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: When you besiege a
city... to wage war... do not destroy its trees by swinging an ax 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 trees2 are included, even a tree that bears bitter
or wormy fruit. 3 If, however, people will unknowingly eat the
wormy fruit, then it is permitted to cut the tree down. 4
Many poskim maintain that the prohibition applies only to chopping down the
entire tree but not when just a few branches are cut. 5 Although
some authorities are stringent, 6 it is permissible to cut
branches to meet any need or to fulfill a mitzvah, e.g., if the branches are
hovering over a succah. 7
It is forbidden to cut a fruit-bearing tree that has yet to bear fruit.
8 An aged tree, however, which experts say is no longer able to
produce fruit and is bothersome to maintain, may be cut down. 9
A minority opinion holds that even a non- fruit-bearing tree should not be
cut down indiscriminately. 10 It is permitted, though, to cut
down such a tree for any purpose or need, either commercial or personal.
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 Talmud12 quotes Rav Chanina as blaming his
son’s untimely passing on the fact that his son had cut down a fig tree
while it was still flourishing. Additionally, we find in the
Talmud13 that the moon and stars are “punished” (eclipsed)
because healthy, fruit-bearing trees are chopped down. R. Yehudah he-Chasid
in his Will  also warns against destroying any fruit-producing trees.
These additional Rabbinical admonitions lead some poskim14 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. Many
other poskim, 15 however, 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:
• If the tree is ruining or weakening other nearby trees or if the wood of
the tree is more valuable than its fruit. 16
• If one needs to build a home on the site17 where the tree is
growing. 18 Some poskim allow cutting the tree down only for a
mitzvah need, 19 e.g., to build a shul or a mikveh. Some poskim
recommend that one never cut down a tree in order to build a home on its
• If a fruit-laden tree is darkening the window of a house [or brings bugs
into the house, etc.], unless the problem can be alleviated by trimming the
As mentioned earlier, some poskim are hesitant about cutting down a fruit
tree under any circumstances. While many rely on the more lenient poskim who
permit doing so, if one could follow one of the following options he would
go a long way towards satisfying even the more stringent opinions.
22 Thus whenever possible it is recommended to do one or more of
• To ask a non-Jew to cut down the tree. 23
• To sell the tree with the surrounding area to a non-Jew before cutting it.
• To let the tree wither and die on its own before chopping it down.
• To transplant the tree elsewhere. 26
It is advisable that any decision involving the axing of a tree be presented
to a competent rabbi. When presenting the question, the following
information should be submitted:
If the tree bears, or will bear, fruit; the location of the tree; its value
and significance; the reason for cutting it down; if it is possible or
worthwhile to transplant it; if it can be cut down by a non-Jew; if it can
be sold to a non-Jew.
As an extension of the Biblical prohibition against cutting down fruit
trees, the Rabbis added an injunction27 against needlessly
destroying anything of value, be it an article of clothing, a piece of food,
a beverage, 28 or a utensil. Anyone who ruins
anything29 that could be used by others transgresses this
injunction. 30 But when the item is destroyed for a purpose
there is no issue of bal tashchis. It is permitted, therefore, to destroy
anything of value for any need, medical reason, or monetary benefit.
• It is permitted to break a glass under the chupah to remind us of the
destruction of Jerusalem.
• It is permitted to rip apart kosher tzitzis strings in order to replace
them with newer or better ones. 33
• It is permitted to replace a kosher yeriah in a Sefer Torah with a newer
or a better one. 34
1. Devarim 20:19. The prohibition applies also to trees owned by non-Jews,
as well as to trees which are ownerless; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav (Shemiras Guf
2.“Fruit trees” are only those trees whose fruit one would recite a borei
pri ha-eitz over; Shevet ha-Levi 5:95.
3. Darchei Teshuvah, Y.D. 116:51.
4. Be’er Moshe 5:136.
5. See Mishneh la-Melech (Isurei Mizbe'ach 7:3); Aruch ha-Shulchan, Y.D.
116:13; Har Tzvi, O.C. 2:101; Rav Y.S. Elyashiv and Rav S. Wosner (quoted in
Eitz ha-Sadeh 1, note 15)
6. See Doveiv Meisharim 2:42.
7. See Darchei Teshuvah 116:51. It is definitely permitted to prune a tree
in order to enhance its growth; ibid.
8. Darchei Teshuvah 116:51.
9. Rambam Hilchos Melachim 6:9; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav (Shemiras Guf
v’Nefesh 15). See also Seforno, Devarim 20:20.
10. Piskei Tosafos (Pesachim 132).
11. Darchei Teshuvah 116:51.
12. Bava Kamma 91b; Bava Basra 26a.
13. Succah 29a. See also Pesachim 50b.
14. See Ya’avetz 1:76; Chasam Sofer, Y.D. 102; Maharsham 1:22; 7:178;
Minchas Elazar 3:13; Levushei Mordechai 57; Divrei Yoel 1:92.
15. Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav (Shemiras Guf v’Nefesh 16); Binyan Tziyon 1:61;
Bayis Shelomo, Y.D. 191; Shevet ha-Levi 5:95.
16. Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 6:8, based on Bava Kamma 92a; Shulchan Aruch
ha-Rav (15); Doveiv Meisharim 1:134.
17. 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; Beis Yitzchak, Y.D. 1:142; Aruch ha-Shulchan, Y.D. 116:13.
18. Taz, Y.D. 116:6 based on the Rosh, and agreed to by most poskim; see
Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav (Shemiras Guf v’Nefesh 15); Chochmas Adam 68:7;
Binyan Tziyon 1:61; Sdei Chemed (Beis 102).
19. Divrei Chayim 2:57 and other poskim quoted in Darchei Teshuvah 116:51.
20. See Chasam Sofer, Y.D. 102.
21. Kaf ha-Chayim 116:85.
22.See Sdei Chemed (Beis 102).
23.Ya’avetz 1:76, Minchas Shelomo 2:97-3 and Yeshurun, vol. 15, pg. 155.
24.Darchei Teshuvah 116:51.
25.Shevet ha-Levi 6:112-4, who reports that this is the custom.
26.Chasam Sofer, Y.D. 102; Meishiv Davar 2:56. There are several points
involved in this procedure. See also Ya’avetz 1:76, who allows 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
27.Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 6:10 as understood by most authorities. Some
Rishonim, however, hold that bal tashchis on any item is Biblically
for¬bidden; see Tosafos, Avodah Zarah 11a and Bava Metzia 32b. See also
Sefer ha-Chinuch 529 and Rambam, Sefer ha-Mitzvos 57.
28.Except water; O.C. 170:22. See Da’as Torah, Y.D. 116:5.
29.Even if it worth only pennies; R. Yonah in Sha’arei Teshuvah 3:82.
30.Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav (Shemiras Guf v’Nefesh 14).
31. Shevus Yaakov 3:71. See Mishnah Berurah 501:28.
32. Mishnah Berurah 560:9.
33. Mishnah Berurah 15:3.
34. Chochmas Adam 86:16.
Weekly-Halacha, Text Copyright © 2014 by Rabbi Neustadt, Dr. Jeffrey Gross and Torah.org.
Rabbi Neustadt is the Yoshev Rosh of the Vaad Harabbonim of Detroit and the Av Beis Din of the Beis Din Tzedek of Detroit. He could be reached at email@example.com