By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
“Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?” (Devarim 20:19).
Even at times of war and siege, the Torah warns us not to cut down the trees and commands us to preserve nature. “Is the tree of the field a man, who is able to withdraw within the city from before you, that it should suffer by famine and thirst like the inhabitants of the city? Why should you destroy it?” (Rashi, ibid.).
The next verse commands us specifically not to destroy fruit trees. Indeed, strict halachic guidelines dictate the circumstances when fruit trees may be uprooted; only when trees are harmful to their surroundings can they be transplanted or cut down.
A tree may not be grown within a distance of 25 cubits from the town or 50 cubits if it is a carob or sycamore tree … If the town was there first, the tree shall be cut down and no compensation given; if the tree was there first, it shall be cut down and compensation given (Mishnah, Bava Batra 2:7).
Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 6:8–9) forbids needlessly chopping down fruit trees, with several exceptions. Jewish sources demonstrate a deep affection for nature and plant life in the Land of Israel and throughout the world: “At the time the Holy One Blessed be He created Adam, He took him and showed him all of the trees of Gan Eden and told him: behold my handiwork, how beautiful and splendid they are. And all that I created, I have created for your sake. Take care not to spoil and destroy My world, for if you ruin it, there will be no one to fix it up after you” (Kohelet Rabbah §7).
Trees (fruit trees, to be precise) even merited their own special blessing, which we say during the month of Nissan: “Blessed are You, G-d, our L-rd, King of the universe, who did not leave anything lacking in His world and created within it fine creations and beautiful and fine trees so that they would give pleasure to men” (Rambam, Hilchot Berachot 10:13). Many prayers were composed for the fruit trees of the Land of Israel; among them, the Ben Ish Chai (Rabbi Yosef Chaim, Baghdad, 1835–1909) wrote a special prayer for the fruit trees, to be said on Tu B’Shevat:
- Please, on this day, save the tree […]
- Save this year from worm and from bramble
- And bless the oil olive trees […]
- Raise up the supplications of children, raised with care
- And bless the nut, date, and apple trees […]
- Rescue the community that longs for You
- And bless the berry, nut, and etrog.
Not only may we not harm trees, the Sages inform us that we are charged with planting them: “Said the Holy One Blessed be He to the Israelites: Although you will find it [the Land of Israel] full of all goodness, do not say: we will sit idle and not plant; rather, just as others have planted on your behalf, so too, you shall plant for your children” (Yalkut Shimoni, Kedoshim §515).
The Jewish people are often compared to trees in Biblical and Talmudic sources, perhaps based on an alternate reading of the verse in our parashah above. “As man is the tree of the field”; “I am going to take the stick (eitz) of Yosef … and I will place the stick (eitz) of Yehuda upon is and make them into one stick” (Yechezkel 37:19); the person walking the righteous path “… is like a tree planted beside streams of water” (Tehillim 1:3). We are compared to olive trees: “The L-rd called you a leafy olive tree, fair, with choice fruit” (Yirmiyahu 11:16). The Sages extrapolate: “Just as this olive tree’s final purpose is fulfilled at its end [when its fruit is picked], so, too, the Jewish people, their final purpose will be fulfilled at their end [i.e. they will ultimately repent and return to Me]” (Menachot 53b). Explaining the verse from Shir HaShirim, “Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest” (2:3), Rabbi Chama quotes Rabbi Chanina (Shabbat 88a): “To inform you just as this apple tree’s fruit grows before its leaves, so, too, the Jewish People preceded ‘We will do’ to ‘We will hear.’”
To sum up the vital link between humans and trees, “All trees were created for the pleasure of the creations” (Bereishit Rabbah 13), but we should take care not to destroy them—“on account of four things are the heavenly lights eclipsed … and those who cut down good [fruit-bearing] trees” (Sukkah 29a).
On The Forbidden Trees
Alongside the injunction to care for trees, the Torah warns us not to plant a certain tree: “Do not plant for yourself an Ashera tree near the altar that you will make yourselves for G-d your L-rd.” (Devarim 16:21). The Ashera tree was a Canaanite deity and also refers to an idolatrous object, tree, or wooden object that represented this goddess of fertility. It was often a trunk or wooden pillar placed next to an altar. It was considered by ancient nations as the mother of goddesses.
Throughout Biblical sources, Ashera worship is juxtaposed to monotheism. Ma’acha, the mother of Asa, king of Yehuda, made an “abominable object” for an Ashera (Melachim I 15:13; Divrei HaYamim II 15:16). Some 400 Ashera prophets ate at Izevel’s table, joining the Ba’al prophets at the showdown at Mt. Carmel with Eliyahu (Melachim I 18:19). Menashe, king of Yehuda, even stood an Ashera tree in the Beit HaMikdash (Melachim II 21:7), which King Yoshiyahu later removed and burned in the Kidron Valley (Melachim II 21:4, 6–7).
In short, we are charged with preserving trees unless they are misused to warp nature’s purpose, which is to manifest G-d’s glory.
Parashah Eretz Yisraelit, Meir Cohen and Avi Elnatan. Translated and adapted by Rabbi Moshe Bloom, Torah VeHa’aretz Institute.
Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. For additional information and inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 972-8-684-7325.