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.

Tu Bishvat is an appropriate time to explore Judaism’s attitudes toward nature in general and trees specifically. In what appears to be a survey of various interpretations of a puzzling verse from Deuteronomy, Spitzer lays the groundwork for a controversial thesis. The Torah presents a distinction between fruit-bearing and non-fruit-bearing trees. The former must be saved from destruction during wartime, while the latter may be destroyed. This distinction informs many of the different readings that Spitzer unearths, but ultimately, as his final source demonstrates, the distinction is ignored. In war, destruction is indiscriminate.

“When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding an ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only the trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siege works against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced.” — Deuteronomy 20:19-20 ki ha'adam etz hasadeh--Deuteronomy 20:19


Verse 19 prohibits the destruction of the fruit trees surrounding a city during a siege. Verse 20 explicitly permits the use of trees that are “not for eating” to be cut down in order to build siege works against the city. In between the two verses, in what is a puzzling justification for the law, is the phrase “ki ha’adam etz hasadeh” which this translation–from the Jewish Publication Society (JPS), following the explanation of the medieval commentator Rashi–understands as a question: “Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?

Trees are Noncombatants

Everett Fox, the translator of the Schocken Bible, also understands the difficult phrase as a question that contrasts human and tree. Fox, however, understands the conclusion of the verse differently. The phrase “lavo mipanekhah,” which JPS translates as “to withdraw before you into the besieged city,” Fox translates:

“Are the trees of the field human beings, (able) to come against you in a siege?”

Whether the trees have no way of defending themselves (JPS and Rashi) or are simply noncombatants (Fox), the intent is the same: trees play no part in the war and should be left alone.

Nevertheless, this reading is difficult. Are trees that “do not yield food” any more capable of fleeing (or of attacking humans) than fruit trees are? How, then, can one explain that the Torah permits non-fruit-bearing trees to be cut down for building siege works?

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra explicitly rejects Rashi’s understanding:

“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:

“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.

“When is man like a tree of the field?
Like the tree he stretches upwards.
Like man he burns in fire.
And I do not know
where I have been nor where I will be-
like a tree of the field.

“When is man like a tree of the field?
Like the tree he thirsts for water.
Like man he remains thirsty.
And I do not know
where I have been nor where I will be-
like a tree of the field.

“I’ve loved. And I’ve hated;
I’ve tasted both this and that.
They buried me in a portion of earth;
And it’s bitter to me, bitter to taste,
Like a tree of the field;
Like a tree of the field.”

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