Every Person is a Tree

The Biblical law protecting fruit trees during war provides an opportunity for Jewish exegetes to reflect on ecology and the wanton destruction of life.

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Tu Bishvat is an appropriate time to explore Judaism's attitudes toward nature in general and trees specifically. In what appears to be a survey of various interpretations of a puzzling verse from Deuteronomy, Spitzer lays the groundwork for a controversial thesis. The Torah presents a distinction between fruit-bearing and non-fruit-bearing trees. The former must be saved from destruction during wartime, while the latter may be destroyed. This distinction informs many of the different readings that Spitzer unearths, but ultimately, as his final source demonstrates, the distinction is ignored. In war, destruction is indiscriminate.

"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 an 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? Only the trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siege works against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced." -- Deuteronomy 20:19-20 ki ha'adam etz hasadeh--Deuteronomy 20:19

 

Verse 19 prohibits the destruction of the fruit trees surrounding a city during a siege. Verse 20 explicitly permits the use of trees that are "not for eating" to be cut down in order to build siege works against the city. In between the two verses, in what is a puzzling justification for the law, is the phrase "ki ha'adam etz hasadeh" which this translation--from the Jewish Publication Society (JPS), following the explanation of the medieval commentator Rashi--understands as a question: "Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?

Trees are Noncombatants

Everett Fox, the translator of the Schocken Bible, also understands the difficult phrase as a question that contrasts human and tree. Fox, however, understands the conclusion of the verse differently. The phrase "lavo mipanekhah," which JPS translates as "to withdraw before you into the besieged city," Fox translates:

"Are the trees of the field human beings, (able) to come against you in a siege?"

Whether the trees have no way of defending themselves (JPS and Rashi) or are simply noncombatants (Fox), the intent is the same: trees play no part in the war and should be left alone.

Nevertheless, this reading is difficult. Are trees that "do not yield food" any more capable of fleeing (or of attacking humans) than fruit trees are? How, then, can one explain that the Torah permits non-fruit-bearing trees to be cut down for building siege works?

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra explicitly rejects Rashi's understanding:

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.