The following is a discussion of Halachic topics related to the Parsha of the week.For final rulings, consult your Rav.
BAL TASHCHIS: PRESERVATION of FRUIT TREES
It is Biblically prohibited to cut down a fruit tree for no reason. The
prohibition is based on a verse in Parashas Shoftim(1): When you besiege a
city.. to wage war.. do not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against
them, for from it you will eat, and you shall not cut it down.. only a tree
that you know is not a food tree, it you may destroy and cut down...
All fruit trees are included, even a tree that bears bitter or wormy
fruit(2). If, however, people will unknowingly eat the wormy fruit, then it
is permitted to cut the tree down(3).
The poskim debate whether the prohibition applies to chopping down the
entire tree or even just a few branches(4). Although it is proper to be
stringent, it is permissible to cut branches to meet any need or to fulfill
a mitzvah, e.g., if the branches are hovering over a sukkah(5).
A fruit-bearing tree that has yet to bear fruit is still forbidden to
cut(6). An aged tree, however, which experts say is no longer able to
produce fruit and is bothersome to maintain, may be cut down(7).
There is a minority opinion that holds that even a non fruit-bearing tree
should not be cut down indiscriminately(8). It is permitted, though, to cut
such a tree down for any purpose or need, either commercial or personal(9).
THE ELEMENT of DANGER
As if to reinforce the Biblical prohibition quoted above against cutting
down a fruit tree, we find in Rabbinic literature some ominous warnings
against doing so. The Talmud(10) quotes Rav Chanina as blaming his son's
untimely passing on the fact the his son had cut down a fig tree while it
was still flourishing. Additionally, we find in the Talmud(11) that the moon
and stars are "punished" (eclipsed) because healthy, fruit-bearing trees are
chopped down. Rav Yehudah ha-Chasid in his Will [#45] also warns against
destroying any fruit-producing trees.
These additional Rabbinical admonitions lead some poskim(12) to conclude
that even when halachically permitted to cut down a tree - as we will
explain later - still, one should be reluctant to do so for there is an
element of danger involved even when there is no halachic restriction. But
many other poskim(13) maintain that the Rabbinical deterrents were merely
meant to add a measure of severity to the Biblical prohibition, but when it
is halachically permitted, there is no danger involved at all. The following
list, therefore, is based on the opinion of the more lenient authorities.
The basic rule is that it is only forbidden to cut a tree down
unnecessarily, in a destructive manner. It is permitted to chop a tree down
if one will benefit from destroying it. Therefore it is permitted to cut
down a fruit tree:
If the tree is ruining or weakening other nearby trees or fields(14).
If the wood of the tree is more valuable than its fruit(15).
If one needs to build a home on the site(16) where the tree is
growing(17). Some poskim allow cutting the tree down only for a mitzvah
need(18), e.g. to build a shul or a mikveh, while others do not rely on this
leniency at all(19).
A fruit laden tree which is darkening the window of a house [or brings
bugs into the house, etc.] may be cut down, unless the problem can be
alleviated by trimming the branches(20).
As mentioned earlier, some poskim are hesitant about cutting a fruit tree
down under any circumstances. While many rely on the more lenient poskim who
permit doing so - halachically, if one could follow one of the following
options he would go a long way towards satisfying even the more stringent
opinions(21). Thus whenever possible it is preferable:
To ask a non-Jew to cut down the tree(22).
To sell the tree with the surrounding area to a non-Jew before cutting
Before chopping it down, let the tree wither and die on its own(24).
Whenever possible, the tree should be transplanted elsewhere(25).
Keeping in mind that chamira sakanta m'eisura, that the halachah deals with
danger more stringently than it does with prohibitions, it is advisable that
any decision involving the axing of a tree be presented to a competent rav.
When presenting this question, the following information should be
If the tree bears, or will bear, fruit.
The location of the tree.
Its value and significance.
The reason for cutting it down.
If it is possible or worthwhile to replant it.
If it can be cut down by a non-Jew.
If it can be sold to a non-Jew.
As an extension of the Biblical prohibition against cutting down fruit
trees, the Rabbis added an injunction(26) against needlessly destroying
anything of value, be it an article of clothing, a piece of food, a
beverage(27) or a utensil. Anyone who ruins any thing that could be used by
others transgresses this injunction(28). But when the item is destroyed for
a purpose there is no issue of Bal Tashchis: Thus:
It is permitted to destroy anything of value for any need, medical reason
or monetary benefit(29).
It is permitted to break a dish under the Chupah to remind us of the
destruction of Yerushalayim(30).
It is permitted to rip apart tzitzis strings in order to replace them with
newer or better ones(31).
It is permitted to burn a table or a chair if one has no other firewood
with which to warm himself or cook his food.
1 Devarim 20:19.
2 Darkei Teshuvah 116:51.
3 Be'er Moshe 5:136.
4 See Mishneh Lemelech (Isurei Mizbeiach 7:3); Aruch ha-Shulchan 116:13; Har
Tzvi O.C. 2:101; Doveiv Meisharim 2:42; Be'er Moshe 5:136
5 See Darkei Teshuvah 116:51. It is definitely permitted to prune a tree in
order to enhance its growth; ibid.
6 Darkei Teshuvah 116:51.
7 Rambam Melachim 6:9; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav (Shmiras Guf v'Nefesh 15). See
also Seforno Devarim 20:20.
14 Rambam Melachim 6:8 based on Bava Kama 92a; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav
(Shmiras Guf v'Nefesh 15); Doveiv Meisharim 1:134.
16 This leniency should not be relied upon in order to make room for taking
walks or allowing air to circulate more freely, etc.; Chavos Yair 195; Bais
Yitzchak Y.D. 1:142; Aruch ha-Shulchan Y.D. 116:13.
17 Taz Y.D. 116:6 based on the Rosh, and agreed to by most poskim, see
Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav (ibid.); Chachmas Adam 68:7; Binyan Tziyon 1:61; S'dei
Chemed (Bais 102).
18 Divrei Chayim 2:57 and other poskim quoted in Darkei Teshuvah 116:51.
19 See Chasam Sofer Y.D. 102.
20 Kaf ha-Chayim 116:85.
21 See S'dei Chemed (Bais 102).
22 Ya'avetz 1:76.
23 Darkei Teshuvah 116:51.
24 Shevet ha-Levi 6:112-4, who reports that this is the custom.
25 Chasam Sofer Y.D. 102; Meishiv Davar 2:56. There are several points
involved in this procedure. See also Ya'avetz 1:76 who permits cutting down
a fruit tree for any reason if the tree will be replanted elsewhere, but
many poskim do not agree with this leniency, see Shevet ha-Levi 2:47 and
26 Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 6:10. Some Rishonim, however, hold that Bal
Tashchis on any item is Biblically forbidden, see Tosfos Avodah Zarah 11a
and Bava Metzia 32b. See also Chinuch 529.