Bal Tashkeit: Do Not Destroy

Image: Red apples on the branch (Pixel2013/Pixabay)

Jewish tradition has a special respect for trees. A passage in Deuteronomy starts a discussion that will go on for centuries:

(19) When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? 

(20) Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced.

Deuteronomy 20: 19-20

This passage appears in a long discussion of the rules of war. Even in the heat of battle, fruit-bearing trees must not be disturbed. Why is this? We get a clue in verse 20: we may destroy trees that do not yield food. The fruit-bearing trees provide life for human beings, animals, and birds. To destroy them is to lay waste to the earth, because life on earth is interconnected.

This prohibition is inconvenient in all-out war. One is tempted to say, “But the other side has destroyed trees! We must teach them a lesson!” Or even, “These are really our trees, so we can destroy them!” And surely some military strategists argued for a work-around: what if we kill the trees but by some other means than cutting them down? The Sages have a fast answer for that:

6) “You shall not cut down its tree by wielding an axe against it”: This tells me only of iron (i.e., an axe blade). Whence do I derive (the same for destroying it by) diverting a water course from it? From “You shall not destroy its tree” — in any manner.

Sifrei Devarim 203:6-10

What if the tree is in the way of a farmer who is trying to plow? May he destroy a fruit tree? Again, the answer is quite firm:

Ravina objects to this: And let the tanna also enumerate one who chops down beautiful fruit trees in the course of plowing, and its prohibition is from here: “For you may eat of it, and you shall not chop it down”(Deuteronomy 13:18).

BT Makkot 22a

Some of the objections to the destruction of fruit trees are quite poetic:


When people cut down the wood of the tree which yields fruit, its cry goes from one end of the world to the other, and the voice is inaudible.


Pirke de R. Eliezer 34:4

Of course, there are times and places where it is necessary to destroy a tree, even a fruit tree. Maimonides gives us a succinct description of that in the Mishnah Torah:

Fruit-bearing trees must not be cut down outside of the city43 nor do we block their irrigation water causing the trees to dry up, as it says, “do not destroy her trees” (Deut. 20:19). Anyone who cuts down a tree receives lashes. This is not only at times of a siege, but anyone at anytime who chops down a fruit-bearing tree by for destructive purposes receives stripes. The tree may be cut down if it is damaging other trees or it is damaging another’s field, or because the tree is more valuable for its wood than its fruit. The Torah only forbids wanton destruction.

Mishneh Torah, Kings & Wars 6:8

Maimonides zeros in on the principle that the Sages derived from the discussion of fruit trees: “The Torah only forbids wanton destruction.” Thus from a Torah discussion of the rules of war, we learn the rules of peace as well: we are commanded to preserve this world, and not to engage in wanton destruction.

When I read in the news about Israelis destroying the olive trees belonging to Palestinians, all I can think is, “Who taught Torah to these people?” Of all the ways they might fight with the Palestinians, why choose this particular one? Olive trees normally live to a great age. They give fruit to eat, and oil for many purposes. If this is not “wanton destruction,” then what is?

I do not have an easy answer to the situation in the West Bank. I have friends on all sides of that particular argument. But I know one part of this is very simple: we are commanded not to destroy fruit trees.

Ancient olive trees. Photo by Dimitri Laudin/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.
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Watch Those Poppy Seed Bagels!

Image: A poppy seed bagel with cream cheese, tomato, and mushrooms. (yossigee/pixabay

Poppy seed bagels are among my favorite Jewish food treats. The chewy, nutty black seeds are so delicious on a bagel that it is worth the trouble of dealing with tiny orbs. Then add a bit of cream cheese, some lox, onion and cucumber, and it’s a chewy bit of heaven! Poppy seeds are healthy, too, as they are good sources for oleic acid, dietary fiber, B vitamins and several minerals.

However: if your life includes even occasional drug tests, you should know that the stories about positive drug tests from eating poppy seeds are not urban legend.  The Washington Post recently reported that a woman faced monitoring for drug abuse after she was admitted to a Maryland hospital in labor, and a routine drug screen showed traces of opiates in her bloodstream.

The positive test result meant that her daughter had to stay in the hospital and be monitored for five days. Afterward, Eden was assigned a case worker who closed her file after determining that she was a “legitimate case of the poppy seed defense,” WBAL-TV reported. – The Washington Post, 8/8/18

So, enjoy your bagels, but if there’s a chance you will be subjected to tests for opiates, choose plain or sesame seed instead!

What’s your favorite bagel? Where do you find the best bagels in your area?

What’s Your Jewish Food Observance?

I’m curious about the Jewish food observance of my readers. If you want to add something to your answer, you can do so in the “Comments.” Thanks for participating!

Potluck Shabbat!

Image: An assortment of foods in colorful bowls. (Photo: fotosunny/Shutterstock)

I’m so excited! I love inviting my students to a potluck Shabbat evening, and I’ve sent out invitations for later this month.

I thought I’d share my “to-do” list here, in case any readers are interested in inviting friends for a potluck Shabbat. Hospitality is a mitzvah, remember – this is something you can do that will enrich your life, enrich your Shabbat, and build your community.

If you are thinking, “Oh no, my house is cluttered!” I will share with you that I am a haphazard housekeeper and practically a Queen of Clutter. I have decided not to let that stop me. If some room needs to be off limits, I shut the door.  If they see that I’m cluttery, well, that will let them feel better about their own housekeeping!

  1. Decide who to invite. If you are anxious about entertaining, keep it small. If you are comfortable feeding numbers, go for it. Either way, decide if you are also inviting significant others and children. If your house isn’t baby-proofed, you should warn parents about that.
  2. Choose a way to send invitations, and how you’ll keep track of numbers. I used Eventbrite, since I was inviting 36 people plus possible family folks. You might choose an online invitation service like Evite, or just do it via email or paper invitations. Or phone calls (for that retro feeling.)
  3. Plan your menu. I generally make a vegan main dish (black beans and brown rice  this month) and have challah, wine, and grape juice. I invite guests to bring a vegetarian side dish, salad, or dessert. I personally do not like to try to track what everyone is bringing, so we get what we get. I usually have a box of cookies ready if no one brings dessert. If you are not a cook, cheese pizza makes a nice main dish.
  4. Make your grocery list. Be sure to add to it paper napkins and plastic silverware and cups if you will need them. Also butter and/or honey for the challah.
  5. Check your kiddush cup or other ritual objects well ahead of time. Can you find them? Do they need polishing or de-waxing? Have you got Shabbat candles and matches?
  6. Got pets? Decide what their situation will be during the evening. Also, warn guests who may be allergic that you’ve got them.
  7. Have extra serving utensils ready. It’s amazing how many people get here and then realize they didn’t bring forks to serve their salad.
  8. Decide where people will put the food when they arrive. I have them put it directly on the table. Some people then sit at the table, and if there are more than 12 people (the max I can seat at one table) then I make sure I have chairs for the rest. They’ll spread out in the living room and on the patio.
  9. Plan some place where people can put coats, etc. I usually have them put them on my bed.
  10. Make sure you have a bentcher or other text for the blessings. Don’t rely on memory unless you are really sure of it.

On Friday:

  1. Set the table.
  2. Have the food ready. Be sure to have wine, grape juice, and water on the table.
  3. Welcome your guests!

One other thing it’s good to decide ahead of time; do you want help with clean up? What specific jobs can people do to help you with it? That way, when someone offers, you’ll be ready with something for them to do. I usually put a pot of water on the counter for silverware, so it is not piled in with everything else in the sink.

The first time I did hosted Shabbat dinner for friends, it felt like a huge big deal. I was nervous about the house, the food, the everything. And then, as my disabilities became more of a challenge, I quit doing it for a while, until the idea of a potluck occurred to me. Now I look forward to these evenings, which let my students get to know one another in a way they can’t in the classroom.

Shabbat shalom uv’tei avon!  

(Peaceful Sabbath and bon appetit!)

 

Blessings for Vegetables and Fruit

Image: A large display of fruits and vegetables. (Photo via MaksPhotography/Pixabay)

It’s spring! Every week new fruits and vegetables become available, depending on where you live.  The appearance of these new goodies offer us a great opportunity to take on the practice of saying blessings for our food.

Saying the blessings causes us to pause for a moment and NOTICE what we are doing. We stop, we say the words, we hear the words acknowledging that this is a special product of the earth, and then we eat it. It is both a mindfulness practice and a way of reminding ourselves that the produce doesn’t grow at the store: it grows in the earth, watered by the rain (and maybe irrigation) and it passes through many hands on its way to us. Here are the blessings:

A blessing for vegetables and things that grow from the ground:

Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam, borei p’ree haAdmah.

Blessed are You, Eternal, Our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, Who creates produce from the ground.

A blessing for fruit from a tree:

Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh HaOlam, borei p’ree haEtz.

Blessed are You, Eternal, Our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, Who creates fruit from the tree.

It is perfectly OK to say the blessing in English. That said, if you are interested in learning Hebrew, memorizing blessings and prayers is a great beginning.

Enjoy the springtime!

Animal Rights and Judaism

Image: A black and white cow. (wernerdetjen/pixabay)

What are the rights of animals in Jewish tradition?

All animals are under the care of human beings; we are responsible for their well-being.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” – Genesis 1:28

Animals are entitled to rest on Shabbat.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.

– Exodus 20:8-10

Jews should avoid causing unnecessary pain to an animal, including emotional distress. We are permitted to eat some animals for food, but they  must be treated kindly. Properly schechting an animal involves keeping it calm and then killing it as quickly as possible with a minimum of pain.

For the same reason, physically altering animals is forbidden: docking tails, shaping ears, etc. are unnecessary pain.

One highly difficult question has to do with neutering animals. Castration of any animal or person is explicitly forbidden in Torah (Leviticus 22:24.) Neutering females is somewhat less fraught, but many poskim (rabbis ruling on the question) think it is included under the rule against cruelty. Balancing the commandments and the requirements of public health can be a very complex puzzle.

When an ox or sheep or goat is born, it shall remain seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on it shall be acceptable as a food offering to the Lord. – Lev. 22:27

You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep going astray and ignore them. You shall take them back to your brother.  And if he does not live near you and you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall stay with you until your brother seeks it. Then you shall restore it to him.  And you shall do the same with his donkey or with his garment, or with any lost thing of your brother’s, which he loses and you find; you may not ignore it.  You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen down by the way and ignore them. You shall help him to lift them up again. – Deut. 22:1-4

Even if we dislike the owner of an animal, we may not take out our frustrations on his animals. A lost animal must be fed and sheltered, and an animal in distress must be rescued.

If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him.  -Exodus 23:4-5

Animals are entitled to eat when they are working and surrounded by food.

You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain. – Deut. 25:4

Hunting for sport is forbidden; one may theoretically hunt for food, but shechting the animal (killing it in a kosher fashion) is extremely difficult under those circumstances, and really not practical.

R. Simeon b. Pazi expounded [on Psalm 1:1-2] : ‘Happy is the man that hath not walked’ — i.e., to theatres and circuses of idolaters ‘nor stood in the way of sinners’ — that is he who does not attend contests of wild beasts;  ‘nor sat in the seat of the scornful‘ — that is he who does not participate in [evil] plannings. And lest one say, ‘Since I do not go to theatres or circuses nor attend contests of wild animals, I will go and indulge in sleep.’ Scripture therefore continues, ‘And in His Law doth He meditate day and night.’ – Avodah Zarah 18b

We don’t find any hunters [in our tradition] besides Nimrod and Esau, and this is not the way of the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. . . There is an unseemly element in it, namely cruelty, and also a measure of danger. . . Therefore, one who listens to me will dwell securely and placidly in his house and not waste his time with such things. –  Rabbi Yechezkel ben Yehuda Landau, in Responsa Noda beYehuda II Yoreh Deah 10, 18th c.

Animals should be fed first, before the humans eat.

So says Rav Yehuda that Rav says: It is prohibited for a person to taste anything until he gives food to his animal, as it is stated in the verse: “And I will give grass in the field for your animals” (Deuteronomy 11:15), and only afterward is it written in that verse:“And you shall eat and be satisfied.” – Gittin 62a

 

10 Ways to De-Militarize Your Holiday Table

Image:  Two people duel with table knives over a table and desserts. (Photo: lolostock/Shutterstock)

Dreading arguments at your holiday table? Jewish tradition teaches us that it is the responsibility of both the hosts and the guests to make such a gathering as pleasant as possible.

From an article on hospitality in the Virtual Jewish Library:

In Judaism, showing hospitality (hakhnasat orchim) to guests is considered a mitzvah. When one knows of strangers who are hungry or need a place to relax, it becomes a legal obligation. Some rabbis consider hakhnasat orchim (literally the “bringing in of strangers”) to be a part of gemilut hasadim (giving of loving kindness).

Guests also have responsibilities to the host. They are obligated to express gratitude for what the host has done for them:

Ben Zoma said: A good guest, what does he say? The host went to so much trouble on my behalf! He gave me so much food! How much wine did he bring before me! How many loaves [geluskaot] did he bring before me! All the effort that he expended, he expended only for me.

However, a bad guest, what does he say? What effort did the host expend? I ate only one piece of bread, I ate only one piece of meat and I drank only one cup of wine. All the effort that the host expended he only expended on behalf of his wife and children.

With regard to a good guest, what does Ben Zoma say? “Remember that you magnify his work, whereof men have sung” (Job 36:24); he praises and acknowledges those who helped him.  – Berakhot 58a

Here are some options for navigating contentious discussions at the holiday table:

  1. Focus on what you love about the people at the table. Challenge yourself to see the spark of the divine in every person at the table.
  2. If your family enjoys argument, by all means enjoy!
  3. If someone at the table finds argument terrifying, be gentle with them. Just accept that this is who they are, and offer them a hug, more pie, or the TV remote. Don’t be mad at them for not arguing; it just isn’t their game.
  4. If you are the person feeling terrified by arguments, remember: A person who seems angry may just be avoiding admitting (to themselves?) that they are afraid.
  5. If someone at the table expresses a feeling of existential threat (“It could mean nuclear war!” “We could wind up in the poorhouse!” etc) focus on their feelings rather than their logic. Saying, “You are being silly!” is actually quite cruel. They are scared.
  6. If someone at the table feels hope for the first time in a long time, respect their relief if only for the peace of the day, even if you think the thing that makes them feel hopeful is a sign of the coming apocalypse.
  7. Leave words like “bigot” or “idiot” out of the conversation. They never add value. The rabbis of Pirkei Avot tell us to “give everyone the benefit of the doubt.”
  8. If someone says something you find bigoted, don’t feed the troll! Try, “Whew! I am sure you didn’t mean that the way it sounded! Let’s talk about something else.” Immediately offer a change of subject. Complimenting the food is always a safe change of subject: “This turkey is amazing, Aunt Ploni! What do you do to make it taste like this?”
  9. If someone is being a bully, don’t engage with them. Instead, turn to the person on the receiving end of the bullying and change the subject to something more pleasant. “The last time I saw you, you were excited about math club. How’s that going?” [The principle in both (8) and (9) is to give attention to people who are doing something beneficial, and to remove attention from people who are being jerks.]
  10. If all else fails, say “It’s Thanksgiving and I want to enjoy your company, not fight.” On Shabbat, I have been known to say, “Not on Shabbes. Next topic!” when a subject seemed likely to bring out the worst around the table.
  11. Remember: It’s only one day!