Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
There is a well-known prohibition against cutting down fruit trees needlessly. Indeed, many non-Jewish gardeners are even aware of this. Some non-Jewish gardeners preemptively ask the religious owners to buy the fruit trees from them so that they may be cut down. Still, some individuals would rather suffer with the mess of a fruit tree than have it cut down. What is the basis for the stringency? Rav said concerning a palm tree that still produces fruit in the amount of a kav that it is prohibited to cut it down due to the prohibition of: “When you shall besiege a city…you shall not destroy the trees” (Deuteronomy 20:19). (See Bava Kama 91b.) Yet, there is a firm basis to permit cutting down a fruit tree in some situations. Ravina said, “If the lumber was greater in monetary value than its fruits, it is permitted to chop it down, and this does not violate the prohibition against destroying a tree.” Indeed, the Gemara even quotes a beraisa that supports Ravina. The Gemara further cites two stories where fruit trees were cut down. The sharecropper of Shmuel brought him dates. Shmuel ate them and tasted the taste of wine in them. He said to his sharecropper: “What is this?” The sharecropper said to him: “The date palms stand among the grapevines and therefore the dates contain a taste of wine from the grapes.” Shmuel said: “Do they weaken the wine, i.e., the grapevines, so much that it is possible to taste the wine in the dates? Tomorrow, cut down the date palms and bring me from their marrow (i.e., hearts of palm) to eat.”
The Gemara relates a similar incident: Rav Chisda saw date palms growing among grapevines on his estate. He said to his sharecropper: “Uproot the date palms, since the grapevines are more valuable.” Moreover, the Mishna in Tamid states that fruit tree wood was specifically preferred for the arrangement of wood on the mizbayach! “Wood from all the trees is fit for the arrangement, except for wood from the vine and from the olive tree, but the kohanim were accustomed to assemble the arrangement with wood from these trees: young branches of the fig tree, of the nut tree, and of pinewood.” Why was it permitted to use wood from fig and nut trees when other wood was available? Isn’t that forbidden due to the prohibition of destroying fruit trees? The Mishneh L’melech opines that simply cutting branches from a fruit tree was never included in the prohibition. However, the Be’er Sheva says that even cutting down a fruit tree for a mitzvah is permitted because it is a constructive purpose. HaRav Nachum Katz, shlita, of Lawrence, NY, (author of the sefer HiNacheim Nafshi on Chumash) suggested that the Be’er Sheva’s proof is from a Gemara in Pesachim. The Gemara there says that one-year-old pomegranate branches were the preferred wood to be as a spit for roasting the korbon Pesach. The issue is that one-year-old branches would seem to be pretty flimsy and not capable of being used as a spit. HaRav Katz suggests that the Gemara is referring to one-year-old rooted cuttings. The central stem would be strong enough to be used as a spit. It would thus be evident that one can uproot an entire fruit tree for a mitzvah. It should be noted that the Mahril Diskin was of the opinion that fruit trees that are still subject to the Orlah prohibition (first three years of its growth) are exempt from the prohibition of cutting down fruit trees. According to his opinion, no proof can be brought from one-year-old cuttings which are subject to Orlah and are therefore permitted to be uprooted even for non-mitzvah purposes. (Although his opinion seems to be contradicted from Rashi on 90b) From the Be’er Sheva, we see that cutting down fruit trees is permitted for a constructive purpose such as a mitzvah. Shumel and Rav Chisda cut down fruit trees to help their vines. Ravina said a fruit tree may be cut down if the wood is more valuable than the fruit. Usually, when the question arises about cutting down a fruit tree, it is for a constructive purpose.
For example, someone wants to expand their house or a shul, and a tree is in the way. A mulberry bush is causing a tremendous mess, and clothes are being soiled and the mess is tracked through the house. In these situations, it should be clear that it is permitted to cut down the fruit tree. Moreover, the Taz is bothered why the Tur in his encyclopedic magnum opus does not cite the prohibition against cutting down fruit trees anywhere. What could be the reason for the glaring omission? The Taz explains that the prohibition against wastefulness applies not just to fruit trees but to any item a person owns. The Tur did not feel the need to cite the law specifically about fruit trees, because he cited the same law in reference to myriad other situations. Evidently, the Tur is of the opinion that the same criteria for destroying any object applies to a fruit tree. One is permitted to knock down a house to build a better one! So why is there a reticence to cut down fruit trees? It should be treated as destroying any other plant. The Gemara in Bava Kama (91b) quotes a frightening statement. “Rabbi Chanina said: ‘My son Shivchat did not die for any reason other than that he cut down a fig tree before its time.’” Presumably, the tree was not cut down for a bona fide constructive purpose. Still, the frightening punishment gives people pause. Additionally, there is an incident related in Bava Basra (26a). Rava bar Rav Chanan had palm trees in his field near Rav Yosef’s vineyard. Birds that flocked to Rava bar Rav Chanan’s trees would damage Rav Yosef’s fruit, and Rav Yosef demanded that Rava cut down his trees. Rava insisted that he had planted his trees reasonably distant from Rav Yosef’s field and therefore had no obligation to cut down his trees. Rava explained that his trees produced a significant amount of fruit and could not be cut down because of baal tashchis (Devarim 20:19).
He concluded by telling Rav Yosef that if he felt that the trees had to be cut down, he would have to do it himself. Surely, Rava bar Rav Chanan held that the trees may be cut down according to the letter of the law. He would not have told Rav Yosef to do an aveira. Moreover, Rava was a saintly individual and would not have wanted his trees to cause harm to others. But Rava explained that he was in between a rock and a hard place. He would like to act piously and cut down the fruit trees, but some other esoteric reason is holding him back. Thus, some conclude that one has to be extra careful not to cut down fruit trees even when it is technically permitted. Additionally, there is a statement from Rebbe Yehuda HaChassid warning against cutting down fruit trees. Therefore, the permissibility of cutting down fruit trees is a serious issue. Additionally, some are even careful against cutting down any tree. There is a ruling of the Piskei Tosfos that seems to indicate even non-fruit-bearing trees should be treated the same as fruit-bearing ones. Indeed, the Minchas Yitzchak was not so quick to permit cutting down a regular tree unless certain conditions were met. However, his ruling is controversial. The Sefer Taharas Yom Tov recounts how the Belzer Rebbe, zt”l, once ruled that a fruit tree should not be cut down. This, despite the fact that the fruit produced by the tree was wormy and was inedible. Even more significant, the tree was standing in the way of expanding a beis medrash that was too small! Practically, cutting down a fruit tree to enable construction is treated as a serious question, even though technically according to halacha it is permitted.
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, NY. He can be contacted at ASebrow@ gmail.com.