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 the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are the trees of the field human to withdraw before you in the besieged city? – Deuteronomy 20:19

Fruit-bearing trees play an important role in Jewish tradition and ethics beginning with the first human beings in the Garden of Eden.

Here, Moses gives a law to the people of Israel prohibiting the destruction of trees which provide food during a long siege of an enemy city. This seems to be counter-productive from a tactical perspective. Cutting off an important source of the local food supply could shorten the conflict and make it harder for the defeated population to resume fighting in the near future.

How can we understand this law as beneficial?

One way is that it prevents us from devaluing the necessities of all human life, thereby disregarding the Source. Maimonides applies the prohibition against destroying fruit trees generally as one example of defiance of bal tashchit (“You must not destroy.”) Others violations include intentionally rendering household objects, clothing, shelter, spring water, and food unusable (MT Kings 6:10). We should never take possession of even the most basic requirements of our existence for granted, nor should we deny them to others.

Are the trees of the field human…? invites us to consider our relationship with fruit trees in a different way, at once more intimate and expansive. Martin Buber suggests just this: “I can contemplate a tree…Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition. But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It…Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with elements and its conversation with the stars – all this in its entirety” (I and Thou, quoted in Isaacs, 1998).

The next time we bake with ripe tree fruit as an ingredient, we might just think about it a bit differently.

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