Writings / Trees Are People Too (?)

The book of Devarim contains many laws that concern the collective; laws of kings, prophets and war. As the Israelites stand poised on the borders of the Promised Land, this seems only natural; they must prepare for the conquest and settlement of the Land of Israel, and require guidelines for waging war and establishing a system of government. In Parshat Shoftim, Moshe imparts a uniquely Jewish perspective on the etiquette of battle: When a city is put to siege, care should be taken not to destroy the fruit-bearing trees around the perimeter:

When you besiege a city for an extended period, to make war against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them; for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field a man (or, for man is like the tree of the field), that you should besiege it? Only the trees which you know are not trees for food may you destroy and cut down, in order to build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls. (Devarim 20:19-20)

The fruit trees must be spared, as they provide sustenance; other trees can be cut down for purposes of the war, and used in battle. In between these two halakhic pronouncements is a statement that is far less clear. This statement seems to provide the rationale for sparing the fruit bearing trees: "for man is like the tree of the field," which may also be translated as "for is the tree of the field a man?" It is unclear if the verse contains a rhetorical question or a straightforward sentiment regarding man's place in nature.

The comparison of a tree to a person seems somewhat incongruous: man is a thinking, speaking animate and sentient being, while a tree is an inanimate part of the scenery. The seeming impossibility of the comparison leads many commentaries to reject the literal (non-rhetorical) reading of the verse. Among these commentaries is the Targum (pseudo) Yonatan, who understands the statement as a rhetorical use of language - and reads the verse as, "Don't hurt the tree - is the tree a person that would feel pain?" (1)

Rashi's reading of this statement is of a similar vein, as he also understands the verse in a rhetorical sense: What good would result from punishing the tree? (2)

The Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, understands the text in a more literal, straightforward sense: Man's destiny is intertwined with the larger ecological reality. If man destroys a tree, in a sense he is destroying himself.(3) Thus, the verse is interpreted as an equation of man with the fruit-bearing tree.

The Ramban(4) agrees in general with the approach of the Ibn Ezra, and then links the interpretation with a broader Rabbinic tradition, which is a nuanced approach: a tree, even a fruit-bearing tree, may be destroyed when necessary.(5) It is wanton destruction(6) for destruction's sake that these verses prohibit:

Rav said: A palm tree producing even one kab of fruit may not be cut down. An objection was raised [from the following]: What quantity should be on an olive tree so that it should not be permitted to cut it down? A quarter of a kab. - Olives are different as they are more important. … Ravina, however, said: If its value [for other purposes] exceeds that of its fruit, it is permissible [to cut it down]. (Talmud Bavli Bava Kamma 91b)

The Talmud deals with pragmatic considerations; the tree has value, though rather than innate, unqualified value (as is the value of human life), the value of the life of a tree is utilitarian. If the cost of care for the tree surpasses the value of the fruit produced by the tree, it would be foolhardy to keep this tree, and hence cutting down such a tree is permitted. This being said, the Talmud reports a tradition that weighs in for the sanctity of the life of a tree, and the spiritual price to be paid for cutting down a tree. This tradition is "up close and personal," and a bit frightening:

R. Hanina said: My son Shivhat did not pass away except for having cut down a fig tree before its time. (Talmud Bavli Bava Kamma 91b)

This intimate and heartbreaking testimony is found at the very heart of the Talmudic discussion regarding the permissibility of cutting down trees that yield a minimal amount of fruit. We are not told the details of the case: Had Shivhat, the son of Rabbi Hanina, cut down a tree that was still viable? What strikes us in this statement is the drastic, even disproportionate response to what he had done.(7)

We have noted that the details of the trees status are not included in the Gemara, leaving us two ways to understand Rabbi Hanina's teaching. The first is that he accepts the previous qualification, namely that it is permissible to destroy a fruit-bearing in certain circumstances, and his son destroyed a tree that did not fit the criteria. The second way of understanding his comment is that he does not accept this qualification, and any destruction of a fruit tree will in his mind have dire results.

This second approach was adopted by a number of halachists(8) who saw the uprooting of a fruit tree as spiritually damaging even when the law prohibiting wanton destruction ("bal tashchit") was not broken.(9) Apparently they did not read the verse "for man is a tree of the field" in a rhetorical sense; they felt that the plight of a tree is inextricably linked with the plight of man. And though there are times that destroying a tree may be allowed - it is never wise.

These opinions notwithstanding, normative halakha understands the verse in a rhetorical sense, and does indeed allow the destruction of trees, even fruit-bearing trees, when necessary. In a general sense, halakha is predicated on the idea that all of nature is created for man's benefit.(10) And yet, rather than freeing mankind of any responsibility and allowing indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources, the basic halakhic view of man's dominion also places responsibility squarely on his shoulders: As with any power, man is expected to temper dominion with sensitivity. The natural world was given as gift to humankind, to be enjoyed and cherished.(11) Mankind is expected to appreciate the value and importance of this gift, and to safeguard it, taking great care when making use of precious resources, and being careful about waste(12) and conspicuous consumption.(13)

A particularly stirring description of such sensitivity was shared by one of the righteous men of the previous generation, Rav Aryeh Levine. In his memoirs, Reb Aryeh recounted a precious moment with his mentor, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook, that inspired him for the rest of his life:

I recall the early days, from 1905 onward, when it was granted me by the grace of the blessed God to go up to the Holy Land, and I came to Jaffa. There I first went to visit our great master R. Avraham Yitzhak Kook (of blessed memory), who received everyone. We chatted together on themes of Torah study. After an early minhah (afternoon prayer-service) he went out, as was his hallowed custom, to stroll a bit in the fields and gather his thoughts; I went along. On the way I plucked some branch or flower. Our great master was taken aback; and then he told me gently, "Believe me: In all my days I have taken care never to pluck a blade of grass or a flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom. You know the teaching of the sages that there is not a single blade of grass below, here on earth, which does not have a heavenly force (or angel) above telling it, Grow! Every sprout and leaf of grass says something, conveys some meaning. Every stone whispers some inner hidden message in the silence. Every creation utters its song (in praise of the Creator)." Those words, spoken from a pure and holy heart, engraved themselves deeply on my heart. From that time on I began to feel a strong sense of compassion for every thing.(14)

This world was given to man, but man should display great sensitivity to all aspects of Creation. Nature is created for man, but man is part of nature - "for man is as a tree of the field."



1. Targum Pseudo Yonatan, Devarim 20:19.

2. Rashi Devarim 20:19.

3. Ibn Ezra Devarim 20:19.

4. Ramban Devarim 20:19.

5. The Rosh, Bava Kamma chapter 8, understands that needing space is considered sufficient justification. The problem of space for building a sukka, and a tree that was in the way, generated much halachic discussion.

6. The Rambam is quite clear that it is only wanton destruction which is prohibited, and not purposeful destruction. See Sefer Hamitzvot, negative mitzvah 57; Mishne Torah, Laws of Kings 6:8-9.

7. It is interesting that Rabbi Hanina confidently ascribes a reason for his son's death. See Talmud Bavli, Bava Kamma 50a, where Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa has a similar approach. I am unsure if the two Rabbi Hanina's are one and the same. See Rabbi Aharon Prussberger in Responsa Pe'er Aharon section 14, who seems to combine the two passages. Our Rabbis taught: It happened that the daughter of Nehonia the digger of wells once fell into a deep pit. When people came and informed R. Hanina b. Dosa [about it], during the first hour he said to them 'She is well', during the second he said to them, 'She is still well', but in the third hour he said to them, 'She has by now come out [of the pit].' They then asked her, 'Who brought you up?' - Her answer was: 'A ram [providentially] came to my help with an old man leading it.' They then asked R. Hanina b. Dosa, 'Are you a prophet?' He said to them, 'I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. I only exclaimed: Shall the thing to which that pious man has devoted his labor become a stumbling-block to his seed?' R. Aha, however, said; Nevertheless, his son died of thirst, [thus bearing out what the Scripture] says, 'And it shall be very tempestuous round about him,' which teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, is particular with those round about Him even for matters as light as a single hair. (Talmud Bavli Bava Kamma 50a)

8. Despite the spiritual problems, solutions are offered, see Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, Responsa Har Tzvi, Orach Haim volume 2 section 102, and Rav Ovadia Yosef, Yabea Omer volume 5 Yoreh Dayah 12.

9. See Taz Yoreh Dayah section 116, Sefer Hassidim section 45.

10. Bereishit 1:28: "And God blessed them; and God said unto them: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.' "

11. See Psalms 115:16: The heavens are the heavens of God; but He has given the Earth to the children of men.

12. See Rambam, Sefer haMitzvot, negative mitzvah 57; Mishne Torah, Laws of the Mourner 14:24; Laws of Kings 6:10.

13. A term coined by Veblen and Thorstein (1899) in Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions. New York: Macmillan. 400 pp.

14. Simcha Raz, "A Tzaddik in Our Time: The Life of Rabbi Aryeh Levin" (Jeruslaem: Feldheim Publishers, 1977), pages 108-109.