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What Is The Tree Of The Field In Parashat Shoftim? – Judges

In Parashat Shoftim, the Israelites are close to entering the Land of Israel, so G’ instructs them on the way to conduct war and conquer the land. In a section that is famous for analogizing man to the tree of the field and for detailing how to besiege a city, G’ commands us,

“Do not destroy its tree by swinging an axe against it, for from it you will eat, and it you will not cut down; for is the tree of the field a man, to enter the siege [i.e. besieged city] from [fear of] you?”

“לא תשחית את עצה לנדח עליו גרזן כי ממנו תאכל ואתו לא תכרת כי האדם עץ השדה לבא מפניך במצור”

(המאמר נמצא בעברית למטה)

Question 1: First of all, the most burning question is the apparent repetition in the verse – if we have already been commanded not to destroy a city’s tree, why repeat this thought by saying “and it you will not cut down”?

Question 2: Second, there is what appears to be a strange reference to a single tree… Why not refer to trees plural, if the commandment means that we should be wary of chopping down trees in enemy land?

My thoughts on answering question 1, which require more halachic research before they can be stated with certainty…

This is an instance of “a general principle, a detail and another general principle,” (כלל ופרט וכלל) one of the situations in which we apply Rabbi Ishmael’s rules of interpretation.

The first principle is do not destroy, the detail is “by swinging an axe” and the general principle is “you will not cut down.”

How do we interpret such instances? According to the Artscroll siddur’s explanation on the 13 principles, “everything covered by the principles is included, provided it is essentially similar to the items specified.”

In other words, the meaning is that we should not cut down the enemy city’s tree – in a way that destroys it – by any means whatsoever – not just with an axe. The two principles learn from each other (another principle of Rabbi Ishmael – a matter which learns from its context, whose meaning is understood in context), such that the no-destruction rule is limited to cases of cutting, and no-cutting is limited to cases where this destroys the tree.

In that case, why specify cutting with an axe in the first place?

There are two reasons for specifying the axe, it seems to me.

The first reason is that this specification excludes other types of destruction – such as by fire. In besieging an enemy town, we may destroy its tree by burning it – as might be desirable if the tree was by the town wall and burning the tree would enable us to set the wall on fire and breach it, for example.

The second reason is that eating the fruit of this tree – which technically requires some act of cutting, to separate the fruit from the tree – is meant to be permissible. If we said only that destroying the tree was prohibited, or only that cutting it was prohibited, we’d be unable to pluck its fruit since that might be seen as partial destruction or some form of cutting.

So what the heck is this tree? Is there just one tree that we can’t destroy/chop, but the others are OK to cut down?

First, on a plain level, it’s fair to say that the Torah sometimes uses poetic language, and this is one of those cases. It refers to one tree as a paradigm for the enemy city’s trees as a whole, which we also ought not to cut down. This is the way Rashi and Ramban relate to this verse.

Why use poetic language here though? Calling the language poetic is not a full answer to the question of why the Torah chose to refer to the tree in the singular.

Second, the tree is a popular metaphor – especially in matters of war.

In Parashat Shelach Lecha, Moshe Rabbenu used the tree metaphor in his instructions to the spies, telling them to find out if there was a tree [again, in the singular] in the Land of Israel.

The use of the singular “tree” is especially peculiar there in the context of Moshe telling the spies to discover if the land is fertile. Rashi explains it as being more than an instruction to learn about the agricultural capacity of the land, but also whether there is any righteous man there whose merit might protect the enemy.

To the same effect, Yehoshua bin Nun later contradicts the pessimistic majority of the spies, saying that the Israelites will be able to conquer their enemies, for “their shade has departed from upon them.” Rashi again explains this as a reference to the protection afforded by a righteous member of the enemy nation (Eyov aka Job), who had passed away.

Further supporting this assertion, the tree in question is not just any tree – it is a tree from which we will eat, a fruit tree. Again, this is a metaphor – fruits here are the produce of man.

What is that produce? His mitzvot, his children whom he has instructed in this path and so forth. For when a man dies, what do we recall of him? His deeds. And what is his entire purpose in living? To make the world a better place by keeping G’s commandments.

And to this effect Rav Ben Ishay of Emuna Shelema BiYerushalayim gave a class this shabbat regarding Rabbenu Bechaye’s commentary on the Torah, where R’ Bechaye states that a tzadik is characterized by “wholeness/completeness,” (תמימות) meaning that his thoughts, words and actions are all in sync. And R’ Bechaye expresses this by saying “תוכו כברו” which means either his inside is like his outside or his inside is like his child (Bar means either outside, or son of, as in Shimon Bar Yochai). I.e. His thoughts are like his masterpiece – what he believes in, he has shaped his children to follow. (A congregant by the mame of Yehuda or Yehoshua pointed this out during R’ Ben Ishay’s class.)

In sum, don’t cut down the righteous person of the enemy city.

And why not?

First on the plain level, Ramban (Nachmanides) explains that despite the custom of armies being to give way to their basest impulses in all things – because of their destructive, angry mindset – we should not harm that which did us no harm. All the more so for a tree which can feed us in the field and after we conquer the city.

Second, understanding the tree as a metaphor for one who is righteous, the Torah asks us rhetorically, “is the tree of the field a man, that it should enter the siege because of [fear of] you?”
Wait, didn’t we just say that the tree IS a man? Kind of – we said that the tree was a righteous man (or person) – but it’s no ordinary “man.” As Rashi explains in many places, there are two words for man: “Adam” and “Ish,” the latter of which connotes a man of distinction.

The tree of the field is an “ish” – but not an “adam” – it is a man of distinction who has nothing to fear, and no reason to enter into the city for fear of the siege. As Moshe said, there could be a righteous person on whose account G’ would protect the entire Canaanite nations against the Israelites. If G’ might protect entire nations – and remarkably wicked ones at that – on this person’s account, why should such a person fear for themselves?

Indeed – this is a tree of the field – a tree that happens to be in this field, this spot, at this place, due to circumstances beyond its control. It is not a tree of the besieged city.

To summarize:

The apparently repetitive prohibitions on destroying the enemy city’s tree actually complete and enhance one another. Their proper interpretation is in accordance with Rabbi Ishmael’s rule, Klal uPrat uKlal – a principle, a detail and a principle. We should not cut down an enemy city’s tree in a manner that destroys it [completely].

I think that this still allows us to burn the tree – for burning is not like cutting – or to eat from its fruits despite the cutting involved. If this was not the intention, then the reference to swinging an axe is superfluous (unless another explanation can be offered).

And the single tree of the field is poetic language for all of the enemy city’s trees, of course, but it is also more than that. It is a reference to the righteous person amidst the enemy, whom we should not attack because of his merit, and anyways such an attack would be destined to fail.

(You may be thinking, “why should the Torah instruct us to leave the enemy city’s righteous person be, when we earlier found out from Yehoshua that the righteous amongst the Canaanite had died?”

The answer is that this instruction was NOT given in the context of G’s general instruction on conducting war with the Canaanites, but in the context of instruction for wars with enemies outside the Land of Israel. Proof of this is that our discussion is preceded by a commandment to offer peace terms to the enemy city before besieging it, something which isn’t required in the war for the land of Canaan – probably because of G’ s stated disgust with the Canaanites idolatry and his commandments for us not to allow them to remain amongst us lest we imitate their ways.)

A person is remembered for their deeds, and even amidst a wicked society a person with sufficient courage and determination can rise above and be a “fruitful tree.”

Posted in Judaism.


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