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.