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Weekly Halacha

Selected Halachos Related to Parshas Behaaloscha

By Rabbi Doniel Neustadt

The following is a discussion of Halachic topics related to the Parsha of the week.For final rulings, consult your Rav.


BAL TASHCHIS: PRESERVATION of FRUIT TREES

It is Biblically prohibited to cut down a fruit tree for no reason. The prohibition is based on a verse in Parashas Shoftim(1): When you besiege a city.. to wage war.. do not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them, for from it you will eat, and you shall not cut it down.. only a tree that you know is not a food tree, it you may destroy and cut down...

All fruit trees are included, even a tree that bears bitter or wormy fruit(2). If, however, people will unknowingly eat the wormy fruit, then it is permitted to cut the tree down(3).

The poskim debate whether the prohibition applies to chopping down the entire tree or even just a few branches(4). Although it is proper to be stringent, it is permissible to cut branches to meet any need or to fulfill a mitzvah, e.g., if the branches are hovering over a sukkah(5).

A fruit-bearing tree that has yet to bear fruit is still forbidden to cut(6). An aged tree, however, which experts say is no longer able to produce fruit and is bothersome to maintain, may be cut down(7).

There is a minority opinion that holds that even a non fruit-bearing tree should not be cut down indiscriminately(8). It is permitted, though, to cut such a tree down for any purpose or need, either commercial or personal(9).

THE ELEMENT of DANGER

As if to reinforce the Biblical prohibition quoted above against cutting down a fruit tree, we find in Rabbinic literature some ominous warnings against doing so. The Talmud(10) quotes Rav Chanina as blaming his son's untimely passing on the fact the his son had cut down a fig tree while it was still flourishing. Additionally, we find in the Talmud(11) that the moon and stars are "punished" (eclipsed) because healthy, fruit-bearing trees are chopped down. Rav Yehudah ha-Chasid in his Will [#45] also warns against destroying any fruit-producing trees.

These additional Rabbinical admonitions lead some poskim(12) to conclude that even when halachically permitted to cut down a tree - as we will explain later - still, one should be reluctant to do so for there is an element of danger involved even when there is no halachic restriction. But many other poskim(13) maintain that the Rabbinical deterrents were merely meant to add a measure of severity to the Biblical prohibition, but when it is halachically permitted, there is no danger involved at all. The following list, therefore, is based on the opinion of the more lenient authorities.

The basic rule is that it is only forbidden to cut a tree down unnecessarily, in a destructive manner. It is permitted to chop a tree down if one will benefit from destroying it. Therefore it is permitted to cut down a fruit tree:

  1. If the tree is ruining or weakening other nearby trees or fields(14).
  2. If the wood of the tree is more valuable than its fruit(15).
  3. If one needs to build a home on the site(16) where the tree is growing(17). Some poskim allow cutting the tree down only for a mitzvah need(18), e.g. to build a shul or a mikveh, while others do not rely on this leniency at all(19).
  4. A fruit laden tree which is darkening the window of a house [or brings bugs into the house, etc.] may be cut down, unless the problem can be alleviated by trimming the branches(20).

As mentioned earlier, some poskim are hesitant about cutting a fruit tree down under any circumstances. While many rely on the more lenient poskim who permit doing so - halachically, if one could follow one of the following options he would go a long way towards satisfying even the more stringent opinions(21). Thus whenever possible it is preferable:

  1. To ask a non-Jew to cut down the tree(22).
  2. To sell the tree with the surrounding area to a non-Jew before cutting it(23).
  3. Before chopping it down, let the tree wither and die on its own(24).
  4. Whenever possible, the tree should be transplanted elsewhere(25).

Keeping in mind that chamira sakanta m'eisura, that the halachah deals with danger more stringently than it does with prohibitions, it is advisable that any decision involving the axing of a tree be presented to a competent rav. When presenting this question, the following information should be submitted:

  1. If the tree bears, or will bear, fruit.
  2. The location of the tree.
  3. Its value and significance.
  4. The reason for cutting it down.
  5. If it is possible or worthwhile to replant it.
  6. If it can be cut down by a non-Jew.
  7. If it can be sold to a non-Jew.

BAL TASHCHIS

As an extension of the Biblical prohibition against cutting down fruit trees, the Rabbis added an injunction(26) against needlessly destroying anything of value, be it an article of clothing, a piece of food, a beverage(27) or a utensil. Anyone who ruins any thing that could be used by others transgresses this injunction(28). But when the item is destroyed for a purpose there is no issue of Bal Tashchis: Thus:

  1. It is permitted to destroy anything of value for any need, medical reason or monetary benefit(29).
  2. It is permitted to break a dish under the Chupah to remind us of the destruction of Yerushalayim(30).
  3. It is permitted to rip apart tzitzis strings in order to replace them with newer or better ones(31).
  4. It is permitted to burn a table or a chair if one has no other firewood with which to warm himself or cook his food.

FOOTNOTES:

1 Devarim 20:19.

2 Darkei Teshuvah 116:51.

3 Be'er Moshe 5:136.

4 See Mishneh Lemelech (Isurei Mizbeiach 7:3); Aruch ha-Shulchan 116:13; Har Tzvi O.C. 2:101; Doveiv Meisharim 2:42; Be'er Moshe 5:136

5 See Darkei Teshuvah 116:51. It is definitely permitted to prune a tree in order to enhance its growth; ibid.

6 Darkei Teshuvah 116:51.

7 Rambam Melachim 6:9; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav (Shmiras Guf v'Nefesh 15). See also Seforno Devarim 20:20.

8 Piskei Tosfos (Pesachim 132).

9 Darkei Teshuvah 116:51.

10 Bava Kama 91b; Bava Basra 26a.

11 Sukkah 29a. See also Pesachim 50b.

12 See Ya'avetz 1:76, Chasam Sofer Y.D. 102, M'ahrsham 1:22; 7:178, Minchas Elazar 3:13, Levushai Mordechai 57, and Divrei Yoel 1:92-9.

13 Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav (ibid.16); Binyan Tziyon 1:61; Bayis Shlomo Y.D. 191; Shevet ha-Levi 5:95.

14 Rambam Melachim 6:8 based on Bava Kama 92a; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav (Shmiras Guf v'Nefesh 15); Doveiv Meisharim 1:134.

15 Ibid.

16 This leniency should not be relied upon in order to make room for taking walks or allowing air to circulate more freely, etc.; Chavos Yair 195; Bais Yitzchak Y.D. 1:142; Aruch ha-Shulchan Y.D. 116:13.

17 Taz Y.D. 116:6 based on the Rosh, and agreed to by most poskim, see Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav (ibid.); Chachmas Adam 68:7; Binyan Tziyon 1:61; S'dei Chemed (Bais 102).

18 Divrei Chayim 2:57 and other poskim quoted in Darkei Teshuvah 116:51.

19 See Chasam Sofer Y.D. 102.

20 Kaf ha-Chayim 116:85.

21 See S'dei Chemed (Bais 102).

22 Ya'avetz 1:76.

23 Darkei Teshuvah 116:51.

24 Shevet ha-Levi 6:112-4, who reports that this is the custom.

25 Chasam Sofer Y.D. 102; Meishiv Davar 2:56. There are several points involved in this procedure. See also Ya'avetz 1:76 who permits cutting down a fruit tree for any reason if the tree will be replanted elsewhere, but many poskim do not agree with this leniency, see Shevet ha-Levi 2:47 and 5:95.

26 Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 6:10. Some Rishonim, however, hold that Bal Tashchis on any item is Biblically forbidden, see Tosfos Avodah Zarah 11a and Bava Metzia 32b. See also Chinuch 529.

27 Except water; O.C. 170:22.

28 Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav (Shemiras Guf v'Nefesh 14).

29 Teshuvos Shevus Ya'akov 3:71.

30 Mishnah Berurah 560:9.

31 Mishnah Berurah 15:3.


Weekly-Halacha, Copyright © 2000 by Rabbi Neustadt, Dr. Jeffrey Gross andProject Genesis, Inc.

Rabbi Neustadt is the principal of YavneTeachers' College in Cleveland, Ohio. He is also the Magid Shiur of a dailyMishna Berurah class at Congregation Shomre Shabbos.

The Weekly-Halacha Series is distributed L'zchus Hayeled Doniel Meir benHinda. Weekly sponsorships are available--please send email to the moderator, Dr.Jeffrey Gross jgross@torah.org.

The series is distributed by the Harbotzas Torah Division of CongregationShomre Shabbos, 1801 South Taylor Road, Cleveland Heights, Ohio 44118--HaRavYisroel Grumer, Marah D'Asra


 






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