Tree = Man? Or Tree = Man!

Resolving the Ambiguity at the Heart of Bal Tashchit

by Rabbi Yehoshua Kahan


Tu BiShevat is popularly referred to as “The New Year for the Trees”. This evokes in many of us an image of anthropomorphized trees getting together and celebrating, perhaps along the lines of the Ents, those humanized trees of Lord of the Rings. The truth is that Tu BiShevat is less of a new year for the trees as it is a new year for the halachot of the trees. Many halachot which relate to trees and their fruit are time-dependant, and one of the critical dates for determining the applicability of those halachot is Tu BiShevat. Over time, however, custom has enable Tu Bishevat to expand and address many other ways in which trees appear in Jewish tradition and literature.

One of the most well-know of all tree-related traditions is the mitzvah of Bal Tashchit – the prohibition of cutting down fruit trees even in times of war. Based upon the underlying principle of this mitzvah, we are enjoined from wantonly destroying any useful object, even if it happens to belong to us. Thus, in a society of material surfeit, bal tashchit has become the clarion cry awakening us to the waste that our lifestyles generated daily unawares. In fact, this mitzvah has come to symbolize an environmental consciousness that, it is sometimes claimed, is a foundation of the Torah’s value system. Indeed, bal tashchit is invoked in such a wide variety of circumstances that often the original, framing context is lost. These framing contexts deserve more attention, however, as they serve as the “womb” in which the embryonic mitzvah first emerges, and we can learn a tremendous amount regarding the deeper implication of a given mitzvah by carefully examining its setting.

Let us then re-examine the setting of bal tashchit with an eye on allowing an underlying ethos to emerge. Here is the original quote:

“When you besiege a city for many days, making war against it to capture it – do not destroy its trees, wielding an axe against them, for from them shall you eat, and them you shall not cut down – ki ha’adam etz hasadeh to come from before you in siege. Only trees which you know are not food trees – those may you destroy, chopping them and building a siege-engine against the city which which you are making war, until it falls”.

The above translation is my own, and I have intentionally left untranslated a key clause, the interpretation of which will serve as the focus of our investigation. There is so much that can and has been said in explanation and interpretation of these verses, it could well serve as the subject of an entire book. We’ll suffice with just a few observations:

1) The context is war – and not just any war, but rather the war for the initial conquest of Eretz Yisrael, an obligatory war (mitchemet mitzvah), from which not even those usual exempt from military duty are excused (“even the groom from his chamber and the bride from her canopy – Mishnah Sota 8:7). If there were even extenuating circumstances in which the expectations of civilized society take a back seat to the exigencies of the present moment, this should be it. After all, “all’s fair…” And yet, it is precisely here that the Torah prohibits the chopping down of trees.

2) We are provided by the Torah with an explanation and a justification of the prohibition. In fact, it would seem we are provided with two such justifications, both introduced with the word “ki” (because). We’ll want to understand – what is the relationship of these two clauses – does the second restate the first, do they build upon one another, are they complementary or, perhaps in some way, contradictory?

Let us proceed to the central focus of our analysis: the untranslated words. Recall that the first justification for not destroying the city’s trees is “for from them you shall/may eat…” The second clause is difficult to translate without taking an interpretive stance, so, let us let our pre-eminent commentators Rashi and Ibn Ezra, do that. Rashi, on these words, writes as follows:

“Behold, the word ki here serves in the sense of “perhaps”: Perhaps the tree of the field is a man, taking refuge from you within the besieged city that it should suffer the afflictions of hunger and thirst, like the people of the city? (And seeing that this is not the case – supercommentators on Rashi), why should you destroy it?”

Rashi understands this second justificatory clause as a rhetorical question: since the tree is not your enemy, you have no business making it suffer. Rashi seems to view the tree as a actor in a moral situation. The fact that it can suffer, but cannot flee, has implication for the one who would chop it down even in extremis. Rashi here makes no reference to the previous justification – that we can/should eat of these trees. The invocation of the tree as object of our sympathy is a completely independent consideration.

Ibn Ezra takes a very different approach to the same words. He considers Rashi’s approach, brought in the name of a different commentator, dismisses it, and offers the following interpretation:

A somewhat free rendering of Ibn Ezra’s words, following the Ramban’s approving quotation, yields: “this is how the clause should be understood: ‘because you may eat from it for the tree of the field is the (life of) man, and you shall not chop it down (so that the city) comes before you in siege”. The meaning is: the tree of the field constitutes the life of man {here he gives another example where a object is metaphorically equated with life itself}…do not destroy the fruit tree which constitutes the life of man, it is only permitted to you to eat of it; it is forbidden to you to destroy it in order to subdue the besieged city.”

Ibn Ezra sees the two justificatory clauses as one. The underlying appeal is utilitarian – what kind of a short-sighted fool would chop down that which, ultimately, viewed from a perspective wider than the tunnel vision imposed by war, is the basis of human society. The tree of the field IS man, namely, his source of sustenance.

What vastly different understandings of the basis of bal tashchit have Rashi and Ibn Ezra provides us with! It’s as though Ibn Ezra were a charter member of Ducks Unlimited, while Rashi were the ultimate tree-hugger! But which one is right? Is Jewish environmentalism conservative or liberal? Is it at heart an extremely enlightened and long-viewing self-interest, or is it an expansion of the covenanting spiritual vision of Judaism to include even the vegetable kingdom? Furthermore: how can two of our greatest commentators come to such opposing interpretations if they are basing themselves upon the same few words?

The key to unraveling these puzzles lies in a single letter. The words, ha’adam etz hasadeh. can be translated either as:the [life of] man is the tree of the field (Ibn Ezra’s take) or as: Is the tree of the field man? (Rashi’s take). It all depends upon the letter hey which is prefixed to the word adam (man). We are accustomed to translate a prefixed heyas the definite article. This usage of the prefixed hey is known as hey hayedi’ah – the hey of knowledge. But there is another usage of the prefixed hey, less common but by no means rare. That usage is termed hey hashe’elah, the hey of question, which converts the following clause into a question. And, while in most circumstances, it is easy to distinguish between the two based on the vocalization of the text in each instance, in this case, the differences disappear due to the fact that the hey come just before the letter aleph. It is, therefore, impossible to determine which meaning is the correct one based on even the most careful grammatical analysis.

The letter hey, so intimately associated with the Divine Name, prefaced to the word adam. Is it assertion, or inquiry? Is it the certainty of indication, of definition, to the excluding of other possibilities – in short, is it THE MAN, triumphant and ascendant? Or is it the opening of new horizons, the weighing of new arrangements and relationships and the re-evaluation of one’s own identity in light of these considerations – in short, it is MAN???, learning of who he is only in the context of before what/whom he stands?

The Torah refuses to dispel the ambiguity. It insists we consider carefully both utilitarian and selfless, other-directed motives for our actions. We are both expansive and inwardly-concerned beings, we are both finite and moving toward the infinite, and are called upon to rebalance every moment between the two.

The tree of our mitzvah of bal tashchit can be seen easily to represent any and every facet of our world which provides for our artifice so much bounty and sustenance. It is constantly so tempting to reap the immediately accessible benefits, excusing our lack of vision by the demands of that war which is the life of NOW. What will stay our hand? Principled liberal environmentalists for a long time have dismissed the Ducks Unlimited approach as too narrow a platform upon which to base the broad vision demanded by a thoroughgoing environmentalist ethic, and fear that the self-interested motivation will ultimately prove fickle and scuttle the entire program. For their part, prudent conservative environmentalists insist that an environmentalism that excludes human needs as we know them from the equation is at best go-nowhere pie-in-the-sky lacking mass appeal, and at worst, an invitation to egregious moral excess of the sort famously depicted in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, and advocated by groups such as Earth First!

The Torah takes us beyond these competitive, monolithic schemes to a vision of man as both astride and subject to nature – Mother Nature as well as his own. When we realize that, far from excluding each other, enlightened self-interest and covenant-based compassion – extended beyond the sphere of the merely human – actually illuminate and propel each other forward, then we will have fulfilled the mitzvah of Bal Tashchit in its most profound sense: “For from it shall you eat” – the Tree of Life, that is, the Torah!

Rabbi Yehoshua Kahan has been active in Jewish education in various settings for twenty years, most recently as Educational Director of Livnot U’Lehibanot. He currently teaches at Yeshivat Bat Ayin

This article is printed as part of the Tu b’Shevat Learning Campaign, sponsored by Canfei Nesharim, an organization that is educating the Orthodox community about the importance of protecting the environment. 

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