A discussion of Halachic topics related to the Parsha of the
week. For final rulings, consult your Rav.
BAL TASHCHIS: PRESERVATION OF FRUIT TREES
The Mishnah(1) tells us that the Yom Tov of Shevuos is a Day of Judgement
for the fruits of the tree. It is a good time to review the Biblical
prohibition to cut down a fruit tree(2) for no reason. The prohibition is
based on a verse in Parashas Shoftim(3): When you besiege a city... to wage
war... do not destroy its trees by swinging an ax 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(4) are included, even a tree that bears bitter or wormy
fruit.(5) If, however, people will unknowingly eat the wormy fruit, then it
is permitted to cut the tree down.(6)
Many poskim maintain that the prohibition applies only to chopping down the
entire tree but not when just a few branches are cut.(7) Although some
authorities are stringent,(8) it is permissible to cut branches to meet any
need or to fulfill a mitzvah, e.g., if the branches are hovering over a
It is forbidden to cut a fruit-bearing tree that has yet to bear fruit.(10)
An aged tree, however, which experts say is no longer able to produce fruit
and is bothersome to maintain, may be cut down.(11)
There is a minority opinion that holds that even a non- fruit-bearing tree
should not be cut down indiscriminately.(12) It is permitted, though, to cut
down such a tree for any purpose or need, either commercial or personal.(13)
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(14) 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(15) that the moon
and stars are "punished" (eclipsed) because healthy, fruit-bearing trees are
chopped down. Rabbeinu Yehudah he-Chasid in his Will  also warns against
destroying any fruit-producing trees.
These additional Rabbinical admonitions lead some poskim(16) 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. Many
other poskim,(17) however, 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
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:
1. If the tree is ruining or weakening other nearby trees or fields.(18)
2. If the wood of the tree is more valuable than its fruit.(19)
3. If one needs to build a home on the site(20) where the tree is
growing.(21) Some poskim allow cutting the tree down only for a mitzvah
need,(22) e.g., to build a shul or a mikveh. Some poskim recommend that one
never cut down a tree in order to build a home on its site.(23)
4. If a fruit-laden tree is darkening the window of a house [or brings bugs
into the house, etc.], unless the problem can be alleviated by trimming the
As mentioned earlier, some poskim are hesitant about cutting down a fruit
tree 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
Thus whenever possible it is preferable:
1. To ask a non-Jew to cut down the tree.(26)
2. To sell the tree with the surrounding area to a non-Jew before cutting
3. Before chopping it down, to let the tree wither and die on its own.(28)
4. Whenever possible, to transplant the tree elsewhere.(29)
5. It is advisable that any decision involving the axing of a tree be
presented to a competent rabbi. When presenting the question, the following
information should be submitted:
a. If the tree bears, or will bear, fruit.
b. The location of the tree.
c. Its value and significance.
d. The reason for cutting it down.
e. If it is possible or worthwhile to transplant it.
f. If it can be cut down by a non-Jew.
g. 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(30) against needlessly destroying
anything of value, be it an article of clothing, a piece of food, a
beverage,(31) or a utensil. Anyone who ruins anything(32) that could be used
by others transgresses this injunction.(33) But when the item is destroyed
for a purpose there is no issue of bal tashchis. Thus:
1. It is permitted to destroy anything of value for any need, medical
reason, or monetary benefit.(34)
2. It is permitted to break a glass under the chupah to remind us of the
destruction of Jerusalem.(35)
3. It is permitted to rip apart kosher tzitzis strings in order to replace
them with newer or better ones.(36)
4. It is permitted to replace a kosher yeriah in a Sefer Torah with a newer
or a better one.(37)
5. 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.(38)
Rabbi Neustadt is Rav in Young Israel in Cleveland Heights. He may be
reached at 216-321-4635 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Rosh Hashanah 16a.
2 The prohibition applies also to trees owned by non-Jews, as well as to tre
es which do not have an owner at all; Shulchan Aruch Harav (Shemiras Guf
3 Devarim 20:19.
4 "Fruit trees" are only those trees whose fruit one would recite a borei
pri ha-eitz over; Shevet ha-Levi 5:95.
5 Darchei Teshuvah 116:51.
6 Be'er Moshe 5:136.
7 See Mishneh Lamelech (Isurei Mizbe'ach 7:3); Aruch ha-Shulchan 116:13; Har
Tzvi O.C. 2:101; Harav Y.S. Elyashiv and Harav S. Wosner (quoted in Eitz
ha-Sadeh 1, note 15).
8 See Doveiv Meisharim 2:42.
9 See Darchei Teshuvah 116:51. It is definitely permitted to prune a tree in
order to enhance its growth; ibid.
10 Darchei Teshuvah 116:51.
11 Rambam Hilchos Melachim 6:9; Shulchan Aruch Harav (Shemiras Guf v'Nefesh
15). See also Seforno Devarim 20:20.
18 Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 6:8, based on Bava Kamma 92a; Shulchan Aruch
Harav (Shemiras Guf v'Nefesh 15); Doveiv Meisharim 1:134.
20 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; Beis
Yitzchak Y.D. 1:142; Aruch ha-Shulchan Y.D. 116:13.
21 Taz Y.D. 116:6 based on the Rosh, and agreed to by most poskim; see
Shulchan Aruch Harav (ibid.); Chochmas Adam 68:7; Binyan Tziyon 1:61; Sdei
Chemed (Beis 102).
22 Divrei Chayim 2:57 and other poskim quoted in Darchei Teshuvah 116:51.
23 See Chasam Sofer Y.D. 102.
24 Kaf ha-Chayim 116:85.
25 See Sdei Chemed (Beis 102).
26 Yaavetz 1:76.
27 Darchei Teshuvah 116:51.
28 Shevet ha-Levi 6:112-4, who reports that this is the custom.
29 Chasam Sofer Y.D. 102; Meishiv Davar 2:56. There are several points
involved in this procedure. See also Yaavetz 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
30 Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 6:10 as understood by most authorities. Some
Rishonim, however, hold that bal tashchis on any item is Biblically
forbidden; see Tosafos Avodah Zarah 11a and Bava Metzia 32b. See also Sefer
ha-Chinuch 529 and Rambam, Sefer ha-Mitzvos 57.
31 Except water; O.C. 170:22. See Da'as Torah Y.D. 116:5.
32 Even if it worth only pennies; Rabbeinu Yonah in Sha'arei Teshuvah 3:82.