries.24

All would agree that if you know that a particular cranberry bush grew higher than three tefachim, you would recite the blessing of ha’etz over its fruit.25

Raspberry

Raspberries are perennials. However, while some raspberries grow on a bush, the more common variety has shoots that grow out of the root system. These shoots normally don’t produce fruit until the second year, after which they usually die or decline. The plant sends root suckers horizontally that produce new shoots the next year, which in turn produce fruit and send suckers. The cycle continues for ten or more years.

Since the shoots last more than a year (albeit usually not more than two years) and the plant as a whole stays for many years, there are some who hold that one should recite ha’etz on raspberries.26

Pointing to several factors, including that each branch generally only produces fruit for one year, as well as the declining quality of the fruit, many rule that it is proper to say ha’adamah on raspberries.27

According to Shulchan Aruch Harav, we recite ha’adamah on raspberries.28

(Note that the above discussion refers mostly to blessings, and the laws may differ for orlah and the prohibition of cutting down a fruit tree. Practical questions should be addressed to a competent Orthodox rabbi.)