Cutting down fruit trees is the subject of this week’s article. Why is it forbidden? People seem to believe there is danger involved in cutting down a fruit tree. Is there a source for it? What is the nature of this danger? What is the reward for refraining from this form of bal tashchis? What does one do if there is no two ways about it and the tree must go? Can old trees that don’t produce enough fruit be cut down? What defines a tree as old? What can be done about a dangerous tree or one that was used for avoda zara? If one was given permission to build on land to add rooms to his house, but there is a fruit tree right in the middle. Is it permissible to remove it? What if the tree only darkens a room, or the fruit dirties the steps? Can a shul or mikveh be built on land that contains a fruit tree? Of this and more in this article.
Uprooting Fruit Trees
In this week’s parashah (Devarim 20:19-20), we find the following chiyuv:
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.
The Gemara (Makos 22a) records that the punishment for cutting down good fruit trees is flogging as is the punishment for any negative commandment.
Assur and Dangerous
Cutting down a fruit tree is not only forbidden, but also dangerous. In Maseches Bava Basra (26a) we are told of a person who would not have died had he not sinned one time in cutting own a fig tree. According to Rabbenu Gershom and Rashbam the deceased was Rabbi Chanina’s own son. The Aruch Laner writes that it was Rabbi Chanina himself who cut down the tree, and his son who died prematurely as a result.
The Achronim write (She’elat Ya’avetz part 1:76; Binyan Tzion 61; Divrei Chayim part 2, Yore Deah 57, and others) that cutting down a tree, when necessary, is permitted, but the need must also be clearly apparent to all. Rabbi Chanina’s cutting down the tree was necessary and halachically permitted but the need was not clearly apparent. Therefore, it caused his son to die.
The Taz (Yore Deah 116:6) writes that when the prohibition does not exist, there is no danger.
The Gemara (Maseches Bava Metzia 108a) tells of a river that had fruit trees growing on its banks. The trees prevented boats from sailing up the river. Some of the trees belonged to the non-Jewish ruler who refused to cut them down, while the trees in the center belonged to Raba bar Rav Huna. Cutting down only the central trees would not have alleviated the situation, so Rave bar Rav Huna did not cut down his trees. One time, Raba bar Rav Nachman passed by. When he saw that the trees prevented the boats from passing he inquired who was the owner of the trees. Upon hearing that they belonged to Raba bar Rav Huna, a prominent leader, he pronounced his admonishment: “… and the hand of the chiefs and the deputies was first in this treachery” (Ezra 9:3). He then ordered the trees cut down, not knowing that cutting down only Raba bar Rav Huna’s trees would not provide any relief. When Raba bar Rav Huna saw his trees cut down, he asked who had done it, announcing that the children of whoever did it would not live. Indeed, as long as Raba bar Rav Huna was alive, Raba bar Rav Nachman’s children died in their youth.
Similarly, we find Avshalom, whose children died in his lifetime because he burned Yoav’s wheat (Maharasha and Maharal on Maseches Sota 11a). Kerem Neta explains that one who burns his own wheat dies prematurely, while one who burns another’s wheat — his sons die in his lifetime (effectively including wheat in the issur of uprooting fruit trees). Toras Knaos, though, is of the opinion that the punishment was not a result of the aveira of bal tashchis, but because he didn’t pay for the loss he caused Yoav.
The Gemara (Maseches Succa 29a) records an interesting connecting between solar eclipses and cutting down fruit trees.
And on account of four matters the heavenly lights are eclipsed: On account of forgers of a fraudulent document that is intended to discredit others; on account of testifiers of false testimony; on account of people who raise of small domesticated animals in Eretz Yisrael in a settled area; and on account of choppers of good, fruit-producing trees.
The Aruch Laner explains that the times of solar eclipses are times of judgement, ones designated from the Six Days of Creation. Certain sins, such as cutting down fruit-bearing trees, arouse Hashem’s anger at those times.
The Aruch Laner explains that cutting down fruit trees is an expression of ingratitude and disregard for G-d’s goodness. During a solar or lunar eclipse, the heavenly bodies, too, become a reminder of the moon’s ingratitude for the light Hashem gave it at creation.
Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer (34) explains that when a fruit tree is cut, it cries out so loudly that the sound is heard from one end of the world to the other, although it is not captured by the human ear. The Midrash in Bereshis Raba (13:2) learns from the passuk “Now no tree of the field [siach hasade] was yet on the earth” (Bereshis 2:5) that the trees lesochaiach – ‘talk’ to the creatures, and were created for human pleasure. The Midrash continues and tells of a person who was harvesting his grapes in his vineyard and fell asleep there. A spirit came and harmed him there.
Or Haskel and Yedi Moshe explain that this person didn’t endanger himself by sleeping alone before cutting down his vines, although sleeping alone is considered a danger, because vines speak amongst themselves and he was not alone. Only once he cut the vines was the spirit able to harm him. Interestingly, modern research has shown that speaking to plants helps them grow better. This shows the energy of plant life – an energy that allows plants to express themselves and retaliate when harmed.
Radal (ibid) explains that this was the ‘language of palm trees’ that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai understood (Maseches Succa 28a). The Geonim in their responsa, write (Musafia 33; quoted in the Aruch Laner 68 and Rashba and Ritva Bava Base 134a) that palm tree’s communication can be perceived by spreading a sheet between them. Their speech is conceivable through watching the sheet move with the wind. During Rav Hai Gaon’s lifetime there was a wise man named Mar Avraham Kabasi Gaon who understood this form of language well (it seems from the response that this person lived one-thousand years ago.)
The Ari provides a kabalistic interpretation for this halacha: the trees have reincarnated souls in them and when the tree is cut down, those souls do not reach peace and bring about danger.
An additional reason is found in Sifri (Shoftim 203) Midrash Tana’im (Devarim 20:19). Since trees give humans life, it is improper to cut them down. Wheat, too, falls into this category and therefore the Magen Avraham writes (Zayis Ra’anan 247:923) that the issur includes wheat.
Sefer Hachinuch explains (Mitzva 529) that righteous people live peace and rejoice seeing goodness in the world, bringing them closer to Torah. Righteous people find value in everything Hashem made and will not waste even a grain of mustard, feeling real pain over every loss and waste that they see. If they can only save something from waste, they will do everything they can to prevent the loss. Evil people are, contrarily, lovers of destruction. They rejoice with everything that spoils or ruins the world and they destroy everything they find. Sefer Hachinuch explains that the results are measure for measure. One who wishes to see the world grow and flourish connects himself to the attributes of good and rejoicing of the soul. However, those who lean towards destruction allow this attribute to cling to them.
Sefer Chassidim (1775) writes of the reward promised to one who is careful to pick fruit and vegetables only when ripe. The author quotes a story of a person who was careful to prevent people from entering his orchards to pick the fruit before they were ripe, and was careful himself to cut his fruit only when it was ready. This person said that he had a tradition that doing so would ensure his longevity, prosperity and prominence, with enough to leave over for his descendants. This tradition was based on the psukim in Iyov (5:26) “You shall come to the grave at a ripe old age, as the grain stack is taken away in its time”, and Tehilim (1:3) “He shall be as a tree planted beside rivulets of water, which brings forth its fruit in its season, and its leaves do not wilt; and whatever he does prospers” – only if one picks his fruit at the right time and not earlier will everything he does be successful.
How to Cut
It is permitted to cut down a fruit tree if there is a very pressing need or if the tree is old and no longer produces fruit. In addition, if the tree causes damage or if trees need to be thinned to allow other trees to grow it is permissible. Here we will describe several practical scenarios. For more information, reading Rabbi Yitzchak Eliyahu Shtessman’s sefer Eitz Hasade is recommended.
The Gemara defines an old tree: a date palm that produces less than a kav (sixteen times the size of a revi’is i.e. about 1.4 liters) of dates and an olive tree that produces less than a quarter of a kav of olives may be cut down. When this is the situation the trees are regarded as non-fruit bearing trees and may be cut down. This is also the Rambam’s ruling.
The Chasam Sofer writes that if it is unknown if a tree still produces the prescribed amount, and unclear if it is worth working on, one may not cut it down and it is a danger. The Minchas Chinuch learns this from the passuk (Devarim 20:20) “However, a tree you know is not a food tree…”. The Torah prohibited cutting down a tree if there is a possibility that it may bear fruit, permitting it cut only when it clearly is not a fruit bearing tree.
Rabbi Meir Bransdorfer (Knei Bosem, part 3 chapter 50) and Rabbi Yosef Lieberman (Mishnas Yosef, part 3 chapter 27) write that a fruit tree loses its status when it is so old that it fails to produce fruit, but if the failing to produce is a result of neglect, cutting it down is prohibited.
An interesting situation is the papaya tree. The tree grows very quickly and can reach nearly 8 meters, but since the fruit are found only at the treetop and the cost of climbing up and picking the fruit is prohibitively expensive, growers cut down the old big trees and plant younger ones with fruit that can be harvested more easily. Here, an old tree cannot be called a non-fruit bearing tree, but when taking into consideration the cost of harvesting, one may be halachicaly permitted to cut down the big tree in favor of a younger tree. (The halachic approach that sees the papaya as a vegetable with the bracha being Borei Pri Hadomo, allows additional room for leniency).
A Harmful Tree
The Gemara (Bava Kama 92a) rules that uprooting a tree that grew near other trees and prevents them from producing is permitted. Therefore, one may thin the trees in an orchard to maximize an orchard’s production. Similarly, some trees are a mitzva to uproot even if they produce fruit such as Asherah trees that were worshipped as Avoda Zara (Bava Kama 91b). This is the Rambam’s ruling (Hilchos Melachim, chapter 6:8): “…A fruit tree may be cut down if it causes damage to other trees or to fields belonging to others, or if a high price could be received for its wood. The Torah only prohibited cutting down a tree with a destructive intent.”
The Rishonim are undecided regarding a tree that causes damage. The dispute is based on the following story mentioned in the Gemara (Bava Basra 26:1):
Rave bar Rav Chanan had palm trees that stood adjacent to the boundary of Rav Yosef’s vineyard. Birds would come and roost on the palm trees and subsequently descend to the vineyard and damage it. Rav Yosef said to Rave bar Rav Chanan: Go and cut down your palm trees. Rave bar Rav Chanan said to him: But I distanced them the required amount. Rav Yosef said to him: This matter, i.e., this specific distance, applies only to trees, but a greater distance is required for vines.
The Rishonim are in dispute as to what was exactly the content of the argument between them. Most (Ramban, Rabbenu Yona, Rashba, Ritva) agree that Rave bar Rav Chanan believed he did not have to cut down the palm because of hilchos nezikin. Therefore, he told Rav Yosef – although I would like to behave in a righteous manner and not cause you any damage, since according to my opinion I am not obligated to cut down the palm, if in your opinion it causes damage and permissible to be cut, you may cut it yourself.
Tosefos however, disagrees and explains that although Rave bar Rav Chanan agreed that he was obligated to cut down the palm because of the damage it caused, he refrained from doing so because of the danger involved.
Rav Elchonon Wasserman hy”d (Kovetz Shiurim Bava Basra 94) explains that most of the Rishonim see the issur in damaging another as is a result of the issur of gezel, therefore one must cut down a damaging tree so as not to steal. But the Tosefos are of the opinion that the issur to cause damage does not constitute gezel and is just a violation of the prohibition to damage others. Therefore, Rava Bar Rav Chanan had to choose which issur to violate: 1) bal tashchis — not to ruin something useful, or 2) the issur to damage others. In any case the owner of the tree will be sinning. Therefore, it is better to sit back and do nothing than to actively perform an aveira.
The Rosh (Bava Kama chapter 8:15) and the Taz (Yore Deah 116:6) permit uprooting fruit trees for building a house. The Chavos Ya’ir (195) explains that the Rosh permitted this only for building a house, but for a walkway, driveway or path to the house, or in case it prevents light from entering the house and is a big nuisance, one should cut back the branches but not the tree itself, even if it will require constant re-cutting.
Many poskim agree that even when it is permitted, there is danger involved in cutting down a fruit tree, therefore they rule that unless the need is very extreme, it is preferable to cut down the tree by a non-Jew, i.e. selling the tree to a non-Jew and hiring him to uproot the tree together with the land surrounding it in order to re-plant elsewhere. (If the non-Jew decides to pass up on
re-planting, it is his business.)
The Shevet Halevi was asked how one should uproot a tree for building in case uprooting it with the roots and earth would be very expensive, since the extra cost is also bal tashchis. He ruled to sell the tree to a non-Jew and he would uproot it. Indeed, Baruch Hashem nothing bad happened as a result.
If the only plot of land available for building a shul contains fruit trees, can the trees be uprooted or cut down? The Ya’avetz was asked this question, and he ruled (Part 1, chapter 76) that it is permitted according to the Rosh and the Taz to uproot a tree only if the land is needed for building a shul, not for a private home. Nevertheless, even in this case it is preferable to do so by selling the tree to a non-Jew, but if it is impossible there is no problem in it. The Da’as Kedoshim in his sefer Milei Dechasidosa (explaining Tzavo’as Rabbi Yehuda Hachasid, chapter 53) adds that following the understanding that souls are reincarnated in trees and when they are cut the souls forfeit their correction, when one cuts down the trees to build a shul it causes a spreading of the kedusha in the world. This augmentation of Kevod Shomayim is itself a reason to bring them to their final rectification.
Binyan Tzion (Part 1 chapter 61) was asked about a person who wanted to marry but the law prevented him from doing so before he has a house, and his only option to build a house involved cutting down fruit trees. It seems that the trees in question were old ones which, although still produced fruit in the proscribed amount, if uprooted and replanted would no longer bear fruit.
The Binyan Tzion answered that the need to build a house permits uprooting the trees, but due to the danger involved, it is preferable to sell the land with the trees to a non-Jew. If this is not a possibility, one is permitted to uproot the trees himself to allow him to perform the mitzva of marrying.
Similarly, the Divrei Chayim (Part 2, Yore Deah, 57) writes that clearing land for building a mikveh should also be preferably done by a non-Jew, but if that is not a possibility, it may be done by a Jew because it is for a mitzva.
Most poskim agree that the issur of cutting down fruit tree is only when it is done in a way that causes waste. When cutting a tree is financially necessary there is no prohibition involved, although the danger is still present. Only when clearly necessary and a great need, is cutting it down permitted. In addition, one is permitted to cut down trees that have grown too old to bear fruit.
Despite it being permitted, when necessary, it is preferable to sell the tree to a non-Jew and pay him for removal of the tree along with the earth and roots. This ensures continued life for the tree. As usual, for practical guidance we recommend presenting the question to a qualified rabbi.
Mishnas Yosef (Part 3, end of chapter 23) writes that whenever he is asked about trees he recommends people asking the local rabbi or beis din because of the danger involved. When the rabbi or beis din rule it is permitted, the heavenly beis din follows suit and the danger is no longer present.