Select your language

  1. “For Man is the Tree of the Field” – The Value of Growth against the Backdrop of War[1]
    1. For Man is the Tree of the Field

The Torah compares man to the tree of the field. The context is the commandment not to harm fruit trees during war:

When you besiege a city a long time, making war against it to take it, do not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. Eat from it, but do not cut it down. For man is the tree of the field, so that it may capitulate to your siege. Only the trees that you know are not for food you may destroy and cut down, so that you may build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you,

until it falls. (Devarim 20:19-20)[2]

          This verse raises several difficulties – it is not immediately clear why it equates man with the tree of the field and why specifically in context of destruction at a time of war. Rashi (ad loc.) explains that the verse is a rhetorical question:

“For man is the tree of the field” – the word “ki” serves to pose a question: “Is man the tree of a field that it should capitulate to your siege and be afflicted with hunger and thirst like the people of the city?

Ibn Ezra (ad loc.) has difficulty accepting the interpretation that this is a rhetorical question. He is inclined to read it as a statement, explaining that the commandment to protect the tree teaches man the value of trees, the fruits of which revitalize man:

In my opinion there is no need for all of this. Rather, this is the explanation: “Eat from it, but do not cut it down, for man is the tree of the field” means that human life is the tree of the field. Similarly: “he is taking the soul as a pledge” (Devarim 24:6) means “he is taking his life as a pledge.” “Do not cut it down” is connected to “so that it may capitulate to your siege.” Thus, do not destroy a fruit tree, which is a person’s life. Rather, it is permitted to eat from it and forbidden to destroy so that the city will capitulate to you in the siege. The evidence that this explanation is accurate is that it says “cut down so you may build bulwarks.”[3]

Yet this interpretation is not compatible with the statement of the Sages in the Talmud that implies that it is permitted to destroy fruit trees for a siege and its needs. Ramban explains, therefore, that the Torah’s commandment merely sets priorities: to the extent possible, non-fruit-bearing trees should be cut down before fruit trees:

But the Sages’ opinion (Bava Kama 91b) is that it is permitted to cut down trees to build a siege. The Torah stated “Only the trees that you know are not for food…” to give precedence and to say that non-fruiting trees precede fruit trees. (Ramban on Devarim 20:18)

          Yet the purpose of the mitzva, according to Ramban in light of the Sages’ view, is to caution man against destruction that is not necessary for the war and its objectives:

Thus, in their opinion, the rationale of this section is that the Torah cautioned “do not destroy its trees” – do not cut them down destructively, not for the purposes of the siege, like the custom of army encampments. The reason is that combatants destroy things in the city and the surrounding territory to help them defeat it, similar to what Scripture states: “fell all good trees and block all water springs” (II Melakhim 3:19). But you shall not do so destructively; rather you shall have faith in God that He will place it in your hands. “For man is the tree of the field” – eat from them and live; the city will eventually “capitulate to your siege,” meaning that you will be sustained by this tree after you conquer the city. Also, even during the campaign, you may do so “so that it capitulates to your siege,” i.e., for this you may destroy and cut down. You are permitted to cut it down to build a siege or to destroy it until it falls, since sometimes such destruction is necessary to conquer, such as if the city dwellers go out and collect wood from it, or they hide in the forests to fight you, or the trees provide cover and shelter to the city from catapults. (Ramban to Devarim 20:18)[4]

  1. R. Bachya (ad loc.) adds another dimension: this mitzva teaches about the unique way that the Jewish people wage ware. The nation of Israel is different from all other nations. When it wages war, which entails destruction and wreckage, it must meticulously assess what must be wrecked and cut down as part of the war’s needs, and what is unnecessary and constitutes demolition for its own sake, and thus ought not to be destroyed:

In my opinion, “for man” is a continuation of “do not cut it down”; the explanation of the verse is that the tree of the field is not like a man who opposes you during a siege. And it is not the actions of a wise and understanding nation to needlessly destroy something so worthy, and therefore you should not expend energy to cut down a tree of the field; rather you should protect it from destruction and damage and take benefit from it. This [is the meaning of] 'from it you will eat,' and if you destroy it you will damage and take away its benefit.

  1. The Deeper Understanding of the Value of Fruit Trees in Context of War
  2. R. Tzadok Ha-Kohen of Lublin teaches a fundamental principle of interpretation: in order to understand the root and essence of something in the Torah, one must examine the first time it is mentioned in the Torah and interpret it in that context:

I have a tradition that for every single matter, the root of it lies at the place where the word first appears in the Torah.[5]

          As noted earlier, the duty to protect trees is mentioned only in context of war, even though it is occasionally necessary to cut down trees for various reasons during normal life.[6] This raises a question: what can we learn from the fact that the mitzva to protect trees appears in the specific context of warfare and not the context of normal life?

          To sharpen this question, we note that this mitzva, according to Rambam (and based on the words of the Sages), is a precedent for any form of destruction – of living or nonliving thing, during war and during civilian life:

We have been cautioned against destroying trees while besieging a city in order to torment and demoralize its people. About this God said: “do not destroy its trees… Eat from it, but do not cut it down.” Similarly, all types of loss enter into this prohibition. For example: if one burns clothing or breaks a utensil for nothing also violates “bal tashchit” and incurs lashes. It is explained at the end of Makot that one who cuts down good trees incurs lashes, and [the Sages] state that this was cautioned here: “Eat from it, but do not cut it down...” (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Negative Commandment 57)[7]

          We have thus seen that there is a dispute about the parameters of the prohibition against cutting down fruit trees during a siege. Rambam maintains that any destruction is forbidden, even if necessary for the war, whereas Ramban believes that destruction that is necessary for war, even of fruiting trees, is permitted. This is how Minchat Chinukh explains this dispute:

Ramban’s opinion on this mitzva is that when ending a siege it is permitted to destroy, and during the siege this is permitted in order to harm the city dwellers so they cannot live off the trees. [The Torah forbade this] only if we wish to conquer the city, in which case it is unnecessary destruction. But Rambam, Laws of Kings 6:8 implies that it is always forbidden. Thus, [Ramban] writes that [Rambam]’s statements on this mitzva are inaccurate.[8]

          This teaches us that the source for this mitzva is formulated in context of war specifically because war is perceived as something fundamentally destructive. War tends toward unchecked devastation. Yet the Torah focuses on the positive objectives of war: it is designed to protect the nation from its enemies, to protect its sovereignty, or to acquire strategic assets that serve its vital national interests. Therefore, the degree of devastation that serves the objectives and is therefore permitted and even required must always be considered intelligently and with full control. Whatever constitutes devastation for its own sake must be avoided.

          There may be a positive and even more essential point here: examining which targets to hit and which to avoid reflects the Torah’s basic approach of educating one to aspire to do good, to make a positive, constructive, nurturing contribution to God’s world and to limit devastation, destruction, and extirpation to the absolute minimum. This is how Sefer Ha-chinukh (§529) explains the mitzva:

The root of the mitzva is known: to train us to love what is good and beneficial and to adhere to it; as a result, goodness will cling to us, and we will move well away from every evil and destructive thing. This is the path of saintly and pious people: they love peace, rejoice at the good fortune of people, and bring them near the Torah. They will not destroy even a mustard seed in the world, and they are distressed at every ruination and spoilage that they see. If they are able to salvage something, they will use all their power to save it from ruin. The wicked are not like this. These brothers of demons rejoice at the world’s ruin. Yet they destroy themselves, for one is measured by the same standard that one uses to measure others, i.e., through which one relates to the world. This is similar to what is written: “he that is glad at calamity shall not be unpunished” (Mishlei 17:5). But one who desires goodness and rejoices in it may rest assured forever. This is well known.

          Ha-ketav Ve-hakabala, a commentary on the Torah, similarly

explains (in comments on Devarim 20:19) that with this mitzva, the Torah teaches us how sensitive we must be toward trees, which are God’s creations and designed to be life-giving. It is inappropriate to use live-giving trees to harm life during a siege:

The reason for this prohibition is that it is inappropriate to use a creation for ends that are the opposite of their initial intent. [The Sages] explained “for you have waved your sword over them and profaned them” (Shemot 20:21), the ban on using metal-hewn stones for the altar, in similar terms: the altar was created to prolong human life and iron was created to shorten human life; it makes no sense for the life-shortener to be waved over the life-extender. Similarly, trees, which were created to produce fruits and provide sustenance for humans, should not be used for any purpose that causes destruction to humans.

          Based on this, perhaps we can understand the halakhic position that permits cutting down trees whenever it is necessary for war: it prevents risk to our soldiers and thus saves lives. The prohibition is only against destruction that has no purpose and no benefit.

  1. The Necessary Precautions against Extraneous Harm to Human Life during War

The Torah’s commandment not to destroy trees for no purpose must be our yardstick for proportionality during war. War is

perceived as something fundamentally destructive and ruinous, and it carries the risk of a complete loss of proportionality on one hand, and of a tendency toward the other extreme – self-righteous pacifism – on the other. According to the Torah, a just war justifies harming human life as well. This harm must be proportional – measured out in light of the objective and the mission, and taking precautions that there is no superfluous harm. This is true both of harm the life of an enemy when there is no operational justification and when it does not serve the war’s objectives,[9] and even more so with regard to our soldiers. Their blood must not be cheap in our eyes, and they must not be unnecessarily endangered. The endangerment of our soldiers demands meticulous deliberation and extended, unimpeded contemplation of the necessity and justification of the mission. On the other hand, we must not lose these standards and refrain from carrying out a justified and necessary operation – one that saves lives and protects important national interests – just because it may have a price in human lives. During the last war, we had many occasions to tell senior officers that when it comes to war and national defense, “one who wants cheap security is likely to pay a heavy price for it.”

We may also learn from here that according to the Torah when the lives of our soldiers are at stake along with enemy assets or personnel, the lives of our soldiers must be given priority and vigorously protected.

All of the above calls our attention to another aspect of the obligation to refrain from superfluous damage during war: the Torah formulates a general principle about warfare in terms of fruit trees, of all things. The commandment that equates man to fruit trees can teach us the reverse as well. The tree, its growth, its development, and its yield of fruit are an expression of human life, which is akin to a fruit-giving tree. Even in the heat of battle one must take care not to uproot the tree or prevent it from bearing fruit. This principle is amplified by the Sages in their explanation of the law of the egla arufa, the heifer that must be slain when a murder victim is found in an open area and the perpetrator is unknown:

  1. R. Yochanan b. Shaul said: Why does the Torah say to bring a heifer to a dry riverbed? The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let something which does not produce fruit have its neck broken in a place which is not fertile, and atone for one who had no opportunity to produce fruit. What are these 'fruits'? If I say it means offspring, then according to this argument we should not break a calf's neck if [the deceased] was old or castrated! Rather, [it means] mitzvot. (Sotah 46a)

Rashi (ad loc.) states:

“which does not produce fruit” – a year-old heifer that has not calved; “a place which is not fertile” – a harsh, rocky riverbed; “who was not allowed” – for he was killed.

          The Gemara originally thought that man’s “fruits” are his offspring, and therefore a heifer’s neck should be broken in a rocky riverbed – because this person never got the opportunity to have children. Yet the conclusion is that the “fruits” in question are mitzvot and good deeds, the fruit of man’s action in the world. The growth that emerges from the tree is a metaphor and model for the growth that comes into the world by virtue of man’s actions and efforts. We are therefore especially cautioned not to harm living things and their fruits. Every person is an entire world, and snuffing out a life prematurely leaves a vacuum in the world, as the mishna explains:

For this reason man was created singly: to teach you that whoever destroys a single life in Israel, Scripture accounts it as if he had destroyed an entire world; and whoever sustains one life in Israel, Scripture accounts it as if he had sustained an entire world… and to declare the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He. For a person mints many coins with one stamp, and they are all alike, but the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and no two are alike. Therefore each and every person must say, "The world was created for my sake." (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5)

          We have thus learned about the value of human life in general, during battle specifically, and the supreme value of preserving life. But we can learn more from this about the noble act of one who, in the heat of battle, risks his life to save the lives of others.[10]

[1] The following part of an essay in memory of Captain Benaya Rein hy”d, 27, of Karnei Shomron, on the occasion of a Shomron regional tree-planting event on Tu Bi-Shvat just after the Second Lebanon War. Benaya was an officer in the 46th Armored Brigade. During the Second Lebanon War he established a rescue team that helped rescue dozens of soldiers with a great deal of heroism and self-sacrifice. On 19 Av, 5766, Benaya was killed when a missile hit the tank he commanded on the way to rescue wounded soldiers. In context of Benaya’s heroic actions and singular acts of kindness for which he received a Citation, we sought to explain in depth the broad issue encapsulated in the verse “for man is the tree of the field.” We will never forget the date and time during the war, as we sat at the Northern Front Command, when we received word of the incident that claimed Benaya’s life. In this essay, we have tried to offer a few unmediated insights that came into focus during the war that we took part in. We also therefore want to adopt the dear Rein family, a family of Torah, of settling Eretz Yisrael, and of kindness, into our hearts. Benaya’s image and actions must be a symbol and model for us. We must use it to educate our students and disciples. May his soul be bound in the bonds of life.

[2] Among all the other ills of war, this would destroy thousands of acres of natural woodland and many acres of fruit trees that will take years to replace.

[3] This is explained in greater detail in R. Bachya’s commentary to Devarim 20:19: “’Do not cut it down, for man is the tree of the field’ – the commentators explain that man’s life and nourishment are from the tree of the field, as it states “he is taking the soul as pledge.” Therefore I command you: do not destroy it, because it contains a blessing.”

[4] See also Seforno ad loc.

[5] Yisrael Kedoshim §7. Similarly, Machshevet Charutz §19: “The full power of anything lies at the first place it is mentioned in the Torah.” See also Pri Tzadik on Chanukah §18 and on Rosh Chodesh Adar §7.

[6] See Bava Kama 91 and the commentaries ad loc., as well as elsewhere in the Talmud.

[7] See also Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings ch. 6. Regarding the severity of the prohibition against destroying during war, another particularly interesting passage from Rambam is worth exploring. He explains that when Elisha cut down trees in his war against Moav, it was a temporary measure that would otherwise have been forbidden. See Rambam’s introduction to his Commentary on the Mishna: “As Elisha did during the order to wage war against Moav and cut down every fruiting tree, as it states: “fell all good trees” (II Melakhim 3:19). God forbade us to do so when He commanded: “do not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them.” Had Elisha been asked whether this mitzva has been cancelled, or whether it would be permissible to cut down fruiting trees during future sieges, he would have said that it is not permissible, but the present actions are for a special need.

[8] Minchat Chinukh, Positive Commandments Listed by Ramban, 6:1. On Mitzva 529:1 he writes: “We are forbidden to cut down trees… as explained by Rambam, Laws of Kings 6:8. The author [of Sefer Ha-chinukh] wrote: in order to besiege the city dwellers… also violates a prohibition. Rambam also wrote this in Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Negative Commandment 57, but he did not write this in the Mishneh Torah. Ramban, however, in #6 of his list of positive commandments, challenges Rambam and writes that it is permitted in order to besiege them, and it is only forbidden to destroy needlessly.”

[9] The command “let no one live” (Devarim 20:15) is stated only about the war against the Seven Indigenous Nations and not about every war. Similarly, the commandment to blot out the mention of Amalek applies only to Amalek. See, for example: Rashi on Vayikra 25:44; Devarim 21:10 regarding the beautiful captive woman (eshet yefat to’ar); Ibn Ezra on Shemot 21:4 regarding the likelihood of a Canaanite slave being of the Seven Indigenous Nations; and Ramban on Devarim 20:10 that one must offer peace even in a war against the Seven Indigenous Nations, and if they accept, they are not killed.

[10] See once more n. 24 above.

Contact Form

Please type your full name.
Invalid email address.
Invalid Input
Invalid Input
Invalid Input