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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"R. Johanan said: What is the meaning of the verse, 'For man is the tree of the field'? Is then man a tree of the field?! Since it is written, 'For you may eat of them, but you may not cut them down' and then it is written, '[the non-fruit-bearing tree] you shall destroy and cut down' [it is clear that some trees may not be cut down and others may]. How is this to be understood? If a scholar is reliable, [then you may] 'eat from him and do not cut him down,' but if he is not, 'destroy him and cut him down.'"

Tosafot, among the medieval commentators on the Talmud, hasten to point out that this is a metaphor; "eat from him" means learn from him and don't separate from him, and "cut him down" means find another teacher.

Sympathy for the Tree

Rabbi Jacob ben Isaac Ashkenazi (16th century), who wrote the classic Yiddish work of Bible interpretation Tze'enah u-Re'enah, returns to the tone of sympathy for the tree expressed by Rashi:

"[The Torah compares humans to trees] because, like humans, trees have the power to grow. And as humans have children, so trees bear fruit. And when a human is hurt, cries of pain are heard throughout the world, so when a tree is chopped down, its cries are heard throughout the world."

The most creative and insistent interpreter who sees the verse as a metaphor is the 16th century Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal of Prague. Loew published the idea several times in several different works. In 1578, Loew wrote:

"'For man is a tree of the field,' and his branches are in heaven, for the head, which is the root of a man, faces upwards, and this is why man is called a 'tree of the field' planted in heaven, and through his intellect, he is planted in his place, which, if all of the winds were to come and blow, they would not move him from his place" (Sefer Gur Aryeh, Genesis 9:21).

The reference to the ineffectual force of the winds refers back to and inverts an early comment by R. Eleazar ben Azariah: One whose deeds outweigh his learning is like a tree with fewer branches than roots. For Loew, the intellect/learning served as one's roots. This theme is also expressed in a later comment that identifies the fruit of the trees with human speech; ideas, not children, are a human's true offspring. Seeing speech as intellectual produce would also explain how Loew could refer to the intellectually rooted person as secure, but a person lacking intellect (a non-fruit bearing tree) could be uprooted or destroyed.

Loew's dialectic, identifying both similarities and differences, was adapted by the modern Israeli poet, Nathan Zach, who, after the Holocaust, did not have Loew's sense of confidence:

"When is man like a tree of the field?
Like the tree man flourishes.
Like man the tree is cut off.
And I do not know
where I have been nor where I will be-
like a tree of the field.

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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.