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Shabbat Parashat Lech Lecha| 5763
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Question: May one cut down a fruit tree which is more bother than it is of value?
Answer: The Torah forbids cutting down fruit trees (Devarim 20:19). This is the most formal and strict application of the concept not to be destructive and wasteful, and only for cutting down a fruit tree does one receive malkot (flogging) (Rambam, Melachim 6:8). Because the prohibition of cutting is not absolute but applies to destructive activity (ibid.), the gemara and poskim bring examples where it is permitted to cut down fruit trees.
The gemara (Bava Kama 91b-92a) grants permission in the following cases: 1. The tree no longer produces a kav (a small amount) of fruit. (One cannot take steps to cause the tree to deteriorate- Rambam, ibid.). 2. The tree is worth more for wood than for fruit (see Rashi, ad loc.). 3. One tree is damaging a more valuable tree in a significant way (see Tosafot). 4. The tree is damaging someone else’s property (Bava Batra 26a).
The question is how broadly to apply these rules. We cannot properly deal with all the different possible cases or bring all the opinions and will need to suffice with some main issues. The Rosh (Bava Kama 8:15) learns from the above that one may cut down a tree if he needs to use its location, and the Taz (YD 116:6) allows it in order to build a home on the spot. Most poskim understand that it applies to expanding a home, at least when the addition is significant and objectively more valuable than the tree (see Chayim Sha’al I, 22; Yabia Omer V, 12). The gemara tells of the son of an amora who died because he cut down a fruit tree prematurely, and R. Yehuda Hachasid also warned about it. Therefore, because of the potential severity of the matter, some prefer that the work be done by a non-Jew (ibid.) or that an effort be made to uproot the tree with earth and replant it (Chatam Sofer, YD 102).
Questions sometimes arise in regard to cutting off branches. The gemara (Tamid 21b) forbids using wood from fruit trees to burn on the altar, but for a different reason. The Mishne Lamelech (Isurei Mizbeiach 7:3) says that our prohibition doesn’t apply, because one may cut branches if he leaves the tree. The Be’er Sheva (cited, ibid.) says it could have been permitted in order to fulfill a mitzva (as it is not a destructive act). Either way, it would be permitted to cut branches to use as schach (Yechave Da’at V, 46). One should keep in mind that pruning is anyway healthy for trees (Har Tzvi, OC 101), but, of course, not all cutting is healthy pruning.
Many practical cases combine a variety of factors (lenient or strict) and should be considered by a rav on an individual basis.
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