By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
During this pandemic, many minyanim have taken place outdoors. Some of these ad hoc minyanim don’t have enough chairs, and it can be very enticing to lean on a tree for some relief. That may be fine during the week, but not for Shabbos.
The Gemara states unequivocally that one may not make use of trees on Shabbos. The Gemara explicitly states that leaning on a tree is considered using it (Eiruvin 100a). Those daveners pining for a place to lean cannot use a tree. A utility pole would be a good alternative. Perhaps someone can supply decorative benches to spruce up the area.
The Gemara notes that there is a contradiction in the Tannaic writings whether the prohibition of using a tree on Shabbos applies to dead trees. One source says clearly that dead trees may be utilized on Shabbos, while the other one clearly states that they may not. The questioner in the Gemara was stumped. The Gemara initially reconciles the sources by suggesting that a tree that is truly dead may indeed be used on Shabbos. However, a tree which just appears to be dead but will eventually sprout new leaves and branches may not be used on Shabbos.
Incidentally, many trees in my coastal neighborhood appeared somewhat dead after the remnants of Hurricane Isaias hit our area in early August. Those that were assumed dead started to sprout new leaves soon after. Indeed, my apple tree grew new leaves in August! (It already flowered in April.) It is growing new apples at the time of this writing.
Still, the Gemara states that the aforementioned solution is not viable. Both sources were specifically referring to dead trees. A tree that just appears dead cannot be what either source was referring to. So this attempted answer just doesn’t stick.
The Gemara offers another resolution to get to the root of the issue. Technically, dead trees may be utilized on Shabbos. But during the winter it is not readily apparent which trees are alive and which merely lost its leaves. Consequently, if someone leans on a dead tree in winter, an onlooker might assume that the poor sap is violating the rabbinic restriction of not leaning on trees. Therefore, as a rule, one may not lean on any tree in winter; he must leave it alone. However, during summer it is easy to distinguish between live trees and dead trees; therefore, one may lean on a dead tree.
Before the daveners rush to use this leniency, they have to realize that they may be barking up the wrong tree. The Gemara notes that Rav visited a certain locale and told the people there that they may not use any trees on Shabbos, dead or alive. The Gemara explains that in that locale, Torah knowledge was scarce and they couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Therefore, Rav wanted to make a rule that would be easily understandable for the young generation as well, since the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Now that we all have logged many hours in fine Torah institutions, are we better than the people of that locale? Can we run rings around them? The Shulchan Aruch says no! The Shulchan Aruch (336:1) simply states, “One may not climb a tree, whether living or not.” The Sha’ar HaTziyun explains that this ruling is because the Shulchan Aruch is accepting Rav’s stringency. Leaning on a dead tree is rather shady. However, the Mishnah Berurah notes that the Rosh was of the opinion that as a matter of practical halachah, we can lean on dead trees during the summer. Rav never intended for his ruling to branch out to other locales. The Rosh finds support for his view from a statement a few lines later in the Gemara that says that nowadays we can be lenient. The true meaning behind the statement is debated by other Rishonim.
Since everyone agrees that according to the letter of the law one may lean on dead trees in the summer, perhaps it wouldn’t be going too far out on a limb to say that one can rely on the Rosh’s opinion.
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.