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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"What is the reasoning behind saying, 'Don't cut down a fruit tree since it is not like man who can run away from you?' In my opinion, we have no need for all this. But this is the meaning: 'For you may eat them and you shall not cut it down, for the tree is a man,' i.e., the tree of the field is the life of a man. This is like the usage in the verse '[A handmill or an upper millstone shall not be taken as a pledge for a loan,] for he is taking his soul as a pledge' (Deuteronomy 24:6), which means, 'he is taking his means of livelihood as a pledge.'....Behold, one may not destroy the fruit tree which is life for a human being, it is permitted only to eat from it... "

Where Rashi's approach shows sympathy for the tree, Ibn Ezra's approach is more practical. Why destroy your own livelihood?! Isaac Abarbanel (15th-century Portugal, Spain, and Italy) expresses both competing ideas and adds his own insights:

"There are two interchangeable reasons [for not destroying the fruit trees]. The first reason is that the phrase 'for you will eat from it' is a great promise that they will conquer the city and eventually eat the fruit of these trees, and therefore it is not appropriate to destroy them, for it is not right that a person should damage that which will benefit him.

The second reason is in the Torah's saying 'it you will not cut down for man is the tree of the field,' by which it means, 'furthermore, it is not appropriate to make war on trees, only on people,' for it is not right that the mighty should exercise force to wage war against the weak, and this is why it says 'it you will not cut down,' for it is a tree, and it has no hands to fight."

Interestingly, it seems that Abarbanel, in using the term "interchangeable" acknowledges that the two approaches may both be valid readings. Certainly, both readings are ethically instructive. Nevertheless, either "ki ha'adam etz hasadeh" is a question, or it is not, and both readings, while interchangeable, cannot be simultaneously correct.

A Practical Reading

The halakhic (Jewish legal) tradition focuses on the practical reading of the verse. On the basis of this verse, the rabbis extended the prohibition of the meaningless destruction of the trees to a generalized prohibition against waste, known as bal tashchit, "Do not destroy." According to Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 6:10):

"This is the law not only for trees, but anyone who breaks containers, tears clothes, destroys a building, stops up a well, or wastes food violates the prohibition of 'do not destroy.' "

A third trend in reading this verse, however, begins with the more atomistic reading of the Talmud, in which the analogy of the tree with a person is seen as a metaphor. The Talmud (Taanit 7a) reports the following interpretation of Rabbi Johanan, a third century rabbi who lived in the land of Israel:

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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.