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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Tu B’Shevat is Coming!

Image: A fruit tree in midwinter, with a few dried leaves clinging. (Pixabay)

Tu B’Shevat (TOO beh-SHVAT) is coming, starting at sundown on January 20, 2019.  Look around you: if you live in the Northern Hemisphere the trees have prepared for the New Year of the Trees by dropping their old leaves and playing dead.

If you look even more closely you may see that there are the tiniest beginnings of buds on the tips of those bare branches. Ha! It isn’t dead – it is preparing to leaf out.

To learn more about the holiday, Tu B’Shevat, read Tu B’Shevat for Beginners and Four New Years Every Year?

What if anything are you doing for Tu B’Shevat? A seder? A tree-planting? Gardening routines and rituals?  Whatever you do, I hope that you are healthy and that any new beginnings in your life bear lovely fruit!

Do You Tu B’Shevat?

IMAG0870

Tu B’Shevat is coming!  If you look closely at the photo to the left, you can see that my little fig tree is getting ready for the New Year of the Trees by dropping all its old leaves and playing dead.

If you look even more closely (maybe with Photoshop) you’ll see that there are the tiniest beginnings of buds on the tips of those bare branches. The tree isn’t really dead; it’s preparing to leaf out.

I’ve been looking dead lately myself. A series of ailments has laid me so low that writing blog posts has had to take a back seat. I hope, like the tree, to leaf out and bear fruit in the near future.

In the meantime, what if anything are you doing for Tu B’Shevat? A seder? A tree-planting? Gardening routines and rituals? Since the holiday has strong Zionist resonances, perhaps you are going to vote in the World Zionist Congress elections. Whatever you do, I hope that you are healthy and that any new beginnings in your life bear lovely fruit!

Four New Years Every Year?!

Happy New YearNew Year’s Day comes only once a year – doesn’t it?

In the Gregorian Calendar and most other calendars, that’s certainly true. But this is yet another way that the Jewish calendar is different. We celebrate FOUR New Year’s:

Rosh Hashanah is translated “the head of the year.” In the fall, on the first of Tishrei, we celebrate the most well-known New Year’s Day in Judaism. This is the day that the number of the year changes (5774 to 5775, etc.) It’s the day we remember the beginning of Jewish time (the Creation) and reflect on the end of Jewish time, as well. It is also the Biblical date for starting the sabbatical and jubilee (shemita) years. For American Jews, this is a day for synagogue and a festive meal.

Tu B’Shevat (the 15th of Shevat) is the New Year of the Trees which falls in midwinter. It began as an accounting device, a “fiscal year” for tithing produce from trees (olives, dates, figs, etc.) In the 16th century, the mystical rabbis of Safed were excited to be living in the land of Israel after their flight from Spain, and they began to observe the day with a seder and mystical symbolism. In the 19th century, Zionists celebrated the day as a celebration of the greening of the land of Israel, and in the 21st century, the day has come to be a day of ecological concern and action.

1st of Nisan in early spring is the first day of the first month of the Biblical year. According to Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1, the first of Nisan is “the new year for kings and for festivals.” The reigns of kings were calculated from this date, and the festival of Passover, which falls later in Nisan, is the festival which begins the history of the Jews as a nation.

1st of Elul in late summer was the beginning of the fiscal year for animal tithes in Israel. When the temple stood, people who raised animals were obligated to give a tithe from their flocks. Nowadays this is the date upon which we begin the process of preparation for the purification of the Days of Awe in the following month.

As a Jew living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I live in a place where we also celebrate the Gregorian New Year on Jan 1, the Chinese New Year in the spring, and the Islamic New Year which travels around the seasons, a feature of their lunar calendar!

Every New Year is a moment of hope in the stream of time, reminding us that our days are limited but that what lies ahead is as yet unwritten. As the great medieval Jewish philosopher Bachya Ibn Pekuda wrote,

“Our days are scrolls. Write in them what you wish to be remembered.”

Tu B’Shevat for Beginners

Image: Forest of bare trees, with dawn shining through. Photo by Mzlle/Pixabay.

There’s a wonderful Jewish holiday coming soon – 15 Sh’vat, also known as Tu B’Shevat.

It’s not a huge big deal, unless you choose to make a big deal of it. However, if you are around a synagogue, you may hear about it. If you know Jews who are very concerned with the earth and its care, you may hear about it.

All Jewish holidays have changed through history. This one may have changed the most, because it has gone from being an accounting device (really! see below) to being Jewish Earth Day. What hasn’t changed is its other name: The New Year of the Trees.

Here are the basic facts for Tu B’Shevat:

1. THE NAME.  Tu B’Shevat means “15th of Shevat.” Tu is a way of pronouncing the letters that make up the number 15 in Hebrew. (For more about Hebrew numbers, check out this article in Wikipedia.) Shevat is the month in the Jewish calendar that includes the deep winter in Israel, generally January and a bit of February.

2. ORIGINAL MEANING. Tu B’Shevat is often referred to as the “New Year for Trees.” But didn’t we already celebrate a New Year at Rosh HaShanah?  And a secular New Year on January 1? This is the beginning of a fiscal year for agricultural accounting of plants in the Land of Israel. Originally, it was a calendar date at which farmers began counting the year for trees, so that they’d know when trees were old enough to reap the fruit according to Jewish Law (Leviticus 19:23-25), and the point from which tithes could be calculated.  At this time of year, the trees are either dormant or just beginning to blossom.

3. MYSTICAL MEANINGS. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, some traveled east to the land of Israel. Most settled in and around the town of Safed, in the northern Galilee, which became a center for Jewish mysticism (kabbalah.)  These mystics began to mark the holiday with a seder (ritual meal eaten in a particular order) somewhat like the Passover seder. At a Tu B’Shevat seder, four cups of wine are drunk and seven different kinds of fruit.  The seder was a celebration of rededication to the Land of Israel and an appreciation of its trees.

4. ZIONIST MEANINGS. With the return to the Land of Israel in the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews revived the observance of Tu B’Shevat as a rededication to the land and a celebration of the relationship between Jews and this particular plot of earth. Many Jews worldwide observed the custom of planting trees in Israel, to replace trees that had been stripped from the land during the Roman and Ottoman periods.

5. JEWISH EARTH DAY.  In the late 20th century, as concern for the environment has grown, Tu B’Shevat has taken on more meaning as a day for Jews to express their concern for ecological issues.  The Tu B’Shevat seder has been revived as not only a celebration of the Land of Israel and its trees, but as a celebration of the holiness of the earth and its creatures.

Tu B’Shevat for Beginners

Tu B'Shevat Tree Planting
Tu B’Shevat Tree Planting (Photo credit: Hillels of Georgia)

In a few days we will celebrate Tu B’Shevat (in 2013, it begins the evening of January 25).  Here are the basics:

1. THE NAME.  “Tu B’Shevat” means “15th of Shevat.” Tu is a way of pronouncing the letters that make up the number 15 in Hebrew. (For more about Hebrew numbers, check out this article in Wikipedia.) Shevat is the month in the Jewish calendar that includes the deep winter in Israel, generally January and a bit of February.

2. ORIGINAL MEANING. Tu B’Shevat is often referred to as the “New Year for Trees.” But didn’t we already celebrate a New Year at Rosh HaShanah?  This is the beginning of a fiscal year for agricultural accounting in the Land of Israel. Originally, it was a calendar date at which farmers began counting the year for trees, so that they’d know when trees were old enough to reap the fruit according to Jewish Law (Leviticus 19:23-25), and the point from which tithes could be calculated.  At this time of year, the trees are either dormant or just beginning to blossom.

3. MYSTICAL MEANINGS. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, some traveled east to the land of Israel. Most settled in and around the town of Safed, in the northern Galilee, which became a center for Jewish mysticism (kabbalah.)  These mystics began to mark the holiday with a seder (ritual meal eaten in a particular order) somewhat like the Passover seder. At a Tu B’Shevat seder, four cups of wine are drunk and seven different kinds of fruit.  The seder was a celebration of rededication to the Land of Israel and an appreciation of its trees.

4. ZIONIST MEANINGS. With the return to the Land of Israel in the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews revived the observance of Tu B’Shevat as a rededication to the land and a celebration of the relationship between Jews and this particular plot of earth. Many Jews worldwide observed the custom of planting trees in Israel, to replace trees that had been stripped from the land during the Ottoman period.

5. JEWISH EARTH DAY.  In the late 20th century, as concern for the environment has grown, Tu B’Shevat has taken on more meaning as a day for Jews to express their concern for ecological issues.  The Tu B’Shevat seder has been revived as not only a celebration of the Land of Israel and its trees, but as a celebration of the holiness of the earth and its creatures.